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Family & Community History, Vol.

15/2, October 2012

SURVIVAL AND BETTERMENT: THE


ASPIRATIONS OF FOUR MEDIEVAL GENTRY
FAMILIES AS REVEALED IN THEIR LETTERS
By Joan W Kirby
Covering the period 12901584, the Paston, Plumpton, Cely and Stonor letters, although
for the most part business letters, concerned with the administration of their households and estates, nevertheless throw fascinating light on aspects of contemporary
society. They reveal that the lives of those who strove to survive and prosper as
landowning gentry were played out against a background of civil war, violent Scottish
incursions over the northern borders, and military reversals in France. Closer to home,
they struggled with predatory lords, tight-fisted dowagers, disgruntled sons, wretched
daughters and bitterly contested wills.
Faced with many imponderables, they marshalled their defences: judicious marriages
and kinship networks, compliant children, the patronage of influential magnates perhaps even of the king himself, such protection as was afforded by the law and unceasing
vigilance.
Parental affection and true love and devotion also find welcome expression among
what were severely practical concerns.
In common with most letter-writing before the seventeenth century, nearly all the
Paston, Cely, Stonor and Plumpton letters, which together cover the period 12901586,
are what may be called business letters, concerned with the administration of their
households and estates. Many were the work of scribes, usually household clerics
attached to the family, although it is probable that all the correspondents, both men
and women, wrote tolerably well when they so desired. Certainly long before the midfifteenth century not only private individuals, but also politicians and statesmen were
habitually corresponding with one another in the vernacular. In spite of their limitations
the letters show the family as the circle within which what was most deeply felt in the
affective life of the time was played out (James 1974: 19; Fisher 1977: 895).
The Families: Their origins
Like many landed families, the Stonors and Pastons owed the origins of their future
prosperity to successful lawyers. Sir John Stonor (d.1354), whose grandfather was
already established at the Oxfordshire manor of Stonor early in the reign of Edward I,
rose in his profession to be the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and a royal commissioner and diplomat. Discreetly avoiding the political upheavals attending the dreadful
2013 Family and Community Historical Research Society Ltd
DOI: 10.1179/1463118013Z.0000000006

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Figure 1

Figure 2

The Pastons

The Plumptons

Survival and Betterment

Figure 3

Figure 4

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The Stonors

The Celys

death of Edward II (1327) and his replacement by his son, Edward III, Sir John continued throughout to earn the prizes of his profession and the great wealth they brought
him, notably estates in five south-midland counties. Thereafter his descendants, as
reflected in their surviving letters and papers, lived as country gentlemen, busy with
the management of their estates and taking their share in local government as sheriffs,
justices of the peace and members of parliament.

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By the mid-fifteenth century, the Stonors were well established in county society,
whereas the Pastons were arrivistes. Ashamed of their humble lineage from Clement
Paston (d. 1419), a good plain husbandman. who plouhed his land both winter and
summer, and rode bareback to the mill with his corn under him (Paston letters -henceforth PL- 187275: xxxv). He sent his son William to school with money borrowed
from his brother-in-law. His successors later created a spurious family history which it
eventually suited Edward IV to authenticate, although well aware of the unreliability of
the evidence (Richmond 1990: 60). Trained as a lawyer by his uncle, William was eventually raised to the bench as a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Making the most
of his local knowledge, legal expertise and professional concern with land transactions,
he gradually built up an estate around the family land-holdings in north-east Norfolk,
which he designed should become Paston country.
By contrast, the Celys were city men, representative of a closely-knit class of wool
merchants at a time when the English wool trade, although in decline, still held a place
of importance in the social and political life of the country. Their significance lay in the
fact that they were members of the Company of Wool Staplers, a syndicate that had
been granted the monopoly of the sale of wool through the Calais market, in return for
which its members were expected to advance loans to the Crown. The Cely Correspondence, almost exclusively confined to matters of business, and virtually the sole surviving
source of information on the organization of the medieval English firm, is however, of
minor interest in the present context. The family consisted of Richard Cely (d. 1483),
his wife Agnes, sister of Richard Andrew, the pluralist dean of York, and sons Robert,
Richard II and George. As Robert had been virtually disinherited by the time of his
fathers death, the letters are almost exclusively concerned thereafter with the affairs of
the two younger brothers. But the Celys could have easily blended into county society,
for their tastes and standards were virtually indistinguishable from those of a rural
gentleman (Hanham 1985: 3; Keen 1900: 1234).
Thus the Stonors and Pastons had achieved landed status and knighthood through
their own determined efforts, whereas the Plumptons were holding a knights fee of the
Percy barony of Spofforth as early as 1166. Known also through their many charters
relating to their lands in Plumpton, a riverside settlement near Knaresborough, and in
the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire, the family attracted the notice of the chroniclers as a consequence of the execution in 1405 of Sir William Plumpton for complicity
in the ill-fated rebellion of Richard Scrope, archbishop of York. The clemency of King
Henry IV soon brought the family back into favour, however, and Sir Williams son,
Sir Robert sailed with Henry Vs expedition to France in 1415. He died there in 1421,
leaving an eighteen-year-old son, the future Sir William II (d. 1480), who, with his son,
another Sir Robert, were the recipients of most of the letters in the Plumpton letter
collection.
The families: the historical background
The commitment of the Plumptons to their patrons, the Percy earls of Northumberland
drew them into the Lancastrian orbit and cost them dear.
For example, the civil war, known as the Wars of the Roses (145585) brought a
summons, dated 13 March 1461 from King Henry VI to Sir William Plumpton II to join

