Denise Angers

title.none: Kirby, ed., The Plumpton Letters (Angers)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.008 99.02.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Denise Angers, Universite de Montreal,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Kirby, Joan, ed. The Plumpton Letters and Papers. Camden Fifth Series, Vol 8. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. 378. ISBN: 0-521-57394-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.08

Kirby, Joan, ed. The Plumpton Letters and Papers. Camden Fifth Series, Vol 8. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. 378. ISBN: 0-521-57394-7.

Reviewed by:

Denise Angers
Universite de Montreal

No one is better qualified to offer a new edition of the Plumpton letters than Joan Kirby. She announced the forthcoming edition in her 1991 article on women in the family, and ever since it has been eagerly awaited by all those interested in the history of gentry families, and especially by scholars working on the fifteenth century. Principally addressed to Sir William Plumpton (1404-80) and to his son Robert (1453-1525) and essentially concerned with business matters, this correspondence covers the period of transition that marks the end of an era and the passage into another.

This edition includes 252 letters and other documents contained in 8 different collections assembled over the course of the first half of the seventeenth century : the Letter Book, the Coucher Book, five books of transcripts and abstracts of evidence and, finally, a volume containing other transcripts and letters, some of which are not contained in the Letter Book.

The most important among these collections and the focus of this edition is the Letter Book, owned by Sir Edward Plumpton (d.1654) and compiled between 1616 and 1626. This document contains 30 letters addressed to William Plumpton (1404-80), 176 letters to his son Robert (1453-1523) and 35 letters addressed to various recipients, including Agnes and Isabel (Robert's two wives), his son William and William's wife Isabel Babthorpe. The majority of the letters were written between 1480 and 1510, the oldest letter being written in 1433 and the most recent in 1535. Because the letters were compiled and transcribed by several different people, a number of inconsistencies are discernible. Nevertheless, they seem to be very close to the originals.

As for the Coucher Book, it comprises 1,000 separate documents, the oldest dating from 1346. The collection also includes 13 letters to William dating from the Court Rolls of 1440-1509, also transcribed in 1616. The originals have disappeared, leaving no indication as to how and why they were destroyed. Happily, the author has decided to add three appendices, two of which contain the essence of the Coucher Book, to his edition of the Letter Book. The first appendix provides transcripts of letters and other selected documents judged useful for understanding the Letter Book, while the second is a calendar of additional documents. The third appendix is prosopographic in nature, comprising numerous biographic notes which are useful, but unfortunately incomplete: some of the people named in the letters are not listed. Given that the Plumptons had a marked penchant for naming the children of each generation William and Robert, readers will appreciate the geneological table of the last generations of the Plumpton family which the author included at the beginning of the volume. There is only one small error which was overlooked: the wife of William Plumpton (d.1547), Isabel Babthorpe, was the daughter of Robert Babthorpe, and not of Ralph as indicated in the table. It was her cousin, also named Isabel, who was Ralph's daughter, the wife of Sir John Hastings.

Through their family charters, it is possible to trace the Plumpton family back to the twelfth century. They were a modest knightly family whose property was concentrated in Yorkshire. As a result of the marriage of Robert to Alice Foljambe, the family acquired lands in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, placing it among the first rank of country gentry. During the Hundred Years' War, William Plumpton accompanied the Duc of Bedford to France (1427-30) and was rewarded with the vicomté of Falaise in Normandy, but the family's political choices were not always so successful. At the end of the fifteenth century, Sir William's loyalty to the Percies and to the Lancastres and his hostility to the York clan brought him fines and imprisonment. Despite the variety of important positions he held -- Yorkshire representative to the Great Council of 1455 and Sheriff of Yorkshire and of Nottinghamshire -- he did not have sufficient influence to reach the level of power and riches which were the prerogative of other families like the Stanleys, the Cliffords or the Tiptofts. Nevertheless, the correspondence shows that William Plumpton's career in the judiciary progressed smoothly. His expertise was a precious asset in a world in which the survival and maintenance of family honour was often decided in the courts. Of course, judicial competence could also be bolstered by a network of well-placed lawyers, attorneys and supporters at Westminster. In this system, the Plumptons had their loyal allies: the Cliffords, the Darrells, the Middletons, and the Aldburghs. But the family experienced important financial difficulties. For the Plumptons, as for all the gentry of this period, the gap between expenditures and revenues was always minimal, resulting in a perpetual problem with liquidity and the threat of creditors who lay in wait for the smallest default. Although the Plumptons' property was managed with a sure hand, the danger became tangible in 1461 upon the death of the last son of William Plumpton's first marriage. At this point, his inheritants included only two granddaughters (the children of his oldest son) and Robert, William's son born of a second union which was long kept secret and of questionable legitimacy. The claim of the two girls to the inheritance was evident, but Sir William's concern over the continuation of his line along with financial considerations led him to disregard it. Robert was declared the heir before the Court through a procedure of enfeoffment of estates with reversion to his son. Sir William's duplicity towards his legitimate heirs put a strain on his estate and rendered it vulnerable to all manner of legal challenges. A long trial followed his death in 1480, one which would last until the sixteenth century and would be the ruin of the family. A decision splitting the estate seemed to have settled the affair, leaving Robert in possession of the Plumpton lands while the heirs retained the Midland lands. But even after this decision, Robert persisted. His lack of judgement, prudence and a sense of justice were his downfall. In the years which followed, he went to court to claim the entire Babthorpe estate, based on his son William's marriage to Isabelle Babthorpe, even though it rightfully belonged to Sir William Babthorpe (d. 1555), the heir of Robert Babthorpe's third son William (d.1500/01). These efforts bore no fruit. For their part, the Babthorpes initiated a protracted lawsuit to seize Robert's lands, a matter which would not be definitively settled until 1565. The majority of the letters from Robert's two wives, and from his first wife, Agnes, in particular are drawn from this period. It was she who had to administer the Plumpton's scattered estate while her husband was waging war in London's courts. Her surviving eight letters show us a reserved woman, but one who was determined to preserve the ancestral estate from the predators circling around the weakened family. Not wanting to displease her husband who was constantly asking for money, she wrote, "I pray you that ye be not miscontent that I sent it no sooner, for I haue made the hast that I could that was possible for me to do" (p.170). And yet she was not afraid to reproach him for his way of doing business:

I marvell greatly that I haue no word from you. Sir I marvell greatly that ye let the matter rest so long, & labors no better for your selfe . . . Sir, I besech you to remember your great cost & charges, & myne, and labor the matter that I myght haue an end. (p.172)

Clearly an intelligent woman, she was the type of wife that landowners needed: probably trained in estate management during her time as lady-in-waiting in a noble family, she was courageous and capable of defending the interests of her absent husband. Less numerous than the letters of the Paston wives, letters from the Plumpton wives nevertheless reveal the same courage and the same determination. Like other correspondences of its type, the Plumpton correspondence abounds in detail concerning the life of English gentry families of the Middle Ages. It illuminates both the economic and political difficulties which they confronted and the arduous conditions of their survival. It resonates with the conflicts created by Robert's vengeful and bellicose character. The appearance of this new and improved edition, which replaces T. Stapleton's 1839 version, can only be cause for celebration. The introduction furnishes the information necessary for understanding the content of the letters. Also included for readers interested in codicology is information concerning the original manuscripts.