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Helen Castor's Blood and Roses

In 1459, at his castle at Caister, near Yarmouth, Sir John Fastolf, a doughty warrior who bore no serious resemblance to the Falstaff into whom Shakespeare would transform him, died, nearly eighty years of age. A wealthy man, owner of many manors, Sir John left a nuncupative will: not written down, that is, but oral, and to be attested to by witnesses. This will was very favorable to one of the men whom he had chosen to administer his estate, John Paston. Paston, thirty-eight, was a man of some substance in Norfolk, and distantly related, through his wife, to the deceased. But two factors would work against him in the attempt to take possession of Sir John's legacy. First, he was the grandson of a peasant. This fact, which his family had done everything, over the past fifty years, to bury, would land him in the Fleet prison in 1465, a shock that arguably contributed to his premature death the following year. It was illegal for villeins to own manors. Second, John was not cut out to thrive in the atmosphere in which the accusation of villeinage had been dug up. John Paston was very much a bystanding victim of the civil unrest known to history as England's Wars of the Roses.

John was not a politician. He was not even politic. What was his was his, by God, and everyone had just better recognize the validity of his titles. But he was a small man, relatively, without any natural protector. It was hard to choose protectors well in those days, and John usually chose poorly. It was never much in anyone's interest to right the wrongs that were done to him by the retainers of great noblemen who simply moved in on his possessions and collected the rents themselves. And it probably wasn't in anyone's power to stop such depredations, either. In the thirty years or more of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), there were four coronations, two within the space of a year, and there was also a coronation that ought to have taken place but didn't. Allies fell out and betrayed each other. If you're looking for a book that combines the bucolic charm of East Anglia in the age of decking halls with boughs of holly with the nail-biting uncertainty of life with the Sicilian mafia during a turf war, then Helen Castor's Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During the Tumultuous Wars of the Roses (HarperCollins, 2006) is the book for you.

Now we fast-forward to another estate, in 1735. The Earl of Yarmouth, the last of the Pastons, had died three years before, and his executor and son-in-law had disposed of most of the late earl's property,

but he found himself at a loss when confronted with the damp and chaos of the muniment room, where boxes and trunks of estate records, deeds, and court rolls stood amid heaps of loose letters and papers in no discernible order. He decided to call in an expert: the Reverend Francis Blomefield, a noted antiquarian and local historian, who spent two weeks "among the old writings" in the Paston archive, gathering material for the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk which he planned to publish, and bringing order to the jumbled piles of documents for the benefit of the earl's executors.

The Pastons of the fifteenth century, relentlessly involved in litigation requiring somebody's presence in London, had scribbled piles of letters back and forth between the capital and Norfolk, only to be succeeded by later Pastons who couldn't be bothered to throw anything away, and whose houses were lucky enough to escape fiery destruction. The singular result was the preservation of several generations of correspondence, from the late 1430's to the end of the century, about perfectly mundane matters. The Paston Letters are our unrivalled window into the everyday thoughts and worries of fifteenth-century men and women. Making it even luckier is the family's somewhat uncertain status, which only made it the more self-conscious, and the more determined to put on a good front to the outsiders discussed in the letters. You could probably not pick a better-situated family for this particular - and completely inadvertent - reality show.

I don't propose to discuss the Letters themselves here. What I do wish to recommend is Ms Castor's extraordinary reanimation of the Paston's tumultuous fortunes. She has combed the archives well enough to recreate the settings in which the Letters were written. Because the Pastons show themselves, in the Letters, to be interesting people, handling recognizable problems in idiosyncratic ways and managing to skip across the stones of some very Interesting Times, the reconstitution of their saga is hugely engaging. Some readers will find that Ms Castor attends a bit too closely to the curlicues of lawsuits and to the tug of war between the Pastons and their enemies, but this certainly conveys the weariness that John and Margaret Paston and their sons, oddly named John II and John III, must have felt as they waited to take possession of Caister Castle. And waited. And, like Margaret eventually, the reader stops wanting to wait. Then the sun comes out, largely thanks to untimely deaths, everything works out for a time (two hundred years) - and there is no longer a need for all that letter-writing.

To the fifteenth-century Pastons, it had seemed that lasting remembrance would depend on the physical embodiment of their achievements: on the fine houses in which they lived and the proud memorials that marked their graves. Little now remains of the buildings and monuments on which they lavished such care, and so much of their wealth. Judge William's house at Oxnead is long gone; the manor house at Gresham is nothing but overgrown foundations, and Caister Castle is a ruin, its elegant tower overlooking no more than an outline of the great house traced in brick on the grass below. Not a single fifteenth-century Paston tomb survives. The chantry chapels and monastic institutions to which so many of the family entrusted their graves were swept away by the Reformation; and although Mautby church still stands, its south aisle - where Margaret Paston was buried under a tombstone made to her own precise specification - no longer exists. What did survive, against all the odds, was not brick or marble, but hundreds of fragile pieces of paper. As a result, the Pastons now occupy a unique place in the history of medieval England.

Blood and Roses is an essential history of the Wars of the Roses as well, because, unlike conventional histories, it gives a real sense of the punctuating force with which the major events in this conflict occurred. Most of the time, nothing much was happening - on the big scene. But the legal coils in which John and John II were wrapped twisted on and on, requiring real-time space between the dynastic excitements. While it would be unfair to call Blood and Roses a "bottum-up" view of the war, we do for once get to see what the disturbances felt like to the landowners of England, who were, after all, the backbone of the country. They hated the uncertainty, but they never failed to take advantage of it.

Having heard nothing about the book, I picked it up at the Cloisters last month. On last year's visit, I bought a very different work of fifteenth-century history, Helen Maurer's Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England. In that work, a very scrupulous historian seeks to reconstruct the reality of a royal career in the absence of substantial reliable documentation. Ms Castor has made excellent use of precisely the sort of material that Ms Maurer lacked, and charmed the old official records into speaking with complete authority. Both books are important histories. But Blood and Roses belongs on the shelf alongside Chaucer, Malory, and even Shakespeare. She has more to tell us about Merrie England than they do - thanks to a voluble Norfolk family. (September 2006)

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