The spellbinding new historical novel from the Sunday Times bestseller Anne O’Brien.
England, 1444. Three women challenge the course of history…
King Henry VI’s grip on the crown hangs by a thread as the Wars of the Roses starts to tear England apart. And from the ashes of war, the House of Paston begins its rise to power.
Led by three visionary women, the Pastons are a family from humble peasant beginnings who rely upon cunning, raw ambition, and good fortune in order to survive.
Their ability to plot and scheme sees them overcome imprisonment, violence and betrayal, to eventually secure for their family a castle and a place at the heart of the Yorkist Court. But success breeds jealousy and brings them dangerous enemies…
An inspirational story of courage and resilience, The Royal Game, charts the rise of three remarkable women from obscurity to the very heart of Court politics and intrigue.
Who were the Pastons?
What encouraged me to write about the Paston Family
In The Royal Game?
By Anne O'Brien
The Pastons were to be found living in Norfolk in the Middle Ages. They wrote letters to each other, both the men and, even more importantly, the women. How fortunate we are that so much of this correspondence, full of detail on family dispute, of litigation and legal battles, hints of love and tragedy, as well as the minutiae of everyday life, was kept almost intact and can be read today.
What was it that appealed to me about the Paston family? The Paston men are interesting characters. They capture the imagination in the legal world of the Inns of Court, fighting for their inheritance, seeking powerful patrons at the royal Court, taking one step after another on the ladder to social advancement. Ambition was stamped through the marrow of their bones. All fascinating stuff since the characters of the Paston men shine through their writings. But it was the Paston women who intrigued me most. What a remarkable group of women they were, highlighted through their letters. In them we see the full range of emotions and problems facing a medieval family from the middle social rank.
These female voices, I decided, should be heard loud and clear from distant medieval Norfolk. And what better way to discover the Paston men than through the eyes of the women in their lives. For good or ill. Often it has to be said for ill.
Here is a story of a family on the rise over a hundred years, from bondsmen to gentry. Through education. Through the manipulation of the law. Through clever and often cunning dealings. And all in spite of their disputes, their family squabbles, the lurking great magnates - such as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk - who could afford an army and would snatch their land away at the first opportunity. It is also a story of survival. It was as easy for such families to fall into total obscurity as it was for them to rise successfully. But here is a remarkably resilient family.
The Royal Game is the Paston story from the point of view of three women, written in the first person, who open a window for us into the life of a vibrant family in the fifteenth century. What a remarkable group of women they were, living lives of success and tragedy, of love and the pain of loss.
Interestingly many of the Paston wives were far better born than their husbands; both Agnes and Margaret, the main characters at the beginning of the 15th century, were heiresses in their own right. Agnes, daughter of a knight and his heiress. Margaret, the wealthy Mautby heiress. Margery Brews who married into the next Paston generation, came from another knightly family although her dowry was disappointingly small. While Anne Haute, who almost managed to become a Paston, was cousin to the Woodville Queen herself. The Paston men married well, and their wives all proved to be women with a strong sense of their own worth.
What more can we say about them? There is much to be said. They were not shrinking violets in their medieval setting.
Agnes: Sharp, combative, ambitious for herself and her family. A woman unwilling to give ground in any legal contest, even when she was in the wrong. Whether it was the matter of a will or a contentious wall between church and manor. A woman often without compassion, with a hard hand, more tolerant of her sons than of her daughter.
Margaret: the keystone, the matriarch, keeping a tight rein on husband, sons and servants. A woman with a will of iron, who did not willingly hand over the reins until the day of her death. A woman who could efficiently multi-task, in modern jargon. Letters sent to husband John in London dealing with business or complaint frequently had a shopping list tacked on to the end for clothes and household necessities. A woman of enormous courage even when under physical attack. Of the letters remaining in the cache, 104 of them were written or dictated by Margaret.
Elizabeth: Margaret's sister in law, a sad pawn in the marriage stakes, whose search for a husband was marked with cruelty and grief, until chance took a hand and dealt her some much deserved happiness. But not for long. Elizabeth lost two husbands to battle or execution. Yet even then she showed true Paston fortitude to fight for her children's inheritance.
Margery Brews: her Paston marriage was almost undermined by her lack of a dowry and jointure. She was not one to give up against superior odds but urged her much-desired husband not to abandon her because of the complexities of a marriage settlement. She made it very clear where her heart lay and what she wanted. Very forthcoming for a medieval young woman!
Anne Haute: cousin of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodville), who saw the value of becoming a Paston bride, enthralled by the ambitious and charismatic Sir John Paston, just as he seems to have been enthralled by her, at least in the beginning. Could she entrap his interest and win his hand in marriage? She might have royal connections but she became a victim of Sir John's unwillingness to commit to private marriage vows. In the end she experienced the pain and grief of being abandoned by her lover.
And then there are the men in the Paston story:
Clement: a bondsman of no social status who owned no land, farming as a tenant.
