‘So violent and motley was life that it bore the mixed smell of blood and of roses.’ Helen Castor quotes Johan Huizinga’s description of the waning of the Middle Ages at the very end of her book, with something approaching a denial of its relevance to her own account of the same period. ‘Blood and roses’ suggests violence and sex – or at least violence and sentimentality. The roses most relevant to the story are in fact those of York and Lancaster, whose surges of hostility wrecked almost every one of the Paston family’s schemes for advancement just as they were coming to fruition. The Pastons managed to avoid most of the bloodshed directly associated with the civil war, but there was plenty of violence at a local level, and although no members of the family were killed it was more luck than circumstance that preserved them; a well-padded doublet proved useful even on the streets of Norwich. And the sentimentality, if not the sex, largely came second to economic considerations.
The Pastons were minor Norfolk gentry who were doing their best to rise in the world. They would be no more distinctive than scores of other comparable 15th-century families were it not for their habit of preserving the letters they wrote: letters that constitute the period’s most comprehensive archive of private papers, and for many years the only one known. They were discovered in the jumble of documents left by the impoverished second Earl of Yarmouth, himself a Paston, in 1735. When they were published fifty years later, the edition sold out within a week. Since then, and despite the discovery of other collections, they have made their writers the most intimately known family of the English Middle Ages. The lives of kings and princes may be more celebrated, and we may have far more records relating to the major aristocratic families, but the Paston letters supply individual voices. The correspondence extends over four generations of both men and women – indeed, her letters make Margaret Paston, wife of John Paston I, one of the most prolific woman writers in Middle English. She repeatedly urged her husband to come home, to pursue the family’s interests from Norfolk rather than London; it is our good fortune that he didn’t.
The intimacy of the letters can create problems for readers. You feel you are getting to know the people who wrote them, but you are frequently in the dark as to what they are writing about. There is no need for explanation when the correspondents know what is going on and who is being talked about, however baffled a reader outside that circle of familiarity may be by passing references to ‘these matters that you have in hand now’, or ‘the other thing that you sent me’, or the recurrent ‘et cetera’. It is very difficult to get a sense of the master narrative unfolding in the letters. Hence, perhaps, the tendency of most popularising accounts to select the entertaining detail: the shopping lists, the rows between the matriarch Agnes and her too long unmarried daughter, the whale washed up on the Norfolk coast, the family scandal when the young Margery Paston fell in love with the bailiff and married him. It’s enthralling material, and good for a few historical novels along the way; but it’s not, as Castor demonstrates, what the story of the Pastons is actually about.
The many collections or selections of the letters that have been produced since the 18th century have tended to bypass the problem of the master narrative. Footnotes or linking passages can give an immediate context, but not the larger picture. Norman Davis’s comprehensive edition went so far as to separate into different volumes the letters written by various members of the family and those written to them. His emphasis falls on documentary description rather than story, and especially on the question of who wrote what, in the most literal sense. Writing was the medieval equivalent of touch-typing, a mechanical skill quite separate from reading, though one learned primarily by men; the women accordingly were more likely to dictate their letters to scribes or secretaries. Female authorship is highlighted in Diane Watt’s recent selection of the women’s letters, which arranges them by correspondent.Her strategy foregrounds their individual voices, among them those of two of John Paston II’s mistresses; and if the survival of the voice of a gentry wife is rare, these words from the margin are almost unparalleled. Colin Richmond used the letters as a source for his meticulously learned reconstructions of the events to which they refer, but his series The Paston Family in the 15th Century floats above its footnotes like oil on water, and it takes a devoted historian to appreciate his climactic moments (‘And here we arrive at a critical point in the history of East Beckham’). Castor by contrast manages to convey an intimate understanding of the correspondents, giving a sense of how their minds and their emotions worked; and it isn’t just a series of episodes that she recounts, but a single developing story of one family’s attempts to establish themselves as people of standing by acquiring land.
