When William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was murdered in 1450, he left behind a son, John de la Pole. He also left behind an illegitimate daughter: Jane, who married Thomas Stonor.
Jane has the unfortunate distinction of having her conception discussed in Parliament. In 1450, England’s losses in France had made Suffolk the most hated man in the realm, and he was impeached in January of that year. In response to his answer to the charges against him, his accusers prepared a reply, which survives in a damaged form. Apparently referring to Suffolk’s mention of his record of service in France and his capture at Jargeau in 1429, the reply in modernized English states, “The night before he was captured, he lay in bed with a nun whom he took out of her holy orders and defiled [“defouled”]. Her name was Malyne de Cay, by whom he had a daughter who is now married to Stonor of Oxfordshire.”
Genealogically, this account of Jane is corroborated. Jane was naturalized on May 11 1453; the Patent Rolls entry to this effect states that she had been born in Normandy. The 1574 Heralds’ Visitation of Oxfordshire describes Jane (also called Joan) as Suffolk’s natural daughter. But did Suffolk, who was 32 and unmarried at the time of his capture at Jargeau, really defile a nun? The men who made this accusation were immensely hostile toward Suffolk, whom they went on to accuse of collusion with the French and of impoverishing Henry VI, and that should be borne in mind when evaluating the truth of the story. (“Who but antichrist could turn the truth upside down? . . . Is it not true that Judas kissed his master?” Suffolk’s accusers ask with rhetorical flourish.) On the other hand, it’s not implausible that Suffolk could have had an affair with a nun, perhaps a woman who had entered the convent at the insistence of her family rather than through any religious vocation. What does seem unlikely is that the relationship was nonconsensual. Not even Suffolk’s accusers went so far as to accuse him of rape; the word “defouled” could encompass consensual sex. It is also hard to believe that a man who would rape a nun would take the trouble to bring the resulting daughter to England and arrange a respectable marriage for her, as Suffolk did for Jane.
Thomas, the husband provided for Jane, was born in 1424. He had been the ward of Thomas Chaucer, son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Thomas’s only child was his daughter, Alice, a wealthy widow who married Suffolk (then an earl) after he returned to England from France. When Thomas Chaucer died, Suffolk stepped into his position of influence in Oxfordshire, where Thomas Stonor was based. As the scion of a prosperous gentry family with strong ties to the Chaucer family, Stonor would have been a natural choice for a husband for Suffolk’s illegitimate daughter.
Thomas Stonor and Jane proved fruitful, producing three sons, William (named after Suffolk?), Edmund, and Thomas, and three daughters, Jane, Mary, and Elizabeth. Like the more famous Paston family, the Stonors left behind a collection of letters, including missives from Thomas and from Jane. The couple’s letters suggest a warm relationship. Jane signed her letters to her husband “your own Jane Stonor.” Unable to determine from her husband’s letter whether he has invited a guest to stay with the couple, she complains, “I cannot understand by your bill; I suppose your mind was upon some other matters when you wrote it,” and urges her husband not to invite the guest, as the household is in a state of confusion and “servants be not so diligent as they were wont to be.” Jane proceeds to give Thomas, then in London, a shopping list, including caps, silk, and laces. In a letter to Jane, Thomas addresses his wife as “good sweet leman [lover]” and “mine own Jane” and apologizes for not being able to come home sooner.
Suffolk’s son, John de la Pole, succeeded his father as duke and married Elizabeth, a sister of Edward IV. The family connection allowed Jane to place at least two of her daughters in the household of Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk, who in 1476 was said to be “half displeased” that the two sisters were “no better arrayed.” Sadly, the Stonor letters do not report the outcome of this wardrobe crisis.
Thomas Stonor died in 1474, having named Jane as one of his executors. Jane and her oldest son, William, then engaged in an unseemly family dispute about certain expenses and possessions. The dispute was ultimately sent to arbitration. Jane seems to have been entirely equal to upholding her end of the quarrel. A parson who had dealings with her reported to William Stonor that she called him “false varlet, thief, and her traitor,” leading him to reflect to her son, “God give me grace that I may never meet with her more.” Nonetheless, Jane, who died in 1474, named William as her executor and left him six silver bowls. She died in 1494 and was followed in death that year by her eldest son. (William, incidentally, joined in Buckingham’s 1483 rebellion and fought for Henry VII at Stoke.)
Christine Carpenter, ‘Stonor family (per. c.1315–c.1500)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/52796, accessed 20 June 2010].
Anne Crawford, Letters of Medieval Women. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
C. Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. CD-ROM.
Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester: 2005.
Charles Kingsford, The Stonor Letters and Papers. London: Camden Society, 1919. [Available on Internet Archive]
Elizabeth Noble, The World of the Stonors: A Gentry Society. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009.