From forgotten daughter to wealthy widow 1429 - 1488
This is the first public page dedicated to Elizabeth (Poynings/Browne) Paston; yet her voice and story have been hiding in plain sight, within the letters. By creating this page we're writing Paston women back into history.
Content warning: Elizabeth's story may contain triggering content concerning domestic abuse and arranged marriages.
Extract from the Paston letters on Elizabeth. Agnes Paston writes to her eldest son John Paston I concerning his sister Elizabeth's prospective marriage
'She entreats you that you will do the best you can to bring it to a good conclusion , because she says to me that thse relies upon you to act according to both her honour and her advantage'
Find out more about Elizabeth
Play 'Choose your own Paston adventure'. Start your journey here and learn about the life of Elizabeth Paston, by East17 students. Change the story through your choices!
Watch a modern take on Elizabeth's emotions: dramatic monologue by Tonks Blom.
Elizabeth Paston Poynings Browne (c.1429-1488)
Biography by Dr Vicki Kay Price.
School of Languages, Literatures, Linguistics and Media Bangor University, Wales.
Content warning: covers the subject of physical beatings by a parent and attempts at arranged marriage.
A number of Elizabeth’s medieval letters survive revealing that all familiar family trait of a woman successfully managing family and estate affairs. Along with the letters of her brothers, parents (Agnes and William Paston) and cousin (Elizabeth Clere), we also glimpse other facets of Elizabeth’s character, namely an independent minded and resilient woman. Elizabeth has clearly had at least an informal education, discussing economic affairs in her letters, defies her mother’s three attempts to arrange marriage, survives physical beatings, marries for love, deals with the death and execution of two husbands due to the tumultuous times of the Wars of the Roses, and is mother of three children.
Born around 1429, Elizabeth Paston was the daughter of Agnes and William Paston. Beginning life in Paston, Norfolk she lived her later adult years in London. She was the third child of Agnes and William, sister of John Paston (I), Edmond Paston (I), William Paston (II), Clement Paston (II) and Henry Paston, and the sister-in-law of prolific letter-writer Margaret Mautby Paston.
Elizabeth was subject to the ambitious marriage brokering of her mother, who was keen to negotiate a match between the twenty-year-old Elizabeth and the unattractive, fifty-year-old Stephen Scrope, stepson of the wealthy Sir John Fastolf. Elizabeth resisted the match and as a result, according to the letters of family friend, Elizabeth Clere, Agnes kept her daughter imprisoned and would routinely beat her in an attempt to force her into submission. (see Davies, part II, letter 446, pp.31-2.) Clere’s letter to Elizabeth Paston’s brother, John Paston (I), tells us that Elizabeth’s disobedience of Agnes was rewarded with frequent physical violence and she was beaten as often as once or twice a week, sometimes twice a day, resulting in injuries to her head. Despite this trauma, Elizabeth’s opposition to the marriage paid off, and the union did not go ahead. Subsequent talks over matches with Sir William Oldhall, and later with John Clopton, were also unsuccessful.
In 1458, almost a decade after the failed Scrope negotiations, Elizabeth was married to Robert Poynings (c.1419-1461), with whom she had one son, Edward. She was widowed when Poynings was killed fighting for the Yorkists at the second battle of St Albans in February 1461. Ten years later, in 1471, she married Sir George Browne, with whom she had a son, Mathew, and a daughter, Mary. Once again, Elizabeth fell victim to the Wars of the Roses when she was widowed for the second time: Browne was executed for rebellion against Richard III on 3 December 1483. The marital life of Elizabeth Paston demonstrates the impact that the violent political turmoil of the Wars of the Roses had on the domestic and financial lives of women. She remained a widow until her death in 1488.
Like those of her mother, Agnes, and her sister-in-law, Margaret, Elizabeth’s letters are characterised by a business-like manner as she confidently deals with financial and legal family matters. On 3 January 1459, Elizabeth wrote to her mother to remind her to pay the remaining money (100 marks) owed to her new husband, Robert Poynings, as part of their marriage settlement. In her opening lines, Elizabeth thinly disguises the strained relationship between mother and daughter:
Right worshipful and my most entirely beloved mother, in the most lowly manner I recommend me unto your good motherhood, beseeching you daily and nightly of your motherly blessing, ever more desiring to hear of your welfare and prosperity, the which I pray God to continue and increase to your heart’s desire; and if it liked your good motherhood to hear of me and how I do, at the making of this letter I was in good health of body, thanked be Jesus. (Elizabeth Poynings (née Paston) to Agnes Paston, 3 January 1459, in Davis, Part I, letter 121, pp.206-7 (p.206). Modernised spelling.)
Using the conventional greeting of ‘worshipful’ and ‘beloved’ frequently employed in the Paston letters when writing to figures who command respect – husbands, mothers, brothers, social superiors – Elizabeth places herself as the inferior correspondent, adhering to the accepted family hierarchy. However, the following comments on her mother’s wellbeing and her statement that, if Agnes wished to know, her own health was good, hints at continuing tension between the women. Elizabeth’s letter reveals that they were not regular correspondents. Their mother-daughter relationship appears to have been fraught – hardly surprising when we recall Agnes’ treatment of Elizabeth when she resisted the Scrope marriage.
