PASTON, WILLIAM (1378–1444), judge, was born in 1378 at Paston on the coast of Norfolk, four miles from North Walsham, and close to the small Cluniac priory of Bromholm (Norfolk Archæology, vol. iv.; Paston Letters, i. 30). He was son of Clement Paston, who died on 17 June 1419, and Beatrix de Somerton (ib. i. 52, iii. 448). Twenty years after William Paston’s death an attempt was made to defeat his son’s claim to the Fastolf estates on the plea that his grandmother, and apparently his grandfather too, had been of servile blood. Clement Paston was alleged to have been merely a good plain husbandman who cultivated his own little holding of a hundred acres or so, much of which he held on base tenure of the duchy of Lancaster, and drove his own corn to market (ib. vol. i. p. xxi, vol. ii. p. 227). The family, it was said, held no manorial rights until William Paston purchased some. These assertions might seem to be supported by Clement Paston’s modest will, and we certainly find the judge’s son endeavouring to obtain the grant of a court leet in Paston from the duchy (ib. iii. 421, 447). But the Pastons proved to the satisfaction of Edward IV and his council that they were ‘gentlemen descended lineally of worshipfull blood sithen the Conquest hither.’ The pedigree and other evidences on which they relied were preserved at Oxnead Hall until the family became extinct, and still exist in a copy made by Francis Sandford [q. v.] for Robert Paston, viscount (afterwards first earl of) Yarmouth [q. v.], in 1674, and printed by Mr. Worship in the fourth volume of the ‘Norfolk Archæology.’ The first steps in the family tree, beginning with Wolstan, who came over from Normandy in 1069, are more than doubtful, and some curious errors occur elsewhere; but there seems no good reason to doubt that the Pastons belonged to the small gentry of Norfolk, and had secured by marriage manors in parishes contiguous to Paston. But Judge Paston was clearly the real founder of the family fortunes. If the unfriendly statement already quoted may be trusted, his father had to borrow money to keep him at school, and he was partly supported, during his law studies in London, by a maternal uncle. He made great progress in these studies, and one of the first acts of Richard Courtenay [q. v.] when he became bishop of Norwich in 1413 was to make Paston steward of all his courts and leets (Blomefield, Hist. of Norfolk, vi. 479). According to Blomefield, the citizens of Norwich called him in as arbitrator in a dispute about the election of mayor in 1414, an honour repeated in 1442 (ib. iii. 126, 148). In 1421 the bench enrolled him in the select body of serjeants-at-law, and his services in that capacity were soon retained for the crown (Dugdale, Origines Juridiciales, p. 46). On 15 Oct. 1429 Paston was raised to the bench as one of the justices of the common pleas, and continued to perform the duties of this office until a few months before his death (Ordinances of the Privy Council, iv. 4). A salary of over seventy pounds was assigned to him, and, as a mark of special favour, he received two robes more than the ordinary allowance of the judges (Paston Letters, vol. i. p. xxiii). He was a member of the king’s council for the duchy of Lancaster, and acted as a trier of petitions in the parliaments of 1439 and 1442 (Rot. Parl. v. 4, 36). His conduct on the bench in days when judicial impartiality was hard to preserve was such as to secure him the honourable title of the ‘Good Judge,’ and a place among Fuller’s ‘Worthies of England.’ But it did not entirely escape challenge. While a serjeant-at-law he had been in great request among the Norfolk gentry as trustee and executor, and his services as counsel had been retained by towns and religious bodies as well as by private persons. In the parliament of November 1433 one William Dalling, an official of the duchy of Lancaster in Norfolk, accused the judge of being still ‘withholden’ at fees in every matter in Norfolk. The exact sums which he took yearly from certain parties named were specified. If he still took fees from old clients, it would be sufficient to cast a doubt upon his impartiality in cases where their interests were concerned. The petition, however, was rejected, and his reputation does not seem to have suffered. His duties as an advocate in lawless and litigious Norfolk had, before he became a judge, involved him in some awkward situations, of which we get a glimpse in the earlier letters of the Paston collection. In 1426 he prays ‘the Holy Trinite, delyvere me of my iij. adversaries, of this cursed bysshop for Bromholm, Aslak for Sprouston, and Julian Herberd for Thornham. I have nought trespassed ageyn noon of these iij., God knowing, and yet I am foule and noysyngly vexed with hem, to my gret unease, and al for my lordes and frendes matieres, and nought for myn owyn’ (Paston Letters, i. 26). As counsel for the priory of Bromholm, in whose fortunes he had a personal and family as well as a professional interest, Paston had resisted the claim of Walter Aslak to the advowson of Sprouston, and prosecuted a certain John Wortes ‘that namythe hymself Paston, and affirmeth hym untrewely to be my cousin,’ for apostasy from the priory. In August 1424 Aslak placarded Norwich with bills, threatening to murder Paston, and by his interest in high places brought him into ill-odour with John Mowbray, second duke of Norfolk, whose steward Paston had been since 1415. Wortes went to Rome, where he was made bishop of Cork, and got his adversary mulcted in a fine of 205l., and ultimately excommunicated. We are not told how either matter ended.
In January 1444 Paston was too ill to ride the home circuit, and made his will. He died on 13 Aug., late at night, which no doubt accounts for the date of his death being sometimes given as the 14th (ib. i. 50, 54, ii. 289, iii. 448–60). Sandford quotes a statement of William Worcester that he died at London, which may be doubted. He was buried in the chapel of Our Lady in Norwich Cathedral, of which he had been a benefactor, and his son endowed a priest to pray for his soul in the said chapel for ninety years (Blomefield, vi. 480). Blomefield states that he built the north aisle of Therfield Church, Hertfordshire, and probably that of Great Cressingham Church, Norfolk, in both of which effigies of himself and his wife formerly existed.
Paston married Agnes, daughter and heiress of Sir Edmund Berry of Harlingbury or Horwelbury Hall in Hertfordshire, who bore him five sons and one daughter. The sons were: John (1421–1466), who is separately noticed; Edmund (1425?–1449?), William (1436?–1496?), Clement (b. 1442; d. before 1487), and Harry, who must have predeceased his father (Paston Letters, i. 77). The daughter was Elizabeth, who married (1), before 1459, Robert Poynings (d. 1461), by whom she was mother of Lord-deputy Sir Edward Poynings [q. v.], and (2), before 1472, Sir George Browne of Betchworth, Surrey. She made her will on 18 May 1487 (ib. iii. 462).
Paston’s wife had brought him estates in Hertfordshire and Suffolk, and he himself had made extensive purchases of lands in Paston and other parts of Norfolk, including the manor of Gresham, bought of Thomas Chaucer [q. v.] These estates he divided by his will between his widow and his sons, with elaborate precautions against disputes, which did not prove entirely successful. He also left a very considerable amount of ready money and plate, although over four hundred pounds of his salary was not paid until fourteen years after his death (Foss, iv. 352; Enrolled Customs Accounts, 37 Henry VI). His widow died in 1479.[Foss, in his Lives of the Judges (iv. 350–2), gives a short biography of Paston, to which something has been added from Blomefield and Parkin’s History of Norfolk (8vo ed., 1805) and Mr. Gairdner’s edition of the Paston Letters. The fullest materials for the Paston genealogy are contained in Sandford’s transcript of the family pedigree and evidences printed in 1855 by Mr. Worship in vol. iv. of the Norfolk Archæology from the original manuscript at Clumber. Some additional information may be gleaned from Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (ed. Caley, Ellis, and Bandinel), iii. 63 sqq., v. 59 sq.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44
Paston, William (1378-1444) by James Tait