High society player c.1635 - 1694
This is the first public page dedicated to Rebecca (Clayton) Paston; yet her voice and story have been hiding in plain sight, within the letters. By creating this page we're writing Paston women back into history.
Extract from the Paston letters on Rebecca:
‘I gasp after your letters every day … your conversation by penn is the pleasantest thing in the world to mee’ - Robert Paston.
Find out more about Rebecca
Explore a 3D reconstruction of Oxnead Church and the impressive Tudor Oxnead Hall, where Rebecca and her husband Robert resided for most of their lives.
Biography by Jean Agnew
Rebecca Paston, countess of Yarmouth, was a formidable lady who was heartily disliked by many of her contemporaries. Luckily her husband adored her: ‘your conversation by penn is the pleasantest thing in the world to mee’. (Whirlpool p. 343)
She was the daughter of Jasper Clayton, a wealthy London merchant, and she married Robert, son of Sir William Paston in 1650 when aged about fifteen. We get direct access to her voice later in her life through one key letter. In the 1660s, Robert, now Sir Robert, was a member of the House of Commons and was in London whenever parliament was sitting. He corresponded with Rebecca, who resided at Oxnead Hall, and many of his letters have survived showing that the marriage was extremely happy. Nothing is known of Rebecca’s education but she could both read and write – separate skills in the seventeenth century – although her handwriting was barely legible and her spelling phonetic. Only one complete letter to Robert is known, signed ‘thy most afexsinat wif, R Paston’. She was evidently a lively letter writer and Robert described her letters as ‘perticular pleasure of my life when I am absent from your conversation’ and wrote: ‘I gasp after your letters every day and am now longing for tomorrow morning againe, for since my eyes are deprived of the happiness of seeing you, your conversation by penn is the pleasantest thing in the world to mee’. Sadly, he did not keep her letters: he appears to have been the only member of the Paston family to obey the command ‘burn this’. (Whirlpool pp. 82, 214, 343)
Her father-in-law, Sir William was a baronet and an extremely wealthy man, and Robert was his eldest son. During the civil war the Pastons were royalists but Robert took this to extremes, borrowing £10,000 to send to the exiled Charles II: thereafter Sir William kept him and Rebecca short of money. However, in 1660 Charles was restored to the throne and in 1663 Sir William died and Robert came into his inheritance. The Pastons were not as rich as they had been before the civil war – Sir William had been heavily fined in the 1640s – and parts of their estates were mortgaged, but they were still one of the richest gentry families in Norfolk with their main seat at Oxnead. This had been built by Sir William’s ancestor Clement Paston in the 1570s and much embellished by Sir William himself in the 1630s, and it contained his fabulous collection of objets d’art now known as ‘The Paston Treasure’ shown in the painting in the Castle Museum.
The little girl in the painting is believed to be Rebecca and Robert’s eldest daughter, Margaret, who grew up to become a scientist. (New research has discovered more about her life, see link at the end.) Sir William left his granddaughter a dowry of £4,000 with no strings attached and a generous annuity. It appears that he expected her to live with his widow - Robert’s step-mother Margaret, Lady Paston, and the few sources relating to the child suggest that she was living with her grandparents in the 1650s. After Sir William’s death however, Margaret returned to her parents’ household and they appear to have been on bad terms with Lady Paston and allowed her very limited contact with their children.
Although Rebecca’s letters have not survived, we know from Robert’s replies that she was frequently bored and lonely at Oxnead. Although Robert was related to almost every gentry family, Rebecca had no Norfolk kinfolk. Moreover she was not used to living in, or presiding over, a great country house. She was a London girl and preferred the smoke and smells of the city to the bracing air of Norfolk. Whenever Robert asked, with seventeenth-century directness, ‘what you thinke to doe with your great bellie’, she opted to give birth in London. She and Robert had ten children in all, with at least one miscarriage or stillbirth. Four boys and three girls survived. Robert was intellectual, charming, and sweet-tempered but his health was bad. He suffered from attacks of gout and depression, and became too obese to ride, so was unable to take part in the country sports enjoyed by the gentry. Unlike Rebecca he loved the peace of Oxnead, with its gardens and library, and a laboratory where he carried out alchemical experiments in the vain hope of discovering the Philosopher’s Stone which turned base metals into gold.
In 1664 Robert won the King’s gratitude by being bold enough to propose a grant to him of £2,500,000 which apparently stunned the House of Commons into acquiescence. As a reward the King granted him a lease of the revenue from various kinds of customs. It would have been sensible for Rebecca and Robert to have used this income gradually to pay off the mortgages, but they embarked on building works at Oxnead, converting part of the ground floor into a servants’ hall, a ‘preserving room’ for alchemy, and a richly furnished chapel. A servants’ hall meant that fewer meals would be taken by the entire household in the great hall, and that the family would be able to dine separately in the ‘eating parlor’ which received a new chimney piece and gilded leather hangings. Some of the old plate was melted down to make more fashionable pieces – antique furnishings were not admired in the seventeenth century – and there were velvet bed hangings and a handsome new coach. A London painter was sent up to ornament and paint pictures for the chapel under Rebecca’s supervision.
