The term bastard refers to anyone born out of wedlock. All major religions in the Seven Kingdoms - the Faith of the Seven, followers of the Old Gods of the Forest, and followers of the Drowned God - attach very negative social stigmas to bastardy.
Lack of inheritance and discrimination
Bastards are not allowed to inherit their father's lands or titles, and have no claims to the privileges of their father's House. It is up to their father, if he knows they exist, on how to raise or treat them. At worst they are unacknowledged and ignored by their father and left completely in the hands of their mothers. Some may fare better and be discreetly sent funds to ensure their well-being. At best, a lord will acknowledge his bastard children (allowing them to take on one of the special bastard surnames), but send them away to one of his distant castles to be raised away from his lawful family. For bastard children to be raised by their father in his own castle alongside his trueborn children - such as Eddard Stark did for his bastard "son", Jon Snow - is considered extremely unusual.
Faced with very low expectations for inheritance, many noble-born bastard sons, even acknowledged ones, voluntarily join the Night's Watch to seek prestige and equality. The Night's Watch is highly egalitarian compared to the rest of Westeros, and at the Wall every man is given what he earns. Both bastards and criminals can become high-ranking officers and commanders for their service. Bastards may also take up the life of knighthood in the hope of being granted a place in a lord's household, or even gaining lands and titles for services to their liege lords. In this way, a bastard may become the founder of a noble house. Bastard children may also be given over to the Faith of the Seven as acolytes, to join monastic orders or the clergy, and bastard sons may be sent to train as Maesters. Because the order of Maesters is all-male, bastard daughters face limited prospects outside of the clergy or a good marriage.
There is no outright law punishing noble men or women for having bastard children. Instead it is considered a social and religious disgrace.
In any event, since a highborn bastard carries the blood of a noble house, rival claimants may still consider them a potential threat. For this reason, King Joffrey orders the massacre of Robert's bastards because they are his true children and thus stronger claimants to the throne than he is. When Roose Bolton and Ramsay Snow discuss their search for the remaining male Stark children, Ramsay suggests that they get rid of Jon Snow, reasoning that since he is Eddard Stark's bastard son, Jon could become a threat to their rule in the North, even though he has joined the Night's Watch and given up any possible future claim.
It is possible for the king to legitimize a lord's bastard children, but this special dispensation is difficult to acquire and does not happen frequently. It will usually be granted only if a lord has no legitimate children (or at least no male children) to carry on the name of his house. However, the social stigma is not automatically removed after the bastard is formally legitimized. Ramsay Snow is a case in point; even after he had been legitimized as Ramsay Bolton, his future was still uncertain. Since Roose Bolton's trueborn child by Walda Frey was a boy, as they had expected, he may have had a stronger claim to the Bolton lands and titles, something that Sansa Stark openly noted. Although Roose Bolton said that Ramsay always would be his firstborn, Ramsay still stabbed him to death afterward, out of fear that his inheritance would fall to his trueborn brother once he reached the rightful age to claim their fathers lands and titles.
Bastards in Dorne
- Ellaria Sand: "We are everywhere in Dorne. I have ten thousand brothers and sisters."
- Oberyn Martell: "Bastards are born of passion, aren't they? We don't despise them in Dorne."
- Cersei Lannister: "No? How tolerant of you."
- — Queen Cersei hypocritically scorns Dorne's relaxed attitudes towards bastards.[src]
Due to its unique history and culture, bastards in Dorne are not looked down upon the way they are in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Many present-day Dornishmen are descended from the Rhoynar people who migrated to Westeros a thousand years ago, and who possessed an urban culture based around city-states along the Rhoyne River in Essos. The culture they passed down to the present-day Dornishmen has relatively relaxed attitudes towards sexual matters. While the Rhoynar who came to Dorne did convert to the Faith of the Seven, they basically just ignored the rules they didn't like, and follow the religion much less strictly than other parts of Westeros (though they are no less devout regarding the rules they do follow). Many Dornish nobles have formalized lovers known as paramours, and they do not possess the same stigma against homosexual behavior that the rest of Westeros does.
