The Paston Letters, the largest collection of private correspondence from the fifteenth century, contain the letters from Sir John Fastolf (1378-1459) and the inheritors of his castle, the Paston family.
The Pastons, being supporters of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, corresponded with the powerful elite of their time. But the letters also dealt with a wide range of matters of private life: from marriages, funerals, births, baptisms, fashion, livery, heirlooms, education, to unpaid bills for oysters.
These letters have long been used by historians as source material for political history, as well as for studies of English life and manners in the fifteenth century. They were also used by English philologists as examples of fifteenth-century English language at a crucial period of its development.
In 1732, in the reign of George II, William Paston, second Earl of Yarmouth, having survived his male issue, died in debt. When his title became extinct, the Paston letters were sold to John Fenn. John Fenn published The Original letters, written during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III by various persons of rank or consequence, containing many curious anecdotes relative to that turbulent and bloody, but hitherto dark period of our history …
Volumes 1-4 of The original Letters were published between 1787 and 1789. Volume 5 was published after John Fenn’s death by his nephew in 1823. Fenn’s Original Letters are of interest not only to philologists, but also because the characters of the letter writers spring vividly from the page. The images in the slideshow above are taken from the Library's copy of this edition.
They are also beautifully illustrated, and hand-coloured. When more letters in this series came to light, James Gairdner published a new edition between 1872 and 1875. A complete collection, edited by Norman Davis, was published by OUP in 1971.