Illegitimacy, Paternity, Courtship and Poverty1
This chapter analyses levels of illegitimacy and identified illegitimate paternity across 130,000 parishes in the Welsh counties of Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire between 1680 and 1799. Analysis of illegitimacy ratios demonstrates that patterns of illegitimacy in Wales were much higher in some, but not all, parts of Wales in the eighteenth century, and levels of identified illegitimate paternity was consistently high in some regions, but fell considerably in others. This evidence is considered in relation to several explanatory frameworks used in the analysis of English data, which attempt to account for rising levels of illegitimacy through cultural changes that influenced premarital sexual behaviour and economic opportunities created by industrialisation. The Welsh evidence examined in this chapter presents a challenge to these understandings in two important ways: Wales was linguistically different and lacked certain cultural markers which some historians have associated with an eighteenth-century ‘sexual revolution’, and because the highest levels of illegitimacy were found regions which experienced little or no industrial change. The central argument of this chapter is that broad patterns of illegitimacy in Wales were influenced by a combination of courtship-led marriage customs, a decline in traditional forms of social control and worsening economic circumstances.