The Pastons - A Fifteenth-Century English Family


The following events are taken from those described in the letters of the Paston family covering the exposure of the secret romance between Margery Paston and the family's bailiff Richard Calle as well as the Siege of Caister castle. The Paston Letters are significant as they provide both a uniquely candid and detailed insight into the life of this family, who while being a member of the landed gentry (and far from common) were not aristocrats. This allows these letters to provide a much clearer depiction of day to day life as more generally experienced in this period which most other historic sources fail to capture.


May 1469:

A secret romance that had grown between Margery Paston and Richard Calle (the Paston's bailiff - responsible for managing the family's finances) is revealed. In addition to this was the revelation that the two had exchanged secret vows which, they at least believed, amounted to a clandestine but legal marriage between them.



Family tree of the 15th Century Paston family - click on the image to enlarge.

At the time Margery was about 20 (her exact birth date is unknown) and so was very much of marriageable age. In fact she had already been on the 'marriage market' for some years. In fact marriage negotiations had already been conducted with several other suitors but so far all had all been unsuccessful. Given Margery's advancing age it was becoming increasingly likely that she may fail to marry entirely and face the prospect of suffering the fate common to such women in this period: that of spending the rest of her life cloistered in a monastery. Consequently her age may well have influenced her to choose Richard as her husband.


It is also worth noting that at this time, rather than being an institution of love, marriage was primarily something entered into for reasons of social and material interest. For families such as the Pastons marriage would be used strategically in order to gain land, money, status, or closer ties with other families. Further, while this was the normal practice for families of any measurable level of wealth or status, on higher levels marriage would be arranged as a tool for managing national or even international relations.

This is not to say that love was totally unimportant. Love was seen as being key to making for a harmonious marriage but as something that would ideally grow over time after the marriage itself had been entered into.


In contrast, Margery's marriage to Richard upset the family as theirs was one with noble aspirations and Richard, while clearly an able man - who had loyally served the family in numerous crucial ways for many years - did not fit into these. This is despite Richard being a man with a measure of (or at least capacity for) wealth but who was descended from a common family of shopkeepers. Indeed Margery's older brother, John III, angrily wrote in one letter that their parents would never have consented to this union and that '[Richard] should never have his good will to make [his] sister sell candles and mustard…'.


The secrecy of this arrangement only served to compound the family's anger. Also as Richard was somewhat older than Margery some suggestions were made that his motives were not altogether wholesome and that he had used his position to take advantage of Margery. These aspersions however, would seem to have been cast more for tactical reasons. Such a conclusion is supported by the tone of the loving (if not at times gushingly romantic) correspondence conducted secretly between the two. The following is a sample from one such letter written by Richard (while on the run) to Margery:


My own lady and mistress, and before God my true wife, I with heart full sorrowful recommend me to you as one that cannot be merry nor shall be until it be otherwise with us than it is now; for this life that we lead now is no pleasure to God or to the world, considering the great bond of matrimony that is made between us, and also the great love that has been and I trust yet is between us, and on my part never greater.

Wherefore I beseech Almighty God to comfort us as soon as it pleases Him, for we that ought by right to be most together are most asunder; it seems a thousand years ago since I spoke with you. I had rather be with you than have all the goods in the world. Also, alas! good lady, they that keep us thus asunder remember full little what they do.


I marvel much that they should take this matter so hard as I understand they do, remembering that it is in such case as it cannot be remedied, and my deserts in every way are such that there should be no obstacle against it. . . . Mistress, I am afraid to write to you, for I understand you have showed my letters that I have sent you before this time; but I pray you let no creature see this letter. As soon as you have read it, let it be burnt, for I would no man should see it; you have had no writing from me this two years, and I will send you no more; Jesus preserve, keep, and give you your heart's desire, which I know well should be God's pleasure.
This letter was written with as great pain as ever a thing I wrote in my life, for in good faith I have been right sick, and yet am not verily well, God amend it.


