In the fifteenth century, England was torn apart by the Wars of the Roses. Between 1455 and 1485, four kings lost their crowns, more than forty nobles lost their lives, and thousands of those who fought on both sides met a violent death. Meanwhile in Norfolk the members of the Paston family were writing letters. They were a family who rose rapidly up the social scale from Clement, being a good plain husbandman in 1378, to John III the King’s trusty and well-beloved knight, invited by Henry VII to the marriage of his heir Arthur to Catherine of Aragon.
This is St Margaret’s Church in Paston, Norfolk, where many of the family are buried.
So what did this ordinary yet remarkable family write about? The conflict of course, particularly their dispute with the Duke of Norfolk over the ownership of Caister Castle which ended in a full-blown siege. But they also wrote about politics, business, shopping and love, chattering endlessly over the decades, one member of the family to another. And one of these letters is believed to be the oldest Valentine.
For this we have to thank John Paston III and Margery Bews.
In 1476, John III was thirty three years old and unmarried and was desperate enough for a wife to ask his brother to keep an eye out for ‘an old thrifty alewife’ for him. Not the stuff of romance.
But early in 1477 he met Margery Bews, a girl probably in her late teens, daughter of a Norfolk knight. She was not an heiress, but the family was well thought of and John fell passionately in love with her. And she with him.
The marriage seemed doomed to failure because of bitter disputes over the size of Margery’s dowry – she had three sisters whom her father must also provide for - but their love held true. During their prologued betrothal, Margery wrote to John, addressing him as her ‘right well-beloved Valentine.’ She pleaded with him not to leave her because of the dowry difficulties.
‘If you love me, as I trust verily you do, you will not leave me therefore. My heart bids me ever more to love you, truly over all earthly thing.’
Then Margery added her initials in the shape of a heart.
They wed eventually and it seems lived happily ever after. They had three children. From their letters it would appear that their love lost none of its romance. Margery sometimes wrote to John as ‘Right Reverend and Worshipful Sir’ but on other occasions as ‘mine own sweetheart.’ Even when the letters were full of the detail of ordinary life and for the most part very decorous, the post script often was not.
‘Sir, I pray you, if you tarry long in London that it will please you to send for me for I think (it) long since I lay in you arms.’
This is the John Paston who was invited to the royal wedding. Sadly Margery did not live to enjoy the occasion for she had died in 1495.
This is Caister Castle , the fifteenth century moated manor house with took the family into war against the forces of the Duke of Norfolk. The Pastons were successful in keeping it in the family.
What a remarkable resource the Paston letters are to medieval historians. and what a miracle that so many of them have survived. Five hundred years on, the voices of this stalwart family still ring out loud and clear. And how good to know that love blossomed for John and Margery even in the years of upheaval and death.
Author of The Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant/Devil’s Consort.
The Kings Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers, will be released in May/June 2012.