The First English Family Letters

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:

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