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The First English Family Letters

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Maurice Keen chronicles a set of 15th century letters - the product of everyday communication between English gentry and officialdom - and suggests how their contents may change the reader's views of the late middle ages. Helen Castor offered her own contemporary historiographical account in 2010.

The fifteenth century is withut any great chronicle; it has no Froissart, no Mathew Paris to tell its story once and for all. The chronicles of London or of the White Rose are disjointed and fragmentary; many of the most famous incidents of the Wars of the Roses are known to us only through the writings of the Tudor historians. But if chronicle histories are less numerous and less comprehensive than before, in the fifteenth century a new source for historical study becomes for the first time important—collections of private letters. The word private is important; letters have survived from earlier periods, but they are mostly of an official nature—the formal letters of public men about public business. Families like the Pastons and the Stonors, however, who now begin to leave us their correspondence, although locally people of wealth and weight, were not in the forefront of political affairs. They were well-established gentry, the middle people, for whom political events had their sometimes terrible consequences but were were not themselves responsible for them. Their testimony is doubly interesting: not only are their letters a valuable record, they also give us a touchstone whereby to gauge thc reaction of the ordinary, prosperous individual to contemporary events. 

Moreover, even in the simple matter of events the letters can furnish us with valuable evidence. Among the Paston letters there is one dating from 1440 that throws interesting light on the negotiations undertaken with France through the Duke of Orleans, who had been a prisoner in England since Agincourt, and on the Duke of Gloucester’s opposition both to his release and to the policy of peace:

“The Duke of Orleans hath made his oath on the sacrament, never to bear arms against England, in the presence of the King and all the Lords, except my Lord of Gloucester, and proving my said Lord Gloucester never agreed to his deliverance, when the mass began he took to his barge.” 

Throughout the letters, passages like this crop up, giving a sudden and more vivid glimpse of some event of the time. 

The Paston letters do not really become important for the political historian until about the time of the fall of Henry VI’s favourite, the Duke of Suffolk. Although they had on occasion suffered at his hands, the Pastons were warmly on the side of their great neighbour; the articles of his impeachment were interesting enough to John Paston for him to preserve a copy of them, and this reaction of his is almost as interesting as the document itself. William Lomnour’s letter to Paston—” a little bill so washed with tears that hardly ye shall read it” —is easily the best account of the Duke’s cruel death on his way to exile, at the hands of pirates.

“In the sight of all his men he was drawn out of the great ship into the boat; and there was an axe and a stock, and one of the lewdest of the ship bade him lay down his head, and he should be fair fared with and die on a sword; and he took a rusty sword and smote off his head with half-a-dozen strokes; and they took away his gown of russet and his doublet of velvet mailed, and laid his body on the sands of Dover.”

Again, among the Stonor letters there is an excellent account of the first battle of St. Albans, the first pitched battle of the Wars of the Roses, the most detailed record of it that we possess; while John Payn’s letter to Paston, telling of his adventures at the time of Jack Cade’s revolt, gives as clear an impression as any source of the hardships of that time and the miseries that the rebellion brought to many people of good standing who were involved. 

Perhaps as interesting and important as any of the letters is the one that his brother Clement wrote to John Paston on the eve of Towton in 1461, when the Pastons were on the Yorkist side—were, indeed, relying on its success for their good fortune in their litigation over the estate of Sir John Fastolf. “ It is well do, and best for you,” writes Clement, “that ye would come with more men and cleanlier arrayed than another man of your own country would, for it lieth more upon your worship and toucheth you more near than another man of that country, and also ye be more had in favour with my lords here.” 

Throughout this period the letters, especially those of the Pastons, are of first-class importance in tracing its tangled history. There is little enough news, it is true, of battles or of fighting, but the regular bulletins from London relations and the general tone show how deeply even a moderate country family was certain to be involved in the struggles of political faction. Sometimes the letters become a primary authority; always they are invaluable in assessing the state of the country and the extent of disturbance. 