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the great Lancastrian army mustering near Towton. Routed by the Yorkists under the
usurper Edward, earl of March, soon to become Edward IV, the price paid by Sir
William included the loss of his elder son in battle and his own confinement in the
Tower.
A Lancastrian revolt restored King Henry briefly to the throne from October 1470 to
March 1471, and produced short-lived changes favourable to the Pastons with the eclipse
of their predatory enemy, the duke of Norfolk, and restoration of their patrons the
earls of Warwick and Oxford. The hopes of glittering prizes, however, were dashed
by Edwards decisive victory at Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471 and Norfolks return to
favour.
Another who threw in his lot with the losing side was Sir William Stonor, who forfeited his estates for his part in the duke of Buckinghams abortive rebellion against
Richard III in October 1483. In exile he joined the supporters of Henry Tudor, earl of
Richmond, and was rewarded with reinstatement after the latters triumph at Bosworth
on 22 August 1485 and subsequent usurpation of the crown (Kingsford 1990: 63; Chrimes
1966: 1401). Henrys first parliament of 1485 recognised his assumption of the crown
as a fait accompli ignoring the question of legitimacy (Chrimes 1966: 1568).
As a result of military reverses in France, Sir William Plumptons was the last
generation of knights trained in the medieval tradition, to have significant experience
of continental warfare. Furthermore, changes in military theory were challenging the
function of the heavily armed knight, and producing new, less onerous qualifications for
knighthood (Taylor 1975: 7287; Taylor 1980: 65; Kirby 1995: 88). In England, however,
the military nature of northern society persisted, due to the frequency of Scottish invasions over the borders. Responsibility for the defence of the region lay with the northern
gentry, their households and tenants, led by the earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland, as wardens of the Marches. As retainers of Northumberland, Sir William II and
his son, received personal summonses from the earl urging prompt action to meet these
dangerous threats from the north.
How to survive and prosper amidst so many imponderables? The purpose of this
article is to show that the overriding characteristic of these medieval landowning
families was their determination to advance and preserve the family inheritance,
whether through marriage and the joint enterprise of husbands, wives, children, the
Law, good lordship or other means, and to ensure the continuance of future generations
in undiminished standing. It was a characteristic common to the great majority of their
contemporaries.
Survival and betterment; (1) Through marriage
In 1393/4 Sir William Plumpton I, paid 100 marks ( a mark was worth 13s.4d.) for the
wardship and marriage of Alice Foljambe, a Midlands heiress then aged about one year,
as a wife for his son, Robert. The wealth and extensive estates accruing from their
marriage raised the horizons of the Plumptons and placed them in the forefront of
county society.
Marriage with heiresses was indeed acknowledged to be the quickest way to social
and economic betterment. In 1420 Judge Paston married Agnes Berry, the eighteen-yearold daughter and co-heiress of Sir Edmund Berry, who inherited estates in East Anglia

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and Hertfordshire. When his eldest son John I reached marriageable age the Judge could
plan the enrichment of the family through a union that would bring a further accession
of rich manors into the estate. There is a note of urgency in Agness account of their
sons first meeting with Margaret Mauteby, whose inherited estates were in precisely
those parts of East Anglia in which he was establishing a Paston lordship. She writes:
And as for the first acquaintance between John Paston and the said Gentlewoman,
she made him gentle cheer in gentle wise, and said he was verily your son. And so I hope
there shall need no great treaty between them (PL No. 25).1
It was to be thirty-five years after Margaret and John Is marriage before the Mauteby
estates passed into Paston hands. Of immediate advantage to the Pastons, however, was
the trail of Margarets relations, who received her husbands family into their network
of friends, working associates and sustaining kin. Similarly, Sir William Plumpton II,
married at an early age to the daughter of his fathers comrade in arms, Sir Brian
Stapleton, forged an extensive cousinage with a group of neighbourly knightly families
through the marriage of his two sons and seven daughters.
Marriage contracts were blatantly materialistic, hedged as they were with detailed
provisions for every contingency. Nobody would have dreamt of underestimating the
financial arrangements that preceded a wedding (described by Margaret Paston as the
condiments of love). Suitable alliances were usually formed through the willingness and
ability of relations, particularly the head of the lineage, friends and employers, to act as
intermediaries and provide finance and credit. Thus Sir William Plumptons views were
sought by his kinsman, Godfrey Green, as to the suitability of a marriage between the
latters sister and a young tradesman, to promote which the girls employer was willing
to advance money to enable the young man to go into business on his own account.
(PLP 1996: 10). An intermediary negotiating for the hand of Sir William Stoners sister
was informed that unless her suitor contracted to settle 20 worth of land on her in joint
ownership, the matter would proceed no further. Richard Cely II, tempted to arrange a
meeting with a young lady on May Day 1482, by the advice that she would inherit a
yearly income of 40 from her father, found her young, well-favoured and witty, and
the two exchanged gifts, but a mere nine days afterwards, he was paying assiduous court
to the daughter of a wealthy Yorkshire mercer with a dowry of 500 marks, whom he
afterwards married (The Cely Letters-henceforth CL- 1875: 152). Sir William Stoners
courtship of Margery Blount, whose husband had been killed at Barnet in April 1471,
ran into difficulties when the lady declared that her friends would despise her foolishness
were she to accept from him a jointure of less than 100. Was she in love with his land
rather than with him, he wondered.
It must not be thought, however, that mutual attraction played no part in medieval
espousals, especially since the consent of the parties was absolutely necessary to validate
a marriage in the eyes of the Church. The propitious first meeting between John Paston
I and Margaret Mauteby, which was the prelude to one of the more surprising love
matches, had been a great relief to his parents. Margarets love for her cold, demanding
and ungracious husband shines through her otherwise severely practical letters, whereas
his only surviving expression of affection for her took the form of the following clumsy
doggerel verse penned a few months before his sudden death:

