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A Cuckoo In The Nest

By J Marie Croft, author of Enduring Connexions

In my novel Enduring Connexions, a brief prologue hints that ‘a cuckoo in the nest’ might enter the story at some point.


‘Cuckoo in the nest’ is a figure of speech for an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation. The metaphor came into existence because some female cuckoo birds are notorious for brood parasitism—leaving their eggs in the nests of other species to be incubated, hatched, and nourished. Although my story’s cuckoo in the nest doesn’t necessarily displace anyone, such a fate does happen in the avian world. The imposter hatchling, first to emerge, pushes the other eggs out of the nest. They plunge to their death, and the ‘bad egg’ then receives all of its foster mother’s attention.

In the context of my novel, the cuckoo in the nest is a supposedly premature baby girl; and she is not an unwelcome intruder because her putative father never knew she wasn’t genetically related to him. In truth, like an imposter hatchling, an imposter infant conceivably could displace the unborn child who should legally inherit the property and/or rank upon a monarch’s, nobleman’s, or gentleman’s death.


Although the word ‘paternity’ originated many centuries ago, medical tests to determine paternity didn’t begin until the 1920s, with mostly inconclusive blood typing. Since then, technology has become so advanced that paternity testing now has an exclusion rate of at least 99.99%—useful information in court cases trying to formally establish the true identity of a child’s parent. But how were such ‘issues’ handled before the 1900s?


For a woman, in the absence of paternity tests, she had to convince the magistrate that the man she named three times (once while in labour) was the true father of the child and by intimately detailing her sexual activity—dates, locations, and the number of times it took place. This was necessary to determine nine months’ time from the last instance of intercourse.

Illegitimacy, per se, isn’t to be discussed here. That topic already has been covered by other Quills & Quartos authors. As Amy D’Orazio best said in her Q&Q blog post Love on the Rocks in Regency England: “A gentleman could not risk marrying a woman who carried another man’s child”. Amy goes on to say: “If a married woman gave birth to a child, that child was presumed to be the legitimate heir of the husband. The only way to disprove that child’s claim on the father was to show the husband was impotent, away from his wife at the time of conception, or that the couple was divorced. A husband who had been cuckolded might, in essence, give away the family estate.” To that, I would add: or an inheritable title.


‘The father is he whom marriage indicates’ (pater est quem nuptiae demonstrant) comes to us from Ancient Rome and is still a principle of law in certain jurisdictions. The husband was/is legally considered the father of his wife’s children, no matter their true paternity. In essence, regardless of their marital status during conception, a child’s parents simply had to be wed to one another at the babe’s birth in order for that son or daughter to be considered legitimate and not ‘born on the wrong side of the blanket’. As long as the husband did not renounce the child before or at its birth, he or she was recognised as ‘of his body’ and belonged to him.

Monarchs, noblemen, and landed gentlemen needed to produce legitimate heirs to secure their succession. They also needed chaste wives and wanted some reassurance that the heir really would be their own child. Imagine if, unbeknownst to the groom, his bride had not abstained from sex with another man, was pregnant before marrying, and then was delivered of a supposed premature baby seven or eight months after the wedding. The child would be considered the heir of the husband’s body and would inherit all. Such an occurrence, of course, would be less of a concern for a man who had been a widower and already had his heir and spare before remarrying.


Then there’s the problem of ‘cuckoldry’ and the possibility of adulterine children born as the result of a wife’s extramarital affair. As stated above, a babe born to a married woman was presumed to be the legitimate offspring of the husband.


The cuckoo then, on every tree,

Mocks married men; for thus sings he:

‘Cuckoo;

Cuckoo, cuckoo!’ O, word of fear,

Unpleasing to a married ear!


(snippet of ‘When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue’ from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost)


What recourse did a husband have if a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ was the result of his wife’s adulterous relationship? As John Manners, Lord Roos of Belvoir Castle and heir to the eighth Earl of Rutland, could attest, divorces were costly and difficult to obtain prior to The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.

However, a wife’s adultery was sufficient cause to end a marriage; and Lord Roos’ wife, Lady Anne Manners (“not finding the satisfaction she expected where she ought to have received it, looked for it abroad where she ought not to find it”) had let a cuckoo in the nest, knowing that marriage was proof of paternity.


As Deborah Siddoway says in her podcast The Story of Divorce: “Even though both mother and father knew that the child was no son of Lord Roos, the baby, simply by virtue of coming into the world as the first-born male child of the marriage, was, by strict right of law, the next in line after Lord Roos to be the Earl of Rutland. The cuckolded Lord Roos made his feelings in relation to the birth of this cuckoo in the nest more than plain. He had the child baptised ‘Ignotus’. In Latin, it means unknown.”


To make a long story short, Lady Anne’s father, Lord Dorchester, challenged Lord Roos to a duel, which was declined; and the latter nobleman took his grievance to King Charles II. To quote Siddoway again: “What followed was an almost forensic examination of the sex life shared between Lord and Lady Roos, where much of the evidence was given by servants employed by them. This evidence was of such an explicit nature, giving so many ‘indecent and uncleanly particulars’, that many of the ladies in attendance fled the hearing in shock and delighted disgust. It was pure theatre.”

At any rate, because of Lady Anne’s unfaithfulness, her husband was granted a separation, with neither of them permitted to remarry. In 1668 Lord Roos obtained an Act of Parliament to bastardise her children. In 1670 he was granted the legal dissolution of his marriage so he could remarry. It was the first English parliamentary divorce, all because of a cuckoo in the nest.


Do yourself a favour and read more of Deborah Siddoway’s article—Charles II and the First English Divorce—or listen to her podcast, with the relevant parts being The Curious Case of Adulterine Bastardy and An Impudent, Infamous, and Lascivious Way. It is, as she calls it, “a cracker of a story”.


In closing, things didn’t end well for Lady Anne Manners.


There were, though, generous, kind-hearted men so in love with a woman that he accepted her illegitimate child and/or took the child under his wing. Jane Austen made Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility one such man, and there might even be one, or two, in my novel Enduring Connexions.



Sources & Further Reading:










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