Anne here, writing with a sense of frustration — and no doubt preaching to the converted. The frustration is caused by the number of times I've come across books where an unmarried prince (or a king or a duke or any nobleman, actually) discovers he has a son, because some years ago he slept with a woman and unknowingly got her pregnant. Fast forward several years and he comes across this child and his mother, and decides to marry her and make the child his heir.
Noooooooo! I want to shriek. Actually I'm probably likely to stop reading at that point because it shows what I think is unforgivable ignorance of the laws of inheritance — historical laws particularly, but the law remains pretty much the same for contemporary titles of nobility.
These days for most people illegitimacy is no longer even an issue; nevertheless, especially in the past, it was a huge issue. An illegitimate son born to a noble father could not inherit his father's title, regardless of the child and father's wishes.
An illegitimate son born to a king might be given a title—for instance on reaching adulthood, the illegitimate sons of Charles II were given dukedoms, along with estates and wealth, and their own sons, if legitimate, could inherit their title, but they could never aspire to be King.
Because that would create chaos. Until recent years there was no way of proving paternity, so the closest men could come to ensuring they had true heirs of their body was through marriage. Of course, marriage was no guarantee of fidelity, which was why women were frequently 'cabin'd, cribbed, confin'd.'
It's one reason why Henry VIII went through so many unfortunate wives, trying for a legitimate son. He had many suspected illegitimate children but only acknowledged one, Henry Fitzroy the first Duke of Richmond and Somerset, born in 1519. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, the lady-in-waiting of Catherine of Aragon.
The king openly celebrated the birth and acknowledged the boy as his own, giving him the surname Fitzroy (‘son of the king.’ Fitz is a common surname prefix indicating bastardy, hence Fitzcharles, Fitzgerald, Fitzwilliam etc.) In 1525 the six-year-old Henry Fitzroy was made Duke of Richmond. Henry doted on his son and despite his illegitimacy, it was apparent to many that the young duke was being groomed for kingship. That would have been hugely controversial — but Henry was used to reforming the way the world worked. However the question became moot when the young duke died aged 17.
Illegitimate sons given noble titles by a king had their coat of arms marked with the bar sinister, a bar crossing the shield diagonally from the top right to the bottom left. It wasn't a mark of shame, as such, but clearly established their illegitimacy. (Stephanie Laurens was making a tongue-in-cheek pun on this when she named the heroes of her famous series The Bar Cynster.)
But it was only the king who could grant titles to their illegitimate sons. No other nobleman could do it. They could marry the mother and settle money and unentailed property on the child, but they could not pass on their title.
In order to be considered a legitimate child during the Regency, your parents had to be married at the time of your birth. A child born to a married woman was automatically considered to be legitimate unless the husband took active steps to disown the child before it was born or at its birth. If he were away at the time of the conception he could accuse his wife of adultery and divorce her. The Duchess of Devonshire was sent away under a false name to have her child by Lord Grey. The baby was given up to be raised by others.
Lower down the social scale things were quite tough for illegitimate children. Illegitimacy was a huge source of shame and people went to great lengths to hide it. An illegitimate child could not inherit anything unless they were named specifically in a parent's will — even if the father had openly acknowledged the child as theirs.
Marriage was another complication. An illegitimate daughter was unlikely to be accepted or welcome at all socially, whereas a son might be admitted to the fringes of society with the assistance of his father — if the father was wealthy and influential. But not only were many people reluctant to allow an illegitimate child to marry into their family, even getting permission to marry could be complicated, and sometimes involved permission from the courts.
If a marriage was found to be invalid, none of the children born to that marriage were legitimate. (Mary Balogh wrote a superb series based on this very premise — The Wescott series, beginning with Someone To Love. )
And if any of their children had married by license when minors, even with the permission of the father, such a marriage was also invalid and all those children illegitimate. Talk about the sins of the father being passed on. Imagine discovering as an adult that you are illegitimate and that your own marriage was probably invalid and your own children and even your grandchildren were illegitimate. What a shock!
So some writers handle this question well, but other persist in writing stories where titles are simply handed over, or left in a will, and where illegitimacy is a minor inconvenience. It makes for a good story — to anyone who doesn't know better.
What about you — do you have any historical issues that bug you when you're reading? What will make you give up on a book? I must confess if the writing is good enough and the issue not completely central, I might read on. But I also might shriek, as well.