The Paston Letters tell the remarkable story of one medieval family, giving a unique insight into their domestic life and relationships against the background of turbulent times, the Wars of the Roses. As the first detailed record of private family correspondence to survive in Britain, these letters offer a personal perspective on local as well as national history. The Paston Letters were written between 1422 and 1509. Margaret Paston was responsible for 104 items of correspondence, and was therefore the most prolific writer in the family. Through her we learn a great deal about medieval Norwich, and the chaotic impact of the Wars of the Roses.
In the fifteenth century Norwich was the second city of England, with a population of over 10,000. Compared to other areas, it had recovered relatively quickly from the Black Death of the previous century. Norfolk was one of the most prosperous counties, with rich soils to grow grain and pastureland for the thousands of sheep on which the flourishing wool and cloth industries depended. The flat East Anglian landscape offered easy transport by river and road, and there were good trade links set up through the ports of King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth to those of the Baltic and the Low Countries. It is against this background that the Pastons flourished and their dynasty was established; they rose from the peasantry to the aristocracy in just three generations. They were typical of the class who grew to prominence after the Black Death, when depopulation resulted in the increasing availability of land and a rise in the status of labourers.
Clement Paston (d.1419) was a peasant farmer who took advantage of the Black Death to build up a considerable landholding in and around Paston in north Norfolk. His success funded his son's education as a lawyer, and the family's consequent rise to prominence and royal favour. Successive generations continued to augment their property through bequests and advantageous marriages. One heiress, Margaret Mautby (c.1422-84), married into the family in 1440, when she was eighteen. Her husband John (1421-66) was also a lawyer who spent much of his time petitioning for courts to secure his lands and inheritances, including Caister Castle, with varying success. John was in favour with King Edward IV and he rose to become a knight.
Margaret stayed at home and managed the various Norfolk estates and the houses in Norwich. She was mother to seven children and chronicled every aspect of family life through her letters.
The first record of a Paston home is around Elm Hill in about 1413. However the site of this house is subject to debate. Many people think the house was on the site of 20 Elm Hill, where the Strangers Club now resides, whereas the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner thought it more likely that the Pastons had a house at 41-43. Either way, the house would have been destroyed in the fire of 1507.
Having a house in Elm Hill would enable the Pastons to have a central sphere of influence in the city, which was important in John's role as an MP for Norfolk and a JP. The Pastons were friends of other important Norwich figures such as Robert Toppes, the four times Lord Mayor and wealthy cloth merchant, and would entertain their guests in the city rather than at any of their country manors. The Elm Hill house was also known to be a place of refuge, as we know that Margaret fled to Elm Hill when Lord Moleyns evicted her from the manor at Gresham in 1448. Margaret's letters tell us that she found a new family home in Norwich following the visit of Queen Margaret of Anjou to the city in 1451. This house was rented and was near the church of St Peter Hungate. In 1458 John and Margaret Paston paid for the rebuilding of the nave and transepts of this church, and to this day there remain two corbels in the south transept which are believed to represent the couple.
As well as donations made to St Peter Hungate, the Pastons financed the hammer-beam roof in the nave and the roof in the choir of St Andrew's and Blackfriars Halls. An original oak door survives in the south porch, and it bears the arms of the Pastons and the cross of Mautby.
We also know that the Pastons lived in King Street. Sir John Paston (1442-79), Margaret's son, bought what is now known as The Music House in 1474. This house is Norwich's oldest known domestic dwelling and was built by Jurnet the Jew in the reign of Henry 11.
Through the Paston Letters we know a great deal about medieval Norwich. We learn of important rivalries and interactions, and how the Wars of the Roses influenced local matters. We know when there was sickness in the town, as in 1451 when Margaret had asked John to send from London a pot of treacle, which was thought to have medicinal properties. We hear of a frightening outbreak of the plague in 1471. We also know that Norwich could be a violent place, as when Margaret describes a ferocious assault outside her place of worship, probably St Mary Coslany, in 1448. We know too, that despite its reputation as a wealthy cloth town, Margaret felt that Norwich did not always have the best choice of colour and weave in its drapers' shops, and she also complains about the lack of good sugar and cinnamon to be found locally.
Margaret Paston died in 1484, and was buried at Mautby.
There are few tangible remains of buildings associated with the Pastons. Not a single fifteenth century Paston tomb survives, including that of Margaret Paston, as they were swept away by the Reformation. Although later generations of Pastons continued to exert local influence, as in the foundation of Paston Grammar School in North Walsham, the dynasty died out in the eighteenth century.
Most of the Paston Letters are now in the British Museum, though some others are in the Norfolk Record Office. They are a remarkable collection of documents and they give this Norfolk family a unique place in English history.
Sandra Fishwick 2014
Sources and Further Reading
· Helen Castor Blood and Roses 2004