Paston Letters

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The Paston Letters are a collection of letters and papers consisting of the correspondence of members of the Paston family of Norfolk gentry, and others connected with them in England, between the years 1422 and 1509. The collection also includes some state papers and other important documents.

History of the collection[edit]

The huge collection of letters and papers was acquired in 1735 from the executors of William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth, the last representative of the family, by the antiquary Francis Blomefield. On Blomefield's death in 1752 they came into the possession of Thomas Martin of Palgrave, upon whose death in 1771 a few passed into the hands of John Ives and many were purchased by John Worth, a chemist at Diss, whose executors sold them in 1774 to Sir John Fenn of East Dereham.

Published editions[edit]

Edited by John Fenn[edit]

In 1787 John Fenn (d.1794) published a selection of the letters in two volumes, and general interest was aroused by this publication. In 1789 Fenn published two further volumes of letters, and when he died in 1794 he had prepared for the press a fifth volume, which was published in 1823 by his nephew William Frere. In 1787 Fenn presented the originals of his first two volumes to King George III, and shortly afterwards on 23 May 1787 received a knighthood.[1] These manuscripts soon disappeared, and the same fate attended the originals of the three other volumes. In these circumstances it is not surprising that some doubt should have been cast upon the authenticity of the letters. In 1865 their genuineness was impugned by Herman Merivale in the Fortnightly Review; but soon vindicated on grounds of internal evidence by James Gairdner in the same periodical; and within a year Gairdner's contention was established by the discovery of the originals of Fenn's fifth volume, together with other letters and papers, by William Frere's son, Philip Frere, in his house at Dungate, near Balsham, Cambridgeshire.[2] Ten years later the originals of Fenn's third and fourth volumes, with ninety-five unpublished letters, were found at Roydon Hall, Norfolk, the seat of George Frere, the head of the Frere family; and finally in 1889 the originals of the two remaining volumes were discovered at Orwell Park, Ipswich, the residence of Captain E.G. Pretyman. This latter batch of papers are the letters which were presented to George III, and which possibly reached Orwell through Sir George Pretyman Tomline (1750–1827), the tutor and friend of William Pitt the Younger.

The bulk of the Paston letters and associated documents are now in the British Library; but a few others are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; at Magdalen College, Oxford; and a few at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Edited by James Gairdner[edit]

Fenn's edition of the Paston Letters held the field until 1872, when James Gairdner published the first volume of a new edition. Taking Fenn's work as a basis, the aim of the new editor was to include all the letters which had come to light since this publication, and in his careful and accurate work in three volumes (London, 1872–1875) he printed over four hundred previously unpublished letters. Gairdner's edition, with notes and index, also contained a valuable introduction to each volume, including a survey of the reign of King Henry VI. He was completing his task when the discovery of 1875 was made at Roydon of which documents he gave particulars. These unpublished letters were printed as a supplement to a subsequent three volume edition published in 1896. In 1904 a new and complete edition of the Paston Letters in six volumes was edited by Gairdner, containing 1,088 letters and papers and possessing a very valuable introduction.

List of volumes[edit]

1896 edition[edit]

The Paston Letters 1422-1509 AD: A New Edition First Published in 1874 Containing Upwards of Four Hundred Letters, Etc., Hitherto Unpublished. Edited by James Gairdner of the Public Record Office

1900/1910 edition[edit]

Paston Letters 1422-1509 AD: A Reprint of the Edition of 1872-5 which Contained upwards of Five Hundred Letters, etc., till then Unpublished to Which are now Added Others in a Supplement after the Introduction. Edited by James Gairdner of the Public Record Office

1904 edition[edit]

The Paston Letters AD 1422-1509: New Complete Library Edition, Edited with Notes and an Introduction by James Gairdner of the Public Record Office

Edited by Norman Davis[edit]

In 1971 Norman Davis published a new edition, which was further revised and expanded by Richard Beadle and Colin Richmond in 2004.

Biographies of Paston family[edit]

Two recent books have presented the story of the fifteenth-century Pastons for a wide audience, Blood and Roses by Helen Castor (2004) and A Medieval Family by Frances and Joseph Gies (1998).


