The Paston Family (c1420-c1500)
This outline of the Pastons’ story is built around the family members who figure most prominently in the letters. I’ve tried to give a sense of each individual by starting with a set of adjectives beneath his or her name but, of course, they’re only my views and the letters can’t reveal everything about each person, everyone changes over time and historians do differ on how they view each individual.
The letters date from c.1420 to c.1500; by far the greater number were written between 1440 and 1480 by two generations of the Pastons:
John I and his wife, Margaret and John I’s siblings – born 1421-1442. They were the children of Judge William and Agnes.
John I and Margaret’s children - John II, John III, Margery and their siblings – born 1441-1459.
Margaret’s letters survive in greatest numbers (over 100 letters); the letters of John II and John III also survive in good numbers, many of them to each other.
The accompanying PowerPoint slides include a family tree, photographs of churches linked to the Pastons and other items including a map – Paston is a small village very near the coast of north-eastern Norfolk.
The Rise to Gentry Status
William Paston 1378-1444
intelligent ambitious successful wealthy powerful bullying
William was the son of Beatrice (d.1409) and Clement (d.1419) who owned a small amount of land. William’s uncle, a lawyer, contributed to the cost of his education at a grammar school and training in London as a lawyer. William had a highly successful career, becoming a royal judge in 1429, and used his resulting wealth to buy estates in Norfolk. William’s new lands moved the family up amongst the gentry of Norfolk though it normally took two generations at least for that status to be consolidated.
William delayed marrying until he was in his 40s when he married Agnes Berry, a ‘good’ marriage as Agnes came from an influential East Anglian family and brought more land to William as part of the marriage agreement. Agnes, around twenty years William’s junior, had five children but William’s late marriage meant that, when he died, his eldest son was only 23 and inevitably lacked his father’s experience and contacts. This opened up opportunities for the Pastons’ rivals to try to take over some of the family’s lands.
The Struggle to Maintain the Family’s Lands
John Paston I (1421-1466)
stubborn hard-working determined pig-headed anxious did not trust people disappointed worn-down
John I inherited the leadership of the family aged 23 but was less wealthy than his father because much of the family wealth remained in his long-lived mother’s hands (Agnes out-lived John, dying in 1479) and other estates had been left to his younger brothers to provide them with an income. This was just one of the factors that handicapped John when rivals challenged the legality of the Pastons’ ownership of some of their estates. His task was also made far harder by his own inexperience, by the failure of King Henry VI to exert control over the nobility and gentry and by the Pastons’ lack of a ‘good lord’, a powerful nobleman whose support would protect them against rivals. Thus Lord Moleyns was able to seize control of the Pastons’ estates at Gresham without punishment. John spent the rest of his life battling though the law courts in London to hold onto the family lands.
John’s problems multiplied when Sir John Fastolf died in 1459. Fastolf had profited from his military career during the wars in France, buying Caister castle among other properties. John claimed that Fastolf had said on his deathbed that he wanted John to be his heir but there was no written will to prove this. Initially John had allies but his distrust turned them against him, leaving him almost friendless. Compromise was possible but John refused to make concessions. In 1465 he was even imprisoned in London, accused of having villein ancestors which made it illegal for him to be lord of manors and have the right to hold manor courts. In the end anxiety may have killed John – long before any of the disputes were to be settled. There seem to have been few glimmers of pleasure in his last years although a poem he wrote to Margaret after she’d visited him in London provides a sense of the young man who’d married Margaret.
Margaret Paston (1421/2-1484)
brave loyal constantly busy a worrier independent loving sometimes unforgiving nagging
Margaret married John in 1440. Her family, the Mautbys, were a wealthy Norfolk family and as their only child Margaret inherited nine manors, increasing the Pastons’ wealth. Her early letters to John are affectionate and they seem to have had a loving marriage despite the strains created by the long-running disputes over lands. As John was away from home a great deal, Margaret carried a wide range of responsibilities, like most women of her class. She defended their lands, sometimes against armed attack, while also running the household and its finances and trying to maintain good relationships with influential families.
Her relationships with her children varied – Walter was probably her favourite but she took a long time to forgive Margery (if she ever did) after their quarrel over Margery’s marriage to Richard Calle, the family’s steward. Although sometimes angry with her eldest son, John II, she defended him when he was criticised by his father and wanted him to come back to live in Norfolk, which he never did. Late in life and widowed she lived in her home village of Mautby and was buried there.
Elizabeth Paston (1429-1488)
Elizabeth was John I’s younger sister. Relatively little is known about Elizabeth except about her two marriages, both of which ended in political violence. Elizabeth’s first major appearance in the letters was occasioned by her arguments with her mother Agnes because of her refusal to accept the husband her family wanted her to marry. She eventually married Sir Robert Poynings in 1459 but two years later he was killed at the second battle of St Albans, not long after their son was born. Her second husband, Sir George Browne, was executed in 1483 after rebelling against Richard III. Her will is fascinating in its detail, full of information about her clothes and possessions.
William Paston II (1436-1496)
William seems to take after his father, Judge William, more so than his elder brother, John. William was also educated as a lawyer and had a successful career in London, was a JP in Norfolk and an MP. He quarrelled with his brother John because he did not think that he had been given a fair share of the family estates in their father’s will and arguments continued into the 1470s with John’s sons. Most intriguingly (for me, anyway) William married a daughter of Edmund, Duke of Somerset, Henry VI’s chief councillor, who had been killed at the Battle of St. Albans in 1455. This marriage brought together the grandson of Clement Paston, the owner of a small amount of land in northern Norfolk, with the great-grand-daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, one of the most powerful noblemen in fourteenth century Europe and son of King Edward III.
