Virgoe, Roger (ed). Private Life in the Fifteenth Century: Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family.

NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989

Not many people ever have heard of the Paston family of Norfolk during the Wars of the Roses, not even most historians. They weren’t peers at that time, though they became connected to several titled families over the course of a century. They came from the northeast part of the county, along the coast, where there were few large estates and, like many families in the area, the Pastons had long been free yeoman farmers, not required to perform much in the way of service for local lords.

Their holdings were small to begin with, but they ran them efficiently and they married well, which brought more lands into the family. Clement Paston, the founder of the modern family, and who died in 1419, was only that — a farmer, with no social status worth mentioning. But he made money and his son, William, born in 1378, inherited not only his land but his uncle’s, and was trained as a lawyer. He was very active in Norfolk and became steward to the Duke of Norfolk and then to the Bishop of Norwich. His wife brought in a dowry of yet more lands which passed on to their son, another William. And so it went, until by the 1480s, the Pastons were supplying justices of the peace, sheriffs, and Members of Parliament, and John Paston was knighted after the Battle of Stoke, the last pitched battle in the Wars of the Roses. And how do we know all of this? What the Pastons were was great correspondents. They wrote (or, in the cases of some of their unschooled wives, dictated) lengthy letters discussing business matters, what shopping needed doing the next time someone was in London, how their children should be educated, and how to avoid the bouts of the Plague that recurred periodically. And they passed on loads of gossip about their neighbors of all social stations. They commented on the doings of five different monarchs during the wars between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions, made plans to be on the right political side, and considered how to make the best use of their increasing connections at court. The volume takes the family through Bosworth Field, where the Earl of Richmond became Henry VII. One of Henry Tudor’s principal followers was the Earl of Oxford, and the Earl’s steward was another John Paston. As might be expected of such an ambitious and energetic family, the Pastons did well out of their association with the Tudor dynasty and the main line eventually were created Earls of Yarmouth, but the 2nd earl was the last of the line and the Pastons, as a distinct family, disappeared with his death in 1732.

Virgoe, an academic historian from East Anglia and a specialist in this period, has selected only about twenty percent of the surviving correspondence, has expertly recast most of it in modern English, and has provided an excellent supporting apparatus of historical context, explanatory sidebars, associated biographical sketches, a useful glossary of terms that don’t translate well, and many, many color illustrations to make everything more accessible to the non-specialist reader. The Paston letters have been published before but I highly recommend this selected edition to anyone with an interest in 15th-century England or in English social history generally.


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