Margaret Paston

An ordinary woman who led an extraordinary life

The Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, Mautby
The Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, Mautby, where Margaret Paston is buried. Photo by Evelyn Simak made available through the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

Margaret Paston (also known as Margaret Mautby Paston) is noted for her strength and fortitude as an English wife, who took on her husband's duties while he was away and held her family together through disastrous events.

Margaret Paston was born in 1423 to a prosperous landowner in Norfolk. She was chosen by William Paston, an even more prosperous landowner and lawyer, and his wife Agnes, as a suitable wife for their son John.

The young couple met for the first time in April, 1440, after the match had been arranged, and they were wed sometime before December, 1441. Margaret frequently managed her husband's properties when he was away and even faced armed forces who physically ejected her from the household. 

Her ordinary yet extraordinary life would be almost completely unknown to us but for the Paston Family Letters, a collection of documents that span more than 100 years in the lives of the Paston family. Margaret wrote 104 of the letters, and through these and the responses she received, we can easily gauge her standing in the family, her relationships with her in-laws, husband and children, and, of course, her state of mind. Events both catastrophic and mundane are also revealed in the letters, as is the Paston family's relationships with other families and their status in society.

Although the bride and groom had not made the choice, the marriage was apparently a happy one, as the letters clearly reveal:

"I pray you that you will wear the ring with the image of St. Margaret that I sent you for a remembrance till you come home. You have left me such a remembrance that makes me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep."

--Letter from Margaret to John, Dec. 14, 1441

The "remembrance" would be born sometime before April, and was only the first of seven children to live to adulthood -- another sign of, at the very least, enduring sexual attraction between Margaret and John.

But the bride and groom were frequently separated, as John went away on business and Margaret, quite literally, "held down the fort." This was not at all unusual, and for the historian it was somewhat fortuitous, as it afforded the couple opportunities to communicate by letters that would outlast their marriage by several centuries.

The first conflict that Margaret endured took place in 1448, when she took residence in the manor of Gresham. The property had been purchased by William Paston, but Lord Moleyns laid claim to it, and while John was away in London Moleyn's forces violently ejected Margaret, her men-at-arms and her household. The damage they did to the property was extensive, and John submitted a petition to the king (Henry VI) in order to get recompense; but Moleyns was too powerful and did not pay. The manor was ultimately restored in 1451.

Similar events took place in the 1460s when the Duke of Suffolk raided Hellesdon and the Duke of Norfolk besieged Caister Castle. Margaret's letters show her steely resolve, even as she entreats her family for assistance:

"I greet you well, letting you know that your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister, and lack vitual . . . and the place is sore broken by the guns of the other party; so that, unless they have hasty help, they are like to lose both their lives and the place, to the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman, for every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be so long in such great jeopardy without help or other remedy."

--Letter from Margaret to her son John, Sept. 12, 1469

Margaret's life was not all turmoil; she also involved herself, as was common, in the lives of her grown children. She mediated between her eldest and her husband when the two fell out:

"I understand . . . that you do not want your son to be taken into your house, nor helped by you . . . For God's sake, sir, have pity on him, and remember you it hath been a long season since he had anything of you to help him with, and he hath obeyed him to you, and will do at all times, and will do what he can or may to have your good fatherhood . . . "

--Letter from Margaret to John, April 8, 1465

She also opened negotiations for her second son (also named John) and several prospective brides, and when her daughter entered into an engagement without Margaret's knowledge, she threatened to put her out of the house.

(Both children were ultimately wed in apparently stable marriages.)

Margaret lost her husband in 1466, and how she may have reacted we can know little, since John had been her closest literary confidante. After 25 years of successful marriage, we can only assume how deep was her grief; but Margaret had shown her mettle in dire straits and was ready to endure for her family.

By the time she was sixty, Margaret began showing signs of serious illness, and in February, 1482, she was persuaded to make a will. Much of its content sees to the welfare of her soul and that of her family after her death; she left money to the Church for the saying of masses for herself and her husband, as well as instructions for her burial. But she was also generous to her family, and even made bequests to the servants.