1902 Encyclopedia > Paston Letters

Paston Letters

PASTON LETTERS. This invaluable collection of documents consists of the correspondence of the principal members of the Paston family in Norfolk between the years 1424 and 1506, including several state papers and other documents accidentally in their possession. The papers appear to have been sold by William Paston, second earl of Yarmouth, the last representative of the family, to the antiquary Le Neve early in the 18th century. After Le Neve's death in 1729 they came into the hands of Mr Thomas Martin of Palgrave, who had married his widow, and upon Martin's death in or about 1771 were purchased by Worth, a chemist at Diss, from whose executors they were subsequently bought by Mr (afterwards Sir) John Fenn. In 1787 Fenn published two volumes of selections from the MSS., whose extreme value was at once recognized by Horace Walpole and other competent judges. In acknowledgment of his services Fenn received the honour of knighthood, and on this occasion, May 23, 1787, presented to the king three bound volumes of MSS. containing the originals of the documents printed by him. Most unfortunately these volumes have disappeared, and the originals of two more subsequently published by Sir John Fenn, and of a fifth edited after his death by Mr Serjeant Frere, were also lost until very re-cently. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that doubts should have been raised as to the authenticity of the papers. Their genuineness was impugned by Mr Herman Merivale in No. 8 of the Fortnightly Review, but satisfactorily vindicated on grounds of internal evidence by Mr James Gairdner of the Record Office in No. 11 of the same periodical. "Within a year Mr Gairdner's position was established by the discovery (1865) of the originals of the fifth volume at Mr Serjeant Frere's house at Dungate, Cambridgeshire. In 1875 the original MSS. of the third and fourth, with many additional letters, were found at the family mansion of the Freres at Roydon Hall, near Diss. The MSS. presented to the king have not been found, and were probably appropriated by some person about the court. In 1872-75 Mr Gairdner published a most careful and accurate edition in three volumes in Arber's English reprints, accompanied with valuable introductions to each volume, including an historical survey of the reign of Henry VI., notes, and index, and incorporating more than four hundred additional letters derived from Magdalen College, Oxford, and other quarters. Abstracts of some of the additional letters discovered at Roydon were added in an appendix. The total number of documents printed wholly or in abstract is one thousand and six.

A thousand family letters of the 15th century must in any case be full of interest; the Paston letters are peculiarly interesting from the importance and in some respects the representative character of the family. The founder was Clement Paston, a humble peasant living at the end of the 14th century, who throve in the world and gave his son William the sound education which enabled him to rise to the position of justice of the common pleas. Judge Paston acquired much landed property in Norfolk, and in the days of his son John, in 1459, the family was greatly enriched by a bequest from the stout old soldier but grasping usurer Sir John Fastolf, a kinsman of Sir John Paston's wife. The Pastons, however, were even at that time greatly harassed by rival claimants to their estates; and Sir John's legacy involved them in a fresh set of troubles and contentions, which were not allayed until the time of the third Sir John Paston, about 1480, This perturbed state of affairs imparts especial interest to the correspondence, causing it to reflect the general condition of England during the period. It was a time of trouble, when the weakness of the Government had disorganized the administration in every branch, when the succession to the crown itself was contested, when great nobles lived in a condition of civil war, when the prevalent anarchy and discontent found expression in tumultuary insurrections like Cade's, countenanced, as the Paston letters show, by persons of condition, when any man's property might be assailed with or without colour of law by covetous rivals, and upstart families like the Pastons were especially exposed to attack. The correspondence therefore exhibits them in a great variety of relations to their neighbours, friendly or hostile, and abounds with illustrations of the course of public events, as well as of the manners and morals of the time. Nothing is more remarkable than the habitual acquaintance of educated people with the law, which was evidently indispensable to a person of substance. In its broader aspects the corre-spondence exhibits human nature much as it is now, except for the notable deficiency in public spirit, and the absence of large views or worthy interests in life. The contrast with our own times is instructive, showing how largely commerce and literature, art and travel, have contributed to augment moral and intellectual as well as material wealth. After the death of the second Sir John Paston, grandson of the judge, in 1479, the letters become scanty and of merely personal interest. The family continued to flourish. In the next century it produced Clement Paston, a distinguished naval commander under Henry VIII.; and in the days of Charles II. Sir Robert Paston was raised to the peerage as earl of Yarmouth. His son dissipated the hereditary property, and the title and the family
became extinct upon his death in 1732. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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