Every now and again the letters bring us into direct contact with great figures or stirring events—into that kind of personal contact that no chronicle history can ever provide. One might instance the grumbling letter of an English soldier in France, impatient with Henry V’s negotiations with the Dauphin in 1419: “Certes all these ambassadors be double and false. Pray for us that we may come soon out of this unlusty solder’s life into the life of England” — it brings suddenly home the familiar home-sickness of the soldier abroad, and the human life and gossip of the camp in an army in times which, if romantic, are often too distant to come readily to life. 

Or there is the letter written by the Duke of Suffolk to his son “giving him very good counsel,” the last letter that he ever wrote, and of which Paston kept a copy, a letter that brings us into touch with one of the greatest men of the time and that must sway any historian who attempts to pass judgment on him. “It is difficult to believe,” as Lingard wrote, “that the writer could have been a false subject or a bad man. There is something pathetic in the ring of it; in the devotion to the monarch who had turned against him: 

“Above all earthly thing, be true liegeman in heart, in will, in thought, in deed, to the king our elder most high and dread sovereign . . . charging you, as father can and may, rather to die than to be the contrary, or to know anything against the welfare or prosperity of his most royal person, but as far as your body and life may stretch, ye live and die to defend it.” 

Look, too, at the parting injunction, to live “in such wise that after the departing from this wretched world here, ye may glorify Him eternally among his angels in heaven. Written of mine hand the day of my departing from this land—your true and loving father, Suffolk.” Little wonder that historians should call William de la Pole “one of the finest types of the old chivalry that was passing away “; his last words in his letter lay bare the tragedy of the servant loyal still in spite of exile and disgrace, a tragedy standing out in all its personal poignancy from the dusty records of faction and intrigue that seem so often to be the stuff of fifteenth-century history.

In quite a different spirit, the letter of Robert Wennington, the West Country pirate, which also comes from the Paston collection, brings us up against a personality; a pirate of the same bold, confident stamp as the adventurers of Elizabeth’s time, Hawkins, Drake or Oxenham, who did not care overmuch for odds when booty was at stake:

“I and my fellowship said, but unless he will strike down the sail, that I would oversail him by the grace of God, and God will send me wind and weather; and they bade me do my worst, because I had so few ships and so small, that they scorned me. And as God would, on Friday last was, we had a good wind, and then we armed. . . and made us ready to oversail them . . . and there yielded all the hundred ships to go with me to what port me list.”

It is only when one comes across such a letter as this that one is reminded that the Tudor age grew directly out of the fifteenth century; the spirit that brought it to its greatness was growing up in the years after Agincourt, the battle which more than any other event had awakened a new national consciousness. 

Yet if every now and again they illumine some great event and bring it close to us, the general tone of the letters is in a minor key. If they can be at their most useful when they throw light on the incident of politics, the bulk of them do far more to enlighten us about social and economic history, the story of the everyday life of men and women. It would be hard to work up a romance out of the Paston letters; to make them the basis for a nineteenth-century novel of the good bourgeois brought up in comfort and in the most conforming of homes, yet every once in a while confronted with the horrid pains of life, mental and physical, face to face—this would be less hard. Their foci of interest are never earth-shaking. 

In the time of William Paston the main theme of the letters is the lawsuit between the old judge and the so-called Prior of Bromholm, John Worte. In the next generation, interest still centres very often in litigation; after the death of Sir John Fastolf in 1459, concern as to the disputes over his inheritance monopolizes more and more attention—indeed John Paston’s interest in politics in this period is very largely governed by regard for his lawsuit. John needed to take good care for his own, especially in the ungoverned period of Edward IV’s struggle with Warwick and the readoption of Henry VI—in 1469 the Duke of Norfolk, pursuing a claim to the Fastolf property, besieged Paston’s castle at Caister with three thousand men. 

