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Medieval marriage: A brief history of the Paston family

BY Anne O'Brien

14th Feb 2023 Life

Medieval marriage: A brief history of the Paston family

The Pastons were a noted family of Norfolk gentry, whose letters to one another remain an important source of information about Tudor England. Author Anne O'Brien explores what medieval marriage looked like in this prestigious family

Paston men, intent on climbing the ladder of social status from peasant to gentry, had an eye to choosing women of substance for their wives. 

Agnes, wife of Justice William, was the daughter of Sir Edmund Berry and an heiress to her father's property. Margaret Mautby, wife of John Paston, inherited the Mautby acres as an only child

Not only were these Paston wives owners of property, they proved to be women of indomitable will and with a clear vision of the Paston future. It did not necessarily bode well for Paston daughters.

Medieval marriage and the Paston daughters

Paston daughters must marry men of status, reputation, and wealth. The marriage of Elizabeth Paston was dependent on her betrothed being able to provide land for a jointure for her, bringing in an income of not less than £40 a year. This proved a major stumbling block for her mother Agnes, who refused to consider the offers for her daughter from men who did not fit the bill. It resulted in great cruelty towards Elizabeth. 

Agnes beat her daughter, keeping her in close confinement, chastising her for being unwed. Every suitor for Elizabeth had some financial or legal flaw, for which Agnes blamed her daughter, even though the fault was not hers. 

Bromholm Priory, a benefice of the Paston family © Bill Tyne from Oxford, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bromholm Priory, a benefice of the Paston family © Bill Tyne from Oxford, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally Elizabeth was boarded out, not an unusual practice with the Pastons, to the house of Lady de la Pole in London, where she would be out of her mother's hair and might just find a suitable husband. She did find one, Sir Robert Poynings, a man with considerable land in Kent and Sussex and thus suitable for marriage. Tragically for Elizabeth, he was to die on the battlefield at St Albans in the Wars of the Roses, but at least she achieved some years of happiness with him, and a son.

"Paston daughters must marry men of status, reputation, and wealth"

Margaret Mautby Paston had little compassion for her own daughter Margery when she fell in love with the Paston bailiff, Richard Calle. A capable man who worked hard and loyally for the Pastons, Richard was rejected as a husband by Margaret because his family were mere shopkeepers in Framlingham, selling mustard and candles. 

To preserve the new status of the now castle-owning Paston family, this marriage was forbidden by the Pastons and Richard was dismissed as the bailiff. Was this love affair destined to die in instant death? Astonishingly for so respectable a family, the couple were not to be thwarted. Richard and Margery made private clandestine marriage vows without a priest. Such scandal!

Love marriages in Tudor England

When Margaret refused to accept the truth of her daughter's marriage, the whole affair was taken to the Bishop of Norwich who decided that Margery and Richard's oath-taking was legal, as long as they formally remarried in public with a priest and banns. 

But what of Margery? She had done the unthinkable, marrying beneath her, and so was barred forever from the Paston house. There is no evidence for a reconciliation between mother and daughter, although perhaps there was. Margaret left £20 to Margery and Richard's eldest son John in her will.

"Would Anne race down the same path as her elder sister and leap into an undesirable marriage?"

Meanwhile Anne Paston, Margaret's younger daughter, paid the price for Margery's defiance, when a romantic connection began to develop between Anne and John Pamping, another family servant. Would Anne race down the same disreputable path as her elder sister and leap into another undesirable marriage? 

Margaret immediately dispatched Pamping to London to the household of one of Margaret's sons so the pair could not meet. Anne's suitor did not love her enough to keep in touch with her as far as we know. 

Paston Hall © Kolforn (Wikimedia), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But Anne needed a husband. The Yelverton family, an old enemy of the Pastons over ownership of land, had become influential, and so offered a good marriage despite the difficulty for the Pastons in raising a suitable dowry for Anne. William Yelverton said, with careless cruelty, that he did not want Anne, and would not have her unless the money was forthcoming. Anne was destined for a less than happy marriage. Their first child died soon after birth.  We have no evidence that the marriage produced any further children, or any happiness.  

"Six hundred years ago, love was not an emotion to be considered when negotiating marriage"

On the other hand, Margaret's second son John made a successful love-match. He fell in love with Margery Brews. Being a younger daughter she aws not an heiress, but her family were gentry and so perfectly acceptable. It was difficult to raise enough money for the marriage of John and Margery, to satisfy both Margaret Paston and Margery's father, Sir Thomas. But what a determined young couple they were, Margery writing to her desired suitor as my most dearly beloved Valentine, the first ever Valentine letter. She had no intention of allowing him to escape, and nor did he. They had a long, happy, and fruitful marriage.

Six hundred years ago, love was not an emotion to be considered when negotiating marriage. Happiness was not to be allowed to stand in the way of social advancement. It was often a painful path for all concerned. It is to be celebrated that some of the women of the Paston family found happiness with the one they loved, even though we must grieve with those who did not. 

A Marriage of Fortune, Anne O'Brien

You can read more about the Paston family in Anne O’Brien’s new novel A Marriage of Fortune, out now with Orion (Hardback, £14.99)

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