'Innumerable letters of good consequence in history'
the discovery and first publication of the paston letters

David Stoker

Among the books newly advertised in London in January 1787 was a work with an uninspiring title: Original letters, Written during the Reigns of Henry VI., Edward IV. and Richard III. by Various Persons of Rank or Consequence.[1] The printer's working title was however 'Original letters of the Paston family', and the documents referred to have always been known as the 'Paston Letters'. They were edited by their owner, John Fenn, a little known antiquary from East Dereham in Norfolk, described by Horace Walpole as a 'smatterer in antiquity, but a very good sort of man'.[2]

These first two volumes of the Paston Letters were dedicated to George III, and three days prior to their publication Fenn attended a reception at what is now Buckingham Palace, where he was introduced to the King by William Pitt, and presented his work to the Royal Library. Whether or not it was due to this royal connection, the work was the literary sensation of that spring and summer. Detailed, and generally favourable reviews, quotations, references, comments, and even poems inspired by the Paston Letters were published in all the major literary journals, and the European Magazine published an engraved facsimile of one.[3] Walpole, who had known about the Paston Letters for some time, was particularly enthusiastic:

The Letters of Henry VI.'s reign etc. are come out, and to me make all other letters not worth reading. I have gone through above one volume, and cannot bear to be writing when I am so eager to be reading.[4]

Similarly approving views were expressed by those with no such historical background. Robert Potter, the classical scholar, poet and critic, wrote to his friend Edward Jerningham:

Though I do not profess Antiquarianism these old letters afford me much amusement and information. There is one from John Jernyngham to his Right Worshipfull Cosyn Margaret Paston, from Calais, giving an account of an engagement at sea 29th May 1458, under the Earl of Warwick,. He honestly says 'and for the sothe we wer wele and trewly bette' yet John was for more Scheppis to fyzthe agayne. What a valiant family![5]

Even in rural Suffolk, the book appears to have made an immediate impact, among polite society. According to Edward Mills of Hitcham:

so fast went the first edition, that we could not procure a Copy so soon as we wishd, tho' a Friend had been written to in Town upon the very first advertisement. Ours were not the only Copies in the Neighbourhood; The Paston Letters were orderd in the Lavenham Club and at Brentely They had their share of Praise, the Ladies joind with the Gentleman, and for several Visits, the chat of the day was given up for the Annecdotes of our Ancestors.[6]

Within a week of publication all copies had been sold by the wholesaler, who immediately began negotiating for the rights to a second edition. This was available in less than three months, whereas the first had taken nearly year to produce. In the meantime, the continuing public interest in the letters, as well as doubts about their authenticity, caused the editor to the originals on display in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries.[7] This was ironic since five years earlier Fenn had sent one of his precious letters to the Society for their consideration, but they had thought it not worth printing.[8] Shortly after the appearance of the second edition on 1 May 1787, Fenn received a message that the King wished to inspect the originals. Three weeks later Fenn attended yet another Royal levee and presented the King with the originals of the letters he had published, bound in three volumes, and on the same day received a knighthood.

The 155 letters included in those first two volumes were only a small selection of the early letters and other documents surviving from a vast collection once held by the Paston family of Norfolk. More than a thousand items dated from the second half of the fifteenth century, and there were comparable numbers from the two succeeding centuries and the first quarter of the eighteenth centuries. This was in addition to 'a great number' which were said to have 'perished entirely' from the weather due to the dilapidated state of the Paston' family home during the early years of the eighteenth century.[9] Fenn, lived to publish two more quarto volumes of his early letters in 1789, and, when he died in 1793, a fifth volume was nearing completion; it was eventually published thirty years later. The whole of the surviving correspondence and associated materials from the fifteenth century and parts of the correspondence from the early seventeenth century, have since been published in a number of scholarly editions.[10]

Those Paston Letters which date from the fifteenth century in particular remain a major historical source, for there is a dearth of comparable material. Most of the letters were written by, or to, members of the one family, and cover an enormous range of social, domestic, and economic matters. They are important for our understanding not only of the events of that turbulent period in our history, but also of such matters as the social conditions and conventions of the time, the history of education, and even the development of the English language.[11] The circumstances surrounding the discovery and subsequent publication of the letters also contain many points of interest to bibliographers. Fenn provides an interesting example of the maturing attitudes to the publication and use of historical documents. He was generally painstaking with his transcriptions, translations, and annotations, and also well in advance of his time in his recognition of the importance of the physical evidence afforded by the documents he was editing. His work also represents an unusually well documented case study of eighteenth century printing and publishing practices, and the impact of such a work on the contemporary reading public.

