Marriage in Fifteenth-Century England: Part I, Primary Sources
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Marriage in Fifteenth-Century England: Primary Sources
Sharon D. Michalove, Department of History,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign*
For many years, fifteenth-century England was considered barren soil by
most historians. Unlike earlier centuries, the fifteenth was not an age of
great chroniclers; no one of the stature of Giraldus Cambrensis in the
twelfth century or Matthew Paris in the thirteenth was writing in the
fifteenth century. The Croyland Chronicle, the Great Chronicle of London,
and the town chronicles are all dry reading. Unlike the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, great letter writers and diarists do not abound.
But the fifteenth century was not completely barren. The historian does
have copious financial and legal records, which are undoubtedly difficult
to use. Of great interest are the four great letter collections that do
exist and illuminate the social and political history of fifteenth-century
England the Pastons, Stonors, Plumptons, and Celys all left records of
their families and friends, kings and courtiers, intrigues and business
dealings. While these letters may not represent all, or even most, late
medieval English people, they depict the classes, merchant and gentry, that
these families characterize. In an age when conformity was expected, we
have no reason to believe that any of these families were atypical. These
are the documents that have survived the vagaries of the centuries; the
historian must work with the materials that are to hand.
The letters and papers of the Paston family is the most important
collection if for no other reason than its size. The Paston archive is far
larger than any of the other surviving collections. Several editions are
available, including Private Life in the Fifteenth Century by Roger Virgoe,
which uses the Paston letters to illustrate various aspects of social
history. However, the two versions most used by historians are The Paston
Letters, edited by James Gairdner (reprint of 1904 ed. Gloucester, England:
Alan Sutton, 1986) and Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century,
edited by Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).
The Pastons were a gentry family in Norfolk who became Earls of Yarmouth
in the late 17th century. They had held local offices such as sheriff,
escheator, commissioner of the peace, and were elected to parliament. They
pursued various careers as lawyers, courtiers, soldiers and sailors.
The majority of the letters are from 1450 to 1480 and are only a fragment
of original letters. While many of the letters are about the family’s
business affairs, they also offer many comments on the social and political
scene. The Pastons were new gentry who became involved in factional
struggles and national politics. They were probably atypical in the scope
of their political involvement, although the Stonors and the Plumptons did
play some part in the great political events of the time. Most importantly
for my purposes, the letters go into marriage arrangements in great detail.
The history of the letters themselves is very interesting. The letters
were first published by John Fenn (1787,1789,1823). Gairdner says in his
introduction to the letters, “…the editor |Fenn| had no reason to
complain of its reception. The Paston Letters were soon in everybody’s
The letters were first deposited in the library of the Society of
Antiquaries (2), but because of the interest of the king (George III), they were
soon put in the Royal Library and Fenn was knighted. Eventually five volumes
But how did Fenn get the letters in the first place? Seventeenth century
antiquarians got the documents because William Paston, Earl of Yarmouth,
was in debt and sold some of the papers to Peter Le Neve, Norroy King of
Arms (3). Rev. Francis Blomefield was allowed to view and survey papers
that had not been sold to Le Neve and some of these came into his
possession. When Le Neve died, he wanted his papers to go to Norwich
Cathedral and be available to anyone who wished consult them and he charged
Thomas Martin to accomplish this. Instead they became Martin’s property of
when he married Le Neve’s widow. Martin also intended them to go to the
cathedral but although he lived another forty years, he never got around to
finishing his collating (4 5) and the papers were sold. In the meantime,
Blomefield intended to add his papers to the Le Neve collection, but he
never got around to that either he died in debt and his papers were sold.
Eventually, after all this selling, some of the Martin papers were
purchased by Fenn (6).
Now you might think that this was the end of the story since the last we
saw of the Paston letters, they were in the Royal Library. However, you
would be wrong after Fenn presented the documents to the king for the
library, they disappeared for a whole century (7).
Fenn had not given all the documents to the king because he had more
volumes to produce. The documents that Fenn had retained also disappeared.
Gairdner says, “Even Mr. Serjeant Frere, who edited the fifth volume from
transcripts left by Sir John Fenn after his death, declared that he had not
been able to find the originals of that volume any more than those of the
others. Strange to say, however, the originals of that volume were in his
house all the time, and were discovered by his son, Mr. Philip Frere, in
the year 1865, just after an ingenious litterateur had made the complete
disappearance of all the MSS. a ground for casting doubt on the
authenticity of the published letters.” (7). Having been found, the
“Frere” papers went to the British Museum (8).
It was suggested to Gairdner by Philip Frere that he check with George
Frere, the head of the family, to see if he had any of the papers. George
Frere said that he did not think he had any of the papers and did not
bother to look until Gairdner had produced three volumes of Paston Letters
(1875). Gairdner wrote, “It was mortifying, I confess, not to have
received earlier intelligence of a fact that I had suspected all along.
But it was better to have learned it at the last moment than not till after
my last volume was published (9).” This group of “Frere” letters were sold
to a bookseller (1888) who later sold them to the British Museum (1896)
The “King’s” letters came to light in 1889 at Orwell Park in
Suffolk possibly the King’s illness in 1788 caused them to come into the
hands of William Pitt rather than going into the Royal Library, but this is
speculation (11). These letters were published in an edition by a Mr.
Arber and Gairdner resigned himself to not being able to publish a complete
edition of his own (11). However, eventually an arrangement was made
between publishers and Gairdner published his complete edition in 1904.
