Don John of Austria, bastard son of Charles V


Don John of Austria (1545–1578) was the ‘bastard sonne’ of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. This imposing engraving shows Don John in his official role as the first Governor of the Netherlands. It appears in the Generall Historie of the Netherlands, compiled and converted into English in 1608 by the prolific translator, Edward Grimstone (d. 1640). This copy (the second edition, printed in 1609) belonged to King James I and bears the royal arms on its cover.

Don John of Austria (p. 599)

Although he had ‘issued from an unlawfull bed’ as a child born outside marriage, John of Austria was ‘acknowledged’ by his father and ‘greatly honored’ by his legitimate brother. His power as a possible rebel, on the margins of the ruling family, had seemingly been channelled to benefit the state. As head of the navy, Don John achieved spectacular victories, defending the Catholic empire in Granada, Lepanto and the Netherlands. He was rewarded with a position of legitimate authority. But he remained a possible threat to the established order, upsetting his brother Phillip II with his plans to overtake Tunis in 1573 and his rejection of the Treaty of Ghent in 1578.

Aristocratic ‘bastards’ – acknowledgement and constraint

The first audiences for Much Ado About Nothing might have made a link between the fictional Don John, ‘bastard brother’ of Don Pedro Prince of Aragon, and the real Don John of Austria. Both men raise interesting questions about the precarious role of the illegitimate children of monarchs and nobles. These were common figures in early modern England, where male infidelity was so often tacitly accepted, and bastards played a prominent role in the drama of that time.

If a bastard was acknowledged, he or she could be included in the family, but only on restricted terms. These illegitimate children were forbidden from using the family name, instead having names invented for them. They were forced to show their illegitimacy on their coat of arms with a special mark called the ‘band sinister’.

Henry VIII’s ‘natural’ son was named Henry Fitzroy, meaning ‘son of a king’ – a surname often given to royal bastards to emphasise their difference. He was also honoured with the title of Lord High Admiral of England, perhaps as a way to limit his subversive potential, bringing him under the very laws that could reduce him to nothing. But there was always the danger that illegitimate children would resent this difference and exploit their positions of power to challenge those that restrained them.

Shakespearean bastards: Edmund and Don John

These contradictions are evident in Shakespeare’s villainous bastard characters. In King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester openly recognises his ‘bastard son’ Edmund, admitting that ‘the whoreson must be acknowledg’d’ (1.1.24). But Edmund still curses the ‘plague of custom’ which defines him as ‘base’ and he plots to supplant his ‘legitimate’ brother (1.2.3–22).

Much Ado About Nothing opens with reconciliation between Don John and Don Pedro, after a conflict between them. Yet Don John resents the fact that he is ‘trusted with a muzzle’ (1.3.32–33) and he betrays a natural tendency towards villainy: ‘I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace … let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me’ (1.3.27–38; 36–37).

Full title:
A Generall Historie of the Netherlands: with the genealogie and memorable acts of the Earls of Holland, Zeeland, and west-Friseland ... Continued unto this present yeare of our Lord 1608, out of the best authors that haue written of that subject
1609, London
Book / Folio / Engraving / Illustration / Image
Jean François Le Petit, Emanuel van Meteren, Edward Grimstone [translator]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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