- "You know what the funny thing is? My father acknowledged my importance to him. While your father, didn't give two shits about legitimizing you."
- ―Ramsay Bolton, mocking Ethan Snow on his illegitimate bastard status.
A bastard is a person whose parents, at the time of their birth, were not married to each other. There is a certain stigma that comes from being born as a bastard, as their nature is often seen as lustful and deceitful. As a polite way of referring to someone who is bastard-born, someone may be referred to as a "natural son" or "natural daughter". A less polite term, indicative of the social stigma against bastards, is "baseborn", although this term does not apply if both parents are noble. A euphemism for being bastard-born is "being born on the wrong side of the sheets".
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 on how to raise or treat them: at worst they are unacknowledged and ignored. 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 so for his bastard son, Jon Snow - is considered extremely unusual.
Faced with no prospects for inheritance, many noble-born bastards, 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. Similarly, bastards may also take up the life of knighthood in the hope of being granted a place in a lord's household, or even 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 to join monastic orders or the clergy, and bastard sons may be sent to train as Maesters.
There is no outright law punishing noble men or women for having bastard children. Instead it is considered a social and religious disgrace.
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 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 though he has been legitimized as Ramsay Bolton, his future is still uncertain. If Roose Bolton's trueborn child by Walda Frey is a boy, as they expect, he may have a stronger claim to the Bolton lands and titles, something that Sansa Stark openly notes.
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 killing Jon Snow too. He reasons that, being 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.
Bastards in Dorne
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. 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.
Bastards of House Harrigon
The bastards living in and around Smithestone are discriminated against very rarely, and usually by outside lords and nobles. The Lords of Smithestone have been siring bastards for centuries, mainly to keep the area around Smithestone more populated, and mainly to ensure that the forges of Smithestone remain populated with blacksmiths and knights whenever possible. Many bastards of these lords have been Maesters, Masters-at-arms and acting lords at Smithestone, and even commanders whenever the Smithlands have been through conflict such as in Robert's Rebellion. Since the Smithlands are still a region of the Stormlands and are not an official kingdom like the Borderlands, the bastards who live there still receive the name "Storm"
Bastards of the Tiger Islands
Much like the Dornish, the Bloodborn of the Tiger Islands do not look down on bastards, since according to the Faith of the Blood God, every new Bloodborn life is a blessing on the parents who concieved them. It is also common knowledge throughout Westeros that Bloodborn society not only accepts sexual experimentation and promiscuity, but often openly encourages it. Bastards are still given the surname "Cliff" to mark the circumstances of their birth, but due to the Tiger Islands' laws of succession, it will not affect their chances of succeeding if they are older than a trueborn sibling, since Bloodborn succession is determined by age only. In fact, many Bloodborn bastards are proud of their status, since it usually means they had "adventurous" or "brave" parents, qualities admired among the culture. Naturally, such customs are alien to the mainland houses of Westeros and only encourage the stereotype of the Tiger Islanders as 'barbarians'.
Bastards and heraldry
Acknowledged children of a noble family are still 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 also carry such equipment. 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 himself as a trueborn child and not a bastard - for which he would face legal troubles and punishment.
For example, Jon Snow (before he joined the Night's Watch and forsook all family ties) 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, but Jon was not 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 simple commoners, however, and unlike the common smallfolk, acknowledged bastards are allowed to use their own heraldry - just not the heraldry of their noble parent's House. A custom very common 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 the books and TV series never portrayed Jon Snow as using any kind of heraldry before he joined the Night's Watch, 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.
One of the more infamous examples of bastard heraldry is House Blackfyre, a cadet branch of House Targaryen founded by bastard son Daemon Blackfyre when he was legitimized, over a century before the War of the Five Kings. 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:
|Iron Islands||Pyke||Quellon Pyke|
|Tiger Islands||Cliff||Madalyn Cliff|
|Vale of Arryn||Stone||Jorran Stone|
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.