These relaxed sexual mores in Dorne extend to bastard children. The Dornish feel that bastards are born of passion and love - unlike the rest of the Seven Kingdoms who consider them born of lies and deceit - and thus would not disdain a child for such a parentage. While it is rare and scandalous for a lord from outside of Dorne to raise his bastard child in his home castle alongside his trueborn children (as Eddard Stark did with Jon Snow), it is actually commonplace in Dorne to see bastards living at the court of their noble parents; Oberyn Martell raised his eight illegitimate daughters in Sunspear, alongside his brother's trueborn children. The Dornish are also much more likely to acknowledge bastard children in the first place. They would consider it cruel for a lord to abandon his own flesh and blood, as King Robert Baratheon ignored the many bastard children he fathered over the years. Because Dornish culture holds little if any stigma against bastards, it is not unusual to see bastards work their way up to important social or court positions there, holding castles or leading armies for their families.
Bastards in Dorne still face a few restrictions, but these are relatively minor compared to the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Bastards in Dorne must still use a special bastard surname - in this case "Sand" - and they are less likely to inherit from their parents. While Jon Snow was roughly the same age as his father's eldest trueborn son, Robb Stark, he was still shooed outside during the great feast at Winterfell, rather than potentially offend King Robert and Queen Cersei by seating a bastard at the main table. The Dornish, in contrast, feel that an older bastard does have a place within the family and is not shameful. A bastard child is also treated somewhat like a younger child in order of inheritance. For example, if the Starks lived in Dorne, Jon Snow would be treated as a younger brother, behind even Rickon in the line of succession, but otherwise he would be treated as a full member of the family.
Another minor stigma against bastards in Dorne is that they are not considered ideal marriage prospects. Essentially, it would be considered beneath one's station for a powerful lord to marry a noble-born bastard. In many cases, this is simply due to the practical reason that a bastard is less likely to inherit, and thus the marriage would probably not bring with it any new wealth or lands. This stigma is somewhat similar to a nobleman marrying a daughter from another House who was trueborn, but who was also the youngest of five daughters, and thus a very poor match. Ellaria Sand is an acknowledged bastard of House Uller, one of the more powerful noble families in Dorne. Even in the relaxed social mores of Dorne, however, it would still have been beneath his station for Prince Oberyn Martell, younger brother of the ruler of Dorne, to wed Ellaria. While Oberyn could not marry Ellaria, he simply made her his formal paramour, his wife in all but name.
Bastards and heraldry
Acknowledged bastards are not legally permitted to officially carry the Heraldry of their noble parent's House. They may unofficially carry a flag displaying the heraldry on the battlefield, or use weapons and equipment that display its heraldic symbol, but only as much as any common footsoldier in their noble parent's army may do so. If an acknowledged noble-born bastard began openly wearing capes and armor displaying the heraldry of his noble parent's House, and using banners displaying the heraldry at formal social functions, it would be falsely presenting themselves as a trueborn child and not a bastard. He would face legal troubles and punishment.
Before he joined the Night's Watch and forsook all family ties, Jon Snow was forbidden from officially "carrying" and displaying the Stark heraldry of a grey direwolf on a white field. One of House Stark's bannermen such as Ser Rodrik Cassel might physically hold a flag displaying the Stark heraldry, or even a common Stark footman might carry such a flag, and thus Jon may have carried weapons or equipment featuring the Stark direwolf design motif. Jon would not have been allowed to use the Stark heraldry as a representation of himself, because this would be essentially making the false claim that he was a legitimized child who no longer bore the shame of his bastardy.