The early Pastons[edit]

The family of Paston takes its name from a Norfolk village about twenty miles (32 km) north of Norwich. The first member of the family about whom anything is known was living in this village early in the 15th century. This was one Clement Paston (d.1419), a yeoman holding and cultivating about one hundred acres (40 hectares) of land. His wife, Beatrice Somerton (d.1409), is said to have been 'a bond woman', but her brother, Geoffrey Somerton (d.1416), became a lawyer, and it was Geoffrey who paid for the education, both at grammar school and at the Inns of Court, of his nephew, William Paston (1378–1444), son of Clement and Beatrice.[3] Making good use of his opportunities, William, who is described as a "right cunning man" in the law, attained an influential position in his profession, and in 1429 became a Justice of the Common Pleas. He bought a good deal of land in Norfolk, including property in Paston and Gresham Castle, and improved his social position by his marriage with Agnes Barry (d.1479), the daughter and coheir of Sir Edmund Barry or Berry of Horwellbury[4] near Therfield and Royston, Hertfordshire.[5][6][7][8]

Consequently when he died he left a large and valuable inheritance to John Paston, the eldest of his five sons, who was already married to Margaret (d. 1484), daughter of John Mautby of Mautby, Norfolk. At this time England was in a very distracted condition. A weak king surrounded by turbulent nobles was incapable of discharging the duties of government, and only the strong man armed could hope to keep his goods in peace. A lawyer like his father, Paston spent much time in London, leaving his wife to look after his business in Norfolk; many of the Letters were written by Margaret to her husband. It is during the lifetimes of John Paston and his eldest son, also named John, that the Letters are most numerous and valuable, not only for family matters, but also for the history of England.

In 1448 Paston's manor of Gresham was seized by Robert Hungerford, Lord Moleyns (1431–1464), and, although it was afterwards recovered, the owner could obtain no redress for the loss and injury he had sustained. More serious troubles, however, were at hand. Paston had become very intimate with the wealthy knight Sir John Fastolf, who was a kinsman of Paston's wife, Margaret, and who had employed him on several matters of business. Sir John Fastolf was a prominent soldier in the Hundred Years' War who gave his name to Shakespeare's character Falstaff.

At his death Fastolf left his affairs in a tangled condition. In accordance with the custom of the time, he had conveyed many of his estates in Norfolk and Suffolk to feoffees including Sir William Yelverton and John Paston and his brother William, retaining the revenues for himself. He also made a written will in which he provided that his ten executors would found a college at Caister. However two days before Fastolf's death, according to John Paston, Fastolf made a nuncupative (spoken) will in which he had bequeathed all his lands in Norfolk and Suffolk to Paston, subject only to payment of 4000 marks and the duty of founding the college at Caister.

At once taking possession of the lands, Paston soon found his rights challenged. Various estates were claimed by different noblemen; the excluded executors were angry and aggressive; and Paston soon found himself in a whirlwind of litigation, and exposed also to more violent methods of attack. Something like a regular warfare was waged around Drayton and Hellesdon between John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and the Pastons under Margaret and her eldest son, John; Caister Castle was seized by John Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (d. 1461); and similar occurrences took place elsewhere. Some compensation, doubtless, was found in the fact that in 1460, and again in 1461, Paston had been returned to parliament as a knight of the shire for Norfolk, and, enjoying the favour of Edward IV, had regained his castle at Caister. But the royal favour was only temporary, and, having been imprisoned on three occasions, Paston died in May 1466, leaving the suit concerning Fastolf's will still proceeding in the church courts.

John Paston's sons and descendants[edit]

John Paston left five sons. The eldest, Sir John Paston (1442–1479), had been knighted during his father's lifetime. He was frequently at the court of Edward IV, but afterwards favoured the Lancastrian party, and, with his younger brother, also named John, fought for Henry VI at the Battle of Barnet. Meanwhile the struggle over Paston's estates continued, although in 1461 the king and council had declared that Paston's ancestors were not bondmen, and consequently that his title to his father's lands was valid. Caister Castle was taken after a siege by John Mowbray, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1444–1476), and then recovered by the Pastons, and retaken by the duke. But in 1474 an arrangement was made with William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, the representative of the excluded executors, by which some of the estates were surrendered to the bishop for charitable purposes, while Paston was secured in the possession of others. Two years later the opportune death of the Duke of Norfolk paved the way for the restoration of Caister Castle, but in 1478 a fresh quarrel broke out with John de la Pole, 2nd Duke of Suffolk.

