Jean Agnew has just published The Whirlpool of Misadventures, a transcript of some seventeenth-century Paston letters which show the same family at the peak of their success but hurtling towards financial ruin.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

New book of letters reveals Norfolk’s Paston family in a new light

Friday, November 30, 2012
9.35 AM

They are the famous Norfolk family whose lives were recorded in historic letters during the 15th century.

But 200 years later, the immense wealth they had worked so hard to build up was disappearing thanks to a lavish lifestyle and a series of hare-brained schemes.

Now a new book, published by the Norfolk Record Society, has brought together a collection of much later Paston Letters revealing the family’s path to financial ruin.

Editor and retired archivist Jean Agnew has spent three years working on the 300 hand-written musings of Robert Paston, a direct descendant of earlier letter writer John Paston.

The book, The Whirlpool of Misadventures: Letters of Robert Paston, First Earl of Yarmouth, reveals the contents of his correspondence from 1663 to 1679.

Mrs Agnew, from Wreningham, said: “The Paston letters from the 15th century are the first set of personal family letters written in English so they are very famous. But nobody ever thinks ‘what happened to the Pastons?’”

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Pastons were the richest gentry family in Norfolk.

But having supported King Charles II during his exile, the family lost out financially during the civil war when they were fined for being royalists.

The book’s editor said that had not seemed to curb their spending.

“They couldn’t stop,” she said. “Their lifestyle was out of all proportion with their income. Robert became Lord Lieutenant which put the lid on it – you had to entertain and you didn’t get paid for it.”

While there are no accounts available for the family, which disappeared within 50 years of these letters because of a lack of male heirs, it is clear they are getting strapped for cash.

Mrs Agnew, said: “They are always going on about getting some money from somewhere or another but they are ‘crock of gold at the end of the rainbow’ projects.

“In 1679 he writes this bit about ‘falling into a whirlpool of misadventure’. He could see he was going down the tube.”

Most letters are between Sir Robert and his wife Rebecca Paston, whose oldest son, William, married an illegitimate daughter of King Charles II. But Mrs Angew said she found a loving family in the letters.

“I feel I got to know them very well. You begin to feel for them. Robert, I think, was a lovely man. All the same, I’m glad I wasn’t one of his creditors.”

To buy The Whirlpool of Misadventures: Letters of Robert Paston, First Earl of Yarmouth, visit www.norfolkrecordsociety.org.uk