Paston Footprints - The Background

Paston letter 72

The Paston Letters are commonly supposed to date from 1418 until 1509, and indeed this is the period for which they are most often used as a resource when studying social history, English medieval literature, paper-making or even watermarks.

This is because they are almost unique in consisting of over 1000 letters covering the whole of that period, during which the Pastons rose from being a poor peasant family in a very small village in North Norfolk to being great landowners, one of the four greatest landowners in Norfolk and courtiers at the court of King Henry. The last letter in 1509 indeed contains not only an invitation to the marriage of Arthur and Katherine of Aragon but also a long description of the fields of The Cloth of Gold, the best contemporary description there is of that momentous occasion.

The Paston family were also unique in their time by living right through one of the worst civil wars in this country, the Wars of the Roses, and coming out not only unscathed but richer. Not one of them died in battle, although they fought in many of the battles and for all the kings. They fought for Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and then served in the court of Henry VII, because they were adept at doing what has been called 'turncoating', that is, they wore their livery on one side only, and if that side failed, they managed to get into hiding long enough to turn their coats and get a pardon from the King.

This sounds rather deceitful and dishonourable to us, but it was a common way of carrying on at the time and it was key to raising the manpower to fight the many battles of the Wars of the Roses. In the siege of Caister Castle we have the only battle to take place on Norfolk soil: in fact it was not really a battle pertaining to either of the kings, but simply an attempt by the Duke of Norfolk to retain Caister Castle, which he claimed Sir John Fastolf had given to him, rather than to the lowly lawyer John Paston.

However, in addition to all these wonderful layers of social exploration in the Middle Ages, we also have the later Paston letters, which have been less often studied. We have the letters relating to Admiral Clement and Thomas Paston, both of whom served Tudor monarchs. Thomas Paston, as a gentleman of the bedchamber for Henry VIII, served in a difficult and distasteful personal role to the king, but this is what gave him his later great estates in Norfolk, particularly at Binham Priory, Blofield and Thorpe St Andrew.

Admiral Clement Paston

Admiral Clement Paston, who died without issue at Oxnead, served under five of the Tudor monarchs, including with the English fleet against the Spanish Armada. He was much liked and popular in court, a bluff and hearty man who also liked to make sure his own family were well looked after. He left his considerable estates to the elder half of the family, the descendants of his brother Erasmus, rather than to Edward Paston, the descendant of Thomas Paston, the younger brother. This led to some of the later letters between Edward Paston and his cousin's wife, Katherine Paston, who was living at Paston Hall at the time, the last of the family to do so. The Lady Katherine letters in the Norfolk Record Office deal partly with the estate, because her husband was unable to deal with these matters himself, and partly and most poignantly with her son's welfare. He was away at Cambridge (and of course people went to Cambridge colleges much younger then than they do now). She attempts to 'feed him up', sending him turkey pies in Lent when she shouldn't have, and to stop him from becoming too sweaty from 'tennising', as she is sure that playing tennis is a wicked and overly active sport that will lead to humours in the brain. She also relates how Paston itself is decimated by the plague, not once, but twice, with the Pastons transferring to their other home in Palgrave. This again was quite common at the time. For rich families, one of the greatest bounties was that they were able to move away from a village when plague came calling and to move on to one of their other great houses. This was not the case with the poor, who had to sit it out.

And then of course there is the wonderful collection of letters relating to Robert Paston, who commissioned the great Paston Treasure painting in Norwich Castle Museum. These letters reveal his hobby of alchemy, his great love for his wife, his estates, his awareness that his control of the estates is failing and that the Pastons are headed for bankruptcy, and his great sadness as one after another of his children dies.

The Paston Letters end with the death of the Second Earl of Yarmouth in 1732 with no male issue, as his three sons had died before him. (His daughters were still alive, but they didn't count in the succession.) He died more or less bankrupt, and his estates were sold up, most notably at Oxnead.

Sir John Fenn

He had sold some of the Paston Letters to the great antiquarian Peter Le Neve before his death, and some others found their way into the collection of the historian the Rev Francis Blomefield. From there a large proportion of the letters made their way by circuitous routes to 'honest' Tom Martin, who also died bankrupt, and from there through Worth, a chemist in Dereham, to John Fenn, who at last saw the value of the letters to our understanding of history and transcribed them most carefully, presenting them to the public in two volumes in 1767. The letters were immediately a great success. They sold out in a week and John Fenn was knighted, as he had always hoped to be when he dedicated the letters to the King. From that time to this the Paston Letters have never been out of print, and their story has included their loss, their recovery, declarations in court that Fenn was a liar and declarations in court that Fenn was not a liar, and that the letters were genuine. All this because the letters are unique, not only in English history but throughout Europe, in showing through three centuries the rise and fall of one great family.

So in the Paston Letters we have treasure not only for historians but for linguists, genealogists, writers and landscape archaeologists of all ages. But to a large extent this treasure is still hidden.

We have only recently begun the work of linking the people in the letters to the places were they lived, and the work of interpretation has been hampered not only by the language of the letters, which required transcription so that Fenn's public could understand it even in 1787, but also the difficulty of research, since so many of the letters are in the British Library in London or in the Norfolk Record Office.

These bodies have agreed to help us by digitising the letters for the first time and, with the help of a wealth of talent in local research that branches in many directions, we hope to interpret this treasure in such a way that the letters may delight a new audience, just as they delighted the public in 1787.

We hope that you will be inspired to join in some of the events we are holding over the next three years. Even if you are not able to come to Norfolk in person, do join in via our online community. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lucy Care May 2016