Sir John Paston, who was a cultured man, had shown great anxiety to recover Caister, but in general he had left the conduct of the struggle to his mother and to the younger John. Owing to his carelessness and extravagance, the family lands were also diminished by sales, but nevertheless when he died unmarried in November 1479 he left a substantial inheritance to his younger brother John. About this time the Letters become scanty and less interesting, but the family continued to flourish. The younger John Paston (d. 1504), after quarrelling with his uncle William over the manors of Oxnead and Marlingford, was knighted at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. He married Margery, daughter of Sir Thomas Brewes, and left a son, William Paston (c. 1479–1554), who was also knighted, and who was a prominent figure at the court of Henry VIII. Sir William's second son, John Paston (1510–1575) was the father-in-law of Sir Edward Coke. Sir William's third son, Clement (c. 1515–1597), served his country with distinction on the sea, and was wounded at the Battle of Pinkie.

The family was continued by Sir William's eldest son, Erasmus (b. 1502-d. 1540), whose son William succeeded to his grandfather's estates in 1554, and to those of his uncle Clement in 1597. This William (1528–1610) was knighted ~fl 1578. He was the founder of the Paston grammar-school at North Walsham, and made Oxnead Hall, near Norwich, his principal residence. Christopher Paston was Sir William's son and heir, and Christopher's grandson, William (d. 1663), was created a baronet in 1642; being succeeded in the title by his son Robert (1631–1683), who was a member of parliament from 1661 to 1673, and was created Earl of Yarmouth in 1679. Robert's son William (1652–1732), who married a natural daughter of Charles II, was the second earl, and, like his father, was in high favour with the Stuarts. When he died in 1732 he left no son, and his titles became extinct, his estates being sold to discharge his debts.

The perturbed state of affairs revealed by the Paston Letters reflects the general condition of England during the period. It was a time of trouble. The weakness of the government had disorganised every branch of the administration; the succession to the crown itself was contested; the great nobles lived in a state of civil war; and the prevailing discontent found expression in the rising of Jack Cade and in the Wars of the Roses. The correspondence reveals the Pastons in a great variety of relations to their neighbours, friendly or hostile; and abounds with illustrations of the course of public events, as well as of the manners and morals of the time. Nothing is more remarkable than the habitual acquaintance of educated persons, both men and women, with the law, which was evidently indispensable to persons of substance. Of most human interest are the occasional love letters, notably those from Richard Calle to Margery Paston, and Margery Brews' famous Valentines to John Paston III.

Paston family tree[edit]

Beatrix Somerton
William I
Agnes Berry
John I
Margaret Mautby
William II
Lady Anne Beaufort
John II
John III
Margery Brews
(d. 1495)
Edmund II
(d.c. 1479)
Richard Calle
William III
William IV
(c. 1479–1554)
Bridget Heydon

See also[edit]

Paston, Norfolk


  1. ^ Stoker, David (1995). "Innumerable letters of good consequence in history: the discovery and first publication of the Paston Letters". The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society (London: The Bibliographical Society) XVII (2): 107–155.  pp.108–9.
  2. ^ Stoker, (1995), pp.152–4.
  3. ^ Richmond 2010.
  4. ^ According to some sources, Harlingbury Hall.
  5. ^ 'Parishes: Kelshall', A History of the County of Hertford: volume 3 (1912), pp. 240–244 Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  6. ^ Richmond 1990, p. 117.
  7. ^ Richmond & Virgoe 2004.
  8. ^ Jones 1993, p. 81.



Further reading[edit]

  • F. Blomefield and C. Parkin, History of Norfolk (London, 1805–1810).
  • Richard Barber (ed.), The Pastons: The Letters of a Family in the Wars of the Roses (1981).
  • Frances and Joseph Gies, A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England (1998).
  • Helen Castor, Blood and Roses: One family's struggle and triumph during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses (2006).
  • Diane Watt, 'Medieval Women's Writing' (Polity, 2008).

External links[edit]