One of my law school professors told us that the name “Fitz” as part of someone’s last name indicated they were descended from a bastard son. Since Fitzgerald and similar names are commonly perceived as very Irish, I thought a blog about bastard names would tie in nicely to both St. Patrick’s Day and my series about the use of history in Game of Thrones.
I was wrong. But sometimes being wrong is more interesting than being right.
The prefix “Fitz” is a Norman name meaning “son.” The name might refer to a bastard but might also be taken by a legitimate heir in a family with some standing but no land, such as a distinguished knight.
About five hundred years after the Normans integrated into French and English culture, the prefix Fitz was sometimes combined with a father’s name or other family name to refer to the illegitimate son of royalty. That occasional use probably triggered the story that the name originated as a way to mark bastard lineage. But Fitz was never a designated moniker for bastards the way that “Snow” or other natural nouns are used in Game of Thrones.
The use of terms of nature for bastards does make a lot of sense, however, because illegitimate children were often referred to as “natural” children. At many periods in history, natural children had less status than legitimate ones, but the natural child of a high-born father was considered “better” than the legitimate son of a family with lower origins.
In Jane Austen’s story Emma, for instance, the lead character believes she can make a smart match for a girl in a boarding school even though the girl’s origins are unknown. Emma assumes that someone must have paid for her to attend the school, so she might be the natural daughter of a distinguished family. This would give her more status than a mere commoner. So, the taint of illegitimacy in Regency society was not as great as the taint of being base born.
This was not true in all ages and cultures. The Puritans often marked bastard children by baptizing them with names like “Repentance,” “Lament,” and “Forsaken.” However, these were given as first names rather than last names like Snow or Fitzpatrick.
That latter name, actually is not Norman but is said to be an Anglicized pronunciation of the Irish name Mac Giolla Phádraig, which means son of Giolla Phadraig. Since giolla means “follower,” this last name indicates that family considered themselves followers of Phadraig, meaning none other than St. Patrick. That brings us back to the Irish holiday, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the name change to Fitzpatrick coincides with a deal the family struck with King Henry VIII, which kept the family fortune intact but probably caused them to be considered traitors to the Irish cause.
Of course, stories of traitors and shady family deals with royalty brings us back to the Game of Thrones theme.
Maybe this line of inquiry was not as far from my target as I’d originally thought.
In any case, now that we live in a society where most of us expect to make a name for ourselves rather than live on accolades acquired by our ancestors, the significance attached to names is largely a curiosity. I think that’s a good thing. Just as we should not be judged by the sins of our fathers, we are not entitled to assume any particular status from them either.
Remember, on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish anyway.
Material for this article came from numerous sources. One of the most interesting was the discussion of Puritan names in http://www.strangehistory.net/2015/06/15/bastard-names.
If you enjoy stories about supposedly high-born families behaving badly, you might enjoy my novella “An Excuse for Poor Conduct”