The Paston Letters A.D. 1422-1509 Critical Essays

Paston Family


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The turbulent era of the Wars of the Roses forms a background for THE PASTON LETTERS, a remarkable collection of personal correspondence and legal documents belonging to a wealthy family in Norfolk, England. Three generations of Pastons left records of a century when law and justice were often at the mercy of might, when noblemen took advantage of their sovereign’s preoccupation with keeping his throne to besiege prosperous manor houses, and when robbers made the road from Norwich to London a perilous one to travel.

The first of the Pastons to make his mark was William, whose skill as a lawyer and judge in the early years of the fifteenth century enabled him to pass on a substantial estate to his son John, who was also trained in the law. John Paston served as a member of Parliament and, like his father, as a justice of the peace for Norfolk. He added great wealth and greater controversy to his family fortunes when he was named executor and chief heir of a Norfolk nobleman, Sir John Fastolf; he was accused of forging Fastolf’s will, and years after his death his sons were still trying to acquire clear title to Fastolf’s home, Caister Castle.

It is due chiefly to the prudence of John Paston that the documents comprising THE PASTON LETTERS survive. He realized the importance of his own papers and Fastolf’s as legal evidence, and he so thoroughly convinced his family of their value that after he died his wife wrote her eldest son: “Your father . . . in his troubled season set more by his writings and evidence than he did by any of his moveable goods. Remember that if they were had from you, you could never get any more such as they be.”

The Pastons had a remarkable ability to float with the political tide and to recover from adversity. They were not fiercely partisan in the conflicts between York and Lancaster; it was more important to keep the favor of whoever occupied the throne. The two younger Johns served on both sides. Sir John Paston was at the court of Edward IV in 1461, trying to settle questions about Fastolf’s will; in 1468 he and his brother John III attended Princess Margaret, the king’s sister, to Bruges for her wedding to the Duke of Burgundy. Three years later both fought for Henry VI, who was temporarily restored to the throne, but they were quickly pardoned for this service when Edward once again gained power.

The personal fortunes of the Paston family were not much more stable than the throne. They were evicted from their home, Gresham Manor, by Lord Molynes in 1448. While John Paston was imprisoned in 1465 for trespassing on the Fastolf property, his home at Hellesdon was completely destroyed by the Duke of Suffolk’s men. Just four years later the Duke of Norfolk besieged and took Caister Castle, which changed hands twice more before the Pastons finally secured it permanently.

The papers collected as THE PASTON LETTERS run to thousands of pages, many of them complicated legal documents. Norman Davis’ selection of about one hundred of the most interesting personal letters, printed in the Clarendon Medieval and Tudor series, gives the general reader an excellent picture of the Paston family and the major events in their lives.

Half a dozen personalities dominate the correspondence. Agnes Paston, who added considerable personal wealth to her husband William’s estate, was a shrewd business woman and a concerned, though occasionally domineering, mother. Her letters to her son John contain advice, as well as questions, about business matters; she herself took care of many of the problems of overseeing her property. Writing to a younger son, Edmond, a student at Clifford’s Inn in London, counseling him to persevere in his legal studies, she quoted his father’s opinion that “whosoever should dwell at Paston should have need to conne [know how to] defend himself.” On another occasion she commissioned a messenger to see that a third child was making progress in his lessons and that his clothes were in order.

She seems to have taken a...

(The entire section is 1669 words.)