Unfortunately it was a long time before the customs grant paid anything and when it did the income was less than anticipated. By the end of the 1660s the Pastons were seriously in debt, and the last straw, financially speaking, was the king’s visit to Oxnead in 1671. This was a huge success but the cost was staggering. The king, however, liked Robert – most people did – and in 1672, Rebecca and Robert’s eldest son William married the King’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, and the customs grant was renegotiated on more favourable terms. Finally Robert was created viscount Yarmouth. Probably none of this would have happened without the help of the lord treasurer, the earl of Danby, who was married to one of Robert’s cousins, and who was prepared to promote the Pastons’ interests as far as they coincided his own.
Having emerged safely from her years of childbearing, Rebecca had matured into a strong-minded and forceful woman. Robert’s title, and the birth of their and the king’s mutual grandchildren, gave her enhanced position and status. Unfortunately she was frequently arrogant towards her inferiors and was not universally liked. Her main aim now was to advance the status and wealth of the Paston family. In 1675 she played a central role in a scheme to appoint Robert as the lord lieutenant of Norfolk in place of Lord Townshend who had offended Danby. It is not clear whether Robert himself was ambitious for this office for his health was bad and he preferred a quiet life, but he could hardly refuse to serve the king. He went to Norfolk as lord lieutenant in the spring of 1676, while Rebecca stayed in London where they had taken a house, and another series of letters has survived. Robert and Rebecca used a code with symbols for names, and they discussed her labours to land another source of income from the crown. Robert applauded her efforts and wrote ‘you are the hinge our affaires hangs upon’. (Whirlpool p.378). Party politics had transformed his duties as lord lieutenant and now involved him in onerous electioneering. All the while his health was deteriorating and he longed for her visits to Oxnead. He became seriously ill in 1678 but by the spring of 1679 he had recovered sufficiently to write ‘Ile lay you £1000 I gett you with child att our next meeting’. (Whirlpool p.378.) His recovery was short-lived and Rebecca gradually came to play a more active role in Norfolk politics: one observer wrote that ‘the gentry of his party equally mislike his little love of business and his lady's too much meddling in it’. Charles II: February 1682', Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1682 (1932), pp. 51-104.
Robert died in 1683. By his will he confirmed to Rebecca her jointure lands and ‘all I have in the world’ to make them free from encumbrances (i.e. mortgages or rent charges), but he left no provision for his younger children, Robin, Jasper, Thomas and Betty. To her parents’ great sorrow Mary had died of smallpox in 1676 aged about twelve, and Margaret, the little girl in the picture, had married a Venetian diplomat, much against her parents’ wishes, as soon as she came of age in 1673. After her father’s death she wrote reproachfully to Rebecca ‘perhaps if my dear father had contented him self with the holesume aire of pore oxned without troubleing him with state afairs & folowing the court that your Ladyship would not how be a widoe’. (British Library Add. MS 36988 f. 220v.)
Robert left his son and heir, William, second earl of Yarmouth, in serious debt. Shortly afterwards William received an anonymous letter warning him against Rebecca:
‘That if you sufferd yourself to be governed by her, you would be held a weak person, and ruine your interest and expectations at court: if you trusted your estate in her hands, she would begger you: if the breeding of your children, she would spoyl their dispositions and undo them: if your health and person, she would destroy you: if your peace and content, you would never know a quiet houre’. (British Library Add. MS 36988 ff 233-234.)
William appears initially to have ignored this advice, and Rebecca continued to work for her family’s interests, but she left Oxnead in about 1690. A contemporary wrote of her:
‘His mother, who made a great bussle in King Charles ye 2ds time, now boards in a thatched house; and, altho she keeps up her pride to ye heigth by suffering noe one to sit at meat with her and many other vain formalitys, yet with difficulty enough finds money to pay for her board, and hath made her landlord soe weary of her as to make use of all the civil ways he can to gett rid of her; but she will understand none of them, not knowing where next to goe. Her son gives her noe respects or holds any correspondence with her, tho she lives not 2 miles from him.’ (Edward Maunde Thompson, ed., Letters of Humphrey Prideaux... to John Ellis (Camden Society, XV, 1875), pp. 165-6).
No reason is given but it is possible that she and William’s second wife disagreed. In fact the estrangement did not last – a perfectly friendly letter written by William in 1693 has survived. (British Library, Add. MS 36988, ff. 271-2). Rebecca died in 1694 and was buried next to Robert in Oxnead Church.
Much of the abuse she received can be put down to straight misogyny. It was thought unnatural for women to be in positions of authority over men, apart from servants, and Rebecca’s arrogance made her enemies. Her strength of character and tenacity seem to have been characteristic of the Clayton family. Rebecca was latterly at loggerheads with her eldest brother, Sir John, and her younger sister Prudence went to court over her inheritance under the will of their father who died in 1660 and continued the fight against their mother, Sir John, and his son for the next forty years.
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