Bearing in mind that I am NOT a historian, here is a little teaser to pass the time. We all know the texts from the Bible about bastard slips not taking root, and the sins of the fathers being visited on subsequent generations. Right, so what happens if we apply that literally to the throne of England? Just how far back do we have to go to find the first illegitimate person to sit on the throne of all England?
In 786, Pope Adrian I announced that a king could not be begotten in adultery or incest, and if he wasn’t either of those but illegitimate anyway, he still couldn’t have the throne of any kingdom. Should this decree be my quest’s starting point? There were different kingdoms within England, but they were Christian, and if the Pope decreed, then he ought to have been abided by. Right?
The first king to be known as the Ruler of England was Egbert III of Wessex, 827-839, but the one to be truly the King of all England was, apparently, Aethelstan, August 924 – 27th October 939.
There is an interesting timeline of our early kings at http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/KingsQueensofBritain/ and if I follow it, the first mention of an illegitimate king (after the all-important 786 date) is Harold I, 1035–1040, known as Harefoot. The English line of kings had been ousted by the Danes, led by Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn’s son Canute had succeeded him, and Harold Harefoot was Canute’s baseborn offspring.
Tut, tut, Harold Harefoot. You broke the Bible’s rules, because on Canute’s death you sneaked the throne from behind the back of your legitimate half-brother, Harthacanute, who was abroad at the time. BUT—big but—Harthacanute took the throne back, had the by-then-dead Harold dug up, beheaded, and chopped into bits to be thrown in the Thames. There’s nothing like making absolutely sure someone ain’t gonna come back!
So, illegitimate Harold Harefoot was a mere blip. But he had been crowned king, which was one in the eye for Pope Adrian. We have to ignore the fact that coronation vows and anointing make a man a king regardless. We’re talking the Bible’s texts mentioned at the beginning of this article. And because we’re talking the Bible, if Harold I had sons, legitimately born or not, they could not have succeeded. So any line that might have descended from him would be illegitimate, to the whatever generation.
Next the throne zipped back to the English line. Harthacanute had been the Danish-line son of Canute by Emma of Normandy. Emma had been married before, to English-line Aethelred the Unready, by whom her eldest son was Edward. The Danes had pushed Edward aside, but now his half-brother Harthacanute declared him to be his heir.
Edward, who became known to posterity as St Edward the Confessor, became king and was married, but died childless. Dang! Another crisis.
After the Confessor, the throne went to someone who was elected by the Witan, Harold Godwinson, who was, of course, the King Harold who was defeated at Hastings in 1066.
And who conquered him? Why, someone known as William the Conqueror, and also as William the Bastard! Oops! We have to stop right there, because the Bible says that anyone, anyone, who descended from William would be forbidden to ascend the throne.
Which brings me to the next question. Let’s imagine Hastings went the other way, and William escaped back to Normandy, or died in battle or was captured and executed. Who should have been king after Harold Godwinson? Well, he was famously connected with Edith Swan Neck, who was judged by the Church to be merely his mistress because they only married according to Danish law. So their six children were all barred. It was Edith Swan Neck who was said to have identified Harold’s mutilated body after Hastings, recognising it by a mark only she knew.
But in January 1066 (presumably because he needed an undeniably legitimate heir) Harold had married another Edith, the widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. In church this time. One wonders if Edith Swan Neck really was the only one who knew his body that intimately. Perhaps this second Edith had spotted the mark too! Anyway, by Edith II he had two sons, another Harold and Ulf, who might have been twins, given that their father died at Hastings in the September.
Both boys survived into adulthood, and in all likelihood sired offspring of their own. Mind you, the legitimacy of said offspring remains unknown. They too could have hooked up with unacceptable partners like Edith Swan Neck! Or become monks, been gay, or not interested in anything. It’s all annoyingly shrouded in mystery.
So, is it at this point that the true line of the Kings of England disappears into the mist?
You’ll no doubt be pleased to know I don’t intend to investigate further, but it does make me wonder just who might be on the throne now if those texts from the Bible had been followed to the letter. The history of England would have been so different as to be unrecognisable. No Plantagenets. No House of York! No House of Lancaster. And forget the Tudors. The who? Never ‘eard of ‘em. Also no Stuarts, Commonwealth, Hanoverians or Windsors…
Of course, my reasoning above is almost certainly dodgy, as I do not doubt someone out there knows and will say. But in the meantime, might there be a busy, diligent soul somewhere (someone who only dreams in Latin!) delving into ancient records and manuscripts, trying to trace the heirs of Harold and Ulf…? How interesting if that diligent person were to discover the real present-day King (or Queen) of England.
Hmm. Would anyone dare announce such a thing? After all, William the Bastard’s White Tower still stands, and those Tudor-garbed Beefeaters still rattle lots of ominously big keys. All I know is that I’m certainly not the rightful Queen of England – so don’t come knocking on my door in the middle of the night to haul me off to Tower Green.