Anyone (or at least, anyone of a certain age) who studied medieval English history at school will have heard, however fleetingly, of the Paston Letters, and be dimly aware of their importance as a primary source of information on the social, political and economic history of the period.
We are about to reissue (in the third edition, first published in 1904) the most important nineteenth-century version of the letters, edited by James Gairdner (1828–1912). Gairdner himself was from an Edinburgh medical family, and began at the age of 18 to work as a clerk in the Public Record Office, where he stayed for the rest of his working life, becoming an assistant keeper in 1859 and retiring in 1893. (The honorary LL.D he was given by Edinburgh University in 1897 was the first degree he ever obtained.)
Gairdner’s work in the archives was focused on the period 1450–1550, and he was the editor of state and private papers from those 100 years, including the six volumes of the Paston letters. He also published original work on the same period, including the History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third and the four-volume Lollardy and the Reformation in England, also reissued in this series, though critics at the time and since believe his writing suffered from a lack of objectivity: ‘Such an expression as that Henry [VIII] was “in a more fiendish disposition than ever …” really prejudices the ordinary reader’, said J.P. Whitney in 1909.
Gairdner’s Introduction to the Paston Letters was felt by many to be his best work. After a preface – in which he explains the origin of the letters, and the historical vicissitudes which led part of them to be published in two quarto volumes in 1787 by Mr Fenn, an antiquarian of Norfolk, and enthusiastically publicised by Horace Walpole – the Introduction (which occupies the rest of Volume 1) discusses the Paston family. They were well-to-do Norfolk gentry in the fifteenth century, marrying into the nobility in the sixteenth, and producing Clement, a sea captain who lived from 1515 to 1598 and served the Crown from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Elizabeth I. Clement Paston died childless, his nephew William succeeding him: William’s descendants managed, in the course of the seventeenth century, to become ennobled (as Earls of Yarmouth) and to marry into the royal family (an illegitimate daughter of Charles II) – but the Paston estate could not bear the expenses of such magnificence. The second Earl of Yarmouth had to sell off his possessions, including the ancestral library, and the family seat was pulled down after his death and the building material salvaged and sold to pay his creditors. He had survived all his male relatives, and with him the direct line (and the title) became extinct.
But it is the earlier Pastons who come to life in the letters: Johns and Williams, Margarets and Margerys, their families, servants and friends, occupied with preserving their obscure Norfolk estate and their gentry status against local enemies and in the wider world during the turbulent period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. Members of the family wrote to each other frequently, on both important and relatively trivial matters, and – remarkably – almost all the letters were kept in the family home until the second earl lost that home, and eighteenth-century antiquarians and nineteenth-century scholars began to publish the texts from which a long-lost world could be re-created. In Volume 5, William Ebesham, a scribe, sends in a little bill to Sir John Paston: among other items, twenty pence for copying out ‘a litill booke of Pheesyk’, and a request: ‘I beseche you to send me for almes oon of your olde gownes . . .’. Two years later, in a letter from Sir John to his son John, largely about the dimensions of a family grave, ‘As ffor tydings, . . . Thomas Fauconbrydge hys hed was yesterdaye sett uppon London Bridge, loking into Kent . . .’. Fauconbridge had been involved in a failed plot to restore Henry VI to the throne, and had paid the price of failure. (This engraving is from 1616, but the heads of traitors, ‘looking into Kent’, can still be seen.)
The archaic spelling and vocabulary take a bit of getting used to for the uninitiated (like me! – I find reading aloud helps. . .), but it’s impossible to open any of these volumes and not be drawn in, if occasionally baffled. What’s ‘plonket chamlett’? A clue – John Paston had a ‘jaket’ made from it.