Primogeniture: The legal custom for the firstborn and only the firstborn to inherit the bulk of the estate, especially indivisible property.

Bastard: An illegitimate child without the right to inherit.

In which countries and periods of history, if any, could the order of primogeniture be adjusted by acknowledging a bastard? And could a previously legitimate heir be disinherited by "converting" them into a bastard?

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    How do you convert someone into a bastard? – grayQuant Oct 31 '13 at 1:43
  • It depends, I imagine, on the level of patriarchy in the kingdom. I.e. Whether the head of the household (the Patriarch) has the power to re-assign legitimacy at will. The pater familias, to take the Roman example, could perhaps be considered to be 'The Family' in and of themselves and hence in manner strange to our eyes, modify the membership of that family at will. Still I'm curious if actual historical societies of this sort existed. – LateralFractal Oct 31 '13 at 1:51
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    Henry VIII did interesting things with his daughters and might have considered doing so with his son Henry Fitzroy – Henry Nov 1 '13 at 0:41
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    Another example: Richard of Gloucester had his brother Edward IV's marriage declared invalid in 1483 after the latter's death, thus making Edward's surviving sons illegitimate, paving the way for Richard to be crowned King Richard III and for the princes to disappear. – Nigel Harper Nov 1 '13 at 16:46
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    Veeeel, it's an open-ended list question, isn't it? Could you focus it on the countries you are interested in? – Lennart Regebro Nov 4 '13 at 10:16

Well, in England the general rule has been, once a bastard always a bastard, with no inheritance rights - and as far as peerages are concerned, this still applies: a child born out of wedlock cannot inherit a title, even if the parents subsequently marry.

Kings of course, have broken their own laws when it suited them. The children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were legitimised to form the Beaufort line which led to Henry VII and the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII bastardised both Elizabeth and Mary, then made them his heirs after Edward VI -without, intriguingly, legitimising either. Charles II was pressurised to legitimise his son, the Duke of Monmouth, when it became obvious he would be succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother, the Duke of York. He refused, possibly because (personal opinion) he believed he had no right to deprive his brother of his lawful onheritance.

So as far as the UK is concerned, the answer is a very qualified "yes" - but only rarely and only by sovereigns. As land was usually entailed on the nearest male blood relative, the owner was basically a life tenant, able to use the land but he could not give it to his favourite natural child at the expense of the lawful heir. He couldn't even give it to his daughters, who were dispossessed if they had no brother - see Jane Austen "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility".

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