Gairdner did not reedit from the original mss. because he felt that
Frere’s editing, which he checked against some of the originals, was good
(12). However, when Norman Davis produced his edition of the letters and
papers, he did reedit from the original manuscripts and corrected some
errors. Unlike Gairdner’s book, which is arranged chronologically, Davis
arranged his by author.
When Gairdner produced the complete edition, he said, “I wish it were in
my power to make the present edition better still. But there have been
always formidable obstacles to completeness during the thirty years and
more since I first took up the business of editing the letters; and though
many of these obstacles have been removed, my energies are naturally not
quite what they once were” (20).
The Orwell Park mss. were sold in 1931 and resold two years later to the
British Museum. The documents are now in various places the British
Museum, the Bodleian Library, the tower of Magdalene College, Oxford,
Pembroke College, Cambridge, and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.
Two letters from William Paston II to Richard Roos were found at Belvoir
Castle and were not printed by Fenn or Gairdner.
The second great letter collection is that of the Stonor family of
Oxfordshire. Here we have a family that has been minor aristocracy since
the thirteenth century rather than parvenus like the Pastons. The Stonors
raised sheep and had connections with the wool trade although they were not
merchants in the same way as the Cely family. The Stonor letters have not
had the fortunate publishing history of the Paston letters and have not
been republished since their first appearance for the Camden Society: The
Stonor Letters and Papers, 1290 1483, edited by Charles Lethbridge
Kingsford (Camden Third Series, XXIX XXX, London: Camden Society, 1919) and
Camden Miscellany: Supplementary Stonor Letters and Papers (1314 1482),
edited C. L. Kingsford (Camden Third Series, XXXIV. London: Camden Society,
The Stonor letters did not have a history as colorful as that of the
Paston letters. While Kingsford originally speculated that the papers were
probably confiscated when William Stonor was attainted in 1483 (vol. 1,
xxxvi), he discovered when working on the supplementary papers that the
letters and papers were not confiscated when William Stonor was attainted.
In a Chancery suit by Adrian Fortescue contesting the inheritance of some
Stonor property in 1512, the papers were subpoenaed. It turned out that in
the original suit in the early part of 1500, Cardinal Morton had called
for the papers as an exhibit and they then became property of the Public
Record Office (vi). “When the Stonor Papers were broken up in the last
century and dispersed amongst various classes, some were for the time lost
sight of, and others were put aside as of no value. Thus it was only
gradually in the process of sorting the Chancery Miscellanea that many
documents were brought to light.” (v) The Stonor papers were preserved as
part of the Chancery Records in the Tower (xxxvii) and were originally kept
together but later broken up and put into various collections Ancient
Correspondence, Ancient Deeds, and Ministers Accounts (xxxvii). Some were
misplaced but were later put into Chancery Miscellanea (xxxvii) and these
are the papers that were published in the supplementary collection.
With the Plumpton family papers we are back to mysterious disappearances.
The Plumpton Correspondence has only been published once, although it was
recently reprinted in a facsimile edition (The Plumpton Correspondence:
Written in the Reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII,
editor Thomas Stapleton. introduction Keith Dockray. 1839, originally
printed for the Camden Society by J. B. Nichols ed. Gloucester, England:
Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1990). The Plumptons were another ancient
family of the minor aristocracy and lived in the north of England, where
they were clients of the dukes of Northumberland.
Plumpton Correspondence consists of about 250 letters that probably
survived because of inheritance disagreements of Sir William Plumpton’s
heirs. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Edward Plumpton had them
transcribed into a small folio paper volume called Sir Edward Plumpton’s
Book of Letters or the Plumpton Letterbook and the Coucher Book or
Plumpton Cartulary: a collection of almost 1000 items relating with the
history of the family. The Letterbook and Coucher Book and some other
transcripts came into the collection of Christopher Townley, an antiquary,
and became part of the Townley archive. The originals had vanished by the
time Stapleton started to work, but he used the 17th c. transcripts. Then
all the Townley material disappeared and was not found until 1972. They
are now housed in the Leeds Archives Department (the first 26 pages of the
Letterbook are missing.
The last collection is that of the Cely family, the only nonaristocratic
or gentry family to leave a letter collection in this period. The Celys
were successful wool merchants and the documents they left behind allowed
Eileen Power, in the early twentieth century, to write her great work on
the English wool trade. But the Cely’s also left personal letters. The
now standard edition of the Cely letters was produced by Alison Hanham for
the Early English Text Society (The Cely Letters, 1472 1488, ed. Alison
Hanham (Early English Text Society, 273) London: Oxford University Press,
1975). The Cely letters and papers came into possession of the Public
Record Office because of dispute between Richard Cely and the widow of
George Cely over payment of debts another Chancery case (viii). Only the
letters, not accounts and memoranda were published in this edition. An
earlier edition, edited by Henry Elliot Malden for the Royal Historical
Society (Camden Series Three) but it has been supplanted by this edition.
The importance of the documents is great for many aspects of late medieval
English life. But they all have one thing in common that will be very
useful for me study all four of these families discussed and were very
concerned about the topic of marriage. I hope that by studying these
documents in conjunction with secondary sources that I will be able to draw
some conclusions about how spouses were chosen in fifteenth-century England
and whether English concerns and practices were the same as or different
from those on the continent.
Sharon Michalove,Academic Advisor
Department of History, UIUC