Could Agnes Paston Write? The Problem of Letter 13.

Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440 (BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r)

Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440. (c) British Library Board: BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r.


The literacy of the Paston women has been widely discussed by critics in recent decades. The Paston correspondence of the fifteenth century is a unique archive, that includes the largest collection of letters by English women in the Middle Ages. Yet the most prolific of the letter writers, women or men, was Margaret Paston, who relied entirely on scribes (often family members or servants) in the production of her 104 surviving letters because she herself was almost certainly illiterate.

While it is generally agreed that Margaret Paston could not write, it has been recently suggested that perhaps her mother-in-law, Agnes Paston, could (see, for example, the recent British Library blog on the Paston Letters). The digitisation of the full collection of the letters by the British Library enables closer examination of the evidence.

The first of Agnes’ letters, written from Paston to her husband, William, on 20 April, probably in 1440, is a delightful letter, which has always captivated me (Davis 1, no. 13, which I will refer to as Letter 13 henceforth; BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r). The news it conveys is good – the young people whose marriage is being negotiated (their son John, and his future wife Margaret) liked one another immediately – and there is great charm in the way that Margaret’s behaviour is described, ‘she made hym gentil chere in gyntyl wyse and seyde he was verrayly yowre son’.


Letter from Agnes Paston to her husband, William Paston, Norfolk, 20 April 1440. (c) British Library Board: BL Additional MS 43488, f. 4r.

Letter 13 is also a pleasure to look at. The handwriting is absolutely neat, the lines evenly spaced and straight, as is the left hand margin. Diane Watt has made a strong case for its being Agnes Paston’s own work, citing the ending of the letter, ‘Wretyn at Paston in hast…for defaute of a good secretarye’ (Watt, 2004 p. 135). She further argues that, ‘in one draft of her will, [Agnes] explains that William 1 asked her to ‘‘reporte, record, and bere wyttnesse’’ (Davis 1, p. 46) to the changes he wanted to make’ to his will. Conceding that possibly ‘recorde’ could in this context mean oral rather than written testimony, she concludes that these pieces of evidence together support ‘the argument that Agnes could write’ (Watt, 2004, p. 136). If it is accepted that other women in the collection, such as Elisabeth Clere and Alice Crane, could and did write their own letters, then it is reasonable to claim that Agnes may have written hers.

It is also, however, necessary to examine the evidence against the proposition that this one letter is in Agnes’ own hand; it is generally agreed that Agnes’ other twelve letters were both written and signed by various scribes, seven in all.

The first argument against this letter being Agnes’ holograph is the sheer quality of the handwriting. The hand is very clear and legible, with neat and consistent letter-forms. The lines are straight and evenly spaced, with a well-defined left hand margin. The writer uses frequent diagonal ‘slashes’ for punctuation, and consistently uses well-formed capital letters for proper nouns – place names, such as ‘Redham’ (l. 2 of manuscript) and ‘Stocton’ (l. 4), and personal names, ‘John Paston’ (l. 2 and 3) and Agnes Paston (l. 8 and 9). Furthermore, the handwriting is consciously decorative, with all ascenders looped, most descenders either straight or slightly angled to the left, and many rather attractive, long and deeply curved left-sloping descenders on the frequently-used letter ‘y’. The general effect is charming. This is accomplished, practised penmanship. Davis describes the hand as ‘professional-looking’, suggesting that, in his view, it is the work of a scribe (Davis 1, p. 13). It is undoubtedly the work of someone who wrote frequently.

If we take as our ‘control group’ of female holograph writers in the Paston Letters, the two who exhibit neat, consistent handwriting, Elisabeth Clere and Alice Crane, were both, apparently, habitual letter-writers. All four of Elisabeth Clere’s surviving letters are almost certainly holograph, and there is written evidence that Alice Crane conducted her correspondence in her own hand.

Yet, if the hand of Letter 13 is Agnes’, we have no other surviving letters of hers, nor any reference to her letter-writing. One is tempted to ask, if Agnes did not even write her own letters – and it is generally agreed that her other twelve letters are not in her hand – what was she writing, to keep her penmanship so perfect?

Furthermore, it appears that John Paston 1 asked Agnes to get Elisabeth Clere to write a letter on her behalf, for Agnes replied, ‘touchyng the mater wheche ye desyryd my cosyn Clere shulde write fore, she hath doo, and I sende you the copy closed in this lettre’ (Davis 1, no. 25). If Agnes had possessed scribal ability of the standard of Letter 13, he would not have needed to request this, but would surely have asked Agnes to write the letter herself.

Also, it seems likely that Agnes, like Margaret, generally used whatever literate employee was available to write letters for her, for seven scribes write her other twelve letters. The scribe that Agnes uses to write six of her letters, nos. 19, 20, 21, 24, 28 and 29, has rather poor handwriting; it is neither attractive, nor particularly legible. If we accept that Letter 13 is hers, would she really have been happy to send so many letters out, written in a hand much inferior to her own?

