Survival of the Fittest: The Pastons & the Wars of the Roses

 The story of the prominent Paston family and their involvement in the brutal Wars of the Roses.
The Paston Treasure
Home » Articles » Survival of the Fittest: The Pastons & the Wars of the Roses

Survival of the Fittest: The Pastons & the Wars of the Roses

What did the middling sort of people do, those who had an eye to climbing the social ladder, when faced with the tragedy of civil war? For many it was a matter of keeping their heads down, to emerge at the end in as much of one piece as was possible. If they were unfortunate, their manors would become part of the battleground, fought across and laid waste. If luck was with them, the fighting would pass them by, even in another part of the country, and they would emerge relatively unscathed. Whatever happened in the battles, it was good policy to do all that they could to keep in the King’s good books, or under the beneficial eye of the local magnate. Survival was everything.

The Paston family found it very difficult to achieve either of these two options. To their benefit, their manors, mostly in Norfolk and Suffolk, were never in the path of marauding armies. Pure luck of course. But attracting the good offices of King or magnate was another matter altogether. The Paston menfolk certainly petitioned Edward IV for the security of Caister Castle and protection for the Paston manors from men such as the Duke of Suffolk and the Duke of Norfolk, with recompense for past attacks, but their success was limited. King Edward was not prepared to push for recompense when the support of the Dukes was far more important to him than that of Sir John II Paston.

As for the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, in their relationship with the Pastons they were a law unto themselves. With a weak King such as Henry VI and a troubled King Edward IV with his own difficulties when facing the demands of Warwick and Clarence, the local magnates were given the freedom to follow their own interests. The Pastons became pawns in the local power-games. No one was prepared to stop the Duke of Norfolk from taking possession of Caister Castle, the jewel in the Paston crown. John III Paston might hold out in a short siege but the outcome was inevitable. The Pastons lost their castle. Getting it back would need a miracle.

As for the fighting. John I Paston managed to keep out of any battles, focusing on disputes in the courts of law. His sons were not so fortunate. John II and John III found themselves caught up in the net of bloodthirsty politics. Their greatest need was for a patron powerful enough to offset the local authority of the Duke of Norfolk. They found one in the Earl of Oxford. This put the Paston brothers in a good position, but it took them into war. When the battle lines were drawn the Earl called on the Paston brothers John II and III to fight under his standard and they could hardly refuse, even though it meant their taking a stand against the King when Oxford joined Warwick’s rebellion. Thus, the Pastons both fought in the Battle of Barnet in 1471. Unfortunately, they ended up on the losing side when King Edward emerged victorious, Warwick was killed, the Earl of Oxford fled abroad and John III was wounded by an arrow in the elbow.

John III recovered, but the two Paston brothers had risked and might lose all. They were declared traitor by King Edward, with the likelihood of their possessions being confiscated. As was their uncle William Paston whose own royal connections were complicated by his Beaufort wife, daughter of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the Beauforts being distinctly out of favour at this time. Their defeat at Barnet might mean that all the Paston efforts to solidify their estates had gone for nothing. An anxious wait developed to see what would happen even though John II was ‘betrothed’ to Mistress Anne Haute, cousin of the Queen.  They were fortunate that a royal pardon was offered, Edward IV needing all the friends he could get. Their estates were restored, but the ever-lingering problem of Caister Castle was not solved.

It has to be said however that the Pastons were not without a wily plan, on or off the battle field. How to get Caister back without a battle and with a patron who was in exile? The death of the Duke of Norfolk presented a fortunate opportunity. The widowed Duchess of Norfolk was brought to bed of her second child at Framlingham Castle. John III who had held a position in the Norfolk household in his youth, attempted to persuade his mother Margaret to visit the Duchess and offer her services during the birth, Margaret having survived seven births. It was John III’s plan that his mother persuade the ailing Duchess to give Caister back.

Whether Margaret actually attended this event is unclear.  She may have done so.  If so, did the two women discuss such business dealings while the Duchess was in labour?  I doubt it. The Duchess gave birth to a son who died almost immediately, leaving a young daughter as the heir to the Norfolk acres. Whether these two intrepid women had any effect on the fate of Caister, in May of that year the Royal Council at last pronounced in favour of the Pastons and the Duchess renounced it. Caister Castle belonged to Sir John II Paston and its ownership was never again questioned.  It is encouraging to think that the work of women might have had an effect rather than warfare.

The Pastons were, it seemed, not always reluctant to pick up arms if it might play to their advantage. In early 1475 all five of the Paston brothers, sons of John I Paston, enlisted to fight under King Edward in the continual manoeuvring between England, France and Burgundy. England and Burgundy were in alliance against France and it seemed that war would ensue.  In fact, war was averted and the Paston brothers returned home without shedding any blood, either French or their own.  At least they had proclaimed their loyalty to the King.

During the final years of English unrest, the Pastons found it politic to keep their heads down. There was no direct Paston involvement in the Buckingham rebellion or the events that led to the death of Richard III and the crowning of King Henry VII. John III kept a discreetly low profile, keeping clear of all conspiracies.  John was presented with three dangerous possibilities: to fight for his old patron the Earl of Oxford on one side, to fight for the Duke of Norfolk on the other side, or to sit tight and do neither.  John wisely chose to sit tight and await the outcome. Ultimately however John III emerged from his political isolation to fight alongside the Earl of Oxford in the Battle of Stoke which put an end to the Lambert Simnel rising in 1487. As a reward for his conspicuous support John III was created Sir John Paston and Deputy Lord High Admiral. Their future was secure with the Tudors.

It is worth taking a final look at the fate of Elizabeth Paston, sister of John I Paston. She did not fare so well, her involvement in the Wars of the Roses being far more deadly.  Her first husband Sir Robert Poynings survived involvement in Cade’s rebellion, before they were wed, but then after their marriage he fought in the Battle of St Albans for the House of York. He was killed on the battlefield, leaving his young son as heir and his estates in difficulty for Elizabeth, since they were claimed by his niece Eleanor through the complications of Kentish patterns of inheritance. Since this troublesome niece was wed to the Percy Earl of Northumberland, she had far more influence than Elizabeth Paston. Elizabeth had to fight to keep the Poynings estates for their son Edward who should inherit, a struggle for possession that dogged her for the rest of her life.

Nor did her second husband bring any light relief for her. This was Sir George Browne who survived the battle of Tewkesbury on the side of the Yorkists but then became involved with the Kentish rebels in the Buckingham Rising against Richard III in the first year of his reign. Browne was captured when the rebellion failed, tried for treason as one of the leaders of the rebellion in Kent, and was executed on Tower Hill, leaving the Browne estates also in jeopardy. Elizabeth’s Poynings son Edward also joined the rebels and was forced to flee, joining the exiled Tudor in his bid for the throne. Some women had much to suffer in wartime, but to Elizabeth’s ultimate satisfaction, Edward returned to England to become a notable member of the Court of King Henry VII. Her son with Sir George Browne was also restored to his estates with the coming of the Tudors.

The Pastons were not one of the major ‘mover and shaker’ families in the Wars of the Roses, drawn as they were into the fighting against their wishes. They were men of law rather than men of the sword, but they emerged in good order. Their value to historians is of course their comment in their letters. We are given a splendid bird’s eye view of how these middling families survived and managed to turn events to their own interests.

Anne O’Brien is a Sunday Times bestselling author. Her latest novel is A Marriage of Fortune.