Norwich & the Pastons

The Normans, after their invasion, established their presence in Norfolk by constructing an impressive castle complex. In 1096, the Normans then began the building of a magnificent cathedral in the city.

In the Middle Ages, sheep walks (pastures) became the means for generating great prosperity for the area. Norwich became a staple port, and the export of wool and the local textile trade helped to make the city one of the most prosperous in the country. Trade also flowed between Norwich and the Hanseatic areas in Northern Europe. Robert Toppes was an important Norwich merchant, with a business in King Street (at Dragon Hall, which he built). The Pastons had close links with the Toppes family

Both Judge William Paston and his son John were members of the powerful Guild of St George, which had a strong influence over the affairs of Norwich.

In the 14th Century, the city walls were built. The walls enclosed a larger area than that of the City of London. Building outside the walls was not allowed; so the city became densely populated. Norwich became a city of many fine churches. The Pastons had a house in Elm Hill and worshipped at St Peter Hungate Church in Princes Street. Following one of the deadly fires that damaged the city, the Pastons contributed to the rebuilding of St Andrew’s and Blackfriars Halls.


Late medieval Norwich as reconstructed by UEA's Virtual Past team.

Norwich in the 15th Century

Judge William Paston, described by some as The Good Judge, had managed to purchase a large number of manors across Norfolk. William’s estate at Oxnead was a wedding gift to his wife Agnes. William also built a Manor House at Paston.

William served as Steward to the Bishop of Norwich and conducted a number of high profile cases in the Guildhall, Norwich.

Judge William’s death left a young John Paston to defend his father’s holdings. Ably assisted by Margaret, John was able to leave his wife in charge of his affairs so that he could spend time in London lobbying the King for support against his powerful opponents, notably the Duke of Suffolk and his factions. The Pastons made other enemies…

Throughout the 15th century, Norwich suffered from periodic bouts of the plague. This often required the family to decamp to their country houses in Oxnead and Paston.

Throughout the 15th Century the lawlessness and wars that afflicted the country spilled over into Norfolk. The situation had not been helped by the somewhat controversial inheritance by John Paston of the estates of Margaret’s cousin, Sir John Fastolf. The jewel in the crown of this inheritance was Caister Castle. Owning this much-desired modern castle brought the Pastons a second very powerful enemy, the Duke of Norfolk.

Following an altercation at Braydeston Hall (owned by members of Margaret Paston’s family), John Paston fell foul of the gang responsible for the attack on the Hall. Their leader was one Charles Nowell. Seeking an opportunity to intimidate John Paston, he attacked him in the Cathedral Close

In 1465, while John Paston was held in London’s Fleet Prison, the Duke of Suffolk rode, unopposed, through the streets of Norwich on his way to besiege Hellesdon Hall. The Pastons had inherited the Hellesdon Manor from Fastolf. Margaret Paston, who earlier had been driven by some of Suffolk’s supporters out of her home at Gresham Castle, suffered a second eviction at the hands of the Duke of Suffolk. Shortly after this John Paston died, and his body was brought home from London to Norwich with great ceremony, on its way to be buried at Bromholm Priory in Bacton.

In 1469 matters became even more difficult for the Paston family. The Pastons’ bailiff, Richard Calle, had secretly married John and Margaret’s daughter Margery. This caused a great upset, and the hapless couple were marched, at Margaret’s insistence, into the Cathedral Close to be interrogated by the Bishop – who in fact validated their marriage.

A few weeks after this family dislocation, the Duke of Norfolk chose to besiege Caister Castle. After six weeks the castle fell, and John Daubeney, a long-serving member of the household, was killed in the fighting. In the years of lobbying and negotiations that followed, John Paston’s heir, John Paston II, finally succeeded in persuading the King to rule that Caister rightfully belonged to the Pastons. On one occasion a key witness in John’s campaign to regain the castle travelled to Norwich, and John made sure he was to be made comfortable in the Maids Head.