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My Lord Percy and all this house


recommend them to you, dog, cat, and mouse
And wish you had been here still
For they say you are good Jill.
No more to you at this time,
But god him save that made this rhyme (PL No. 528)

Although he had no ambition to become a knight, John I managed to get his eldest son,
John II knighted in 1463, and to find the means to obtain a place for him in the royal
household. (Taking a knighthood was obligatory for those with incomes of at least 40
a year. Those wishing to avoid doing so, deterred, perhaps, by the grander and more
expensive style of life expected of them, incurred a financial penalty.) He intended
the young man to use his connections there to protect the familys interests. In her last
surviving letter to Sir John, referring to a rumour that he was to marry a lady related
to the Queen, Margaret advises him by all means to press his suit if the marriage will
assist him to retrieve lost lands, but only if he can love her (PL No. 818).
In view of the vital importance of a successful marriage partnership it is surprising
there is so little emphasis in these letters on the personal qualities of the parties. Edward
Plumpton did indeed recommend his lady, when asking Sir Robert s approval of his
courtship, as amiable, good, wise and womanly, but rather as an afterthought amid the
more important details regarding the sources of her income (PLP 1996: 121). Sir John
Paston, asked by one of his brothers to assess the suitability of a young woman, was
required specifically to look at her hands and to note whether she had run to fat (PL vol
and date: 827).
The corollary of this pragmatic and unromantic view of marriage was a fairly tolerant
attitude towards illegitimacy an attitude fostered by the Church, whose violent
opposition towards abortion and infanticide overcame its view of the heinousness of
the sins of the flesh. It is not unlikely that Sir William Plumptons two bastard sons
(significantly they were given the favoured family names of William and Robert) or
(Robinet) were brought up within the family. He provided for them through grants
to each of a life interest in land, and his heir continued to support them. Robert, in
particular, appears to have remained throughout his life as a competent promoter of the
familys interests (Kirby 1991: 225), as also was William Cely, a family dependant, who
eventually took charge of the firms affairs in Calais after Georges return to London on
the death of his father. Bastardy was more of a problem when the father did not
acknowledge paternity. One such poor girl was sent by her master to Sir Robert
Plumpton with a letter explaining that one of the Plumptons servants had fathered the
child. Having maintained the baby at his own expence her employer now appealed to
Sir Robert to deal justly with her (The Plumpton letters and papers henceforth PLP
1996: 101).
But of all aspects of marriage, disparagement was the most dreaded. Marry your
daughters betimes lest they marry themselves was a saying in the shire.a. A domestic
storm, therefore, broke over the Paston family with news of the betrothal of John I and
Margerets daughter Margery to their steward Richard Calle in 1469 (PLP 6079).
Facing the outrage of her mother and brothers, Margery was at first too cowed to admit
the validity of their betrothal, but Calles sympathetic and loving encouragement steeled
her, and at last she made her statement to the bishop. The familys efforts to get the
betrothal annulled, however, founded on the Churchs recognition that the two had

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made their pledge in legal form, and as Margery stood firm on this, the bishop was
powerless to pronounce a divortium. Margaret then unhesitatingly cast her daughter out
of the house, declaring to Sir John that in her we have lost but a wretch (PL No. 607,
609, 617).
A few months earlier (April 1469) Margaret had been singing to a different tune.
Hearing of Sir Johns betrothal to Anne Haute, a kinswoman of the queen, she had
reminded him that the two were now as indissolubly bound by the betrothal as if they
were married. The queens family, the Woodvilles, had indeed already accepted him
into their kinship network headed by the queens brother, Lord Scales, but for reasons
that are unknown, the couples interest in each other soon cooled and both desired to
be free of the engagement. Sadly, the ensuing negotiations for an annulment, begun in
September 1471, and the protracted and costly processes in the ecclesiastical courts were
to occupy Sir John for the rest of his life.
Robert Cely, the spendthrift elder brother of Richard and George, contracted a
marriage deplored by his father, who succeeded in persuading the lady to withdraw. In
return for her compliance, she was to receive all the gifts the two had exchanged, save
for a silver-gilt pendant, a gold ring and a damask tippet. His brother Georges wife,
Margery, was a wealthy young widow of nervous disposition, whose loneliness during
his no doubt frequent absences moved him to ask a friend to keep an eye on her.
A widow as femme sole, could find herself in the enviable position of being to
some extent in command of her own destiny. Thus the wealthy widow of Sir Thomas
Waldegrave spurned the advances of John Paston III, even though he had employed his
elder brother, John II (Sir John), an experienced man-of-the-world to plead his cause.
Sir Johns advice to his brother when courting was always to be deeply respectful to the
girls mother (Richmond 1905: 2536). Indeed during his brothers ten year search for a
wife, Sir Johns offices as intermediary were several times employed, as when he was
requested to visit the parents of a certain Mistress Anne to find out what she was worth
and who her first husband had been. He was also to obtain similar information about
the widow of Blackfriars from an apothecary who counted the earl of Warwick among
his clients. Finally John III met and fell in love with Margery Brews. Her father was firm
in his demands and there would have been the usual haggling, but with the help of the
two mothers, the approval of Sir John, his own determination and Margerys love for
him, the marriage was accomplished. Her Valentine letter to him is among the most
charming in the collections:
But yf ye loffe me, as I tryste verily that ye do, ye will not lefe me therefor; for if that ye hade
not halfe the lyvelode that ye hafe, for to do the grettest labour that any woman in lyve might,
I wold not forsake yowe (PL date and vol: 783).