That larger story starts in the late 14th century, when the family’s forebear Clement was no more than a bondman who rode to the mill ‘on the bare horseback with his corn under him’ – or so their enemies later claimed. It was a dangerous rumour, tricky enough to overturn their pretensions to gentry status, and was seen off only when Edward IV accepted a fraudulent pedigree that gave them as ancestor a man who had come over with William the Conqueror, to whom was assigned the gloriously Saxon name of Wulstan. Clement did, however, have enough money to send his son, William, to train as a lawyer; and William’s phenomenal success in his career enabled him not only to acquire a number of estates, but to hold onto them against all opposition. Land, and especially land that was acquired by some means other than direct father-to-son inheritance over many generations, was a commodity that too many other people desired. The story of William’s descendants is the story of how they tried, and largely failed, not only to keep what William had left them, but to enlarge their territorial base beyond even his dreams. Their attempts were made particularly difficult by the fact that neither William nor his eldest son, John (known as John I to distinguish him from the next generation of Johns), nor the wealthy but childless knight who made John I his heir, was capable of drawing up a sensible will and sticking to it. A written will could carry at least some weight; a claim that the testator had changed his mind on his deathbed, even when he had done so before witnesses, was an open invitation to a challenge, and there was no shortage of challengers.
The result was not exactly a breakdown of law: the evidence was so contested, and the law itself so dependent on the processes of political patronage, that almost anything could be justified or rejected by the courts with some show of legality. ‘The heirs of those who had offered estates for sale,’ as Castor notes, ‘often acted as though such transactions were an illegitimate interruption of their rightful possession’; and even the most tenuous connection might be enough for a land-hungry man to stake a claim in law, to demand rents off the tenants, or simply to march in and take possession by force. The Pastons’ manor of Gresham, securely purchased by William, was seized by the previous owner’s heir, who ignored all attempts to dislodge him by legal process. When John’s long-suffering wife, Margaret, took up occupation in a house next to the manor so as to make the family’s presence felt, she sent her husband an urgent request for crossbows, poll-axes and armoured jackets, along with an order for sugar, almonds and material for making clothes for the children. Her anxiety was justified: not long afterwards, the house was attacked and partly destroyed by an armed force who threw her out bodily and looted and trashed what was left of it. Their estate at Hellesdon was attacked and ransacked by a private army of the Duke of Suffolk. Other men grabbed land with equal ruthlessness but more subtlety. One of the Pastons’ less attractive acquaintances, Thomas Daniel, got his foothold in Norfolk by promising his sister in marriage to the head of a local family and persuading him to sign over his land in trust in preparation for the marriage settlement, only to reveal that the girl was already married. Daniel held onto the lands.
The Pastons spent much of the century involved in either litigation or overt conflict over the various estates to which they laid claim, and of those, the most substantial, and therefore the most desirable, was Caister. It had been the birthplace of Sir John Fastolf, who had made his name and his fortune in the French wars and used part of the proceeds to build himself a magnificent residence there. It was coveted by everyone with interests in the area – Thomas Daniel, the Duke of Norfolk, the Duchess of York and various others; and not least by John Paston I, who was a close confidant of the old knight and helped him run his affairs. Fastolf himself wanted a college founded there, and drew up a will to that effect. Before he died, however, he revised his wishes – or rather, made it more likely that they would be carried out – by naming John as his heir to all his estates in Norfolk and Suffolk, Caister included; in return, John was to make a fairly notional payment to the other executors, and ensure that Fastolf’s intentions concerning the college were carried through.
