It’s a ruin now, but once Caister Castle was among the most desirable addresses in Norfolk. Back in 1469, 3,000 men wanted to live there at once.

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Location, location...

The site north of what is now Yarmouth occupied a strategic site near the Norfolk coast. The Romans recognised its importance by building a third century fort on their embattled Saxon Shore. The name Caistor comes from the Latin castra fort. Long after the Romans had gone home, a family of landowners settled west of the village of Caister. In 1378 John Fastolf was born in the manor house that would later become the castle, and the centre of an extraordinary row over his will. Fastolf, supposed by some to be the inspiration behind Shakespeares legendary Falstaff character, was a distinguished soldier. He made a fortune fighting in France at Agincourt and later. After returning from the wars he divided his time between his property in London and Norfolk. As he aged though, his thoughts turned to the welfare of his immortal soul.

Did he have a lot on his conscience?

Fastolf had made plenty of enemies in his long career. He was once unjustly accused of cowardice in a battle against the French, but it was probably his great wealth that made others jealous. In 1432 Sir John obtained a licence to build himself a fortified house and demolished the family home to make way for it. As well as lavishing great sums of money, Fastolfs plan was to create a college to train priests, who would in turn perpetually pray for his soul. This was important for medieval people, as they believed that after death the soul first went into purgatory, and that prayers would help find a place in heaven. Being childless his wife predeceased him and he fell out with his stepson Fastolf looked for a protege. He found him in a young Norfolk landowner and lawyer. John Pastons grandfather had been a peasant landworker, but by hard work and ambition, the Pastons had raised themselves to the ranks of the gentry.

They aimed higher, presumably?

The Pastons were involved in a series of land wrangles with other local families and the situation was worsened by the chaos that engulfed the countrys political elite. After 1450 King Henry VIs inability to rule led to the decades of battles and political intrigues known as the Wars of the Roses. As work began on Caister Castle it was clear this was going to be a very modern sort of castle, complete with the kind of luxuries not normally associated with a fortification, including a wardrobe, chapel, two halls, kitchen, larder, cellar, pantry, armoury, brewery, bakery, stables, and various stores. Its main tower was 90ft high, giving great views over the countryside. Yet it was never meant to be an impregnable fortress; more a defendable statement of wealth and prestige. With old Sir John now in his seventies, the matter of his will took on increasing importance. His death in 1459, four years after the castle was completed, triggered two decades of initially legal, and then lethal, dispute over Caister. John Pastons claim that Fastolf had changed his will in his favour was challenged by the knights heirs shortly after his funeral at St Benets Abbey.

Couldnt it be settled in court?

A competent king might have knocked heads together and found a peaceful solution. But, with magnates such as the Duke of York fighting for the crown, others at local level took advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Enter the Duke of Norfolk, who rather fancied getting his hands on Caister Castle. Uniquely, the events that unravelled are recorded for us by the famous Paston letters. The story unfolds through the words of Margaret Paston to her son, John, heir of the original Paston named in Fastolfs will. When national warfare broke out again in 1469 the Duke laid siege to Caister.

No help was at hand?

Paston hired four professional soldiers to boost the garrison, and his younger brother (confusingly also called John) led the defence along with friends, family and retainers. Norfolks force was numbered at 3,000; the garrison at just 30. Things went badly. In September, Margaret wrote impatiently to her eldest son in London: Your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister... Daubney and Berney are dead and others badly hurt, and gunpowder and arrows are lacking. The place is badly broken down by the guns of the other party, so that unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman. Sure enough, lack of powerful allies at court and a deficit of provisions and hope at Caister left the younger John little choice but to surrender after five weeks siege; he and his garrison were allowed to leave. Strangely, once in possession, the Duke neglected the prize. The determined Pastons doggedly pursued their ownership claims, and the Dukes death in 1476 helped them. King Edward IV had been anxious to keep Norfolks support, but after his death he endorsed the Pastons reoccupation of Caister.

So, everyone was happy?

The Dukes widow was tired of the matter and let it rest, and the Paston family lived at Caister until 1599. Their heirs were less determined or lucky than the 15th century vintage, and their support of the Royalist cause in the 1640s cost them prestige and money. In 1659 debts forced them to sell the castle to a London moneylender. Its heyday long gone, it was allowed to fall into ruin, although it was lived in until the middle of the last century.

Caister Castle is west of Caister-on-Sea, off the A1064. The site houses a motor museum, open Sunday-Friday, May- September. Tel: 01572 787251.

Further reading: Blood and Roses, Helen Castor, 2005
Website: www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/pastonletters_04.shtml

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