Equally affectionate and playful is Thomas Betsons true lovers letter to Sir William
Stonors young step-daughter Katherine Ryche, his own hartely beloved cossen who he
later married (The Stonor Letters henceforth SL 1919: 166).
Survival and Betterment: (2) The Joint Enterprise of Husband and Wife
The surviving correspondence between husbands and wives in these collections arose
from the fact that in most upper class families they frequently lived apart. The mans

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obligations might include the completion of his education (John Paston II was still a
student at Cambridge at the time of his marriage), military service, attendance on his
lord, service in local government or as a knight of the shire in Parliament.
On his frequent visits to London on legal business, John Paston lodged in the Middle
Temple, whilst Margaret wrote to him from Paston, Mauteby or Norwich. A period in
prison was not unusual, perhaps for debt or because pressure of personal matters had
interfered with his duty of attendance on the kings business. John Paston was imprisoned several times, as, for different reasons, were Sir William and Sir Robert Plumpton.
(PLP 1996: 8; PL No. 482, 585).
During a mans absence his affairs at home were managed by his most trusted steward, ideally his wife whose ability to preside over a large household and estate was an
advantage, if not a necessity. The Paston, Plumpton and Stonor wives identified themselves closely with their husbands families and interests: John Paston I, for example,
was fortunate in having a wife whose desire to do him service was only equalled by
her ability to do so. Throughout her husbands life and for eighteen years thereafter,
Margaret Paston guarded the Paston interests with the greatest tenacity and resource.
Not all women were of equal courage, of course, but who were more trustworthy to
defend the homestead than the lady of the house? Thus Margaret protected by only
about a dozen defenders, held out at the Paston manor of Gresham against a large
attacking force sent by a rival claimant, Lord Moleyns on 28 January 1450.
In a famous letter to her husband in London she asked for crossbows and pole-axes
(as well as almonds and sugar) to be delivered to her at Gresham, and described the
military preparedness of the Moleyns faction:
They have made bars to the doors cross-wise, and they have made wickets on every quarter
of the house to shoot out at with bows and hand guns (PLvol and date?: 66, 77)

She continued to resist until, having mined the wall of the room in which she was holding out, the attackers were able to carry her away and set her down outside the gates.
William and Elizabeth Stonors mnage differed from the other three, however, in that
it was she who spent much time in London, busying herself with the affairs of her late
husband and relishing her enhanced social status from city wool merchants wife to great
lady. In attendance on Elizabeth, duchess of Suffolk at the court of Edward IV, she
was able to regale her husband with a rare description of the ceremonial meeting at
Greenwich between the king and queen and Edwards venerable mother, Cecily, duchess
of York. Meanwhile William, at Stonor, was supplying the London house with venison,
fish and rabbits. A masterful woman who usually got her own way, Elizabeth was
nevertheless an astute and effective helpmate, whose inherited interests in the wool trade
greatly enriched her new family; but social ambition led her to extravagance and it is
clear that her household, whether in London or at Stonor, lacked the sad, wise rule
imposed by Agnes and Margaret Paston. After her death Sir William was advised to
re-order his affairs with greater prudence. He appears to have been an indulgent
husband and an affectionate step-father to Elizabeths three children.
These gentlewomen, who had no formal training for the heavy responsibilities of
medieval marriage, were taught the accomplishments necessary to their estate and the
skills they required as wives by the examples of their mothers and mothers-in-law; but
more effectively, perhaps, by the chatelaines of the great houses to which they were sent

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for education, training and service, some of whom, like lady Ingoldesthorpe, acquired a
reputation as good trainers of girls (PLP 1996: 12).
Christine de Pisans vignette of the lady in charge of a country estate and its almost
exclusively male staff of servants was probably true to the experience of most gentry
women, and the letters tell us a good deal about the management of servants(Pisan 1986:
13033). For example we hear Jane Stonor complaining that servants were not as diligent as they used to be, Margaret Paston ordering the instant dismissal of a recalcitrant
servant, questioning a mans reliability and reporting the success or otherwise of agents
engaged in rent collecting. Edward Plumpton recommended a servant, as a true man
but overweight who, if Sir Robert will employ him, will bring the horse he had ridden
in 1487 at the battle of Stoke (PLP 1996: 82). Agnes Plumpton, in anger and shame
over the arrest and imprisonment of one of their servants, exerted herself to obtain his
release. Many of the letters were entrusted for delivery to servants, to whose more
informative verbal passages the addressees were often advised to give credence.
Where there was discord in marriage, the legal disabilities of the wife could make her
life a little hell,exacerbated by the kind of loneliness that must have been the fate
of women in largely male households. Thus in a letter to her brother, Sir William
Plumptons aunt, Dame Katherine Chadderton, described the wretchedness of her sister,
Dame Isabel Thorpe, whose husband was always in trouble. She also writes of her own
need of a waiting woman to keep her company (PLP 1996: 2). By concealing his second
(clandestine) marriage, Sir William Plumpton condemned his wife to at least fifteen years
of humiliation, although knowing that secrecy was essential to a complex plan of her
husbands, she may have been a willing accomplice. Simultaneously the devious knight
was trifling with the affections of a certain Mistress F.S., to the extent of raising her
hopes of marriage. An intermediary hints that Sir William was not unused to extricating
himself from similar entanglements (PLP 1996: 12).
Survival and betterment: (3) The Law
In a world in which ownership of land could be challenged on slender grounds, Justice
Paston advised his sons that their best defence lay in a knowledge of the law. To this
he might have added that tireless lobbying, influential patrons and favourable political
conditions were equally essential. Moreover as the Plumptons had discovered, the law
can be a two-edged weapon.
Following the death c. 1461 of his only surviving son William, leaving two daughters
by his marriage to Elizabeth Clifford, Sir William Plumpton II faced the calamity most
dreaded by the heads of landowning families: division of the inheritance between
heiresses and consequent descent of the lineage into the bottomless pit of oblivion.
Sir William rose to the challenge. Taking advantage of the opportunity to acquire the
substantial premiums they commanded as heirs at law of the Plumpton estate, he sold
the marriages of his granddaughters, the four-year-old Margaret to Brian Rocliffe,
a puisne baron of the exchequer, and her younger sister Elizabeth to the lawyer,
Henry Sotehill, the marriage contracts providing for the upbringing of the girls in the
households of their respective fathers-in-law.
Significantly. The Sotehill contract of 1464 included a clause forbidding the alienation
by enfeoffment of any part of the Plumpton estate; hence not only was Sir William

