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The Paston Letters (collage)

THE PASTON LETTERS, an invaluable collection of letters and papers, consisting of the correspondence of members of the Paston family, and others connected with them, between the years 1422 and 1509, and also including some state papers and other important documents.

The bulk of the letters and papers were sold by William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth, the last representative of the family, to the antiquary Peter Le Neve early in the 18th century. On Le Neve's death in 1729 they came into the possession of Thomas Martin of Palgrave, who married his widow; and upon Martin's death in 1771 they were purchased by John Worth, a chemist at Diss, whose executors sold them three years later to John Fenn of East Dereham. In 1787 Fenn published a selection of the letters in two volumes, and general interest was aroused by this publication. In 1789 Fenn published two other 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, Serjeant Frere. In 1787 Fenn had received a knighthood, and on this occasion, the 23rd of May, he had presented the originals of his first two volumes to King George III. 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 it was 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 Serjeant Frere's son, Philip Frere, in his house at Dungate, Cambridgeshire. Ten years later the originals of Fenn's third and fourth volumes, with ninety-five unpublished letters, were found at Roydon Hall, Norfolk, the seat of George Frere, the head of the Frere family; and finally in 1889 the originals of the two remaining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 papers which had been in the hands of Sir John Fenn did not, however, comprise the whole of the Paston letters which were extant. When the 2nd Earl of Yarmouth died in 1732 other letters and documents relating to the Pastons were found at his seat, Oxnead Hall, and some of these came into the hands of the Rev. Francis Blomefield, who failed to carry out a plan to unite his collection with that of Martin. This section of the letters was scattered in various directions, part being acquired by the antiquary John Ives. The bulk of the Paston letters and documents are now in the British Museum; but others are at Orwell Park; in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; at Magdalen College, Oxford; and a few at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

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 letters for the first time. Gairdner's edition, with notes and index, also contained a valuable introduction to each volume, including a survey of the reign of Henry VI; and he was just completing his task when the discovery of 1875 was made at Roydon. An appendix gave particulars of this discovery, and the unpublished letters were printed as a supplement to subsequent editions. In 1904 a new and complete edition of the Paston Letters was edited by Gairdner, and these six volumes, containing 1088 letters and papers, possess a very valuable introduction, which is the chief authority on the subject.

The family of Paston takes its name from a Norfolk village about twenty miles north of Norwich, and 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 peasant, holding and cultivating about one hundred acres of land, who gave an excellent education to his son William, and enabled him to study law. Making good use of his opportunities, William Paston (1378-1444), 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 some in Paston, and improved his position by his marriage with Agnes (d. 1479), daughter and heiress of Sir Edmund Berry of Harlingbury, Hertfordshire. Consequently when he died he left a large and valuable inheritance to John Paston (1421-1466), the eldest of his five sons, who was already married to Margaret (d. 1484), daughter of John Mauteby of Mauteby.

At this time England was in a very distracted condition [see Wars of the Roses]. 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; and many of the Letters were written by Margaret to her husband, detailing the progress of affairs in the county. It is during the lifetimes of John Paston and his eldest son 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 probably related to his wife, and who had employed him on several matters of business. In 1459 Sir John died without children, leaving his affairs in rather a tangled condition. In accordance with the custom of the time, he had conveyed many of his estates in Norfolk and Suffolk to trustees, among whom were John Paston and his brother William, retaining the revenues for himself, and probably intending his trustees after his death to devote the property to the foundation of a college. However, it was found that a few days before his decease Fastolf had executed a fresh will in which he had named ten executors, of whom two only, John Paston and another, were to act; and, moreover, that he had bequeathed all his lands in Norfolk and Suffolk to Paston, subject only to the duty of founding the college at Caister, and paying 4000 marks to the other executors.

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 left at least five sons, the two eldest of whom were, curiously enough, both named John, and the eldest of whom had been knighted during his father's lifetime. Sir John Paston (1442-1479) was frequently at the court of King Edward IV, but afterwards he favoured the Lancastrian party, and, with his brother John, fought for Henry VI at the Battle of Barnet. Meanwhile the struggle over Fastolf's estates continued, although in 1461 the king and council had decided that Paston's ancestors were not bondmen, and consequently that his title to his father's lands was good. Caister Castle was taken after a regular 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 the Duke of Suffolk. Sir John, 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 goodly inheritance to his brother John. About this time the Letters begin to be scanty and less interesting, but the family continued to flourish. The younger John Paston (d. 1503), 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 Brews, 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, Clement (c. 15151 597), 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 (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 in 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 disorganized 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.

(Arthur William Holland)

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XX.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 896.

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