The Project

From about 1380 to 1750 the Pastons were one of Norfolk’s most important families. They rose from medieval peasants to become prominent members of the aristocracy, and key figures in the dynamic power-play and politics of the Tudor and Stuart courts. They were, in many ways, the first modern family. What makes the Paston family truly unique is that they left a vast collection of letters and accounts of their lives in late medieval Norfolk – the now famous Paston Letters. These documents tell stories of their everyday lives, as well as the wider events of the medieval world, and the enemies they made during their rise from obscurity to power. It is now 600 years since the first of the surviving Paston letters was written.

But there is far more to the story of the remarkable Paston family than the letters they have left behind. They gathered together treasures from across the globe, built great houses in which to display them, and became patrons of some of the finest artists and craftsmen of their day. The family fortunes were based upon the twin foundations of education and the ability to marry well, and they forged alliances with many of the leading families in England. Their influence and legacy extends across the region – from the remains of their formal gardens and ornate art treasures to their personal letters and correspondence.

The 600 Paston Footprints is a Heritage Lottery-funded project that will, through community collaboration and detailed research, produce a range of new resources that will help local people connect with the remarkable story of the Paston family. The project volunteers will take the story of the Pastons into schools and colleges across the region, introducing a new generation to their remarkable story. Walks and cycle-routes will be developed across Norfolk, each centred on a village or site that played a significant part in the Paston story, encouraging individuals to explore ‘Paston Country’ for themselves.

 

New research, coupling traditional archaeology with new technologies, will allow the project to investigate further the legacy that the Pastons left in the landscape. The lost houses of the Pastons, and the pleasure gardens that they built for themselves, will be fully recreated in 3D – allowing us to glimpse for the very first time a long lost heritage.

Yet the letters and documents of the Paston family remain a key part of the project. All of the accessible Paston letters, from the early fifteenth century to the eighteenth century, will finally be brought together in one place. A fully searchable on-line database will include modern transcriptions of many of the documents and allow the story of this remarkable family to be enjoyed by individuals across the globe.

Paston Footprints is a collaborative project between numerous local partner organisations, including the Paston Heritage Society, the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk Record Office. The three-year project will highlight the remarkable story of the Paston family and the times they lived through. In many respects, the Paston story is really just beginning…

Digitising the Paston Letters

It is now 600 years since the earliest of the documents known today as the Paston Letters was written, and over two and a half centuries since they were rediscovered in the ramshackle and ruined Oxnead Hall. Since that time they have become world famous – the earliest family correspondence in England, the oldest and largest collection of letters written in English, and a lost voice of the Middle Ages.  The letters take us around the villages and along the lanes of North and East Norfolk, and often through a plague-ridden and at times lawless city of Norwich. They take us behind the scenes of the bitter siege at Caister Castle and enable us to share in the attempted defence of Hellesdon Manor, beset by the Duke of Suffolk’s army. The turbulent years of the Wars of the Roses are chronicled from the perspective of a family trying desperately to navigate their way through troubled times, and to preserve their hard-won status and wealth.

The letters tell of the family’s triumphs and tragedies. But above all they tell of the everyday domestic details of a busy medieval household, aspects of which we would still find all too familiar today. The recipe for the ‘wholesome drink of ale’ found among William’s legal papers, for instance, or the slight edge of desperation in the tone of Margaret Paston’s letter to her husband John, complaining of the clothes he had sent for their children – “as for the caps that you sent me for the children, they be too little for them. I pray you buy them finer caps and larger than those were”.

Despite being written during momentous times, the charm of the letters is that they detail the everyday and the mundane. However, they also contain some unusual items. Among the medieval letters is what is thought to be the very earliest Valentine in English. Written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston in 1477, it addresses John as her ‘right well-beloved valentine’. But the letter was not all good news: Margery informed John that her family were refusing to increase her dowry ahead of the planned wedding – “but if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore”. He didn’t. The story had a happy ending, and the couple were eventually married in the autumn of that year.

Most people understand that the Paston Letters belong to the late medieval period, being written between 1418 and 1509, and are almost all now housed in the British Library. However, what many people don’t realise is that the members of the Paston family didn’t simply cease writing letters in 1509. Like all important families of the period, much of their business continued to be conducted by letter throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Not all of these letters survive, many having probably been destroyed at the same time that the medieval letters were saved at Oxnead Hall. However, there are two more large collections of correspondence from later periods now kept at the Norfolk Record Office, including those of Robert Paston, first Earl of Yarmouth, and a few additional letters in other collections.

The Paston Footprints project will, for the very first time, bring together all these documents in one place, and make them all freely accessible to the public. Alongside the original letters will be transcriptions, and modern translations to make these texts accessible to a new audience.

We are also going to use technology to link the letters together and make them fully searchable, so that you can see all the letters from one writer, or find the places that are mentioned in the letters.

It is hoped that, by bringing all these sources together in one place, we will ensure that one of Norfolk’s most famous families is known throughout the country, and that their writings from many centuries ago will inspire new generations to take an interest in the lessons of history.

Reconstructing the lost houses of the Pastons

The great irony of the history of the Pastons is that while the fragile letters they wrote have survived, the great buildings they constructed have all but gone. The mansions into which they put so much of their wealth and energy, and where they wrote many of the now famous letters, have almost all been lost to us.

The fortified manor house at Gresham, which was the scene of the violent dispute that saw Margaret Paston and her servants ejected from the house by armed men in 1448, is now no more than a series of earthworks and rubble covered by scrub and trees.
Likewise, William Paston’s great medieval house in the village of Paston was partly lost to fire less than a century after it was completed, and its Elizabethan replacement – a ‘great rose-coloured mansion’ – was in ruins by the middle of the eighteenth century. Today the house has gone, leaving behind it only the great Paston barn.

The original and magnificent Oxnead Hall, built in the late sixteenth century for Sir Clement Paston, was a fashionable mansion of mellow red brick that became the main home to the family. It was a place of comfort and luxury that displayed both the wealth and good taste of the Pastons for all to see.

In the 1630s the whole house was remodelled for Sir William Paston, sweeping away much of the Elizabethan house and leaving only the stables untouched. It was a house of treasures, statues and fine paintings, designed to showcase the wealth and status of the now great Paston family.

However, despite the massive expense to the family, the mansion of nearly 80 rooms soon shared the fate of the other Paston properties. By the middle years of the eighteenth century it too was described as being in ruins.
But it was here, beneath a leaking roof, that the now famous Paston letters were first discovered. The letters were thankfully saved, but the house was not. What little remained of the original house was recently restored, but it represents only a tiny fragment of what was once one of the most splendid houses in Norfolk.

Although very little was known about some of these great buildings, archaeology and technology can help unlock their stories in ways that have never before been possible. Using a combination of documentary evidence, geophysics, aerial surveys, earthwork surveys and traditional archaeology, the Paston Footprints project aims to bring together all possible sources of information about these buildings.

Working with a team of experts, the project aims to use this information to create full 3D re-creations of a number of them. These reconstructions will help us to understand, for the first time in centuries, what these houses really looked like. The project aims to place these buildings within their wider landscape settings and to bring to life once more the lost houses of the Pastons.