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Margery Paston

Rebellious daughter who married for love, c.1448 - 1480

This is the first public page dedicated to Margery 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.

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Extract from the Paston letters on Margery:

"she said she thought in her conscience she was bound, whatsoever the words were.” - her brother's report of Margery's words to the Bishop about her unapproved marriage to Richard Calle.

Biography by Michele Schindler

Author, historian, based in Germany.

Margery Paston‘s name is associated with scandal.

This is not because of she committed any crime, or doing anything wrong. It is simply because she went against her family`s wishes, and married a man her mother and brother did not want her to marry: a man called Richard Calle, the family`s bailiff, sneerily described by Margary`s brother John Paston as offering her nothing but a future of selling “kandyll and mustard”. (John Paston III to John Paston II, May 1469).

Though Margery`s decision to marry against her family's wishes has often been spoken about, and in itself shows something of her character, it is nonetheless sadly notable that the bulk of interest about this marriage has been about her relatives` reaction, and not about her.

What is actually known about Margery is not all that much, though bits and pieces can be put together from mentions in her family`s letters. Born in 1448, to Margaret and John Paston, she had five brothers, and one sister, Anne. She and Anne were therefore outnumbered, but we do not know how this influenced her. Extremely little is known about her childhood, her upbringing and education, but since we know that her mother, Margaret, was a literate and highly educated woman, there is no reason to assume she and Anne would have received a lesser education than any of her brothers, or not been aware of their own worth, considering themselves as lesser.

Whatever Margery`s education and upbringing was like, we do know that she grew up to be self-confident and to have a mind of her own, which would come to show as she grew up. At some point after 1466, probably in early January 1467, when Margery was approximately eighteen years old, her oldest brother, considered the head of the family, received a marriage proposal for her, by John Strange, offering his nephew as her husband. How her brother reacted to this is not recorded, but Margery had different ideas. Clearly not impressed by the 40 percent jointure and the two hundred marks by inheritance she was offered, she made a rather unconventional decision: she was going to choose her own marriage.

Perhaps she had already made this clear when she was informed of John Strange`s offer, but there is no evidence of how she reacted. However, we know that she must have done something that upset her mother in some way by 3 April 1469. On this day, the next explicit mention we have of Margery is found in a letter by her mother to her oldest brother Sir John Paston, saying that she wanted him to “purvey for your sister to be with my Lady of Oxford, or with my Lady of Bedford, or in some other worshipful place, where as you think best, and I will help to her finding, for we be either of us wary of other”. (Margaret Paston to John Paston II, 3 April 1469. Translation into modern English my own.)

Obviously, by early 1469, something had happened that made Margaret Paston believe her daughter needed “worshipful” guidance by someone other than her. Sadly, she does not go into detail about what this was, instead simply saying that she would “tell [him] more when I speak with [him]”. (Margaret Paston to John Paston II, 3 April 1469. Translation into modern English my own.) Since whatever it was clearly bothered her, and since Margery was soon afterwards to make clear she intended to marry Richard Calle. Sometimes, in fact, it has been speculated that she had been his lover before choosing to make this marriage, and that this was what upset her mother to such an extent she did not wish to mention it in a letter. A somewhat less scandalous explanation is that Margery had simply announced that she intended to marry Richard Calle, who not only was of much lower status than herself but had nothing to offer her in the way of money.

The most likely explanation is, however, that Margaret discovered that her daughter Margery and Richard Calle had secretly married. At the time, a secret marriage was possible, without any witnesses present, if both man and woman said the appropriate words of betrothal and the marriage was consummated afterwards.

Definitely, we know that at some point by or in 1469, this is what Margery and Richard did, and if it was not before April of that year, it was shortly afterwards. Whichever it was, whether it was that Margery`s intention to marry Richard was discovered, or the fact she had already done so, obviously her mother wanted to stop any fallout from the discovery she had made.

It was not to be: Margery resisted any attempts by her mother and brother to dissuade her. She did not agree to have a position in a noble lady`s household; instead, she seems to have remained with her family, while Richard went to exile in another part of England, to be away from his new wife`s family, apparently afraid of what would happen to him if he stayed.

There is, in fact, some confusion as to how long he was separated from Margery, as we know from a letter Richard Calle himself wrote to her, calling her “before God very true wife”, that she had not had a letter from him in the last two years. However, since from the context of his letter, it was written at the time that her family had found out about their marriage, and was doing their all to have it declared null and void.

From this letter, we also know how Margery`s family treated her after the revelation of her wedding with Richard Calle. There seemed to be an effort to keep the newly married Margery from corresponding with her husband, and Richard appeared to believe that they had made her show them all the letters he had written her, and that, either under pressure or voluntarily, she had done as they had asked.

If she had done so, perhaps to please her family, she was not to continue acting in such a way to please them, though she was heavily pressured to do so. Keen on making sure Margery`s marriage to Richard Calle was seen as illegitimate, she was forced before the Bishop of Norwich to detail what exactly had happened and repeat “the words she had said to [Richard], whether it made matrimony or not”. (Margaret Paston to John Paston II, 10 September 1469.)

In practise, Margery was not just asked for a statement like this, but pressured by the Bishop, who apparently “said to her right plainly, and put her in remembrance how she was born, what kin and friends that she had, and should have more if she were ruled and guided after them, and if she did not, what rebuke and shame and loss it should be to her if she were not guided by them, and cause of forsaking of her for any good or help or comfort that she should have of them”. (Margaret Paston to John Paston II, 10 September 1469.)

Margery was clearly not impressed by this, and though she answered the Bishop`s questions as to the exact words she had said to Richard during their secret wedding, she added that if those words did not “ma[k]e matrimony” “she would make it surer ere than she went thence, for she said she thought in her conscience she was bound, whatsoever the words were.”

Margery stood her ground, as did Richard, when he was questioned by the bishop, and though the verdict as to the validity of their marriage was not immediately issued, it was enough for her family to disown Margery. She did not stay with them while waiting for the verdict, instead first staying with a merchant family she was acquainted with, and later in a convent.

However, eventually, the verdict was in her favour; the marriage was a valid one. This must have pleased Margery, and eventually, she had her victory over her family: though they were incensed at her and her husband, they were soon to find they could not actually run their estates without Richard`s expert knowledge of the financial side of doing so. Moreover, Richard had kept some of the family`s deeds, so that any attempts to find a bailiff as skilled as he was, and replace him, were doomed to failure.

Margery`s family was left with no other choice but to keep Richard in their employ, but even so, she was never to fully reconcile with her family. It is often claimed that this was her mother and brothers` choice, but there is no way of telling. Certainly, her mother Margaret thawed enough towards the match to accept the children Margery bore, three sons called John, William and Richard, so that it is possible it was Margery who could not forgive her family, rather than the other way around.

There is no way of saying if Margery was happy with the life she had chosen, though it would be nice to think so. However, whatever she felt, she was sadly not to enjoy a long life. She died before 1480, though like her date of birth, her exact date of death is also not known exactly, any more than her cause of death. It is known, however, that she was not more than 32 years of age when she died.

Due to her quarrel with her family, there is not much about her in the famous Paston letters after 1469. However, what little there is, though it refers almost exclusively to either marriage prospects for her or to the controversial marriage she actually made, we get a glimpse of a remarkable woman. A woman who was courageous, unconventional, stubborn, who refused to be intimidated, refused to bow to conventions, even when she was put under extreme pressure.

How do you imagine Margery?

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