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Welcome to Episode #110 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The Paston Letters are a collection of over 1,000 pieces of correspondence between 1422 and 1509 which, while never intended to last into the modern era, have been preserved throughout the centuries for the unique light they shed on the everyday events in 15th century England. John Paston was a lawyer in England, and while the letters sometimes represent the communication of John Paston to members of the aristocracy most of the letters are written by his wife Margaret, who is writing to her husband at work in London. Replete with illustrations as well as words, the letters detail mundane items like shopping lists and recipes, provide examples of medieval colloquial expressions, and perhaps the most powerful content found in the Paston Letters is their timeline of how the War of the Roses unfolded. During the late 15th century, England was effectively lawless whilst the King was paralyzed due to his surrounding nobles stifling the enforcement of law. The Paston Letters show that the government of England was hugely disorganized, with even the succession to the crown coming under contestation. This overarching discontent led to the rising of Jack Cade, and outlines the rise of the War of the Roses. Since Shakespeare’s history plays, also detail the rise of the War of the Roses, including characters like Jack Cade, and the character of Falstaff whom some scholars believe was based on a relative to the Pastons, a John Fastolf, there is often the suggestion that Shakespeare used the Paston Letters as a source for his plays. Is this true?

Our guest, Rob Knee, from the Paston Heritage Society, is here this week to separate legend from fact as we explore the Paston Letters and their role in the life of William Shakespeare.

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Rob Knee, shown here dressed as John Paston for a historical demonstration with the Paston Heritage Society, is Chair at the Paston Heritage Society and historian specializing in the Paston Letters. After a career in Education and Research, Rob has subsequently engaged in the study of local history. A large proportion of his work relates to researching the story of the Paston Family of Norfolk. Rob is chair of the Paston Heritage Society and co-leader of Paston Footprints, a large Heritage Project, aimed at bringing the Paston story to a wider audience. He also gives living history demonstrations,  complete with full costumed performances, about the leading Paston characters.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Rob Knee about :

  • Are all of the letters in the Paston Letters collection written by the same person?
  • In 2019, The BBC reported that the Paston letters should have been destroyed because of their subversive content–to me, that seemed like a strong accusation for a packet of letters containing grocery lists. What else is inside these letters that would be considered subversive?
  • There was real life man named John Fastolf, related to John Paston, and owner at the Boar’s Head Inn in Southwark. Another Boar’s Head Inn, in Eastcheap, is the supposed meeting place of that is supposedly the meeting place of the fictional Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal, and other characters in Shakespeare’s Henriad plays. Some scholars have used the similarities between John Fastolf and John Falstaff, as well as the use of Boar’s Head Inn by name in Shakespeare’s plays to suggest there is a relationship between Shakespeare’s character and the real John Fastolf. Do the Paston Letters shed any light on this idea? Could Shakespeare have based Falstaff on John Paston’s cousin?

  • … and more!

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There's letters from my mother: what the import is,
I know not yet.

Betram

Alls Well That Ends Well (II.3)

Letter of Thomas Jermy to William Paston (d. 1610), 37 lines in English plus signature, with address and note of sender. Creasing and wear patterns suggest entire sheet was previously folded quite small with address on the outside. Letter and address are in one hand (Thomas Jermy's); note on sender (“Jarmes laste lettre”) is possibly in William Paston's hand; initials and date notation of eighteenth-century Norfolk antiquarian Francis Blomefield are at foot of letter. Paper is somewhat stained and damaged, especially along fold lines, but damage has been stabilized by repairs, including grafted modern paper, notwithstanding minor text loss at lower right corner. University of Victoria. Source

The Paston Letters

The Paston Letters are a collection of hand written correspondence spanning the 15th and 16th centuries between various members of the Paston family. Several of the letters were scribed by servants or household members and while several different people wrote the letters themselves, a majority of them are by Margaret Paston (some by husband and sons).

The family began at very humble origins, and worked hard to establish themselves in English society. They rose rapidly through the family legal business, and eventually established themselves as landlords. (Though, as Rob shares, that journey was not without many battles both legal and physical over their rights to land and status). Many of the letters reflect the family business, being composed of legal documents, wills, and petitions. However, several other letters reflect every day items like grocery lists and notifications between family members of celebratory life events.

The letters have been contributed to Project Gutenberg by ed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net (This
file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries.) You can read the letters yourself here.

The sample letter shown above is from the University of Victoria archives, and other letters are visible in digital format as images through The British Library here.

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I have letters sent me That set him high in fame.
King of France

Alls Well That Ends Well (V.3)

Ruins of Bromholm Priory, Norfolk, England, where John Paston was buried. He claimed to be heir to Fastolf lands, which was harshly disputed and still undecided at the time of his death. Source

John Paston

When his father William passed away in 1444, John Paston inherited a substantial estate. By 1445, he had lost this estate in legal struggles. The Paston family spent their entire existence in constant struggle over whether or not they owned their land. The Duke of Norfolk and Suffolk both fought with the Pastons about various properties, including Gresham house where Margaret was once sent to assert the Paston ownership before being forced to leave by physical assaults from the locals to the house in their displeasure at the Paston occupancy.

