The Paston family are today probably most famous for the letters which they wrote to each other between 1418 and 1509. Over 1000 letters from that period were found at Oxnead in 1735. They are the only known collection of personal letters from that period written in English. The letters consist of personal correspondence between family members at a time when most correspondence was written in Latin and most men – and almost all women – were illiterate. The correspondence details the struggles, achievements and feelings of family members and give an invaluable insight into life in the 15th century. Many of the sentiments and concerns are fully recognisable today, as illustrated in these excerpts of letters from the 1440’s.
On 20th April 1440, Agnes writes to her husband William describing the first meeting of their son John to his future wife Margaret.
“Blessed be God I send you good tidings of the coming, and the bringing home, of the gentlewoman that you know of…..as for the first acquaintance between John Paston and the gentlewoman, she made him gentle cheer in gentle wise, and said he was truly your son. And so I hope there shall need no great treaty between them. If you would buy her a gown, her mother would give thereto a goodly fur. The gown needs to be bought, and of colour it would be a goodly blue, or else a bright sanguine.”
In the year after their marriage, on December 14th 1441 Margaret Paston writesto her husband from Oxnead. John Paston has been away from home for some time, and Margaret is heavily pregnant. She has outgrown her clothing and needs a new gown and girdle to see her through the winter. She comments that her advanced pregnancy constantly reminds her of her husband, when she would prefer to be sleeping!
“Right reverend and worshipful husband I recommend me to you, desiring heartily to hear of your welfare….my mother sent my father to London for a gown cloth…to make a gown for me…for I have no gown to wear this winter but my black and my green, and that is so cumbrous that I am weary to wear it. As for the girdle…I prey you, if ye dare take it upon you, that ye will vouchsafe to do make it against ye come home, for I had never more need thereof than I have now, for I am wax so fetis (‘neat’ or ‘elegant’) that I may not be girt in no bar of no girdle that I have but of one.
I may no longer live by my craft (hide my pregnancy): I am discovered of all men that see. I prey you that you will wear the ring with the image of St Margaret (patron saint of pregnant women) I sent you for a remembrance till you come home. Ye have left me such a remembrance that maketh me to think upon you both day and night when I would sleep.”
The Holy Trinity have you in his keeping. Written at Oxnead in right great haste on the Thursday before Saint Thomas Day.
The first child was born in 1442 and the following year, Margaret was pregnant again. She wrote from Oxnead to John who was in London with great concern as he had “a great disease”.
“My mother (Agnes) sent four nobles (gold crowns) to the four orders of Friars at Norwich to pray for you, and I have promised to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham for you. By my troth, I never had so heavy a season from the time that I knew of your sickness until I knew of your amending, and still my heart is in no great ease, nor shall be, till I know that you be very hale. I would rather have you than have a gown, though it were of scarlet…I hope you should be kept as tenderly here as you are in London. Almighty God have you in his keeping and send you health. Your son fares well, blessed be God.”
The Paston women write prolifically not only about personal matters, but about politics, disputes, legal matters, construction work and warfare.
In 1445 Agnes Paston writes to her son Edmond requesting building materials “find out how many joists will suffice for the parlour and the chapel at Paston, and what length they need to be and what breadth and thickness they need to be. Because it was your father’s wish …that they should be nine inches one way and nine the other way, and therefore arrange that they are squared and sent here for none of this kind can be had here in this region.”
And in 1448 Margaret Paston writes to her husband John. In his absence she was defending their house in Gresham against enemies and needs crossbows and arrows “for your house here is so low that there may no man shoot out with a long bow…and also I would that you should get two or three short poleaxes…and as many jacks (a form of body armour) as you may”
A little later in the 1400’s the first known Valentines letter was written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston. In her letter of February 14th 1477 she describes the pain she feels in being separated from him.
“Right reverend and worshipful and my right well-beloved Valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve….And if it pleases you to hear how I am, I am not in good health, in body nor in heart, nor will be until I hear from you. For no one knows what pain it is I suffer and even on pain of death I dare not disclose it. But if you love me, as I truly believe you do, you will not leave me…because even if you did not have half the wealth that you do, and I had to undertake the greatest toil that any women alive should, I would not forsake you….I will indeed do everything in my power to love you and no one else ever….My heart commands me to love you truly above all earthly things for evermore.”
The letters were first transcribed from Medieval English into modern English in 1787 by John Fenn and original copies of these transcriptions are still at Oxnead. The original collection of Paton letters are now in the British Museum.