Noble-born bastards are in a legal state between fullborn nobles and smallfolk, however, and unlike the smallfolk, acknowledged bastards are allowed to use their own heraldry - just not the heraldry of their noble parent's House. A very common custom in Westeros is for bastards to use the heraldry of their noble-born parent's House but with the colors inverted (which is known as "breaking" the design scheme). While both the books and TV series never portrayed Jon Snow as using any kind of heraldry, if he followed this custom his personal sigil would have been a white direwolf on a grey field, the reverse of the Stark colors. Thus the discovery of the six direwolf pups by Ned Stark and his sons is all the more considered a sign from the Old Gods. Not only were there two female and four male pups (to match the Stark children), but the sixth was an albino - physically resembling the white direwolf design that Jon would use in heraldry as a bastard son. This is further signified in the season 6 finale, when Lord Wyman Manderly dubs Jon the "white wolf" upon his election as the new King in the North.
One of the more infamous examples of bastard heraldry is House Blackfyre, a cadet branch of House Targaryen founded over a century before the War of the Five Kings. Prince Daemon, the founder of the house, was a bastard son of King Aegon IV who was legitimized by his father, and he took the name Blackfyre after the Valryrian steel sword originally carried by his ancestor Aegon the Conquerer. Following the custom for bastards, Daemon inverted the color scheme of the Targaryen heraldry, so instead of the normal red three-headed dragon on a black background, House Blackfyre's heraldry consisted of a black three-headed dragon on a red background.
The stigma of illegitimacy is so great that all acknowledged bastards born to a noble in Westeros have to identify themselves through a specific surname marking them as a bastard, which varies by region:
- Flowers: The Reach
- Hill: The Westerlands
- Pyke: Iron Islands
- Rivers: The Riverlands
- Sand: Dorne
- Snow: The North
- Stone: The Vale of Arryn
- Storm: The Stormlands
- Waters: The Crownlands
However, this system does not apply to the bastards of smallfolk. At least one parent (usually, but not always, the father) has to be a member of a noble House. If both the father and mother are commoners, the child cannot use the special surname.
The low-born commoners of Westeros do not actually use surnames at all. Therefore, possessing a bastard surname is simultaneously a mark of distinction and badge of shame. Anyone who encounters someone with a bastard surname will immediately know that they are not simply a bastard, but the bastard child of a noble.
Bastards only use the special surnames if they have been openly acknowledged by their noble-born parent. In such cases, their noble parent will usually try to make sure that they are well cared for, or send money for their support, but it is extremely unusual for a noble to raise their bastard child in their own household.
There is no official distinction between bastards who have one noble-born parent, and those whose parents are both noble-born. In practice, however, a nobleman would be much more likely to acknowledge a bastard child born to a noble lady than he would a child born to a commoner.
Bastard surnames are dependent on the region a child was born in, i.e. where the mother is from, not where the father is from. For example, a noble lord from the Stormlands could father one bastard child in the Vale, and another in the Riverlands, but neither would use the surname "Storm": the first bastard would use the surname "Stone", and the second would use the surname "Rivers." It is extremely unusual for a bastard to know who his nobleman father is, but not his mother. Therefore Jon Snow's situation is additionally unusual, not just because he actually lives with his nobleman father, but because he wasn't even born in the North. Eddard Stark brought him back to Winterfell as an infant after fighting in the south during Robert's Rebellion, but refused to say who his mother was or where she came from. As a result of the mystery surrounding his mother's identity, Jon ended up using the surname "Snow" by default.
Bastard children of a noble may be politely referred to as "natural children", though the less polite term "baseborn" is more commonly used, and they are often (bluntly and rudely) simply referred to as "bastard." In contrast, a noble lord's children with his lawfully married wife are termed "trueborn". Thus when Lord Eddard Stark discovers that none of Cersei Lannister's children were fathered by her husband King Robert Baratheon, he says that King Robert "has no trueborn sons," even though he knows that Robert has several "baseborn," bastard children.
Beyond the Wall
The Iron Islands
The Vale of Arryn
- The Sand Snakes - The eight bastard daughters of Prince Oberyn Martell. Ellaria Sand is the mother of the youngest four.
