MP of the Month: Geoffrey Paynell, accusations of incest and the fall of the house of Paynell

For March’s medieval MP of the month we hear about Geoffrey Paynell and accusations of incest amid the family’s land dispute in fifteenth century Lincolnshire, brought to you by Senior Research Fellow, Dr Simon Payling of the House of Commons 1422-1504 project.

THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information,  visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.

The human stories behind the lives of medieval MPs are generally hidden, unrevealed in the dryness and formality of the surviving records. This limitation endows with a particular interest the echoes of real events preserved in family ‘myth’, The Tudor antiquary, John Leland, narrated several of these traditions in his Itinerary, written in the 1530s.  Most related to accounts of family origins, some plausible, some manifestly not so, but others have a more unusual air, and one of these relates to Geoffrey Paynell, MP for Rutland in the Parliament of March 1416 and for Lincolnshire in 1432.  In many ways he was an MP of a common type.  A younger son of a knightly family, he had a long administrative career in the service of the great, most notably in that of Henry IV’s queen, Joan of Navarre. The interest of his career, however, lies in his involvement in a remarkable family quarrel. Leland gives a highly coloured account of its circumstances. He describes the Paynells as ‘welle conservid’ until about the time of Henry V when,

John Paynelle the farther and John his sunne, booth knighttes and great lechers, began to decline; for John the father began to selle, and John the sunne begot abhominably a doughter of his owne doughter: and John the father apon this sold al the lande, and John the sunne dyid afore the father, and yong John’s daughter fled to other partes of England for shame, and at the last maried one Dines, a wever, by whom she had childern … Olde Sir John Paynelle had a secunde sunne caullid Geffrey, servant to the Quene of England, and yn good estimation. Wherapon thinkking his broder doughter dede, he made so importune sute, that at the laste he founde meanes by the king, that the Duk of Bedford was content that Geffrey should by of hym al such landes as Sir John Paynelle the father had sold onto hym, the which was the beste peace of the lande. But aboute the tyme that Geffrey had payid for the lande cam Dyne’s wife, doughter to yong Sir John Panelle, [and claimed the lands which ‘at the last’ by ‘composition’ were divided between them].

The Norman manor house at Boothby Pagnell by Stefan Czapski

Since Leland’s informant was Geoffrey’s descendant, Richard Paynell of Boothby Pagnell, this improbable story, at least in some of its aspects, has to be treated seriously. Contemporary sources suggest that it is an inventive elaboration upon a curious hiatus in the family history. A case in the consistory court of Philip Repingdon, bishop of Lincoln, shows that the difficulties to which Leland inaccurately refers arose out of Sir John’s second marriage, when over 70 years old, to one Christine Ashby. This marriage was very unwelcome to his sons, and Geoffrey took measures to limit the damage it might inflict on the family. He attempted to bring about a divorce by accusing Christine of a prior sexual affair with his clerical brother, Master William Paynell, an allegation that may be the origin of Leland’s embellishment of an incestuous birth within the family. Whether Master William was a willing collaborator in this tactic does not appear, but, in any event, it failed. In January 1418 Bishop Repingdon accepted Christine’s declaration of innocence on this charge of fornication.

The narrative’s reference to the part of Henry V’s brother, John, duke of Bedford, in the dispute can be more directly demonstrated from the contemporary record, although again it did not take the form described by Leland.  In the early 1420s Sir John conveyed his entire estate to the duke, not as a purchaser but as a trustee for the protection of the life interest he intended to bestow on Christine.  On Sir John’s death in about 1424, Bedford took the trust seriously, and prevented Sir John’s grandson and heir, yet another John, recovering the lands against her. Geoffrey no doubt viewed these developments unhappily, frustrated that the widow had the best of her dispute with his nephew, but he was soon to acquire an interest that gave him a different perspective.

John died in the late 1420s to be succeeded by a son, Thomas, who died childless in about 1431. Thomas’s sister, Margaret, was now the common law heiress to the Paynell estates. By this date she was married to John Dene, whom Leland inaccurately describes as ‘one Dines, a wever’. His precise identity is unknown, but it is likely that he came from a minor gentry family. The lines of the dispute over the Paynell lands were now redrawn, for Geoffrey, now the family’s heir male, saw an opportunity to secure the lands against his great-niece. He cannot have believed her dead, as Leland romantically has it, for he appears with her in a transaction of 1432 unrelated to the disputed lands.  Rather he seems to have exploited Christine’s loss of a powerful protector with Bedford’s death in the autumn of 1435 to force an unfavourable settlement on both Christine and the heiress.  The later descent of the Paynell inheritance leaves no doubt that he established title to the manor of Boothby Paynell, Leland’s ‘the beste peace of the lande’.

Whatever the real story behind Geoffrey’s acquisition of Boothby Paynell, it is noteworthy that Leland’s informant should have believed, or professed to believe, that it came about in circumstances so discreditable to the family reputation.  Indeed, it is a curiosity of Leland’s family tales that his informants were keener to romanticize than to aggrandize their family’s past.


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