The plan promised every bit as much trouble as did indeed ensue. The new will depended entirely on the word of the witnesses present in the room when Fastolf had made it, and John’s increasingly obsessive pursuit of his own interests regardless of the claims of the knight’s other long-suffering and under-rewarded servants rapidly alienated them from him. His wife, his chaplain and various friends all urged him to act with more tact – the giving of advice being second in popularity only to litigation as a 15th-century occupation – but he succeeded in quarrelling with almost everyone, even, at one point, with Margaret. He still kept a tenuous hold on the castle at the time of his death, but it was soon lost to the Duke of Norfolk, after a siege of several weeks during which two of the most loyal family retainers were killed. Insult was added to injury when the Paston son who had defended the castle found himself threatened with arrest for riotous conduct when resisting the duke. It took 17 years of struggle and Norfolk’s own death before the estate was finally ceded to the Pastons.
If John Paston I tended towards the stubborn and insensitive, his eldest son, John II, was regarded by his parents as a flibbertigibbet. While John I was alive, Margaret did her best to reconcile father and son and constantly wrote up the young man’s achievements, but after her husband’s death she felt it incumbent on her to take on his role as castigator. John II seems to have been constitutionally averse to responsibility. One of his two recorded mistresses bore him an illegitimate child, but he never married. In his teens, he was sent off to hang around the edges of the court in the hope that he would find a strong patron, preferably the king himself, who would serve as protector of the family’s interests, but he found it difficult to achieve any foothold, and was not helped by his father’s refusal to fund the courtly lifestyle that upward ambition required. He was not even on the list of those who could eat and drink at the king’s expense. He did eventually get recognition, being knighted when he came of age and jousting alongside Edward IV; and he developed an interest in the rituals of chivalry, alongside a fondness for romances and the popular plays of Robin Hood and St George. He still had trouble acquiring the powerful patron the family so sorely needed – and whenever he did, a revolution in national politics intervened to remove that patron from power. The family did their best to avoid being drawn into the disputes over the crown; when they did finally commit themselves, fighting on the side of their own supporter the Earl of Oxford, it was the wrong one – Lancastrian, at the moment when the Yorkists emerged triumphant.
It was the younger brother who was the charmer of the family. Confusingly, he too was christened John, perhaps, as Castor suggests, because both brothers had godfathers of that name. The family never seem to have had any trouble in knowing which one they were talking about, but he is known to historians as John III. His brother’s failure to produce a legitimate heir meant that on his death, aged 37, it was this John who took over the family’s tribulations and what remained of their estates. More lawsuits followed, this time over the lands of his grandmother, William’s widow. The family trials were, however, almost at an end. John III wisely kept a low profile at the Tudor takeover, but the Battle of Bosworth brought the Earl of Oxford back to favour. John supported the new regime wholeheartedly, and this time he made the advantageous choice. His fortunes were further helped by a series of deaths, not just of old enemies, but of his stalwart mother, Margaret, who had done so much to protect the family’s interests, and whose lands now reverted to him. His success, however, helped spell the end of the correspondence. He was made sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk shortly after Henry VII’s accession, and so could keep in touch with his wife and household in person. In an age of arranged marriages, he had made a love match. It was through his blood-line that the Paston name was passed down, along with Caister Castle and the hoard of letters.
The Pastons are not yet household names in the fashion of the wives of Henry VIII. Rumours of the size of the advance Castor was given nonetheless recognise that this is a work of scholarship that will catch readers’ imagination in the same way. It isn’t a book written primarily for academics: Castor is always ready to explain and inform, but she does it in a way that assumes her readers lack specialist knowledge rather than intelligence. She slips much of the information into parentheses or similar subclauses, so that even those familiar with the subject don’t feel they are being taught what they already know. A paragraph is devoted to larger topics such as the history and curriculum of Cambridge University, or life in the Fleet Prison under its lady warden: one of a series of redoubtable women whose careers suggest that while medieval women collectively may, in the modern cliché, have been enjoined to chastity, silence and obedience, individually they rarely attempted more than one. Castor remains faithful to the language her characters spoke and wrote, modernising spelling but not translating. She is also exceptionally good at explaining the niceties of 15th-century law as well as the complexities of family and patronage ties. This is a book that demonstrates how serious history can now achieve a generous market beyond the academy, without compromising its standards or its priorities.