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precluded from providing other than a life annuity for a future son of his own in the
event of his remarriage, but the childs wardship and marriage were guaranteed to
Sotehill. Yet, if his later testimony is to be believed Sir William had been by this time,
clandestinely married for some eleven years to Joan Wintringham, with whom he was
then living, and had a son (later Sir Robert) aged two. Not until 1468, when summoned
to appear before the official of the civil court in York to account for the irregularity of
his private life, did he disclose that he and Joan had long been lawfully married and that
their only son had been born in wedlock. Legal proceedings were interrupted by the brief
return to the throne of Henry VI, and it was not until July 1472 that the case resumed.
After hearing the crucial evidence of the parish priest, the validity of the marriage was
certified and the young Robert acknowledged as his fathers heir apparent. Several years
before his death in 1480 Sir William made an absolute disposition of his entire estate,
real and personal, to his son, thus precluding the necessity for a will. For this he chose
as his principal feoffee none other than Richard Andrew, dean of York and uncle of
Richard and George Cely. Sir William also defaulted on his contract with Henry Sotehill
by signing indentures for Roberts marriage with Agnes, siater of Sir William Gascoigne.
Thus did Sir William attempt to use the law to accomplish his purpose (On a fathers
loss of freedom when he married his eldest son, see McFarlane 1973: 81).
But after his death his son was ultimately unsuccessful in overcoming the legal challenge of his step-sisters. In 150102, the verdicts of two courts went against him, no
doubt due in part to his own invidious position (there was a suspicion that he was indeed
illegitimate) in part to the intervention of Henry VIIs all-powerful minister, Sir Richard
Empson. Both Agnes and Isabel Plumpton, successively married to Sir Robert Plumpton,
were exasperated with what they saw as his exclusive, self-indulgent immersion in a
morass of legal and political intrigue (PLP 1996: 188, 199; Kirby 1989: 1319). Beset by
troubles at home, intimidation and destraint of tenants by both sides, cattle impounded,
no money coming in and credit running out, Dame Agnes Plumpton, charged with the
duty of defending the manor place, besought her husband to bestir himself, bring
matters to a conclusion and so put an end to the ruinous expense he was incurring as
he strove to get the verdicts of 15012 reversed. On 19 March 15034 she wrote:
Sir, I marvell greatly that ye let the matter rest so long, and labors no better for your
selfe, and ye wold labor it diligently. . . . . Sir, I beseech you to remember your great cost
and charges, and myne, and labor the matter that it myght have and end. . .(PLP 1996:
188).
They both exerted themselves heroically to keep him afloat in London while he
reduced the family almost to beggary in pursuit of a lost cause. Surprisingly, perhaps,
Plumpton appears to have learnt little from the experience, for he pursued a spurious
claim of his own to a part of his daughter-in-law Isabel Babthorpes inheritance, and
thus in his turn bequeathed a troubled legacy to his son.
The twenty years of bitter legal wrangling in which the Pastons engaged, and which
left them immeasurably richer, began with the death of Sir John Fastolf, reputedly the
wealthiest commoner in England, on 5 November 1459. John Paston I, for some years
Fastolfs truest friend and legal adviser, was present at his bedside as the old man lay
dying in Caister castle Although scarcely able to speak, Paston afterwards claimed that
Sir John had confirmed what for long had been his intention, namely to leave his East
Anglian estates to Paston, on condition that he founded the college at Caister on which

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the old knight had set his heart (PL No. 3327). It was the determined opposition of
Fastolfs remaining trustees, who denounced the will as a fabrication and fought the
issue tirelessly through the courts, that embroiled John and Margaret in the troubles that
may have led to the formers sudden death in 1466 at the age of forty-five. Margarets
first thought was that Fastolfs death, so near to Christmas should be marked in an
appropriate manner by her household. Accordingly she sent her son, Sir John, to Lady
Morley, doyenne of Norfolk ladies, for advice on the appropriate etiquette. From her
she learnt that the quieter pursuits backgammon, chess and cards were considered
seemly, others more frivolous acting, luting, harping and singing should be strictly
forbidden (PL No. 881). But by July 1465 she and her son found themselves facing an
onslaught by 300 of the duke of Suffolks men on the manor at Hellesdon, to which,
spurred on by the Fastolf trustees and one of the Pastons bitterest enemies, John
Heydon, he had reasserted a claim. Margarets desperate appeals to her husband to
conclude the affair one way or another were met by his stern charge to do her utmost
to maintain his authority. The garrison though small, was well armed and provisioned,
and the attack was not pressed, but the following October during Margaret and Johns
absence, the duke, with his household and a retinue of knights and squires, occupied
Hellesdon without opposition and ransacked the manor house, church and village
houses. Margaret, surveying the wreckage a few days later, was overcome with pity and
shame. Although the Pastons were to seek redress for the loss of Hellesdon over many
years, the manor was, in fact, to be lost to them for ever.
Survival and betterment: (4) Children and Dowagers
In The Tree of Commonwealth, Edmund Dudley reviled the noblemen and gentlemen
of England for being the worst brought-up, for the most part, of any realm in Christendom (Dudley 1948: 45). English upper-class parents saw education as primarily the
learning of good rule, which, to Agnes Paston, for example, meant that her youngest
sons tutor at Cambridge was exhorted to beat him if he were lazy, for I had rather he
were buried than lost for lack of chastisement. The social structure of the medieval
nobility frequent separation of husband and wife, and the heavy duties imposed upon
the latter often precluded the creation of close ties between mothers and children.
Furthermore, in the belief that it was the surest route to social advancement as well as
the more effective teaching of discipline, many gentry families sent their young boys and
girls into service in great households of high repute a practice that struck a contemporary Italian observer as unnatural (A relation or rather a true account of the island of
England.1847). Betterment, however, does not appear to have been the motive that
impelled Agnes Paston to seek such a place for her daughter Elizabeth, whose life at
home was made wretched by her mothers dislike and rough treatment, as also by the
callous indifference of her brother, Sir John. To her, service in the household of Lady
Pole must have come as something of a relief, although she remained almost as
unhappy there as at home. From the tone of delicate irony in what may have been her
first letter to her mother after her marriage to the forty-year-old Robert Poynings, we
are left to question whether it was a marriage contracted for the sake of the family or
as an escape from the family (PL No. 322).

