I have been fascinated by the 15th and 16th centuries since I studied Early Modern British history in my first year at university. In my reading over the ensuing years I have caught sight of people who had no influence on the grand scheme of things yet they brought history to life, reminding me vividly that those who lived in the past were flesh and blood like us. I have used these glimpses of the reality of life 500 years ago in my writing, in much the same way as writers of contemporary fiction draw on life around them.
On occasions, readers of my early drafts have found incidents in my stories which they considered unlikely. For example, in the original draft of my current work in progress (The Bridled Tongue), I had a scene in which a mother beat a disobedient sixteen-year-old daughter. One reader said that she did not believe that a mother would ever behave like that, even in the 16th century. Yet it did happen, although my example comes from the 15th century – Elizabeth Paston was severely punished by her mother for refusing to agree to the marriage the mother was attempting to arrange. I eventually removed this scene which was part of a prologue, although the beating is still referred to.
The Pastons were a rising gentry family from Norfolk. Born in 1429, Elizabeth was the only daughter of Agnes Berry (c. 1405-1479) and Sir William Paston (c1378-1444). Once she turned fourteen her mother began acampaign of finding a match for Elizabeth with a wealthy landowner. Agnes was not successful as there were few prospects who had the desired wealth and social standing. When Elizabeth was 20, Agnes thought she had found a suitable match – Stephen Scrope, a widower in his fifties who was disfigured by a longstanding illness. Certainly not love’s young dream, plus he was not in the best of health – this may have been seen by Agnes as another positive for if he died soon, it would leave Elizabeth a wealthy widow. Elizabeth was not impressed and refused to go along with her mother’s plans. The proverb ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son’ was unexceptionable in the 15th century and Agnes punished her daughter for her disobedience. Elizabeth was practically kept under lock and key, unable to see anyone outside the household and forbidden even to speak with the servants.
In a letter written at the end of June 1449, a friend of Agnes Paston, Elizabeth Clere wrote to John Paston who was in London. John was Elizabeth’s eldest brother and head of the Paston family. Elizabeth Clere said that his sister Elizabeth ‘was never in so great sorrow as she is nowadays and she hath sin’ Easteren the most part be’ beaten once in the week or twice, and sometimes twice on a day, and her head broken in two or three places’.
She encouraged John to seek another match if possible, saying that Scrope would do only if there was no one else.
Agnes Paston’s campaign succeeded and in the end Elizabeth agreed; however, the marriage did not go ahead as there were concerns about Scrope’s finances and the entail on his land, some of which Elizabeth had shared.
In the Early Modern period those with wealth and position sought matches for their children which would advance the family, however, many parents understood that while romantic love was not essential to a successful marriage, companionship and affection were necessary. Agnes Paston’s behaviour is that of someone more concerned with advancing her family and , perhaps, part of the ferocity of her punishment of Elizabeth is due to the shame she felt at having such an obviously disobedient child. It could be seen to reflect on Agnes as a mother who had failed to raise a daughter with proper respect for authority. Elizabeth Clere is concerned for Elizabeth but she does not criticize Agnes’s behaviour, no doubt seeing it as being her right to so punish her child. This does show that severe punishment and pressure were brought to bear on those who resisted their parents’ wishes. And it also shows that some children did have minds of their own and did not buckle easily.
In the years following the failure of the Scrope marriage negotiations, there were several marriage offers for Elizabeth but Agnes did not considered any suitable. Elizabeth finally married in 1459, aged 29, to Sir Robert Poynings. Poynings had taken part in Cade’s rebellion and had been a carver and sword bearer to Jack Cade. He had been pardoned though and had sufficient money and property to satisfy Agnes. Elizabeth was entitled to a dowry of 400 marks under her father’s will. In an extremely formal letter to her mother pleading for payment of what is owed her husband she said of Poynings, ‘he is full kind to me.’ Unfortunately Elizabeth lived in ‘interesting times’ and Poynings was killed two years later at the second Battle of St. Albans while fighting for the Yorkists.
In 1471, Elizabeth married again. Her second husband, Sir George Browne, was executed on 4 December 1483 for his part in Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III and his estate was attainted on 23 Jan 1484 but reversed by Parliament in 1485.
Elizabeth herself died in 1588, a wealthy woman owning land, jewels and plate. As well as bequests to her three children (Edward Poynings and Mary and Matthew Browne) and her servants, she left bequests to churches, poor houses, the bedridden, and to inmates of several prisons. Following the wishes in her will, she was buried beside her second husband in the Church of the Black Friars in London. In her will she bequeathed £21 ‘for my said housbandes soul and myne, our fadres and modres soules, and for all Cristen soules to be praid for. Despite the mention of a number of Brownes and Poynings there is not a single Paston named.
Elizabeth Paston’s story is the first in a series of irregular posts I hope to write over the next few months about some of the women who have inspired incidents in my writing.
– Paston letters – letters 76 and 124
– Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families 2nd edn. p.214 (Sir George Browne)