Key to the past is contested

April 7, 2000

A remarkable medieval correspondence long held to reveal how English society disintegrated on the eve of the War of the Roses may have been misinterpreted by historians.

The Paston Letters, one of the most important sources on everyday life in the 15th century, contain many insights into the trials and tribulations of a Norfolk gentry family caught up in the turbulent events that led up to the brutal civil war.

However, a study by Helen Castor, a Cambridge University historian, has found that the Pastons' peculiar position as upwardly mobile newcomers may have greatly jaundiced their view of contemporary affairs.

This bias makes their letters an unreliable guide to the state of the nation, Dr Castor argued. Furthermore, she believes a more balanced reinterpretation of them might also help rehabilitate the Duke of Suffolk, a much-maligned nobleman whose influence over the hapless Lancastrian King Henry VI has been blamed for many of the ills that led to the Wars of the Roses.

"The Pastons can tell us a lot but they were nouveau riche trying to muscle their way into landed society and are involved in a very specific intense dispute. They are far from typical," she said.

Historians have been impressed by the letters' depiction of East Anglia as being in the grip of a clique of aggressive thugs who arbitrarily and violently took over land, which was the basis of political power in that time.

Suffolk's rising influence over the ineffectual king has been widely seen as unleashing this tyrannous regime in a bid to feather his own nest. But Dr Castor said her study of legal documents and records indicated the Pastons were themselves involved in the acquisition of manors in northern Norfolk and had clashed with other newcomers who were playing a similar political game though in a more robust fashion.

Without powerful political allies, the Pastons found themselves open to such attacks. But this was hardly Suffolk's fault.

Dr Castor believes Suffolk was, in fact, the legitimate leading figure in East Anglia who was attempting to fairly administer the region while trying, as chief minister, to mitigate the disastrous effect that Henry VI's inability to rule was having on the country as a whole.

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