The Paston Letters, the Earliest Known Archive of Private Correspondence in English

The Paston Letters is a remarkable collection of letters between different members of the Paston family, their staff and their friends. In truth, the collection might better be referred to as the Paston Archive, as the medieval section contains many more types of document than just letters – though it is the letters that give us insight into the daily life and troubles of an ambitious family. [You can learn more of the Paston Letters and Caister Castle in my Wednesday post.]

“One of Fastolf’s servants, William Worcester, collected material for personal historical research as well as evidence for several lawsuits involving Fastolf. The Pastons involved in the letters include William (d. 1444), who became a justice of the Court of Common Pleas; his son John I (d. 1466), a London lawyer; John’s two sons, John II (d. 1479) and John III (d. 1503), both of whom were knighted; and their respective wives and children. The collection of more than 1,000 items contains legal records, local and national news, and gossip; through all this, the characters of the writers emerge vividly.” [Paston Letters]

There are some 1000 letters passed along by the members of the Paston family. They provide an intimate insight into the social and domestic life of a family living during medieval times. What makes the Pastons so remarkable is their meteoritic rise from the life as peasants to landowning aristocrats in a time marked by both the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses.

The story begins with Clement Paston, a yeoman farmer in the village of Paston, northeast of Norfolk. During the chaos of the Black Death’s plague upon the land, Clement quietly annexed the properties of those who died. He then, quite smartly, used what money he had made to send his son William to become a lawyer. Ironically, this was at a time when society was turning to the law to handle disputes rather than to take up weapons to settle disputes. William Paston married an heiress by the name of Agnes Berry, thus, assuming control of the Oxnead manor house and land.

William’s eldest son John, who is mentioned in the article on Caister Castle, also became a lawyer. Beyond his friendship with Sir John Falstolf, John Paston also made an advantageous marriage, taking Margaret Mauteby to wife. She brought more land and wealth to the family coffers. John Paston was made the recipient of Sir John’s property, Caister Castle, when Sir John passed with issue to inherit.

Without a doubt, the Falstolf branch of the family tree contested this inheritance. This suit against the Pastons plays out in the letters, especially those written between John Paston’s two sons, who took possession of the castle upon their father’s death, and their mother Margaret, who was residing at Oxnead, at the time.

Note! Keep in mind the father is John Paston. The two sons are John Paston, the Elder, and John Paston, the Younger. This can become more than a bit confusing to those scanning the letters.

In 1466, the Duke of Norfolk, a distant relation of Sir John Falstolf, seized Caister Castle, by force. For the next 11 years, this issue was waged in the court of law. Think about what I just said. Before the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses, no “commoner” would dare take issue with a duke’s actions and present that issue in court.

To support their case, the Pastons fought on Henry VI’s side at the Battle of Barnet (1471), when Henry set himself against the Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk died in 1476. John the Elder pleaded for King Henry’s benevolence and the King gave Caister Castle back to the Pastons.

After only three generations, the Pastons has moved from yeomen farmer to courtiers and landed gentry. Eventually, they were even presented with an earldom, becoming the Earls of Yarmouth. They ruled over Caister Castle for 200 years.

“How the Paston Letters were kept from the 15th to the 18th century is unknown, but in 1735 Francis Blomefield explored the muniment room at Oxnead, the Paston family seat in Norfolk. He preserved letters judged “of good consequence in history,” these eventually being acquired by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Museum. John Fenn of East Dereham, Norfolk, edited four volumes of Original Letters (1787–89); a fifth volume, completed by William Frere, was published posthumously in 1823. The collection was reedited by James Gairdner as The Paston Letters, 1422–1509 in six volumes in 1904.” [Paston Letters]

Other Sources:

Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse

This is the Paston Portal

You might also enjoy some of these books available on the subject:

The Paston Women: Selected Letters

The Paston letters form one of only two surviving collections of fifteenth-century correspondence, in their case especially rich in letters from the women of the family. Clandestine love affairs, secret marriages, violent family rows, bickering with neighbours, battles and sieges, threats of murder and kidnapping, fears of plague: these are just some of the topics discussed in the letters of the Paston women.
Diane Watt’s introduction seeks to place these letters in the context of medieval women’s writing and and medieval letter writing. Her interpretive essay reconstructs the lives of these women by examining what the letters reveal about women’s literacy and education, lifein the medieval household, religion and piety, health and medicine, and love, marriage, family relationships, and female friendships in the middle ages.

The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the World

The Paston Treasure, a spectacular painting from the 1660s now held at Norwich Castle Museum, depicts a wealth of objects from the collection of a local landed family. This deeply researched volume uses the painting as a portal to the history of the collection, exploring the objects, their context, and the wider world they occupied.  Drawing on an impressive range of fields, including history of art and collections, technical art history, musicology, history of science, and the social and cultural history of the 17th century, the book weaves together narratives of the family and their possessions, as well as the institutions that eventually acquired them.  Essays, vignettes, and catalogue entries comprise this multidisciplinary exposition, uniting objects depicted in the painting for the first time in nearly 300 years.



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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