Paston Letters

   The letters and papers of the Pastons, a politically active East Anglian GENTRY family, comprise the largest and best known archive of private correspondence to survive from the fifteenth century. Because the family’s landholdings were constantly threatened by powerful local magnates, the Pastons’ political attitudes were shaped by their ongoing need for royal favor and for powerful patrons at COURT who could help secure such favor. Thus, for the earlier phases of the WARS OF THE ROSES, the Paston letters offer valuable insights into the interaction of local and national politics and the nature of political allegiance. The Paston archive contains over one thousand documents—mainly letters to and from the family—that cover the period from 1418 to 1506, although the most numerous and interesting items relating to national politics date between the late 1450s and 1471. In 1459, John Paston I (1421–1466) inherited the extensive Norfolk and Suffolk estates of Sir John Fastolf, with whom Paston had formed a close connection over the previous decade. Because both John MOWBRAY, third duke of Norfolk, and John de la POLE, duke of Suffolk, disputed Paston’s claim to the Fastolf lands, and especially to the magnificent new manor house at Caister, Paston spent the rest of his life defending his inheritance against lawsuits and attempts at forcible seizure. Much of the Paston correspondence in the 1460s concerns the family’s attempts to win the favor of EDWARD IV and of influential members of his family and court. Paston’s eldest son, John Paston II (1442–1479), became a member of the royal household, and his younger son, John Paston III (1444–1504),was attached to the household of John MOWBRAY, fourth duke of Norfolk. Despite these connections, and approaches to Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, members of the WOODVILLE FAMILY, and other prominent courtiers, the Pastons’ hold on the Fastolf estates continued to be tenuous. In August 1469, after Warwick rebelled and took the king into custody, Norfolk used the temporary eclipse of the Crown to attack Caister, which fell to the duke after a fiveweek siege (see Caister Castle, Siege of). Even after Edward regained his freedom, continuing tension with Warwick made Norfolk’s support vital to the king and denied the Pastons any hope of royal support. Accordingly, in 1470, the family welcomed the READEPTION of HENRY VI and the house of LANCASTER. The new regime restored Caister to the Pastons, who in April 1471 fought with Warwick against the house of YORK at the Battle of BARNET. However, the subsequent Yorkist restoration (see Edward IV, Restoration of) allowed Norfolk to repossess the manor house and forced the Pastons to seek pardon from Edward IV. Norfolk held Caister until his death (without male heirs) in 1476, when the Pastons finally recovered the house, perhaps through the good offices of Anthony WOODVILLE, Earl Rivers, and William HASTINGS, Lord Hastings, influential Yorkist courtiers whom the Pastons had carefully cultivated during the 1470s.
   Because the volume and political content of the family’s correspondence declines sharply after the death of John Paston II in 1479, the letters are much less useful for the reign of RICHARD III and the final stage of the Wars of the Roses. Although the Pastons’ inheritance problems and the intense political activity they generated may have been atypical for a gentry family of the period, the Paston letters, like the correspondence preserved in the contemporary CELY, PLUMPTON, and STONOR archives, are also valuable sources for the social history of the fifteenth century.
   Further Reading: Bennett, H. S., The Pastons and Their England: Studies in an Age of Transition, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Davis, Norman, ed., The Paston Letters: A Selection in Modern Spelling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Davis, Norman, ed. Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1971, 1976); Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies, A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England (New York: HarperCollins, 1998); Richmond, Colin, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century: The First Phase (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Richmond, Colin, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century: Fastolf’s Will (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);Virgoe,Roger, ed., Private Life in the Fifteenth Century: Illustrated Letters of the Paston Family (New York:Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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