Justice William: his son, husband of Agnes, who used his skill and education to rise to the rank of Judge to put the Pastons on the Norfolk map.
John, his son, husband of Margaret: who also found his metier in the law, dedicating his life to building up the Paston acres and wealth.
William Paston: John's brother, another able lawyer, who believed that he had been robbed of his rightful inheritance from his father's will. This soured William's relationship with his family as he made any claim he could against the main Paston line of land ownership. It needed a hard financial compromise to put matters right after years of conflict.
Elder John: John's son: flamboyant, ambitious, a courtier through and through, whose main youthful interest was the tournament and flirtations with attractive women at the Court of King Edward IV. Yet he never lost sight of the need to defend his family against those who would bring the Pastons down.
Young John: another of John's sons. A young man who found it difficult to discover the woman he would consider taking as his wife, but when he did it was a true love match. Young John and Margery Brews gave the family such status that they were invited to the marriage of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
This is a tale of social climbing. Of female household management, of driving ambition, of love affairs gone heartbreakingly wrong, and marriages that became perfectly right. Then there was the endless battle over land-ownership, to secure for the Pastons their inheritance from Sir John Fastolf, the jewel in the Paston crown, Caister Castle.
Caister Castle - Wikipedia
In the background, the Wars of the Roses rumbled on, where a change of King could mean success or failure for the Pastons, forcing them to decide which side to support for their best interests, Lancaster or York. When their patron the Earl of Oxford demanded that they fight with him at the Battle of Barnet, their place on the losing side threatened them with treason and the confiscation of their land. Could they survive such a predicament?
How could I resist writing about them, a perfect example of a medieval family with an eye to the future? I could not resist. Abandoning my usual female heroines from the Court and the Royals, I enjoyed a year of writing in lockdown with the women of this family from Norwich.
Margaret Mautby Paston's comments superbly sum up her approach to life. She was a true business woman.
'Kepe Wysly Youre Wrytyngys.'
'The reason I write to you in haste is to have an answer from you in haste.'
‘I shall send yw money to by such stufe as I wull haue’
A Tale of Courage and Resilience. Of Power and Danger. Meet the Fabulous Pastons in The Royal Game.
Anne was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. After gaining a B.A. Honours degree in History at Manchester University, a PGCE at Leeds University and a Masters degree in education at Hull University, she lived in the East Riding as a teacher of history. Always a prolific reader, she enjoyed historical fiction and was encouraged to try her hand at writing. Success in short story competitions spurred her on.
Leaving teaching – but not her love of history – she wrote her first historical romance, a Regency, which was published in 2005. This was followed by nine historical romances and a novella, ranging from medieval, through the Civil War and Restoration and back to Regency, all of which have been published internationally.
Since then Anne has sidestepped historical romances to write about the silent women of medieval history. As Virginia Wolfe once said: ‘For most of History, Anonymous was a Woman.’ For this reason, she decided to shake the cobwebs from some of these medieval women of interest and allow them to take the stage, three-dimensional and with much to say.
Here they are. And what a remarkable group of women who deserve to be given a voice:
Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, a pawn in the game of marriage and power-brokering, but from a family not notable for its silence. Alice Perrers, ambitiously scheming mistress of King Edward III, but also a smart business-woman. Katherine de Valois, a naive political bride for Henry V who managed to snatch some happiness when she found the strength to take Owen Tudor into her tragic life. Katherine Swynford whose liaison with John of Gaunt was not a light-hearted love affair, but a scandal of sinful proportions.
Then there is Elizabeth of Lancaster, dragged into the depths of treason by her marriage to John Holland, thus her husband set in conflict against her brother the King. Joan of Kent, notable for her clandestine marriages, but worthy of so much more in the manipulation of power. Elizabeth Mortimer, forceful wife of the infamous Hotspur. Invisible Queen Joanna of England and treacherous Constance of York, both women of some reputation. Cecily Neville, doyenne of the Wars of the Roses, must of course take a bow upon the stage.
Her new novel for September 2021 concerns the remarkable women of the Paston family who allowed us to see so much of their lives and their menfolk through their letters.
Anne now lives with her husband in an eighteenth century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, a wild, beautiful place on the borders between England and Wales, renowned for its black and white timbered houses, ruined castles and priories and magnificent churches. Steeped in history, famous people and bloody deeds as well as ghosts and folk lore, it has given her inspiration for her writing. Since living there she has become hooked on medieval history.
Sometimes she escapes from writing. She enjoys her garden, a large, rambling area where she grows vegetables and soft fruit as well as keeping control over herbaceous flower borders, a wild garden, a small orchard and a formal pond. With an interest in herbs and their uses, Anne has a herb patch constructed on the pattern of a Tudor knot garden and enjoys cooking with the proceeds. Gardening is a perfect time for her to mull over what she’s been writing, as she wages war on the weeds.