Later this month a memorial stone will be unveiled in a picturesque English churchyard to one of the most important figures in the history of women’s literature, more than five centuries after she passed away.
Mautby church, near Great Yarmouth, will play host to the ceremony, which will take place on July 27th – it will see a new memorial dedicated to Margaret Paston placed near to the site of her original medieval tomb.
Margaret Paston was born Margaret de Mauteby, the daughter of a locally important family that had connections all across eastern Norfolk. She was the daughter of John de Mauteby and married John Paston, an aspiring lawyer and landowner, in 1440. The couple had numerous children and grandchildren, and the family went on to become one of the most important and influential in East Anglian history. However, Margaret holds a key place in British history not for her actions, but for her letter writing skills.
Margaret was one of the key authors of the now famous Paston Letters; the most complete set of medieval family correspondence to have survived, which are now mainly kept in the British Library. The letters chart the family’s many triumphs, trials and misfortunes during the turbulent period known today as the Wars of the Roses, and offer a unique insight into daily life in the late Middle Ages. Amongst many of the now famous letters are a large number written or dictated by Margaret herself, as she dealt with all aspects of the affairs of her growing family.
Many of the letters written by Margaret now have iconic status amongst medieval historians. Offering as they do a firsthand insight into otherwise little known events that have escaped the wider written records, it is Margaret’s own character and determination that has attracted interest as much as the events she relates. In 1448 Margaret and a few members of her household found themselves under virtual siege at their fortified manor house of Gresham, near Holt. Expecting to be attacked at any moment Margaret wrote to her husband John Paston, asking that he send immediate supplies to help defend their house. The now famous letter requests that he buy crossbows, ammunition for the crossbows, armour for their servants, pole-axes to defend themselves, and then adds as an afterthought a request that he also buy a pound of sugar and a pound of almonds – making it one of the most unusual shopping lists in British history.
When she wrote her will in 1482 Margaret stipulated that she was to be buried in the south aisle of Mautby church, where many of her ancestors had previously been laid to rest. She also gave very clear instructions as to what her own tomb was to look like, and the heraldry that it would display. Sadly the south aisle of Mautby church was demolished in the eighteenth century, having fallen into disrepair, and Margaret’s tomb was lost with it. Today, despite the countless books written about her and her family, there is no monument or memorial to Margaret.
This Norfolk Day (July 27th) will see the dedication of a new memorial to Margaret Paston, created as part of the Paston Heritage Society and University of East Anglia’s collaborative Paston Footprints project. The inscribed marble monument will be placed close to the spot where Margaret’s tomb was once located, and act as a permanent memorial to the life of this extraordinary woman in her home parish of Mautby.
“Margaret is a key figure in East Anglia’s medieval history”, states Dr Rob Knee of the Paston Heritage Society, “and it is her voice that comes through so strongly in many of the Paston letters. We hear of the events that the family lived through first hand, with Margaret’s own voice lending them a clarity and personal flavour that can never be found in the more formal chronicles. Above all”, concludes Dr Knee, “Margaret’s letters have the ability to change how we view the late Middle Ages. It wasn’t just a time of great battles and political intrigue, but also the small-scale cares and worries of a real and everyday family. Margaret’s letters truly do bring those times to life.”
The dedication of the memorial stone will take place at 2pm on July 27th at St Peter & St Paul’s church, Mautby, near Great Yarmouth. The short ceremony will be conducted by the Revd. Sue Hemsley Halls and attended by the churchwardens, and representatives of the local community and the Paston Footprints Project. All are welcome to attend.