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Mind your language

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the shifting meaning of ‘illegitimate’

‘Illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ have done service in English these six centuries

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has discovered he is the illegitimate son of Sir Winston Churchill’s last private secretary,’ Charles Moore told us last weekend. As a bonus in this Trollopean tale we learnt that, by Church of England canon law, ‘men born illegitimately were for centuries barred from becoming archbishops’, or indeed bishops.

The affair also reminded me of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, in which Bernard Clark writes to the Earl of Clincham on behalf of Mr Salteena: ‘The bearer of this letter is an old friend of mine not quite the right side of the blanket as they say in fact he is the son of a first-rate butcher but his mother was a decent family called Hyssopps of the Glen so you see he is not so bad and is desireus of being the correct article.’


Daisy did not say illegitimate, but it, and legitimate, have done service in English these six centuries, and before that in their Latin forms. The subject was of great interest to kings, not to mention prelates, and gets a good going over in clever old Du Cange’s dictionary of medieval Latin (1678). David Hume in his once popular History of England noted that, in Henry III’s reign, ‘The common law had deemed all those bastards who were born before wedlock: By the canon law they were legitimate.’ I think he means that canon law legitimated children born to a couple if they married.

Shakespeare had pondered whether illegitimate children behaved more basely, not only in Lear, but also in Troilus, where Thersites says to Margarelon, who introduces himself as the bastard son of Priam: ‘I am a bastard too; I love bastards: I am a bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in every thing illegitimate. One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?’

‘Bastard’ is the earliest sense of illegitimate. By the 19th century illegitimate theatre was all spectacle and no poetry. Before the formation of the Grand National Hunt Committee in the 1860s, racing over the sticks was illegitimate too, the very Thersites of the turf. But the Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded us by his dignified behaviour that to be illegitimate is perfectly legitimate.


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