The Second Generation: Continuing Struggles
John I and Margaret had seven children, two of whom were called John – hence John II and John III. This surfeit of Johns doesn’t seem to have confused the family even it does seem strange today. There’s no definite evidence explaining why two sons were called John – the most likely explanation is that their chief godfathers were both called John.
Sir John Paston II (1442-1479)
light-hearted romantic imaginative fashionable a jouster
good company generous debonair
Sir John spent much of his adult life at Edward IV’s court where his family expected him to win influential support for the family’s fight to keep its lands. However court life was very expensive and John II rarely had enough money to make an impact at court. Even so his father was often angry with his expenditure, believing his son was wasting the money he’d been given. John II did eventually make good connections, partly because of his personality, partly because of his skill at jousting. He took part in tournaments at court, including a famous three-man tournament against the best jousters from Burgundy. John also spent time as a member of the English garrison of Calais and attended the marriage of King Edward’s sister to the Duke of Burgundy.
Even when John II did make powerful friends he was unfortunate that the timing of the political changes of the Wars of the Roses stopped these friends helping the Pastons. Despite his service to Edward IV in the 1460s John fought against King Edward at the battle of Barnet (1471) because of his loyalty to the earl of Oxford, the East Anglian nobleman who was the Pastons’ most natural lord. Unfortunately for John he was on the losing side at Barnet but his long-standing links to the King meant he was pardoned and returned to court. He died, probably from plague, in 1479, the same year as his grandmother, Agnes, and one of his brothers. He probably never married although he did have a long engagement to Anne Haute, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth (Woodville) and at least one historian has suggested they did marry. John also had a daughter by Cecily Reynforth.
Margery Paston (b.c1450)
Margery appears in the letters chiefly because of the fierce family dispute over her marriage. Her family, particularly her mother, Margaret, were deeply angry when she fell in love with the intelligent and efficient Richard Calle. The trouble was that Richard was the family’s steward, running their estates. To the Pastons, very sensitive about their gentry status, Margery’s marriage to a servant who was the son of a shopkeeper seemed to give ammunition to their rivals who were challenging their status. Margery’s brother, John III, wrote angrily that he’d never allow his sister to end up selling candles and mustard in Framlingham though John II reacted more calmly.
Margery and Richard married secretly in 1469 and refused to give each other up although they were put under great pressure. They were questioned individually in detail by the bishop of Norwich about whether they were truly married but they convinced the bishop of the validity of their marriage and their love. Even so, Margery and her husband were cut off from the family although, in time, Richard returned to work for them - good and loyal administrators were hard to find. Margery may never have been forgiven by her mother, Margaret, although Margaret did leave money in her will to Margery’s sons.
Success: Status Assured
John Paston III (1444-1504)
loyal intelligent careful fashionably-dressed joking
John III appears to be the stay-at-home brother because he spent much of his time in Norfolk while his older brother was at the King’s court and in London. John took on the main burden of defending the family’s lands after his father’s death including leading the defence of Caister castle against armed attack in 1469. However he also visited Burgundy for the marriage of the King’s sister and spent time in the garrison at Calais.
John was wounded at the battle of Barnet (1471) when he fought alongside his brother in the losing army against Edward IV but was pardoned after the battle. In 1485 he was summoned by the Duke of Norfolk to fight for Richard III at Bosworth but did not go – a good decision as both Norfolk and Richard III were killed. After Bosworth the earl of Oxford returned to power in east Anglia and as a supporter of Oxford, John III’s local influence and security increased. Then came his greatest success – he fought alongside Oxford at the battle of Stoke in 1487 and was knighted on the battlefield by Henry VII. John became a powerful figure in East Anglia and this ensured the Pastons kept control of their lands and finally cemented their position amongst the gentry.
The letters written between John II and John III show they got on well. They discussed and joked about fashions, books and marriage possibilities. John III also received the earliest valentine to have survived, from his future wife, Margery Brews. Margery also wrote to John on one occasion
‘I pray you if you tarry long at London that it will please you to send for me for I think long since I lay in your arms.’
The Pastons after 1500:
and the Saving of the Letters
Now securely established amongst the East Anglian gentry, the Pastons prospered until the late 1600s. Then, in quick succession, the family was rewarded for its loyalty to the Stuarts when Sir Robert Paston was made Lord Paston, then Viscount Yarmouth and finally Earl of Yarmouth in 1679. However, Robert’s son, William, chose to support the cause of James II which led to the family’s impoverishment. When William died in 1732 there was no male heir to continue the line. It seemed the family would be quietly forgotten.
It was 1735 before anyone worked their way through the contents of the muniment room at Oxnead hall, the Pastons’ residence. Sackfuls of financial documents and other estate papers appear to have been burnt but local historian Francis Blomefield (author of a history of Norfolk) examined the family papers and helped preserve the letters. They became scattered, however, in the hands of various local historians and unknown to the wider world until John Fenn (1739–1794), another Norfolk antiquarian, published a selection of the Paston letters in four volumes between 1787 and 1789. The first volume was a publishing sensation. ‘I think them one of the richest treasures in the English language; my attention is captivated; they cause me to forget to eat and to sleep’ wrote William Hutton, another eminent antiquarian, to Fenn. Readers have been agreeing with Hutton ever since.