- King Jon Snow, former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, alleged bastard son (but in reality nephew) of Lord Eddard Stark. Though Eddard claims he fathered Jon on a woman named Wylla, his true parents are Lyanna Stark, Eddard's sister, and Rhaegar Targaryen, Lyanna's alleged kidnapper. Rhaegar was killed by Robert Baratheon, and Lyanna died in childbirth, leaving Jon an orphan. In her final moments, Lyanna implored Ned to protect Jon and not reveal his true name and parentage as Robert would have surely killed Jon if he found out. Ned raised Jon as his son in Winterfell, accepting the stain on his honor as infinitely preferable to the alternative. However, it is still unknown if Rhaegar and Lyanna had secretly wed and whether Jon would be considered trueborn if they did as Rhaegar was already married to Elia Martell. The Targaryens were known for practicing polygamy when they first arrived in Westeros but they gave up the practice to appease the heirarchy of the Faith of the Seven, the dominant religion in the Seven Kingdoms, as it proscribes polygamy. It is also proscribed by adherents to the Old Gods of the Forest, meaning that Jon could still be considered a bastard by his fellow Northmen even if Rhaegar and Lyanna were wed before his conception.
- Sam, alleged bastard son of Samwell Tarly and Gilly. Samwell is only his stepfather; his true father is Craster, who fathered children with several generations of daughters, including Gilly. This makes Sam the product of multiple generations of father-daughter incest, a major taboo in every major religion in Westeros, including the Old Gods of the Forest worshipped both in the North and beyond the Wall. In addition, Craster sacrificed his sons to the White Walkers, and the Mutineers intended to keep up this tradition, so keeping Sam's heritage secret was necessary to protect him. Samwell has either stopped short of officially "acknowledging" Sam as his bastard son or simply not had the chance, so he is referred to simply as Sam, not Sam Snow.
- Tyrion Lannister: "And you, you're Ned Stark's bastard, aren't you? Did I offend you? Sorry. You are the bastard, though."
- Jon Snow: "Lord Eddard Stark is my father."
- Tyrion Lannister: "And Lady Stark is not your mother, making you...the bastard. Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you."
- Jon Snow: "What the hell do you know about being a bastard?"
- Tyrion Lannister: "All dwarves are bastards in their fathers' eyes."
- — Tyrion Lannister advises Jon Snow.[src]
- "A child born to a wife is a gift from the gods. A child born to a mistress or an obedient servant girl is a bastard, unworthy of its father's name."
- ―Ellaria Sand
- Ramsay Bolton: "I'm Lord Bolton's eldest son."
- Sansa Stark: "But you're a bastard, a trueborn will always have the stronger claim."
- Ramsay Bolton: "I've been naturalized by a royal decree from..."
- Sansa Stark: "Tommen Baratheon? Another bastard?"
- — Sansa Stark antagonizes Ramsay Bolton by reminding him of his baseborn origins.[src]
- "I don't care if he's a bastard. Ned Stark's blood flows through his veins. He's my king, from this day until his last day!"
- ―Lyanna Mormont proclaims Jon as her king despite his bastard status.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the status of being a bastard is a considerable social disgrace amongst the nobility, though less so amongst the smallfolk. However, while bastards are disadvantaged, they still have means to climb the social ladder. They may win honor and glory in battle and be knighted. If they do great deeds in service to the king or a noble lord, they can even receive a bill of legitimacy, allowing them to take their father's surname and formally join his House, or to take a new surname and found a new House (some bastards take new names altogether, like "Blackfyre", while others add a prefix to their bastard name, such as "Longwaters"). For example, House Baratheon was founded by the legitimized bastard half-brother of Aegon the Conqueror.
However, while bastards stand outside the lines of succession and inheritance, there are still exceptions which have caused immense problems. King Aegon IV Targaryen legitmized three of his bastard sons and one of his bastard daughters on his deathbed. His eldest bastard son, Daemon Blackfyre, later claimed the Iron Throne and led a bloody civil war known as the First Blackfyre Rebellion. His sons and descendants launched four more attempts to take the Iron Throne before their final claimant, Maelys the Monstrous, was slain by Ser Barristan Selmy during the War of the Ninepenny Kings. This is sometimes used as an example of what happens if a bastard is treated too well and given too much power and legitimacy.
