Paston Letters

Paston Letters

Paston Letters

Paston Letters

Excerpt

In 1787 John Fenn, a Norfolk antiquarian, published under the title Original Letters, Written during the Reigns of Henry VI. Edward IV. and Richard III. By various Persons of Rank or Consequence a selection from a large number of manuscripts in his possession. They had come into his hands, through several intermediate owners, from the estate of William Paston, second Earl of Yarmouth, who died in 1732 and with whom the main Paston line became extinct. To the first two volumes three were later added. Even in Fenn's day--and indeed before his edition was published --the collection came to be called 'the Paston Letters', and it was under this title that James Gairdner began in 1872 to publish his new edition, much augmented from manuscripts that Fenn had not printed. This edition was further expanded in 1900, and finally revised in 1904. Most of the manuscripts had by then been acquired by the British Museum, but an important group remained in private hands until 1935; a few are in other libraries.

The collection forms a fairly compact series of over a thousand documents from about 1420 until soon after 1500. Most of them are letters, about a third written by or for members of the Paston family and most of the others written to them by estate servants or friends. Their preservation we owe chiefly to John Paston I (d. 1466); for during his long absences from home, in his attempts to secure his title to property, his indefatigable wife Margaret managed the estates and wrote to him reporting what she had done and asking for advice and instructions. Many of these letters, and others like them from his clerks and bailiffs, John filed; and this careful habit was continued after his death by his widow and their sons. Thus, though letters written by John I himself are comparatively few, he long dominates the correspondence because while he lived most of the letters were written to him. After his death the proportions are much more even, for his two eldest sons, both named John, kept each other's letters as well as their mother's. After Margaret's death in 1484 there are relatively few family letters, and the series virtually ends with the death of John III in 1503.

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