In 1479, the plague struck down three members of the family. Judge William’s wife Agnes and John Paston II both died in London. Walter Paston, youngest son to John and Margaret Paston, died shortly after graduating from Oxford and was buried in St Peter Hungate Church.

Throughout the Wars of the Roses the Pastons largely managed to avoid being swept up in the confrontations. However, in 1471, the Pastons’ benefactor, the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford, requested the presence of John II and his younger brother John III at the Battle of Barnet. John III was wounded in the battle, which resulted in a heavy Lancastrian defeat. However, in 1485, John Paston III fought again with the Earl of Oxford at Bosworth and, following the Tudor victory of Henry VII, the Pastons’ fortunes were secured. John Paston later purchased a fine house in King Street (The Music House).

Norwich in the Tudor Period

In the Tudor period, Norwich’s prosperity continued to increase. The city also became a centre for religious disagreements, with many dissenters being burnt at the stake at the Lollards Pit, just outside the city walls. Enclosures helped landowners expand their sheep flocks on to common land at the expense of villagers. This, together with a loss of monastic welfare support for the poor, caused further unrest within the local population. In 1549 Robert Kett, with thousands of followers, attacked Norwich. Sir Thomas Paston, who had a house at Thorpe and land bordering the common land at Mousehold Heath, was heavily involved in the defence of the city. Sir Thomas’s father William was also involved in the defence and supplied cannon from Caister Castle.

Sir Thomas’s son Edward Paston, a courtier and musician, had objected to the destruction of the organ in Norwich Cathedral by Puritan factions. Edward was a Roman Catholic, and he was eventually forced to pursue his faith and interests in sacred music secretly at his property at Appleton Hall, near King’s Lynn, well away from Norwich.

Norwich in the 17th Century

Sir William Paston, who had inherited the Paston fortune, developed his estate and great house at Oxnead and created a unique collection of precious objects. However, a family with both Catholic and Royalist sympathies was bound to keep a low profile during the turbulent years of the Civil War. In the 1650s Sir William and his son Robert formed a friendship with Sir Thomas Browne which allowed them to pursue their mutual interests in the arts, archaeology, science and alchemy. Browne was a close associate of another Norwich resident, Arthur Dee, son of the great alchemist and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee.

At the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Pastons commissioned a remarkable painting, now known as the Paston Treasure, which hangs in Norwich Castle. The painting, which not only depicts some of the beautiful objects in the family collection, also includes images that appear to have a deeper and darker significance.

Robert Paston, a devoted supporter of Charles II, was rewarded by the King with the title Earl of Yarmouth. Robert’s extensive correspondence describes his triumphant entry into Norwich on the occasion of his appointment as Lord Lieutenant for Norfolk. (The correspondence of Robert Paston forms the third tranche of the Paston Letters. The first tranche is formed by the 15th Century Collection, the second, by the letters of Katherine Paston, written in the early part of the 17th Century)

However, by the 1660s the Paston family was in a decline that culminated in 1732 with ruin, and the end of the family line on the death of William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth.

That might have been the end of the Paston story. However, Francis Blomefield, the great antiquarian and author of History of Norfolk, discovered the Paston Letters in the ruins of Oxnead Hall. Some years later, Sir John Fenn, another antiquarian and Norwich-born, but later of Dereham, assembled the letters and, following a remarkable feat of scholarship, succeeded in publishing The Paston Letters. Fenn secured the approval of George III for his publication. The first editions sold out rapidly, and they have continued to be of great interest to a wide range of audiences. The earliest part of the collection of letters provides an unequalled insight into life in Norfolk and Norwich in the 15th century.

The Paston Footprints Project has established a Paston Heritage Pathway and Podcast in Norwich, which leads walkers around the main sites of Paston family interest. In the Footprints of the Pastons, an illustrated version with poetry by local authors, has also been published. The Project has also worked closely with the St Peter Hungate Museum, the Norwich Castle Museum, yhe Norfolk Record Office, yhe Norfolk Heraldry Society and the Maid's Head Hotel.