There is no official distinction between bastards who have one noble-born parent, and those whose parents are both noble-born. In practice, however, a nobleman would be much more likely to acknowledge a bastard child born to a noble lady, than he would a child born to a commoner. For example, while Robert Baratheon is rumored to have fathered over a dozen bastard children, the only one who he acknowledged in the books was Edric Storm, because his mother was a noblewoman, Delena of House Florent - the younger first cousin of Selyse Florent, the wife of Robert's younger brother Stannis.
It is unclear how the system of special bastard surnames developed in Westeros. Since at least the unification of the Seven Kingdoms during the Targaryen Conquest (three centuries before the narrative begins), the use and implementation of the bastard surnames has been quite uniform: there is one bastard surname used for each of the nine regions in the realm (the original "Seven Kingdoms", plus the borderlands that became the Riverlands, and the new region of the Crownlands that the Targaryens carved out around their new capital city, King's Landing). Before that, it is unclear if they were introduced by the First Men who migrated to Westeros 12,000 years ago, or by the Andals who migrated to Westeros 6,000 years ago, or if they simply originated on their own in Westeros itself at a later date.
Westeros was not always divided into these "Seven Kingdoms" however, and after the Andal invasion the continent was still divided into dozens of petty kingdoms, which only unified into seven larger kingdoms within the past two thousand years or so. Dorne was the last of the kingdoms to be unified, only about one thousand years ago. When Highgarden and Oldtown were both at the center of rival and independent kingdoms, before they were united in the "Kingdom of the Reach", it isn't clear if they even used the same bastard surnames.
Moreover, the Riverlands were a border zone always contested between its powerful neighbors - when the Riverlands were conquered and held by the Stormlands for three full centuries, did bastards born there use the special surname "Rivers" or "Storm"? When the ironborn conquered the Riverlands from the Stormlands and held it for three generations, did Riverlands bastards start using the surname "Pyke"? For that matter, House Greyjoy of Pyke only became the ruling family of the Iron Islands after the Targaryen Conquest exterminated House Hoare, whose seat was on Orkmont island - what surname did ironborn bastards use before that? While the other kingdoms gradually coalesced over centuries, the Targaryens created the Crownlands all at once, implying that at some point they had to make a formal decree creating the new surname "Waters" for bastards from the region. The answers to these questions are unknown.
The bastard surnames are used by nobles belonging to every religious or cultural group, from Oldtown to the North, and the Iron Islands to Dorne. Dorne itself does not considered bastardy to be shameful, and its cultural also has paramours - official mistresses/concubines, such as Ellaria Sand. Still, Dorne also uses the bastard surnames. The ironborn also practice a limited form of polygamy - they can have only one "rock wife", but can take multiple "salt wives" - captives taken as formal concubines. The children of salt wives are not considered to be bastards, though they rank behind the children of a lord's rock wife in the line of succession.
Bastards need to be acknowledged by a noble-born parent in order to use the special bastard surnames. The only known exception to this rule in the books is Mya, the eldest of Robert's bastards: she is commonly known as "Mya Stone" although she has never been officially acknowledged by Robert. He actually did spend some time with her when he was living in the Vale and she was a toddler, and apparently this gave him a fondness for her that he didn't have for his numerous other bastard children: at some point during his reign Robert openly expressed interest in bringing her to live at court in King's Landing, probably to formally acknowledge her as well. Nothing came of this, however, because Cersei bluntly implied that she would have the girl killed if she came to the capital city. Thus it is possible that Mya Stone uses the bastard surname because Robert wanted to acknowledge her, and her status as his daughter was an open secret.
