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Paston Letters

Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia

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PASTON LETTERS, an invaluable collection of letters and papers, consisting of the correspondence of members of the Paston family, and others connected with them, between the years 1422 and 1509, and also including some state papers and other important documents. The bulk of the letters and papers were sold by William Paston, 2nd earl of Yarmouth, the last representative of the family, to the antiquary Peter Le Neve early in the 18th century. On Le Neve's death in 1729 they came into the possession of Thomas Martin of Palgrave, who married his widow; and upon Martin's death in 1771 they were purchased by John Worth, a chemist at Diss, whose executors sold them three years later to John Fenn of East Dereham. In 1787 Fenn published a selection of the letters in two volumes, and general interest was aroused by this publication. In 1789 Fenn published two other volumes of letters, and when he died in 1794 he had prepared for the press a fifth volume, which was published in 1823 by his nephew, Serjeant Frere. In 1787 Fenn had received a knighthood, and on this occasion, the 23rd of May, he had presented the originals of his first two volumes to King George III. These manuscripts soon disappeared, and the same fate attended the originals of the three other volumes. In these circumstances it is not surprising that some doubt should have been cast upon the authenticity of the letters. In 1865 their genuineness was impugned by Herman Merivale in the Fortnightly Review; but it was vindicated on grounds of internal evidence by James Gairdner in the same periodical; and within a year Gairdner's contention was established by the discovery of the originals of Fenn's fifth volume, together with other letters and papers, by Serjeant Frere's son, Philip Frere, in his house at Dungate, Cambridgeshire. Ten years later the originals of Fenn's third and fourth volumes, with ninety-five unpublished letters, were found at Roydon Hall, Norfolk, the seat of George Frere, the head of the Frere family; and finally in 1889 the originals of the two remaining volumes were discovered at Orwell Park, Ipswich, the residence of Captain E. G. Pretyman. This latter batch of papers are the letters which were presented to George III., and which possibly reached Orwell through Sir George Pretyman Tomline (1750-1827), the tutor and friend of William Pitt, The papers which had been in the hands of Sir John Fenn did not, however, comprise the whole of the Paston letters which were extant. When the 2nd earl of Yarmouth died in 1732 other letters and documents relating to the Pastons were found at his seat, Oxnead Hall, and some of these came into the hands of the Rev. Francis Blomefield, who failed to carry out a plan to unite his collection with that of Martin. This section of the letters was scattered in various directions, part being acquired by the antiquary John Ives. The bulk of the Paston letters and documents are now in the British Museum; but others are at Orwell Park; in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; at Magdalen College, Oxford; and a few at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Fenn's edition of the Paston Letters held the field until 1872, when James Gairdner published the first volume of a new edition. Taking Fenn's work as a basis, the aim of the new editor was to include all the letters which had come to light since this publication, and in his careful and accurate work in three volumes (London, 1872-1875) he printed over four hundred letters for the first time. Gairdner's edition, with notes and index, also contained a valuable introduction to each volume, including a survey of the reign of Henry VI.; and he was just completing his task when the discovery of 1875 was made at Roydon. An appendix gave particulars of this discovery, and the unpublished letters were printed as a supplement to subsequent editions. In 1904 a new and complete edition of the Paston Letters was edited by Gairdner, and these six volumes, containing 1088 letters and papers, possess a very valuable introduction, which is the chief authority on the subject.

The family of Paston takes its name from a Norfolk village about twenty miles north of Norwich, and the first member of the family about whom anything is known was living in this village early in the 15th century. This was one Clement Paston (d. 1419), a peasant, holding and cultivating about one hundred acres of land, who gave an excellent education to his son William, and enabled him to study law. Making good use of his opportunities, William Paston (1378-1444), who is described as "a right cunning man in the law," attained an influential position in his profession, and in 1429 became a justice of the common pleas. He bought a good deal of land in Norfolk, including some in Paston, and improved his position by his marriage with Agnes (d. 1479), daughter and heiress of Sir Edmund Berry of Harlingbury, Hertfordshire. Consequently when he died he left a large and valuable inheritance to John Paston (1421-1466), the eldest of his five sons, who was already married to Margaret (d. 1484), daughter of John Mauteby of Mauteby. At this time England was in a very distracted condition. A weak king surrounded by turbulent nobles was incapable of discharging the duties of government, and only the strong man armed could hope to keep his goods in peace. A lawyer like his father, Paston spent much time in London, leaving his wife to look after his business in Norfolk; and many of the Letters were written by Margaret to her husband, detailing the progress of affairs in the county. It is during the lifetimes of John Paston and his eldest son that the Letters are most numerous and valuable, not only for family matters, but also for the history of England.

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