The Pastons of Norfolk are famous today because of the legacy of letters they have left us, dating between the years 1422 to 1509. The collection, numbering more than a thousand letters and other documents, passed from the executors of William Paston, 2nd. Earl of Yarmouth, into various hands and the bulk eventually ended up in the British Library, with a few letters in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; at Magdalen College, Oxford, and Pembroke College, Cambridge.
|St. Margaret’s Church Norwich, where many of the Pastons are buried.|
Several Pastons contributed to the collection, but the most interesting for me is the period covered by the three Johns. John the father, Sir John, and John the Younger. (The latter two were brothers. What possessed John the father to name two sons after himself is a mystery, but he must have created a nightmare for those who have studied the letters and tried to figure out which John was referred to.) These 3 Pastons lived during a fascinating and turbulent time – the War of the Roses, although their letters add little of value to our store of knowledge of the period. The two brothers fought at the battle of Barnet, in which John the Younger was wounded. Both were soon pardoned by a magnanimous King Edward.
It was during this time that most of the letters were written. Some were written by Paston servants or friends. The women got in the act also, although their letters were probably written by clerks. So you may read, in the same letter, business matters mixed with news of the latest dispute and a bit of Norfolk gossip; a scolding for a son who is not doing as well as expected, along with a request for some cloth or a spice that’s cheaper in London than Norfolk. This is the real value of the letters; they give an intriguing peek into the life of a typical (well, maybe not so typical) English middle-class family. There are nuggets of pure gold to be mined in these letters.
Also, the Pastons had some adventures of their own. It all began with Sir John Fastolf (not to be confused with Sheakspear’s Falstaff, who was supposedly modeled after him). Richer than many an earl, he had made his fortune during the war with France. On his deathbed he changed his will, (which is never a good thing to do) naming his lawyer and land agent John Paston the father as heir and executor, which led to years and years of litigation and worse ills with disappointed heirs and previous executors, as well as the sometime enmity of such powerful figures as the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. Paston fortunes fluctuated with the vicissitudes of Edward IV and the fortunes of the two dukes. John the father was imprisoned three times; contending parties fought over Caister Castle, the jewel of Fastolf’s bequest, and other properties; Margaret Paston was once ejected physically from a house so that others could take possession; there were brawls in the street, stabbings – Oh, it was a fine example of land-greed in the fifteenth century.
But the Pastons prevailed in the end because, as noted above, two centuries later they were earls, while the Mowbrays of Norfolk and the de la Poles of Suffolk were nowhere to be found in the English peerage.
Sources: A Medieval Family by Frances and Joseph Gies