Cersei & Jaime's children
Fans sometimes derisively assume that "Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen Baratheon" should really be called by the Lannister surname because of their status as the bastard offsprings of the incestuous relationship between Cersei Lannister and Jaime Lannister, and not the sons and daughter of King Robert Baratheon at all. This is actually an error, as according to the customs of bastardy, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen don't even have the right to use the surname "Lannister". As Jaime's bastard children, given birth to by a woman from the Westerlands (Cersei), the three would have to use the bastard surname for the Westerlands: "Hill". There's also the possibility that he might use "Waters" given that both Jaime and Cersei had been living in the Crownlands for many years, and the three have lived their whole lives there. All of this, of course, would only happen if Jaime were to openly acknowledge Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen as his children, which is an impossibility given the disastrous political fallout this would create. Further, as the product of not merely bastardy, but incest, the Faith of the Seven would want to outright kill them as abominations before the gods if their actual parentage was ever revealed. Given these factors, Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are entitled to no surname; the legal status of a baseborn commoner.
In real life
Marriage in the real-life Middle Ages was primarily focused on producing "legitimate" children - i.e. children confirmed to have been born only to the married man and woman together, during their marriage. Yet the status of children produced outside of marriage varied quite widely. Before the Gregorian Reform in the eleventh century, concubines often had semi-official or even official status and rights, as did their children. It was only starting in the eleventh century that the Christian Church began to stress that only children produced in the marriage of one man to one woman were "legitimate", and any produced outside of it were "illegitimate". Before that, not nearly as much stigma was applied to bastardy.
However, it took time for this new definition of marriage - and the notion that children born outside of it were shameful "bastards" - to take full effect. William the Conqueror himself, who became king of England in 1066, was a bastard son of Robert of Normandy - by some definitions. The Normans, who originated in Scandinavia, had practiced polygamous marriages not that long ago in the past, and some continued to keep concubines. While these concubines were no longer considered to be fully married to the man, their children were usually considered just as legitimate as children produced within marriage. Robert recognized William as his heir, and by Norman standards of the time William was not considered "illegitimate". William's son King Henry I of England (1069-1135) had six publicly known concubines and at least twenty acknowledged children by them. At at that point in time, the Church had yet to fully impress upon the general populace the new value that "bastardy" was shameful, to the point that a king of England openly had many bastard children, and even gave them lands and titles. Gradually, however, towards the end of the 1100's, this new definition of "bastardy" as shameful was becoming generally accepted.
In subsequent centuries, ecclesiastical law in most of Western Europe dictated that a bastard child who had been born to two unmarried parents was automatically legitimized if the parents subsequently married. Under English Common Law, however, a bastard could only receive Legitimization by being issued letters patent requested from the king. For example, John of Gaunt asked and received a legitimization decree from King Richard II for his children by Katharine Swynford - his sons had been born out of wedlock but he later married Katharine as his third wife. His originally bastard son was the ancestor of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Martin has said that the A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely inspired by the War of the Roses in England during the 1400s, between the Yorks and Lancasters (paralleled by the Starks and Lannisters in Westeros). During the War of the Roses, the Yorkist faction overthrew the last Lancastrian king Henry VI - but years later the Yorkists were ultimately defeated in a rebellion led by Henry VII, who descended from one of John of Gaunt's bastard sons (i.e., the Lannisters seize power over the Baratheons and their Stark allies when King Robert dies, but King Robert left behind a bastard son, Gendry...)
In the core regions of the Seven Kingdoms, standards about bastardy are more similar to late Medieval Europe: bastards are considered "illegitimate", a shameful reminder of sins of the flesh, and they cannot inherit lands and titles from their parent. Standards about bastards in Dorne are closer to how bastard children were treated in the early Middle Ages. The system of special bastard surnames used in Westeros are a fictional invention of George R.R. Martin for his fantasy world, and does not reflect real-life practices.
- The TV series released a behind-the-scenes video featurette on "Bastards of Westeros" including comments by Martin himself (click this link to view).
- Bastardy on A Wiki of Ice and Fire
- Bastardy on Wikipedia