As a result of some work I have been doing with researchers at Blickling Hall, I have recently been reading about two remarkable Norfolk families who came to prominence in the 15th century. Now I’m not a historian and at school I remember learning about the Romans and the Tudors and Stuarts, but not much in between. The period of the Wars of the Roses was virtually unknown to me.
We recently took a new book about the Boleyn family, Heirs of Ambition by Claire Martin, which is fascinating and encapsulates much original research on the origins of the Boleyns (or Bullens) in Norfolk. Whilst reading this, I noticed that the Pastons and the Paston Letters were referred to quite often. I knew little about the Pastons either, except that the Sixth Form College in North Walsham is named after them. It turns out that one of their family homes was Oxnead, which I often drive past and is less than a mile from our office. The Pastons are most famous because of the amazing tranche of their letters which have survived and are now held by the British Library.
Both families were ambitious in the fifteenth century and came from small farming families. Both families had to hide their origins as they attempted to climb into the higher levels of society. But they went about it in very different ways, with a marked difference in their success.
The Pastons appear to have been greedy. They claimed land through various means and fought for it in the courts – and they didn’t make many friends that way. To succeed in those times, you needed friends in high places, and the Pastons only seemed to make enemies. And the rule of law was only part of the story – powerful nobles could make a spurious claim to land and property and then take it by force. Recourse through the courts was expensive and unlikely to succeed without the support of the King.
On the other hand the Boleyns took a different path. At the beginning of the fifteenth century Yeoman farmer Geoffrey Boleyn of Salle made enough money through wool, cloth and making hats to send his sons to school. His eldest son, also Geoffrey, was apprenticed to a hat maker in London, went on to become a successful and wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor. Through beneficial marriages and wealth the family was accepted at court and were able to fairly buy estates (including Blickling and Hever in Kent). The first Geoffrey’s great-grandson Thomas became a powerful courtier to Henry VII and his daughter Anne, of course, became Henry’s second wife and Queen of England. That didn’t end well, but her daughter, the 3xgreat-granddaughter of a Norfolk farmer, was Elizabeth I.
To read about the rise of the Boleyns I would recommend Heirs of Ambition, and also The Boleyn Women by Elizabeth Norton. Various books of transcripts of the Paston Letters are available on the second hand market (all currently out of print), but the medieval English is difficult to read, even when printed (scans of the original letters can be found on the British Library website). Anne O’Brien’s novels based on the letters are easier reads and really give a feel of what it was like to battle against the culture of nobility and patronage of the time.