Discovery of ‘hidden’ Paston girl is shaking up what we know about medieval dynasty
- Credit: Archant
The Pastons are among the most-studied families from the English later Middle Ages. So how has the story of one Paston girl who died tragically young gone unnoticed for so long? STUART ANDERSON reports on the previously hidden fate of Anna Paston.
They are one of England's best-known medieval families, who rose from humble origins to become leading members of the aristocracy, wielding political power and entertaining royalty at their sumptuous mansions.
Thanks to the letters and other documents they left behind we know more about the Pastons than virtually any other family of the age.
The documents, which chronicle the rise of the family during the War of the Roses, speak volumes of their arguments, gossip, feuds, plotting, private scandals, and even their shopping lists.
And now a recent discovery at Oxnead church in north Norfolk has uncovered evidence of a previously unknown Paston which is literally re-writing what was thought we knew about the family.
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A small medieval memorial brass is dedicated to Anna Paston, who is thought to have died tragically young.
The brass has been found tucked away between two larger monuments, and reads in abbreviated Latin: 'Here lies Anna, daughter of John Paston Knight, on whose soul God have mercy, Amen'.
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Historian Helen Castor, author of the bestselling 'Blood and Roses: The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century', said nothing had previously been known about Anna.
She said: "This is an extraordinary find: not only a previously unknown Paston grave, but the grave of a previously unknown Paston.
"The family's remarkable letters shine a spotlight on the middle decades of the 15th Century, but a great deal of their story, before and after, remains in shadow."
Dr Rob Knee of the Paston Heritage Society said Anna can only have been a daughter of John Paston III.
The memorial is believed to have been crafted at the one of the Norwich workshops in the last decade of the 15th Century or the opening years of the 16th Century, and is of the type commonly used to memorialise an unmarried girl.
Archaeologist Matthew Champion, who came across the memorial whilst investigating the church as part of the 600 Paston Footprints project, added: "Some people may be taken aback that one of the best known and most thoroughly researched families in England can still throw up surprises such as this.
"However, very few of the Paston letters actually survive from the 1490s, so there is likely to be quite a lot more that we have missed. "It is known that John Paston III had another daughter called Elizabeth, who would have been Anna's sister. Elizabeth survives to adulthood, and eventually marries, but the surviving documents contain barely a mention of her."
The Paston documents contain no further information about Anna, although it is likely she died in her early teens, given the ages of her siblings.
But she may also may have been a scion of John Paston III's second marriage, which means she would have died an infant.
It was at Oxnead that the Pastons entertained King Charles II in 1671, and where the medieval Paston letters were discovered mouldering in an attic room half a century later.
These documents have been studied by historians in minute detail since they were first published in the late 18th Century, and it was thought that the family held few new surprises for academics.
The earliest member of the family that we have any record of is Clement Paston, of the village of Paston in north-east Norfolk. Clement was born in the years immediately after the Black Death swept England in the middle of the 14th Century, and was a miller and small-scale farmer by trade. In the wake of the plague, that killed about a third of the population of the country, Clement made good use of the less regulated land market to buy up small pieces of land in Paston and the neighbouring parishes.
He married well, to the sister of a local lawyer, and their son William became a rich lawyer, high court judge, major landowner, and founder of the family fortune.
The 600 Paston Footprints is a Heritage Lottery funded project that aims to shed new light the family.