Curiously enough, the other collections are less important for the political historian than the Paston letters. The Stonors were bigger folk; one of them, John Stonor, had been Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas for more than twenty years under Edward III, while the last of them, Sir William Stonor, was with Lord Lovell one of the most important figures in Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III in 1483. Yet the majority of their letters relate to family affairs and business; the most interesting are those to and from a relative William, who was a merchant of the Staple in the years 1475 to 1480. The main matters of the Plumpton correspondence (the letters of an old Yorkshire family) are again lawsuits and family disputes. The Cely papers come from a family of London merchants and wool-mongers; their greatest interest is for the light they shed on commercial relations with Flanders and on the garrisoning of Calais, where the Celys had a place of business. The letters of John Shillingford, the Mayor of Exeter, are entirely concerned with a suit between the citizens and Edmund Lacy, the bishop, which arose between the years 1447 and 1450. The round of everyday affairs and business is the main concern of all the important collections. 

Even thus, out of the limelight, the letters bring the life of the times closer than mere records or accounts ever could, for the personal element is always there. The Celys lay aside affairs when the married merchants of Calais challenge the bachelors to a shooting match. 

“And it would please you for your disport and pleasure upon Thursday next coming to may with us . . . ye shall find a pair of pricks of length between the one and other 13 tailor’s yards met out with a line; there we underwritten shall may with as many of you, and shoot with you at the same pricks for a dinner or a supper per 12d a man.” 

These kind of details, almost modem in tone, abound; Margaret Paston writes to her husband that he will get the stuff for the child’s gown cheapest at Hay’s wife; Jane Stonor writes that she “would rather break up household than take sojournants, for servants be not so diligent as they were wont to be.” On the other hand, there is an endless host of little items to testify to how different a world it was, and with what different assumptions. Shillingford writes home to his fellows, full of naïve and innocent exultation in his own good handling of the justices in their case:

“as my lord Chancellor bade the justice to dinner against that same day saying that he should have a dish of salt fish; I hearing this, I did as methought ought to be done. . . and sent thither that day 2 stately pickerells and 2 stately tenches, which my lord Chancellor made right much thereof. . . for it came in good season, for my lords the Duke of Buckingham and the Marquess of Suffolk and other dined with my lord Chancellor that day.” 

This is an unfamiliar way of administering justice, but to accuse the good Mayor Shillingford of corruption would be out of place.

Likewise, when we come to marriage, it may startle us for a moment to find Margaret of Anjou, as a girl of barely twenty, writing to Dame Jane Carew, a widow of thirty-six, 

“for as much as our trusty and well-beloved squire Thomas Burneby, as well for the great zeal, love and affection he hath to your person, as for the womanly and virtuous governance that ye be renowned of, desireth with all his heart to do you worship by way of marriage; we, desiring the furtherance and preferment of our said squire. . . pray you right affectuously that at reverence of us you will have our said squire towards his said marriage.” 

There is plenty about marriage in the Paston letters, but it is nearly always the economic side that looms largest; when Margery Paston married below her station for love, there was a family outcry and the Bishop of Norwich was even called in to dissuade her from this appalling mésalliance. One is glad to know that she won her battle in the end; her love letters are among the most appealing in the whole collection. 

The arrangements for a normal marriage were endlessly complicated in the effort to secure the maximum advantage; a marriage agreement in the Trevelian papers even provided compensation in the case of the death of a party before full value had been obtained. “Furthermore provided if it hap the said Elizabeth to decease within twelve months next after the said marriage, that then the said Thomas (her father) shall repay to the said John (Trevelian) 100 marks.” 

Even in the smaller, everyday things there is a strange unfamiliarity. Growing up was a much tougher process for children of both sexes than it has since been. Elizabeth Clere writes to John Paston of his young sister, “she was never in so great sorrow as she is now-a-days, for she may not speak with no man how so ever he come . . . and she hath since Easterne the most part been beaten once in the week or twice, and sometimes twice on a day, and her head broken in two or three places.” Agnes Paston’s delicate request to her son’s tutor,” that he will truly belash him, till he will amend,” is only less surprising. All these details, small as they are, remind us that we are moving in a world of quite different conventions; they help the historian to think himself back into a past that is gone beyond recall.