Despite the struggles, Sir John Paston was offered a knighthood in 1455, which he declined and had to pay a fine for refusing. The next several years saw Paston accused of riotous behavior, imprisoned for a conflict with the Sheriff of Norfolk, and in 1464, in a conflict over the lands of Sir John Fastolk (a relative of Margaret Paston), Paston was again accussed of trepass, outlawed, and imprisoned. 

After he was released from prison, Paston spent many years as the advisor to his wife's ailing yet wealthy relative, John Fastolf. Still under the feudal system at this time in history, Paston was assigned to be the trustee of Fastolf's lands in 1456. Two years later, when Fastolf died in 1459, Paston claimed that Fastolf had left all of his substantial lands in Norfolk and Suffolk to Paston in his will. The will to which Paston referred was an oral will, supposedly witnessed by people who had heard the statement being made and could vouch for its' veracity. However, there was no paper will to this effect, so when Paston took posession of the lands and alternated residence between the Fastolf manors of Caister and Hellesdon, there was a great uproar from the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk who disapproved. This scuffle and argument would continue in a long legal battle that would remain undecided even after the death of Paston himself. 

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Here are letters for you.

Iachimo

Cymbeline (II.4

Account of Sir John Fastolf, Captain of the Bastille of St. Antoine, Paris (catalogue reference: E 101/50/5) Source

John Fastolf

John Fastolf was a soldier under Henry V. Records at the National Archives bear testimony to his distinguished military career in Ireland and France. (Source)

 

The real Fastolf seems to have been a man of great valor and honor whose reputation in posterity was tarnished by one action in 1429 that tainted not only his reptuation at the time, but caused Shakespeare to immortalize him as a bumbling coward for all of posterity.

The connection between Fastolf and Fastlaff are real, and while it is true that Shakespeare likely did base his character of Falstaff on Fastolf (even echoing sentiments about the real Fastolf likely held at the moment when Shakespeare was writing the character), as Rob points out this week–it was not originally Shakespeare's intent to immortalize Fastolf or Falstaff at all, but to make fun of a man named John Oldcastle. However, the Oldcastle family were still living at the time, and made a great complaint for the use of their name on a character whose reputation is slighted. So Shakespeare changed the name to Fastlaff, with the Fastolf family unable to make similar complaints, and the current opinion of the real Fastolf at the time being rather universally negative.

Rob comes to Fastolf's defense, though, by pointing out what should be remembered about Sir John Fastolf: that he was a military war hero, fighting in battles as, or perhaps even more so in terms of England's position in history, than that of Agincourt. Fastolf was knighted in 1416 for noteworthy service in the field, and was one of the first soldiers to be given land and territory. In now conquered France, Fastolf was granted the modest manor and lordship of Frileuse.

He continued fighting for England as a soldier, and his reptuation grew substantially. He acquired the commanding position over the garrison Bastille St. Antoine in Paris, which he successfully protected during an uprising. He was also later granted the title of Baron over Sille-le Guillaume for his honorable fight at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424.

His downfall came in 1429, however, when the English army was badly defeated by the French at Patay. At this battle, Fastolf chose to retreat back away from the battle, with his men, and was consequently labelled a coward. His knighthood was stripped from him and he never fully recovered his reputation. If Shakespeare's character of Falstaff is any indication, it may be fair to say Fastolf never did recover fully in posterity and is, perhaps unfairly, immortalized as as a cowardly knight. 

Read more of his life and his career as a soldier here in an article by Benjamin Trowbridge for The National Archives in 2016.

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They say they have letters for you.

Hamlet

Hamlet (IV.6)

Burial place of Margaret Paston. Evelyn Simak/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0 Source

Margaret Paston's Shopping Lists

While many of the Paston letters are documents of legal nature, or merely informative letters from one person to the next on the happenings of life during the War of the Roses, one of the most delightful portions of the letters (in my opinion) are the letters between Margaret and her husband, John, where she requests that he bring her back things for herself as well as their children during his business trips to London.

As Rob explains,

“Rhe husband would be in London and the wives had an idea of what they wanted them to buy while there. The Pastons were a little different not only because there are so many letters but because some of the lists are quite extraordinary…”

Some of the unusual items requested by Margaret to her husband include: 

Pole axes

Leather jackets

Almonds

Sugar

Treacle–thought to fight off plague. (This is a kind of syrup. It could be a golden syrup or black–black treacle is the same as molasses.) 

Clothing

Requests for gosshawks and new suits of armor for their children as they grow up.

It is interesting to think of gosshawks as neccessary items for a boy growing into a man, at least as far as today is concerned,but for a young man growing up in the mid 1400s England, you had to be able to fight and hunt as essential to your way of life.Those items are just one of the hundreds of ways the Paston Letters remarkably catalog life during the late Middle Ages in England. 

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Books & Resources Rob Knee recommends:

 

Remember to visit the new Paston Heritage Society website right here: 
www.thisispaston.co.uk

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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