Though not as well known or historically as valuable as the 15th century Paston letters, the letters written in Robert Paston’s time (1635 – 1683) are of great interest and shed a fascinating light on the plight of the Paston family at Oxnead.
By the time of Robert’s birth in 1631 the Paston family were the richest gentry family in Norfolk. They achieved an earldom and the lord lieutenancy of the county in the 1670’s but only sixty years later they had completely disappeared, failing to survive what Robert called a “whirlpool of misadventure”. Their much loved house at Oxnead was demolished in 1732 and everything on the estate was sold to pay their extensive debts. Robert’s letters were written between 1663 and 1679 and cover the period in which King Charles 11 visited Robert at Oxnead. The majority of the letters are now held at the Norfolk records office.
Robert married Rebecca Clayton in 1651 and they enjoyed a long and happy marriage, despite their financial woes.
“When I take the penn in my hand to you I can never leave off, methinks I am conversing with you which to mee is the most pleasantest conversation in the world and the greatest joy I have in itt and expectation of your letters are the best expectation I have and the reading of them the pleasantest moments” – Robert Paston
Robert was a man of culture and scholarship with a keen interest in philosophy and alchemy. He undertook extensive grand tours of Europe accompanied by William Stone’s son, and also spent a great deal of time searching for the philosopher’s stone which was believed to turn base metal into gold.
Robert inherited the large house and beautifully embellished gardens at Oxnead and lived there as his principle home. In 1675 it was described by Lady Bedingfeld as:
“a terrestriall paradise: the gardens so sweet: so full of flowers, and so pleasant: the hous so cleane and so magnificient….nor did I ever in my life find anything in poetry or painting half so fine as what I saw at your house”.
The house at the time had 45 hearths and was luxuriously furnished with an extensive library and a large collection of pictures, including ‘The Paston Treasures’ and many objects d’art.
Robert had a great love for Oxnead which he described as “the sweetest place in the world” and despite his debts, he spent lavishly on improvements to the house and garden. In 1666 he wrote to his wife Rebecca concerning improvements to the chapel which was within the main house.
“I am glad you intend to mend the chappell, if itt be nott better then my designe Ile promise you Ile alter itt againe. I have sent to the stone cutter what shall be done with the arch in the hall…. Prey send mee up word the next in turne when your chapel will be readie for the coming down of the pavement and trulie I think, being I bestow a new marble chimney and harth on our eating parlour, and a new sut of guilt leather hangins…”
A year later Robert was intent on making Rebecca’s bedroom more comfortable…
“I am this day beginning a work which I thought nott to have told you of till you see itt, it’s the alteration of your lodging chamber, which I was faine to forsake for the wind and cold and ugly floor, I am beating out an alcove into the inner chamber for the bed to stand which shall be handsomely don. I have some stuff to hang it….straining it according to the fashion, and I remain yet in dispute whether I shall not wainscot the rest of the chamber and paint all white and gold…..The room shall be new floored, and I intend a small marble chimney peece….the alcove will be neat and very warm for I wonder hitherto you had nott been killed with itt”.
Robert’s lavish expenditure reached a peak with the visit of King Charles 11 in 1671. No trouble or expense was spared to make Oxnead the highlight of the KIng and Queen’s tour and vast accounts were run up with suppliers and trades. When the King commented that he was “safe in the house of his friend” – the expense must have seemed justified, but Robert, who had already been heavily in debt, declared that he had spent three times the dowry of an earl’s daughter on the visit. The accounts of 1672 show enterings for “when the King came to Oxnead” including payments to jewellers, watchmakers, cooks, pewterers, hat makers, confectioners, brewers, vintners, linen drapers and showmakers.
Despite his extensive preparations for the King’s visit, Robert was anxious that he did not have enough space to entertain both the King and Queen. In 1671, just before the visit, Robert visited his friend Henry Howard who wrote to his brother….
“Sir Robert is now with mee and in the greatest trouble and confusion I ever saw man for fear of missing of the honor of serving her Majesty. He was forced to confess that itt was impossible to lodge both their Majestyes att once with any convenience in his house….(the Queen alone was to be accompanied by 55 people)…I am sure that her Majesty who is all virtue, goodness and sweetness will never disoblige any persons as are ever ready day and night to creep on their hands and knees to serve and prey for her termporall and eterall happynesse…”
In return for Robert’s lavish entertainment at Oxnead, and his sustained support for the King, Charles 11 rewarded Robert generously but even this was not enough to stop the “whirlpool of misadventure”.
The financial ruin of the family can be attributed to various causes, including the lavish building and alterations to Oxnead, the costly grand tours, the accumulation of the Paston Treasures, the fines under the Commonwealth, financial support for the King when he was in exile, the King’s visit to Oxnead, Robert’s position as lord lieutenant, and the cost of Rebecca’s house in London. By the 1680’s Robert Paston was in financial ruin and with both his sons having predeceased him, the magnificent house at Oxnead was demolished and everything was sold to pay his debts.
Today various items from Oxnead are to be found in country estates throughout Norfolk and further afield, including the parterre fountain and statues of Hercules and Diana which are now at Blickiling Hall.