Whilst the Paston family can be reasonably described as a modern family in our understanding of them, they were also very much a product of their time – and nowhere is this more demonstrably true than with Clement Paston. Born sometime soon after the Black Death of 1349, he was very much of humble origins in comparison to his descendants. The labour shortage caused by the death toll from the outbreak meant that many workers were able to command higher rates than was previously the case and he took full advantage of this, his increased status leading to a rewarding marriage to Beatrice Somerton, who was well connected enough for the couple to have ambitions for their son William.
Whilst the fortunes of the Paston family are never far from dramatic, it is perhaps with John I that things are at their most turbulent. John inherited the wealth and lands of his father William at the young age of 22, having benefited from an education and career in law as his father before him. However, John’s professional reputation was not as unblemished, and controversy arose when he claimed to have been named as the sole inheritor of the estate of Sir John Falstolfe. Falstolfe was closely related to John Paston’s wife Margaret (nee Mautby), and had appointed John I as his lawyer, allegedly summoning John to his deathbed to make his wishes known, setting aside previous wills. The higher echelons of Norfolk society were not convinced of the veracity of this, and battles both legal and physical ensued. John I was even briefly imprisoned whilst the case was being debated. Despite eventually being exonerated, John did not live long after to enjoy his victory.
Despite the Paston’s newfound prominence, scandal was never far away, and in 1469, the Paston’s bailiff, Richard Calle, responsible for managing the family’s finances, was discovered to have embarked upon a passionate love affair with John II’s sister Margery. Not only was this a blow to the family’s aim of making a profitable marriage for Margery, Calle was descended from a family of shopkeepers, which horrified her mothers and brothers. The further discovery of clandestine vows between Margery and Richard added further to their dismay, and Richard was dismissed from the Paston’s employment, but not before he was able to take possession of certain documents that were crucial to the Paston’s income. Following a ruling by the Bishop’s Court in Norwich that the ‘marriage’ between Margery and Richard was valid, the Pastons realised that they needed not only the documents that Calle held, but also his financial acumen. Margaret and Richard were reunited, and he was his status as bailiff reinstated, although he was never accepted by the family despite his loyal service to them.
The subject of what is considered to be the first ‘Paston Letter’, William benefited from his parents newfound wealth and status by receiving a formal education, paid for by his uncle, Geoffrey Somerton. This allowed him to become a lawyer, amassing both further wealth and a successful reputation in law, as a steward, as a Justice for the Peace and the epithet ‘the Good Judge’. Perceived as capable, fair and effective, he represented many prosperous clients, including the Crown itself, which brought numerous rewards. Cementing his position further, William added significantly to the Paston properties, both from his own money and through his marriage to Agnes Berry in 1420.
Of all the Paston women, Margaret is perhaps the most formidable character who emerges from the sheaves of the Paston Letters. Married to John I, she, as Agnes had before her, combined the management of the Paston estates with increasing the dynasty of the family, bearing seven surviving children. In addition to this, she fought the battles of John I, both politically and practically, as at the siege of their property in Caister, when the Duke of Norfolk attempted to take the building by force. Clearly as ambitious as her husband, when she wasn’t seeking to protect her family’s reputation, she actively sought to promote it, establishing her two eldest sons (both called John) in positions of influence and where they could obtain advantageous information.
1444 – 1513
Son of John I, and younger brother to John II, John III was another pawn in his parents desire to extend their influence and importance. Sent to be a page in the household of the Duchess of Norfolk, he was therefore privy to certain gossip and information he dutifully passed back to his parents to further their interests. John III, like his elder brother, also fought in the Wars of the Roses, changing sides for expediency, a gamble which paid off when Henry VII came to the throne in 1485. As second son, John III was not expected to inherit, and would have to make his own fortune. However, when John II died childless in 1479 (but for one illegitimate daughter), John III inherited from him, and through his marriage to Margery Brews in 1477, created the next generation of Pastons.
Having neglected matrimony in favour of his career, William married Agnes when he was at the relatively late age of 42, and she was 20 years his junior. The co-heiress of Hertfordshire knight Sir Sir Edmund Berry, she brought more to the marriage than merely financial gain. Whilst William was away attending to his legal duties, Agnes was in charge of the estates in Norfolk, acting as a more than capable deputy, ably dealing with the demands placed upon her, as well as providing William with several children. Despite the advantageous nature of the marriage, it appears to have also been a happy one, judging from their correspondence. Following William’s death in 1444, Agnes remained as the matriarch of her tribe as they continued their upward rise.
As a sign of the Paston’s increasing prominence, and to reinforce their status, Margaret and John’s eldest son was sent to the court of King Edward IV in 1461, financially supported by his father and his uncle, Clement Paston II, although this placed a considerable strain on the family purse, with numerous references being made to both the cost and their frustration at his initial lack of progress through the ranks of court. Such problems however evaporated when he found his calling as a jouster at royal tournaments, as well as acquitting himself well during the Wars of the Roses, although he fought on both sides, seemingly adopting whichever cause seemed most beneficial to he and his family. For his services, he was knighted – a sign of just how far the family had risen in little over a century, and an honour that his grandfather Clement could never have imagined.
Margery Brews, the daughter of Sir Thomas Brews, demonstrates just how the story of the Paston family can veer from hard nosed ambition to deeper personal feelings. Although she was betrothed to John Paston III, he was reluctant to marry her unless her parents increased her dowry, which inspired her to write what is considered to be the earliest existing Valentine (or ‘Voluntyne’) in the English language, where she promises to be a good wife, telling John III ‘if you love me, I trust… you will not leave me’ (If that ye loffe me as Itryste verely that ye do ye will not leffe me’).. Whether this heartfelt missive swayed John III we cannot say, although the couple did marry later that same year, and their son William continued the story of the Pastons. Whether Margery’s letter was a genuine expression of love or a shrewd move to ensure she married well, her letter continues to have a charm and attraction over 500 years later.