Much of the dead past lies embedded in the letters like fossils in the rock; yet, if there is one feature of them that must be stressed, it is their newness, for they are the first private letters of English people that have survived. This is important; it brings out a side of the century’s history that is often enough forgotten. We are so accustomed to thinking of the middle of the fifteenth century as a period of wild political disorder that we are apt to assume automatically that the arts and learning were also in decline. This impression is quite contrary to the evidence of the letters. The far greater part of them are autograph, even those written by women; and they bear witness to a surprisingly high standard of literacy among the merchant classes and the country gentlemen. 

Excited by these suggestive facts Kingsford and others have brought together a clear body of evidence pointing to the steady spread of education, particularly among laymen, during the fifteenth century. It is the period of the foundation of numerous schools and colleges, of Eton by King Henry VI and of Magdalen by Waynflete. In 1446 an ordinance was passed in London limiting the licensed schools to five, but there were in fact many more, and the reason for the measure was the eagerness of parents to send their children to schools, regardless of whether the education they received there was good or bad. The universities of the fifteenth century have been called dead, but this seems to be very far from being exact; if an Italian visiting scholar in 1422 could write that Oxford scholars delighted more in scholastic disputation than in the new learning, and if to Walter Paston the most important aid to obtaining his degree should seem to have been that his guests were satisfied with the banquet that he provided for the occasion, one must not lose sight of men like Flemming of Lincoln or Sellyng, said to have been a fellow of All Souls, both diligent collectors of manuscripts of classical authors, or Thomas Chandler, the Warden of New College, who invited Cornelius Vitelli to come and lecture in Greek at Oxford. Grocyn, who was a student in the college under him, lived to be the friend of Colet, More and Erasmus. 

Throughout the period of the Wars of the Roses, the seeds of English culture were growing; there was a new avidity for books in the English tongue. Trevisa’s translation of the old Latin Polychronicon found a ready public; it is significant that most of the contemporary chronicles are in English. John Paston had a dozen or more books of romances, poetry and heraldry, together with the De Senectute and Arnicitia of Cicero; even before the advent of printing many lay gentlemen had small libraries, while some, like Humphrey of Gloucester or Tiptoft, brought together large and valuable collections. The new literacy of the fifteenth century was to flower a hundred years later in the writing of the English renaissance in Elizabeth’s time. Its own literary products, apart from Malory, are banal enough, it is true, but the seed time was necessary for the harvest. 

Perhaps it is this attention they call to the fifteenth century as a germinal period that is the most important feature for the historian of the letters that have been here considered. They paint in the background of a period in which two civilizations overlap—a function the more important since if one looks only at the foreground the scene is still altogether medieval. Henry V, sans peur et sans reproche, gallant, pious, “and above all,” says Chastellain, “the Prince of justice,” is the last great king of English chivalry, the pattern of all that was best in the medieval conception of the monarch. Henry VI, pious and often imbecile, is the last king-saint of our medieval history. The vassals, too, be they courteous and wise like Suffolk, or like Warwick, Kingmakers, are medieval figures. The letters show one what is going on beneath this surface; the rise in importance, in education and in ambitions of the smaller folk; their everyday life that continues, very little affected, while the wars rage in the land. The chronicles can spotlight for us the great political events, the falls of kings and princes. The letters do what neither chronicles nor accounts nor public records can do; they bring us into direct contact with the people. They are, in a sense in which the other sources are not, alive, because they are personal records. Whether it is the young Paston at Eton, writing to his elder brother that, “ I may come and sport with you in London a day or two this term time,” or Mayor Shillingford, writing to his fellows in the early morning, full of cheer as ever: “and I lying on my bed at writing of this right yarely, merrily singing a merry song “— whichever it be—it is part of the common human experience, and there is a kind of pleasure in reading it that is not to be sought in the chronicles, be they never so full of rhetoric or of gossip. They can describe the high deeds; but the letters bring ordinary men before us, face to face, for the first time.

Historical dictionary: Henry V


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