The Whirlpool of Misadventures:
Letters of Robert Paston, First Earl of Yarmouth, 1663-1679
The famous Paston Letters document the rise to wealth and status of a Norfolk family from 1422-1509, and first appeared in print in 1787. The most significant collection of letters detailing the family’s subsequent fortunes is in the Norfolk Record Office and was published in 2012 by the Norfolk Record Society. These letters continue the story from 1663 to 1679: the Pastons were honoured with the lord lieutenancy of Norfolk, a royal marriage and an earldom, but they were also engulfed by a ‘whirlpool of misadventures’ which was to lead to their eventual bankruptcy and extinction.
The most important group consists of some 88 letters from Robert Paston (1632-1683), first earl of Yarmouth, principally to his wife. They begin in 1664 on a note of optimism. After the restoration of Charles II, there were many royalists competing for royal favour. Robert achieved this by securing a grant of £2,500,000 for the ‘King’s supply’. This sum (which included the expenses of the Dutch War) was so vast that it must have required considerable nerve on Robert’s part to propose it, and the Commons seem to have been stunned into compliance. The King’s gratitude was unbounded and he made Robert a generous grant of the customs on commodities including wood, earthenware, and glass, which was expected to bring in £3,000 annually, clear of the rent to the king. In theory the Pastons should have lived happily and wealthily ever after: in practice they were ruined by their own financial ineptitude.
Robert had inherited the Paston estates in 1663 on the death of his father, Sir William Paston, traveller, literary patron, and principal collector of the celebrated Paston Treasure, subject of an international exhibition in 2018. However Sir William died in debt and the estates had declined in value during the commonwealth period, and were already mortgaged. It would have been sensible to have paid off the mortgages, but Robert had sent a huge sum to the King in exile in 1658 without consulting his father, and had thereafter been kept on a tight leash financially. Tired of penny-pinching, he embarked on lavish expenditure funded by fresh mortgages.
All might have been well but the wood farm paid much less than anticipated; Robert’s rent was raised to take into account the increased demand for timber following the Great Fire; he failed to pay the interest on the new mortgages; and he poured money into his hobby, alchemy, in particular his search for the philosopher’s stone which turned base metals into gold (which would have solved all his problems). He and Rebecca were soon in serious financial difficulties and were bailed out by her brother and mother, but they found it impossible to economise – in 1671 their eldest son William set off on an expensive grand tour and the king and court visited Oxnead which necessitated lavish expenditure. Robert was never part of the king’s circle of close friends (which is greatly to his credit) but the King clearly liked him – in 1672 William married the king’s eldest illegitimate daughter, and in 1673 Robert was raised to the peerage.
In the 1660s Robert wrote buoyant letters to Rebecca from London during the parliamentary sessions. In the 1670s he wrote from Oxnead about his duties as lord lieutenant and his pressing need for money to support his position. His strong-minded wife Rebecca remained in London, appearing at court, making friendships and alliances, and perpetually watching out for any advantage that could be seized for her family. They corresponded in cipher, using symbols for names and topics.
Very few of Rebecca’s replies have survived – unfortunately Robert seems to have been the first member of the family to obey the command ‘burn this’. However the collection includes letters from a wide range of correspondents. His close friend Thomas Henshaw, diplomat and scientist, wrote about their alchemical experiments, and about London gossip and scandal. Another friend, John Fisher, auditor of the estate accounts, wrote mainly about politics. His steward, John Hurton, his chaplain Revd John Gooch, and his friend Major Robert Doughty of Aylsham, all wrote to Rebecca about Norfolk politics when Robert was too busy, and to Robert himself in London when parliament was sitting. He much preferred Norfolk: the two great passions of his life were Oxnead and Rebecca – although everyone else seems to have disliked her intensely.
Many of the letters relate to their children. The eldest, Margaret, was highly intelligent and helped Robert in his laboratory, but unfortunately had a weakness for handsome foreigners. No sooner had they extricated her from an entanglement with a penniless half-Spanish army officer, than she fell in love with the Venetian ambassador and married him, against her parents’ wishes, as soon as she came of age. There are letters from their two eldest sons William and Robert describing their grand tours, and from their younger children’s tutor complaining that they were neglecting their studies and running wild at Oxnead.
Much of the content is political. Robert was initially well liked when he became lord lieutenant. He was a polite and mild-mannered man who suffered from obesity, caused in part by severe gout, which prevented him from taking part in the usual gentry sports – he was happiest in his library and laboratory. He was unusually tolerant towards Roman catholics and dissenters. As lord lieutenant his principal tasks were to organise the county militia, and to make sure that the men elected as members of parliament were loyal to the crown. However, the Norfolk gentry were, for the first time since the civil war, dividing along party lines and Robert met with opposition from the emerging whig party. His last years in office were made miserable by disputed elections, the political change which followed the Popish Plot, lawsuits over money, and his increasing ill-health. He died in 1683 leaving his wife and eldest son with a mountain of debt, and was unable to make any kind of settlement on his younger children. Fifty years later his son, the second earl, was dead without a male heir, his two splendid houses at Oxnead and Paston were falling into decay, and the Paston story ended in sadness and financial ruin.
The Whirlpool of Misadventures, Letters of Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth, 1663-1679 was edited by Jean Agnew (published 2012) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.
This blog was written by Jean Agnew.
- The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other (Yale British Art – YouTube) – This short film presents a technical journey into “The Paston Treasure” that delves beneath the paint layers to explain how this unusual painting was made and how it has changed over the last 350 years.
- This is the Pastons – the ‘Paston Footprints’ pages. You’ll find here an introduction and a way into the amazing hub of links, information about the people and places which have been associated with the Paston family and their letters over six centuries.