The Paston Letters

"The largest surviving collection of 15th-century English correspondence. It is invaluable to historians and philologists and is preserved mainly in the British Museum. Part is derived from the circle of the career soldier Sir John Fastolf (c. 1378-1459), and part is from the correspondence of the Fastolf's neighbours in eastern Norfolk.

One of Fastolf's servants, William Worcester, collected material for personal historical research as well as evidence for several lawsuits involving Fastolf. The Pastons involved in the letters include William (d. 1444), who became a justice of the Court of Common Pleas; his son John I (d. 1466), a London lawyer; John's two sons, John II (d. 1479) and John III (d. 1503), both of whom were knighted; and their respective wives and children. The collection of more than 1,000 items contains legal records, local and national news, and gossip; through all this, the characters of the writers emerge vividly.

Reasons for the initial preservation of the letters must include the desirability, in the litigious world of 15th-century Norfolk, of possessing all possible evidence that might be valuable in lawsuits; employees and estate managers too were eager to preserve their warrants for their expenditures and actions.

How the Paston Letters were kept from the 15th to the 18th century is unknown, but in 1735 Francis Blomefield explored the muniment room at Oxnead, the Paston family seat in Norfolk. He preserved letters judged "of good consequence in history' – these eventually being acquired by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the British Museum. John Fenn of East Dereham, Norfolk, edited four volumes of Original Letters (1787-89); a fifth volume, completed by William Frere, was published posthumously in 1823. The collection was reedited by James Gairdner as The Paston Letters, 1422-1509 in six volumes in 1904.

The collection remains of outstanding interest to philologists as evidence of the English language at a crucial period in its development. For historians, the letters are a primary source for the political history of 15th-century England and also for the domestic history of medieval English provincial society."

"Paston Letters. "Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. [Accessed July 3, 2008].

Extracts from the Paston Letters:

Right Of Way

On Thursday the wall was made a yard high, and a good while before evening it rained so sore that they were fain to heel the wall (lay it on its side) and leave work. And the water has fallen so sore that it stands under the wall a foot deep towards Ball's land. And on Friday, after the Mass, someone came from the Church and shoved down all that was there, and trod on the wall and broke some, and went over it; but I cannot yet know who it was...

Warin Harman on Sunday said openly in the churchyard that he knew well that if the wall were put down, even though he were a hundred miles away from Paston, I would say that he did it and he should bear the blame; and said – tell it who so will, though it should cost me 20 nobles it shall be put down again... And John Marchall said that there was a respectable woman came by for watering and found the way stopped and asked him who had stopped the way, and he said "those that had power to give", and asked her what was freer than a gift; and she said that she had seen the day when the men of Paston would not have suffered it...

Siege Of Caister, 1469

Your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister, and are lacking in victuals. Daubeney and Berney are dead and other badly hurt, and gunpowder and arrows are lacking. The place is badly broken down with the guns of the other party, so that, unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman, for every man in this country marvels greatly that you suffer them to be for so long in great jeopardy without help or other remedy.

Mother, on Saturday last Daubeney and Berney were alive and merry, and I suppose that there has come no man out of the place since who could have informed you of their deaths... I think that a truce will be made for another week, by which time I hope that a good conclusion will be found.

As for the surrender of Caister, John Chapman can tell you as well as myself how we were forced to it... Writtle promised to send you the details of the agreement. We were sore lacking in victuals, gunpowder and men's hearts, and lack of certainty of rescue drove us to make the treaty.