How to Divide a Family: Make a Will

Meet the contentious Paston family.
The Paston Treasure
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It has to be said that the Paston family was forced to into a permanent struggle against adversity in their ambition to rise from peasant to gentry.  Faced with the great magnates in Norfolk, the claims on their estates by men more powerful than themselves, it drove them to take up arms.  But conflict also came much closer to home.  A permanent thorn in the Paston flesh was the problem of family wills.

When Justice William Paston died in August 1444 he left a clear and legal distribution of his considerable property in his will.  His main concern was to bequeath most of the land into the hands of his heir John Paston, but at the same time provide for his younger children and his widow.  This would be fair to all, but would keep the main bulk of land intact.  A necessity if the Pastons were to make social progress.

The Paston Family Arms. Credit: Creative Commons

Justice William recognised that his widow Agnes should keep the land that was her jointure, and also her dower manors, as well as the properties inherited from her father.  His younger sons Edmund, William, and Clement would receive several named small manors whose income would provide for their education.  His daughter Elizabeth was to have 200 pounds for her future marriage, provided that her husband was of equal age, status, and could supply a jointure of land with an income of not less than 40 pounds a year.

What could go wrong?

Justice William’s widow declared that William had been dissatisfied with this arrangement and made last-minute changes to his will, by word of mouth only, when on his death bed, to which only she had been witness.  His purpose, Agnes declared, was to support his younger sons to a greater degree until they took employment, as well as give land to the church to buy perpetual Masses for his soul.  Thus, according to widow Agnes, Justice William  assigned a further number of manors to his younger sons, manors which would originally have been part of his heir John’s inheritance.

The reaction of John Paston was immediate and unsurprising.  He denied widow Agnes’ intervention.  He denied that Justice William would ever have weakened his inheritance through such division of his lands.  He would not accept his mother’s assertions.  He would abide by the letter of the written will, rejecting any death-bed change-of-mind.

And so he did.

Was this a peaceful settlement?

For the most part John’s siblings seem to have accepted his decision.  But not Widow Agnes and not the youngest brother William.  Throughout his life William believed that he had been cheated out of his whole inheritance and was determined to take some of the Paston acres for himself.  Nor was Agnes agreeable to what her eldest son had done, particularly over the fate of a ‘treasure’ of money and plate and jewels that Justice William had left in the Cathedral Priory of Norwich to guarantee his perpetual Masses.  John travelled promptly to the Priory and took the treasure for himself.  Predictably Agnes erupted in fury, but to no avail.

John kept all the disputed manors, he paid for the education of his brothers, but the death-bed-will nourished anger and resentment with Agnes and William for the rest of John’s life, and beyond.  When Agnes died, her jointure and dower properties should have been returned to the main Paston line of her grandson John II Paston.  Instead she was persuaded to leave it all to her son William to recompense him for his earlier loss.

The result? A descent into even deeper conflict over the Paston acres, some of which became physical, until it was all ironed out in a financial settlement between William and John III, which was not until the reign of King Henry VII.

Wills could be dangerous entities for a family with an eye to rising up through the ranks in society.  They can also bring exciting elements to The Royal Game, a novel of the Paston family.

Anne O’Brien is the Sunday Times bestseller, author of her latest book The Royal Game, and The Queen’s Rival.