Probably unsurprisingly the family dismissed Richard shortly after this situation came to light. However, they soon found they could scarcely do without him as he both ran their finances (using skills they did not possess - a situation not uncommon for people of a more noble bearing of this period) but had also taken deeds and legal documents with him when he went into hiding. These documents (and his skill in reading them) were required by the family to collect income and operate certain diverse and key holdings. While in a letter Richard vowed that he would not steal any money as a result of his actions, neither would he collect it, and so used his possession of these documents as an insurance policy of sorts against potential action that could be taken against him by the family. Because of this Richard was a man who could be dismissed but hardly one who could be dispensed with.


In an attempt to legally resolve this situation, as the vows that had been exchanged between Margery and Richard were secret, the family sought to have the marriage disputed. Church law (rather than state law - which was still quite limited) governed over this situation but was ambiguous. The family called upon the Bishop of Norwich to deliberate over whether the marriage was indeed legal or not, but rejected the possibility of an annulment.

During this process, despite being put under considerable pressure, Margery (who was staying with her family while Richard was on the run) consistently attested that vows had indeed been exchanged. While the issue of whether the marriage had been consummated was an issue to the family, ultimately the issue of the vows that had been spoken was of paramount legal importance. As a consequence of Margery's consistent testimony the bishop finally upheld the marriage.



Meanwhile, as if events concerning Margery and Richard were not dramatic enough, these events were occurring during the War of the Roses. This was a time when England was without a clear monarch and so law and order had begun to break down. While this did not affect the marriage dispute, as that was governed by Church law, it did effect the system of civil and criminal law in England as there was no ultimate authority to enforce this. Given this situation various nobles used the opportunity to assert their power through direct force rather than legal means to resolve disputes. As but one example of this the Paston family found itself embroiled in another struggle: The Siege of Caister.


Here the Paston family held a castle whose ownership was being disputed by the Duke of Norfolk - at the time held be John III Paston. In an attempt to take possession of the castle which Norfolk claimed, in August 1469 the Duke lay siege to it with an army of around 3000 (though this figure is likely exaggerated, probably by an order of 10) against 27 defenders. The fact that this few people could defend the castle reveals both it's defensibility and also Norfolk's desire to possess the castle as his own - thus preferring it intact - which would have caused him to show some restraint in conducting the siege.
Overall it would seem that any combat during the siege was more for the purposes of show of force to make a point to the Pastons than a sincere attempt to actually resolve events through military means. However, during the proceedings two footmen from Norfolk's force were slain by stray crossbow bolts as was one of the defenders.


A Fifteenth Century representation of battle.  

Locations of battles during the War of the Roses.





Due to the financial troubles the Pastons were facing at the time forces could not be raised to lift the siege forcing the family's hand. In late September terms for surrender were negotiated. As per the terms agreed the defenders were given safe conduct out of the castle but with only their personal baggage and horses. However, both the castle and its rich furnishings, having largely been bought at significant expense by members of the Paston family, went to Norfolk.

The ruins of Caister castle.

Finally, in October, King Henry VII was installed as monarch and law and order in England returned to normal. This raised the possibility that the Pastons could sue Norfolk for the improper seizing of Caister. This however, was pre-empted by Norfolk. He did so by supporting claims put forward by the widows of the two footmen slain in the siege who proceeded to sue the John III and the castle's defenders for their husband's deaths.


After both loosing the siege and the revenue which Richard Calle had refused to collect for them the family was in fairly serious financial difficulties. This was compounded by the lack of progress in this ongoing legal suit being carried out against them. The turning point was eventually reached, when the King returned the castle to the Paston's negating the purpose of the ongoing litigation against them which was now pursued no further.

It should be pointed out that the main reason for this outcome coming to be was that the Duke of Norfolk, a man by the name of John Howard (quite a common name at this time), was slain in the conflict that took place opposing the new king as he came to power. The former duke was survived by his son who, true to family tradition, was quite loyal to his current king and in no way opposed the decision.

King Henry VII of England
John Howard, Duke of Norfolk


Also, as the marriage had been upheld between Richard and Margery (and the family realised they needed him) Calle was reinstated, returning the family's finances to normal. However, despite the recognition of his marriage to Margery, Richard was never fully accepted as a member of the Paston family.



The account of events presented here is merely an overview of part of this family's history. It was prepared largely from Frances and Joseph Gies text 'A Medieval Family - The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England' which is recommended to anyone with a further interest in either the Paston family or life in this period of English history.


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