The Paston family are perhaps the best known medieval family in England. Between about 1380 and 1750 they rose from humble origins to become leading members of the aristocracy, played a major role in the politics of the day, and even entertained royalty at their sumptuous mansions. Made famous today by the medieval letters they left behind them, the Pastons are amongst the most studied individuals in the English later Middle Ages.
However, a recent discovery at Oxnead church in north Norfolk has uncovered evidence of an entirely new, and previously unknown, member of the medieval Paston family, that will literally re-write what was thought to be known about the family. A small medieval memorial brass has brought to light the sad story of a young girl whose short life, and tragic death, had previously gone unnoticed by historians and academics.
The Pastons played an important part in both regional and national events, and accumulated vast wealth and treasures from across the known world. But fame and fortune were not to last, and the decline of the family came almost as rapidly as its rise. The Paston family, once centre stage in East Anglian political and social life, quickly passed into history. Whilst their words remain, documented in a series of correspondence, their great houses have long since crumbled, leaving little physical trace of the dynasty they created.
The earliest member of the family that we have any real record of is Clement Paston, of the village of Paston in north-east Norfolk. Clement was born in the years immediately after the Black Death swept England in the middle of the fourteenth century, and was a miller and small-scale farmer by trade. In the wake of the plague, that killed about a third of the population of the country, Clement made good use of the less regulated land market to buy up small pieces of land in Paston and the neighbouring parishes. He married well, to the sister of a local lawyer, and their son William was the first of the Paston family to receive a formal education. As a result William Paston rose to become a rich lawyer, high court judge, major landowner, and founder of the family fortune.
However, today there is little to show for the wealth and power of the Pastons. Their great houses have all but gone. Their magnificent collections of artefacts, gathered from every corner of the known world, have been split up, and in many cases lost forever. The elegant tombs of the later Pastons, displaying to the world how they wanted to be remembered, do survive, but they are few and far between. Of the medieval Pastons even less survives. All of the medieval Paston memorials were believed to have gone the way of their great houses – and have been torn down, or crumbled away to nothing.
Instead the Pastons are remembered today for the amazing and unique collection of letters that survive from the late Middle Ages. The letters, now mostly in the British Library, chronicle the rise of the family in the fifteenth century, during the troubled period known today as the Wars of the Roses. These letters are a unique collection of one families intimate and private correspondence – telling of their, arguments, gossip, family feuds, plotting, private scandals, and even including their shopping lists. These documents have been studied by historians in minute detail since they were first published in the late eighteenth century, and it was thought that the family held few new surprises for academics.
Here lies Anna
The newly recognised memorial brass was discovered in Oxnead church in north Norfolk, which sits next to the once-great Paston mansion of Oxnead Hall, by members of the Paston Footprints Project. It was at Oxnead Hall that the Paston family entertained king Charles II in 1671, and where the medieval Paston letters were discovered mouldering in an attic room half a century later. The brass is tucked away between two larger monuments, is written in heavily abbreviated Latin, and reads ‘Here lies Anna, daughter of John Paston Knight, on whose soul God have mercy , Amen’. It is now believed that this small monument represents a completely new and previously unknown member of the illustrious Paston family.
Dr Rob Knee of the Paston Heritage Society states, “The style of monument has been identified by experts as being from one of the Norwich workshops in the last decade of the fifteenth century, or the opening years of the sixteenth century, and is of the type commonly used to memorialise an unmarried girl. Given the date the brass was created this doesn’t leave us with too many options as to who it commemorates. The Sir John Paston it mentions can only be John Paston III, who inherited from both his father and elder brother – both also confusingly called John. This Anna Paston can only have been a previously unknown daughter of John Paston III, who most probably died before reaching adulthood.”
Archaeologist Matthew Champion, who came across the memorial brass whilst investigating the church at Oxnead, states that “Some people may be taken aback that one of the best known and most thoroughly researched families in England can still throw up surprises such as this. However, very few of the Paston letters actually survive from the 1490s, so there is likely to be quite a lot more that we have missed. It is known that John Paston III had another daughter called Elizabeth, who would have been Anna’s sister. Elizabeth survives to adulthood, and eventually marries, but the surviving documents contain barely a mention of her.”
The Paston documents contain no further information about Anna Paston, and it is impossible to even be sure how old she was at the time of her death. John Paston III had three other children, who were all born in the late 1470s and 1480s. If Anna Paston was born at the same period then it is likely she was in her early teens at the time of her death when the memorial brass was created. However, John Paston III married for a second time after the death of his first wife in 1495. If Anna was a child of this second marriage then it is likely she was only an infant at the time of her death.
Historian Helen Castor, author of the bestselling Blood and Roses: The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, stated that “This is an extraordinary find: not only a previously unknown Paston grave, but the grave of a previously unknown Paston. The family’s remarkable letters shine a spotlight on the middle decades of the fifteenth century, but a great deal of their story, before and after, remains in shadow. The discovery of Anna Paston’s memorial is not only a credit to the work of the Paston Footprints Project, but an exciting reminder that we can always hope to find out more, even about histories we think we know.”
Professor Alison Donnell, head of the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, stated “It is extremely gratifying that the Paston Footprints Project has led to such an important discovery. This (NLHF funded) project, based at UEA, has been raising awareness of the Paston family’s significance in both the local and national history of Medieval England, and being able to bring a new family member into this history is an exciting development.”
The Paston Footprints Project will be undertaking further work at Oxnead throughout the Summer. Click here for more details about this project.
Top Image: Photo courtesy Matthew Champion / Paston Footprints Project