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Unhappy in the post obtained for her by Edward IVs queen (Elizabeth Woodville),
Jane Stonors daughter was nevertheless told that she must subordinate her wishes to
those of the family who dared not risk removing her without the queens express
approval. Whereas Mistress Stonor was not indifferent to her daughters plight, Sir
Robert Plumpton appears to have been deaf to his daughter Dorothys frequent attempts
to enlist his help to improve her situation at Templehurst, where she was in service
with her step-grandmother Lady Darcy. His failure to acknowledge her many letters and
messages had given the impression that he had neither affection for her nor interest in
her welfare (PLP 1996: 201). By contrast, Isabel Marley, a kinswoman of Sir William
Plumpton II, through whom she had obtained a place in the household of Joan, Lady
Ingoldesthorpe, was reported to be happy there and much beholden to her mistress
(PLP 1996: 12).
Agnes Paston recalled a day in August 1444 when she and her eldest son, John I, were
summoned to the bedside of the dying judge William Paston, who proceeded to read his
will. As Agnes knelt, John paced the room, his face showing increasing displeasure as
the reading continued. The Judges extraordinary generosity towards his wife (she was
left property worth 100 a year, including certain prime manors), and to his younger
sons, entailed parsimony towards his heir, on whom lay the responsibility for the continuance and financial stability of the family. A deep rift opened up between father and
son. John did not receive his fathers blessing, he was not present when William died in
London, and afterwards, as Agnes wrote some years later, my son John Paston had
never right kind words to me. After his fathers death, John ignored his wishes: he
claimed the disputed manors; quickly laid hands on his fathers cash, in spite of the
protestation of its custodians, and refused to endow his fathers charity.
In turn his relations with his own son and heir deteriorated. Hearing that Sir John
had failed to make his mark at the court of Edward IV, where he had been expected to
exert himself in the interests of the family, his angry father condemned him as a drone
among bees and ordered his return home. Thereafter the two were at loggerheads,
and although on Margarets advice Sir John humbly sought his fathers forgiveness, his
attempts and her pleas on his behalf were alike met with stony resistance.
Temperamentally, father and son could not have been more different: the former,
frosty, ungenerous, parsimonious and authoritarian, yet with a vein of heroism underlying his single-minded dedication to family interests, the latter a ladies man, a man
of culture and a bibliophile, owner of one of the first books to come from William
Caxtons printing press. An inventory of his library taken in 1482 included books on
law, knighthood, romance (for example the story of the death of King Arthur), the rules
of chess, and a number of devotional works (Keen 1900: 9). After succeeding his father
as head of the family, his cultural horizons were no doubt widened by exposure to the
glories of the Burgundian court while attending one of the great ceremonial occasions
of the century: the marriage in June 1468 of the kings sister Margaret to Charles, Duke
of Burgundy, for he afterwards commissioned the writing of his Great Book, a compendium of chivalry, which survives in the British Library. He also had himself measured
for an entire suit of armour. His prowess in the tourneys eventually brought him to the
notice of King Edward, a fellow enthusiast, and he at last became an active and familiar
figure at court. The surrender of Caister to the duke of Norfolk, who claimed to have
purchased it from the Fastolf trustees, earned him a furious rebuke from his mother, but