Moreover, if Agnes could write a whole letter in such an accomplished hand, one has to ask why she did not sign any of her other letters. It could be argued that the situation of the surviving correspondence of another Paston connection, Dame Elizabeth Brews, is similar to that of Agnes, in that there appears to be one holograph letter, while the rest of her letters were all written by clerks, who also signed them. It is, however, easy to understand why Dame Elizabeth did not sign her letters, when one sees, from her holograph, the very poor standard of her handwriting. In Agnes’ case, if her handwriting was that of Letter 13, she could have had no such misgivings. Most of the men of the Paston family usually wrote and signed their own letters, but, according to Davis, ‘It is worth notice that when any of the men employed clerks to write the copies of their letters that were actually sent they nearly always signed them themselves’ (Davis 1, p. xxxvii). Why, if she had such good handwriting, would Agnes not have done the same?

In fact Letter 13 is also more accurate than most of the other women’s holographs. It has only one small cancellation in the second line of an otherwise perfect manuscript. There are none of the corrections, interlineations, ink-blots or over-heavy lines that are to be found in most of the holographs written by women. Letter 13 is the work of a very experienced, competent writer.

Some of the most powerful points of argument against Letter 13 being in Agnes’ own hand lie in Davis’ claim – based on an extraordinary act of scholarship – that, ‘the hand, though smaller, is certainly that of the writer of the beginning of no. 6’ (Davis 1, p. 13).

Close study of the letter-forms in both manuscripts show Davis to be right; both manuscripts were written by the same person. Letter 6 is a long letter of 10 ½ manuscript lines, that is 20 ½ lines in Davis’ transcript, on a matter of business, which has nothing to do with the Paston family itself, but concerns some problems of the monks at Bromholm Priory.   The letter, written from William Paston to the Vicar of the Abbot of Cluny, the Abbot’s representative in England, complains that the monks of Bromholm have no one to hear their vows, so cannot be ‘professed’. He asks the Vicar to authorise the Prior of Thetford Priory, another Cluniac house, to hear their ‘profession’. Most of the letter is written in the neat hand of Letter 13, leading Davis to comment that Letter 6, ‘seems to have been begun as a fair copy, for the first ten and a half manuscript lines are carefully written in a professional-looking hand, with a wide margin’ (Davis 1, p. 13). William himself finished it, writing the final three and a half lines, and he signed it.

After adding a number of interlineations and corrections, William, for whatever reason, decided not to send it – it has no seal or address – and it was then used , according to Davis, ‘as scribbling paper, and contains a variety of notes mostly in Latin or French. Those on the verso (this side) are in Paston’s hand, some of them written between the lines of the draft but upside down’ (Davis 1, p. 13). One of these ‘scribbles’, written in William’s hand, upside down, between the lines of the original letter, is a recipe, apparently given to him by ‘Sibill Boys’, on how to keep ale fresh! (Davis 1, no. 7). Only three and a half lines of the original letter stand clear above the later ‘scribblings’, making Davis’ identification of the hand impressive. The place for the date at the end of the letter was left blank, but William’s scribbled notes were dated in three places, and Davis writes, ‘The concurrence of these dates makes 1430 the probable date of the draft’ (Davis 1, p. 13), so some ten years earlier than Letter 13.

There are a number of features of this letter which make it highly unlikely that it is in Agnes Paston’s hand. Firstly, there are many examples in the Paston Letters of a man writing a letter for a woman, but not one single example of a woman writing for a man. Moreover, a male ‘scribe’, be he an employee or a son, was generally of inferior status to the man or woman for whom he was writing. Agnes, however, was an heiress, who brought three estates to her marriage; though she was a woman, she was not of inferior status to William. In the modern period it may not have been uncommon for a woman to act as her husband’s secretary, but it is completely unprecedented to find a medieval gentlewoman acting in this way. Besides, not only is Letter 6 very long, but it is on a matter which does not concern Agnes at all. It seems very unlikely that the fifty two year old William Paston would have requested that his thirty year old wife – who had at least four children under the age of ten, the youngest, Elizabeth, being still a baby – write a long business letter on his behalf. If he had done so, surely he would not then have discarded it and used it as scrap paper for jotting down recipes.

One interesting idea that the subject matter of Letter 6 suggests, is a possible alternative identity for the writer of both Letters 6 and 13 – though this is surmise. William Paston, in Letter 6, describes Bromholm Priory as being, ‘in my cuntre, but a myle fro þe place where I was born’; I, myself, have, one afternoon, walked from Paston to Bromholm and back. It is possible that a member of the Bromholm community walked to Paston to ask William’s legal advice and help in drafting this difficult letter, and that the man himself, perhaps a monk or a priest, actually wrote it. If one of this man’s duties at the priory was copying holy books, it would explain the high quality of the penmanship, its clarity and consciously decorative appearance.

Bromholm Priory

The Ruins of Bromholm Priory. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the same churchman, by now well known to all the Paston family, was invited to their house again ten years later, to witness, in William’s absence, the important first meeting of their son with his prospective bride. Might he not have offered to write an account of the happy occasion for Agnes?   Might he not, seriously or jokingly, have ended his letter, ‘for defaute of a good secretarye’ – for William certainly knew his hand.

Though the phrase ‘for defaute of a good secretarye’ could be taken to indicate that the letter is in Agnes’ hand, it is not unequivocal; it is ambiguous, and might imply that Letter 13 is the work of a friend, a relation or a churchman, rather than the letter’s author, Agnes herself.


A note on the printed edition of the letters

Parts I and II of Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, edited by Norman Davis, were originally published by the Clarendon Press in 1971 and 1976, and were reissued with corrections by EETS in 2004. The letters have been made available online as part of the University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Verse and Prose.