Elizabeth’s letter demonstrates her inheritance of the Paston women’s characteristic business-sense. The purpose of her correspondence is to chase up the 100 marks ‘promised’ by Agnes to Robert Poynings in the event of his marriage to Elizabeth, disclosing the financial deal that was so often central to medieval marriage. Elizabeth points out that her mother can use the ‘remnant of the money’ left by her father’s final will and testament. Elizabeth clearly understood the legal workings of probate and wills and she adopts their official language when she uses the words ‘bond’, ‘term’, ‘promised’ and ‘remnant’. (Davis, p.206). Just like her mother and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth’s surviving letters showcase her shrewd understanding of the family business of marriage, finance, and law. Remembering her manners, Elizabeth signs off her letter as ‘your humble daughter’, fully appreciating the necessity of the deference owed to her mother if she and her husband are to receive the payment of the promised 100 marks.
In her will dated 18 May 1487, Elizabeth bequeathed the majority of her wealth to her only daughter, Mary Browne. Elizabeth’s careful endowment of wealth to Mary shows her understanding of the precarious position of women: she ensured that Mary was financially stable and able to make her own marriage successfully. Perhaps Agnes’ treatment of Elizabeth during the Scrope marriage negotiations led her to protect Mary from being the victim of other people’s ambitions for her marriage. Rather than leaving a monetary dowry for Mary, Elizabeth carefully details material objects of high financial value ‘to the promotion of her marriage’. (Elizabeth Poynings Browne (née Paston), in Davis, Part I, document 123, pp.211-4 (p.211). Modernised spelling.)
Included in Elizabeth’s bequests for Mary are household items and objects to aid religious worship, such as an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) adorned with rubies, sapphires and pearls. This beautiful and expensive Agnus Dei set with precious stones and pearls demonstrates the connection between the worldly and devotional aspects of medieval women’s lives and relationships. Both rubies and sapphires were believed to have qualities appropriate for a devotional item owned by a woman and passed down to her daughter. Rubies were thought to protect against idleness and lechery, while sapphires were associated with chastity. Protection against idleness, lechery and the encouragement of chastity was especially appropriate for a daughter hoping to make a good marriage. The precious stones adorning the Agnus Dei also demonstrate far-reaching trade links as they would be mined in distant countries such as India – showcasing the wealth of Elizabeth’s extended family network which included the Pastons, the Poynings and the Browne families. Elizabeth bequeaths her daughter the physical items with which to establish her home and role as wife and mother, from a ‘salt cellar of silver and gilt’, a ‘great featherbed’ and ‘a black gown furred with white’ to ‘a flesh hook’ for the kitchen. (Davis, pp.211-3.) Furnishings and objects from the hall, bedroom and kitchen were particularly relevant to a daughter’s inheritance as these rooms were considered the female domains within the household. Elizabeth’s bequests to Mary equipped her with the practical, devotional, and decorative items of status to embark upon a successful career as wife and mother, but they also served as tangible items through which to recall her relationship with her mother.
Elizabeth’s will sets aside money to perform charitable acts, including donations to the prisoners of Newgate, Ludgate, King’s Bench and Marshalsea. These prisons were all located in London, the city in which she lived and chose to be buried. Prisoners were expected to pay for their own upkeep, regardless of their financial situation. Elizabeth’s bequests to the prisoners of London would help provide them with the basic essentials of food, drink, and bedding. Her own brother, John Paston (I), had spent some time imprisoned in the Fleet, although this was in relative ease with a private room, and he was able to keep his own servant and host at least one visit from his wife, Margaret, in 1465. Interestingly, Elizabeth did not bequeath money to the Fleet; Helen Castor has suggested that it could have been the most comfortable of the London prisons at the time John Paston was in custody there.
Elizabeth made her two sons, Sir Edward Poynings and Mathew Browne, executors of her will. She chose to be buried in Blackfriars with her second husband, Sir George Browne. This choice, even after his execution as a traitor, speaks of her identification both as Browne’s wife and as a supporter of Henry VII. Of course, when Elizabeth wrote her will in 1487, it was Henry VII who was the reigning monarch and so her identification as Browne’s wife was politically sound. Henry VII had defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, bringing England under Tudor rule and ending the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth was careful to record that she had applied her seal to her last will and testament. By doing so she stamped the will with her literal seal of approval to validate and legally authorise the contained wishes for the fate of her body, her wealth and her material possessions. Elizabeth Paston died on 1 February 1488.
Suggested further reading
Davis, Norman, ed., Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Part I, EETS s.s. 20 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Davis, Norman, ed., Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Part II, EETS s.s. 21 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Evans, Joan, and Mary S. Serjeantson, ed., English Mediaeval Lapidaries, EETS o.s. 190 (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).
Watt, Diane, trans., The Paston Women: Selected Letters (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004).
Bassett, Margery, ‘Newgate Prison in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, 18.2 (1943), 233-246.
Bassett, Margery, ‘The Fleet Prison in the Middle Ages’, The University of Toronto Law
Journal, 5.2 (1944), 383-402.
Castor, Helen, Blood & Roses: The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century (London: Faber
and Faber, 2004).
Fleming, Peter, ‘Poynings [Ponyngs], Michael, first Lord Poynings (c. 1318–1369), soldier’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2008), <http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.bangor.ac.uk/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.0 01.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-22684?result=1&rskey=O5iqqT#odnb-9780198614128-e- 22684-headword-5> [Accessed 28 August 2018].
How do you imagine Elizabeth?
Browse through some examples below of how people have brought Elizabeth Paston to life. Inspired to imagine the Paston women in your own way? Share your performance, poem, cake, blog, drawing or any other kind of creative work and find yourself featured on the creative gallery below.