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patience and the impact of royal favour enabled him at length to succeed where his
father had failed (PL No. 62021; 629; 808).
It was to his mother that Sir Robert Plumptons grandson and namesake wrote from
the Inner Temple appealing for funds to keep him solvent until Easter. Mother and son
appear to have been close, for it was as a loving son that Robert introduced her to the
marvelous things contained in William Tyndales translation of the New Testament
and the Prologue attached to it. Regarding his forthcoming entry into Lord Latimers
service, he asks that she use her influence to obtain for him a position within the
household itself, where he will become personally known to his lord (PLP 1996: 230).
Charming hints of parental affection appear here and there in the letters of Richard
Cely I. Though worrying perpetually about the prospects of war, the difficulties of
making a profit from wool and about his sons remissness in writing, he and his wife
were not lacking in solicitude. Hearing of Georges illness in Bruges, his father warns
him not to economise on food and drink, and reassures him with the news that his
mother and father had been on pilgrimage to intercede for his recovery. To a neighbour
it seemed that the light had gone out of their lives and would not be rekindled until they
heard of their sons recovery. Richard II, about to embark at Calais in November 1479,
was told that although his mother looked daily for his return to London, he was to wait
for fine weather (CL 1975: 73, 74).
Of significance to the economy of a landed family like the Pastons was the long-lived,
tight-fisted dowager. With absolute rights in her own property, including a share in her
husbands goods and at least a third of the estate, she could retain much of the familys
land in her hands. Neither Agnes nor Margaret Paston remarried; the former, who
outlived her husband by thirty -five years, lived for the most part in Norwich, but in old
age took up residence in London with her younger son William until her death during
the plague epidemic of 1476, that also claimed her grandson Sir John, and Margarets
best-loved son Walter (Notestein 1986: 76; Virgoe 1989: 267).
Meanwhile part of the Mauteby estate remained for thirty-five years after the
marriage of John I and Margaret in the hands of Margarets mother and grandmother,
both of whom remarried. In her turn, Margaret kept a firm hand on her property during
the eighteen years of her widowhood, but her plans for its disposal alarmed John III,
who foresaw that he might find himself in shamefully reduced circumstances. Nevertheless, having succeeded Sir John as head of the family and inherited his grandmothers
lands, he was at pains to reassure his mother that no-one, neither wife nor friend should
persuade him to do other than carry out her wishes as expressed in her will (PL No. 697,
8612).
Not so well provided for, Sir William Plumptons widow, Joan Wintringham, published her intention never to remarry by receiving the veil as a symbol of her vow of
celibacy, but her son showed his affection for her by increasing her life estate and she
continued to live at Plumpton. Dame Elizabeth de la Pole, widow of a former justice of
the Kings Bench, confided to Sir Robert that, having administered her grandsons estate
during his minority, it was her intention to live out her days in a modest house within
the precincts of the friary at Derby with but a few servants to attend her (PLP 1996:
193). Sir Roberts own arrangement for his retirement provided for the transfer of the
issues of the Plumpton estate to his son and his continued occupation there with Dame
Isabel, his second wife, under certain specified conditions (PLP 1996: 2912).

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Sir William Stonor was at variance with his mother over the performance of his
fathers will. So intractable was their quarrel that matters in dispute were submitted to
arbitration. A sharp-tongued woman, Jane Stonor so berated her sons emissary that the
unfortunate man hoped he would never have to confront her again (SL 1919: I, 1624).
A scandalized Richard Cely II was convinced that an enemy must have started the
rumour that his mother had remarried or was about to do so, and that she had walked
in procession on Corpus Christi day arrayed in a crimson robe.
Survival and Betterment (5) Good Lordship
If kinship was one pillar of medieval society, another was good lordship, by which is
meant the favour that individuals in a position to do so bestowed upon those within
their sphere of influence. The royal court being the nerve centre of national politics, it
was important to be aware of who was in favour and who was not. The indignation of
the prince is death, was a truth learned by many to their cost (SL 1919: PL No. 15687),
for the impact of good lordship extended through almost all classes of society. For
example, John Paston III, placed by his father in the young fourth duke of Norfolks
household at Framlingham in 1461, continued in service with the duke until his
employer withheld his livery eight years later. However, Paston was able to maintain his
former contacts for some years afterward, but then fell out of favour with the duke, who
humiliated him in the presence of others, so that thereafter they ceased to treat him as
a man of consequence (PL No. 531, 714, 763). The earl of Shrewsburys intervention
on behalf of his wifes lady-in-waiting, Dame Joyce Percy, put an end to Sir Robert
Plumptons misuse of his stewardship to deprive her of her right to certain lands under
his authority (PLP 1996: 23).
The Lancastrian earl of Northumberland, dispossessed after the Yorkist victory at
Towton in 1461, was reinstated ten years later and reappointed steward of Knaresborough, a constituent of the Duchy of Lancaster. He appears to have reappointed Sir
William Plumpton as his deputy, but perhaps as a result of some misdemeanour
Plumpton was dismissed and replaced by the earls brother-in-law, Sir William
Gascoigne. His bitter disappointment found expression in a deluge of instructions from
Sir William to his attorney to urge his cause in influential quarters. The lawyers advice
is instructive: the earl would bestow the office on whom he pleased, furthermore, one
who was beholden to him alone for the favour.
The great fouth earl died in 1489, leaving a successor, young and distrusted, who was
no match for Henry VIIs powerful minister, Sir Richard Empson, whose influence
ensured that the verdicts of 15023 went against Sir Robert Plumpton. Indeed, regarding
a commission of enquiry the king proposed to appoint at Plumptons request, Sir Robert
was advised that it would be dangerous to identify his friends by naming them as
commissioners (PLP 1996: 177).
By contrast, Sir Richard Paston had the immense good fortune to acquire the patronage of Lord Hastings, a man greatly favoured by King Edward and completely loyal to
him. Whilst serving under Hastings in the garrison at Calais, Paston with his small
retinue, joined his patrons contingent in the army, commanded by the king himself that
crossed the channel in 1375, ostensibly to recapture some of the glory of Henry Vs
campaigns. Lord Hastings patronage brought Sir John fully back into favour at court

