ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


Marriage in Fifteenth-Century England: Part I, Primary Sources

The following material has been made available in electronic form
through the courtesy of the author. It may be copied, reproduced,
and redistributed freely in its entirety provided full credit is
given to the author. Distribution of portions of the text, or
inclusion of all or parts in printed and published form should be
performed only with the express consent of the author. The
electronic distribution of this material does not preclude its
later publication in other forms.
 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 
 were published.                                                                 
 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 


Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.