Late-medieval England is fortunate in the number of family letter and paper collections that still survive. The best known of these collections are the redoubtable Pastons, whose extensive correspondence give historians a sense of vivid personalities, naked ambition, political maneuvering and high-stakes litigation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Less well-known are the Stonors, a gentry family, whose landed estates centered in the Thames Valley, and whose considerable archive of letters, accounts, deeds, wills and other documents spans the late thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. While quite varied in the range of documents that make up this family archive, the Stonor papers contain fewer actual letters so their personalities are less forcefully presented than in the Pastons letters. Those letters that do survive reveal less vaunted political connections than are found in the Lisles letters. The Stonors papers survive because the Crown confiscated them when William Stonor was attainted in 1483. They have been available in print since the beginning of the twentieth century, and were reissued with minor corrections and updates in 1996.  Given their availability, it is perhaps surprising they have garnered relatively little attention, with Eileen Power's profile of Thomas Betson, a London wool merchant and business partner to the Stonors in her collection Medieval People as perhaps the notable exception.  Elizabeth Noble's study The World of the Stonors , therefore, does great service is bringing attention to this family and their remarkable archive.
Noble's study places the Stonors firmly within the context of English gentry studies, among whom, the Stonors are more familiar. Christine Carpenter's injunction that the three things that mattered most to the gentry were land, lineage, and lordship guides Noble's organization and analysis of the Stonor papers. After an extensive introduction, which outlines the various debates surrounding the English gentry in the late middle ages, Noble provides in Chapter One a family biography that starts with Judge John Stonor. He became a sergeant at law around 1313, a Justice of the Common Pleas in 1320, and finally Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1329. Subsequent generation of Stonors followed his civil rather than military career path, and while several family members, including Judge John were knighted, this was a gentry family who did not come to prominence and wealth as a result of military service. What is notable about the family biography is how often the head of the family died, leaving a minor heir. In the eight generations of Stonors, five heirs were minors when they inherited. With land held from the king, this meant royal wardships were a feature of this family's history, with all the advantages and liabilities they offered. It is also notable that this family was able to pass on the inheritance from father to son for eight generations, when historians estimate that during this same period a quarter to a third of elite and middling families died out in the male line.
Noble addresses her three main topics in the remaining five chapters. In Chapter Two she focuses on the meaning of lineage to the Stonors, arguing that through a variety of media, such as coats-of-arms, funerals, the family manor house in Stonor, Oxfordshire and its heirlooms, and in its letters and papers the family promoted itself and its antiquity. Lineage and family were important concepts that shaped family interactions and public displays. In Chapter Three, Noble outlines the family's land holdings. They were centered on the manor of Stonor, but the family had holdings in eight counties and London. While individual pieces were added and sold off over the course of eight generations, the bulk of the family's holding remained intact. Noble explains that although their annual income is difficult to gauge accurately, the family managed its holdings well, deriving income from a variety of sources, including the growing wool trade after the Black Death. Moreover, the family seems to have weathered the economic crisis following the plague.
In the last three chapters, Noble takes on the considerable topics of lordship and affinity. Chapter Four addresses the Stonors' lords. Noble argues that over the course of eight generations, there was little continuity of their lords. By the 1370s geography was clearly a factor, with the Stonors seeking protection and association with powerful families in the Thames Valley. Yet, political considerations were also at issue as the Stonors attached themselves to Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet, during the minority of Thomas I in the 1390s. Chapter Five looks at the Stonors' social networks from the early fourteenth century to 1440s and Chapter Six the social networks from the 1440s to the end of the century, the best documented period. As with those who had lordship over the Stonors, region was important for the networks the Stonors forged. In the early period, the Stonor affinity centered on the honor of Wallingford, but this became less important in the later period, when family and kin ties grew more prominent. Family ties, even distant ones made for a flexible, never fixed social world that moved up and down the social spectrum. This greater reliance on kin, Noble argues was more the result of demography than changing values or even increased survival of correspondence. Second marriages by various Stonor men and women had created a wide network of full and half blood kinship ties.
Noble's careful study of lordship and affinities relies on prosopographical analysis of the various names found in the Stonors' correspondence and other papers. She traces the feoffees to Stonor property and the witnesses, beneficiaries, and administrators of Stonor deeds, accounts, and wills. In this way she situates the Stonors in the debates about the origins of the English gentry and the nature of gentry life. The Stonors were not a military family, and their world extended beyond the confines of a single county, although county offices, such as sheriff and Parliamentary representative remained important sources of local influence. While not at the center of royal politics, the Stonors were not removed from the events of their day either. Edmund I was a collector of the poll tax in 1379 and 1380 and on the commission to put down the revolt in December of 1381. William Stonor fell afoul of royal politics during the reign of Richard III. William had been in the service of Edward IV, and took part in Buckingham's rebellion in 1483, for which he was attainted and probably went into exile in Brittany until the accession of Henry VII. In tracing these issues, Noble takes issue with Carpenter's assertion that the Stonors constituted a "typical" gentry family. Noble argues that the Stonors' longevity of status and residence and their "abundance of the qualifications for 'gentriness'" disqualify them from the description of "typical gentry family" (193). Their experiences to a great degree set up the criteria for Carpenter's historical understanding of the gentry. Yet Noble's study of the Stonors, will allow future scholarship on less well-documented gentry families to proceed on surer footing with respect to issues of origin, local authority, and patronage.
By treating the family as a whole, Noble is able to explore the changing nuances of the Stonors' fortunes, and give deep context to the often oblique papers contained in this family archive. Her tight focus on land, lineage, and lordship and her reliance on prosopography to illuminate their role in the Stonors' lives means that readers need to be familiar with the names and places of late-medieval English politics. Noble spends little time on the issues of daily life, social history, or economics, topics to which these letters would also lend themselves. We never do gain a sense of the personalities behind these papers. This is the result of the nature of the family archive as much as it is Noble's desire to explore the mentality and meaning behind the issues critical to the study of the gentry, rather than the issues of family drama that are so present in the Pastons' letters.
1. C.L. Kingsford, ed., The Stonor Letters and Papers, 1290- 1483 , 2 vols., Camden Society, 3rd series, vols. 29, 30 (London: 1919-24); "Supplementary Stonor Letters and Papers, 1314-1482," in Camden Society Miscellany , vol. 13, Camden Society, 3rd series, vol. 34 (London: 1924), pp. i-vii; 1-26; Christine Carpenter, ed., Kingsford's Stonor Letters and Papers, 1290-1483 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1996).
2. Eileen Power, "Thomas Betson: A Merchant of the Staple in the Fifteenth Century," in Medieval People (NY: Harper and Row, 1963), 120-151 (originally published 1924 by Methuen).