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and secured the kings intervention on behalf of the familys claim to Caister. Thus did
the Pastons finally attain the coveted prize. The college of priests so much desired by
Fastolf was at last established, not at Caister but at Magdalen college Oxford (Bennett
1970: 19).
The friendship between the Stonors and the de la Pole dukes of Suffolk was already
of long standing when Thomas Stonor married the first duke natural daughter Jane.
The Paston correspondence includes William Lomners cool description of the dukes
violent death at sea, beheaded with a rusty sword as he was making his way across the
Channel into exile (PL date and vol?: 93). Among the Plumpton letters, John Pulleins
description of the barbarous execution of Perkin Warbeck and his supporters, though it
spares no detail, expresses neither horror, sympathy nor satisfaction, suggesting that the
frequent usurpations of the fifteenth century had produced a cynical disbelief in causes
that earlier generations might have thought worth dying for (PLP 1996: 142).
Conclusion
The world in which these families strove to survive and prosper was a world of ruthless,
predatory lords, long-lived, tight-fisted dowagers, disgruntled sons, wretched daughters,
devious legal proceedings and bitterly contested wills. Given the political instability and
lawlessness of the times, however, they would probably have achieved nothing without
a rich vein of opportunism. Land, being almost uniquely the basis of wealth and power,
the three gentry families, having increased their landed wealth through high office in the
legal profession, judicious marriage, or (in the case of the Pastons) service to a wealthy
patron, applied themselves to its defence by every available means. These included
prolonged and exhausting legal arguments and spirited armed resistance to attack by
powerful magnates and their private armies. The final success of the Pastons was due to
the fact that three able men succeeded one another as head of the family, John I, with
his doughty wife, Margaret, Sir John, whose friendship with Lord Hastings and success
at the court of Edward IV resulted in the establishment of his title to Caistor, and John
III, under whom the familys quarrel with the earl of Suffolk was finally settled; with
his appointment as sheriff of Norfolk, the family may be said to have arrived.
The fate of the Plumptons, however, was unhappy. Faced with the premature death
of his two sons by his first marriage to Agnes Stapleton and the break-up of his inheritance between two granddaughters as heirs-general,, Sir William IIs gamble might
indeed have achieved the survival of the family in undiminished wealth and standing.
But the appeal of the heirs-general was upheld by a legal system, which in its local
functioning could often be what one writer has called a riot of mutual backslapping
(Carpenter 1997: 49). Sir Robert Plumptons unsuccessful fight against the loss of his
Midlands and Yorkshire estates was in part due to the maintenance of Henry VIIs most
powerful minister, Sir Richard Empson on behalf of the heirs-general. Hence his fruitless
and ruinously expensive attempts to have the adverse verdicts reversed. Empsons execution in August 1510 brought a more equitable settlement five years later, but the family,
although reinstated in their ancestral lands within the parish of Spofforth, remained
shorn of the greater part of their inheritance. Whether this verdict represented justice
tempered by mercy, or injustice, it is impossible to say, because of the irregularity

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111

surrounding Sir Williams second marriage to Joan Wintrinham and the possible
illegitimacy of their son, later Sir Robert.
Finally, as we have seen, the advancement of the family often depended upon the joint
undertaking of husband and wife. A capable spouse, such as Margaret Paston shared in
her husbands success, or, like Agnes and Isabel Plumpton, patiently bore the brunt of
failure.
Note
1
(The references marked PL throughout are to The Paston Letters 14221509. ed. Janes Gardner, 4 vols, London,
1901, followed by the number of the item, e.g. No. 25).

References
PRIMARY SOURCES
The Stonor letters 12901483 (1919), ed. C.LKingsford, 2 vols, Camden Society, 3rd series, 29 and 30.
The Paston letters 14221509, (187275) ed, James Gardner, 3 vols, London.
The Cely Letters 14721488, ed. Alison Hanham, Early English Text Society, 273, Oxford.
The Plumpton Letters and Papers 13461584, (1996) ed. Joan Kirby, Camden Society, 5th series, 8.
Calendar of Patent Rolls 14671477, (1900) Her Majestys Stationar y Office.
A relation or rather a true account of the island of England; with sundry particulars of the customs of
the people, and of the royal revenues under King Henry the Seventh, about the year 1500 (1847),
translated from the Italien by Charlotte Augusta Sneyd, Camden Society, Old Series, 37.

SECONDARY SOURCES
Bennett, H.S. (1870) The Pastons and their England. Studies in an Age of Transition, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Carpenter, Christine (1997) The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, c. 1437
1509, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chrimes, S.B. (1966) Lancastrians, Yorkists and Hemry VII, London: Macmillan.
Dudley, Edmund (1948), Brodie, D.M. (ed) The Tree of Commonwealth, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Fisher, John H. (1977) Chancery and the emergence of standard written English in the fifteenth
century Speculum 52.
Hanham, Alison (1985) The Celys and their world, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
James, M.E. (1974) Family and Lineage in Civil Society, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Keen, Maurice (1900) English Social History in the Later Middle Ages, London: Allen Lane.
Kingsford, C.L. (1962) Prejudice and Promise in Fifteenth Century England, Liverpool and London:
Frank Cass.
Kirby, Joan (1989)A fifteenth-century family: the Plumptons of Plumpton and their lawyers Northern
History, 25.
Kirby, Joan (1991) Women in the Plumpton correspondence: fiction and reality in Wood, Ian and
Loud, G.S. (eds) Church and Chronicle in the Middle Ages: essays presented to John Taylor,
London: Hambledon.
Kirly, Joan (1995) A medieval knightly family: the Plumptons of Plumpton in the waning middle ages
Northern History, 31.
McFarlane, K.B. (1973) The Nobility of Medieval England, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Notestein, Wallace (1986) The English woman 15801650 in Plumb, J.H. (ed) Studies in Social
History, London.
Pisan, Christine de (1986) The Treasure if the City of Ladies, trans, Lawson, S. harmondsworth:
Penguin.

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Richmond, Colin (1985) The Pastons revisited: marriage and the family in fifteenth-century England
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 56: 2536.
Richmond, Colin (1990) The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, John (1975) The Plumpton Letters 14161552, Northern History, 10.
Taylor John (1980) Letters and letter collections in England Nottingham Medieval Studies, 24.
Virgoe, Roger (1989) The Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family, London: Macmillan.

Biographical Note
Joan Kirby has published work on Medieval and Early Modern Leeds, the Plumpton
family in the Later Middle Ages, and the Registers Sede Vacante of the Archbishopric
of York, 14051408 and 14231426. She received her degrees of BA and M.Phil in the
School of History at the University of Leeds.

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