The origin and discovery of the collection

H.S. Bennett noted the curious propensity of the Paston family to hoard their letters and other written documents, whilst simultaneously advising one another to burn them once read, as a safeguard against espionage and incrimination.[12] It is greatly to our benefit that they ignored each other's advice, and that this tradition of letter-writing was continued from generation to generation until the ultimate loss of their fortune in the 1730s. But what happened to them thereafter? The process by which the letters came into the hands of John Fenn was complex and has perhaps been deliberately obscured by those concerned. The starting point is the succinct account of their provenance in the preface to the first volume of Original letters.

These letters ... were carefully preserved in that [i.e. Paston] family for several descents and were finally in the possession of the Earl of Yarmouth; they then became the property of that great collector and antiquary Peter Le Neve, esquire, Norroy; from him they devolved to Mr. Martin by his marriage with Mrs. Le Neve, and were part of his collections purchased by Mr. Worth, from whom in 1774 they came to the editor.[13]

This statement may have been written in good faith, but parts of it are almost certainly wrong. Fenn became aware of the Paston Letters when they were in the collection of 'Honest Tom' Martin, of Palgrave, who may have given this account of them to disguise the means by which he came to acquire them. Whilst it is true that the bulk of Le Neve's extensive manuscript collections came into Martin's hands upon his marriage to his widow Frances in January 1732,[14] yet it is most unlikely that the letters were ever in the hands of this great collector, and it is quite possible that he knew nothing of them.[15]

Peter Le Neve died in 1729, three years before the death of William Paston, the last earl of Yarmouth, and sole surviving male descendant of the main branch of the family. Elsewhere in his introduction Fenn states that the letters 'were in the possession of different antiquaries for above a century',[16] implying that, they had been acquired by Le Neve during the early 1680s while he was still a young man. Although Le Neve became President of the revived Society of Antiquaries in 1687, his activities as a collector of documents relating to the history of Norfolk did not begin until several years later. Furthermore there appear to be no endorsements on any of the surviving letters by either Le Neve or his amanuensis Thomas Allen as might be expected.[17] Indeed, these men developed a system for dealing with loose papers which may be likened to a document shredder. Had the Paston Letters ever fallen into their hands it is likely that they would have suffered the same fate as several other early manuscript collections. Those letters containing topographical information would have been cut up and digested into Le Neve's infamous filing system under the names of the towns or villages mentioned. The remainder would have been scored out and any blank paper on the reverse used for further transcripts.[18]

The Paston Letters were rather discovered some years later by another antiquary and friend of Thomas Martin, Francis Blomefield, the Rector of the neighbouring village of Fersfield. Between 1733 and 1736 much of Blomefield's time was spent collecting additional materials for a topographical history of Norfolk based upon the collections of Le Neve, which were by then in the hands of Martin. Wherever possible Blomefield used members of his family or influential friends to secure him introductions to the homes of the leading families, and overcome any suspicions they may have had regarding his wish to inspect their deed boxes. Blomefield's father-in-law, Lawrence Womack, was the rector of Oxnead, which had been the principal seat of the Paston family from the 1480s until 1732. In the Spring of 1735, Blomefield secured permission to spend a fortnight working in the muniment room of the dilapidated Oxnead Hall in return for putting the manuscripts there into order.

The Paston family, which had struggled for advancement during the fifteenth century, enjoyed a period of prosperity throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However their unwavering loyalty to the Crown during the Civil War and Interregnum, in a county with predominantly Parliamentary sympathies, meant that their estates were sequestrated and they were subject to ruinous fines. Robert Paston was later rewarded for the loyalty of his father by elevation to the peerage in 1673, as the first Earl of Yarmouth from 1679, but the family fortunes never recovered from the set-back. Throughout the latter part of the seventeenth century and the first three decades of the next the Pastons sank deeper into debt, due in part to the financial ineptitude of the later generations, who dabbled in alchemy and also engaged in desperate financial speculations. On Christmas day 1732 the eighty-year-old William Paston, the second Earl died, a hopeless bankrupt. He had outlived his three sons, none of whom had issue, and so his title also died with him. It was left to his son-in-law Major Thomas Weldon, (the second husband of Lady Charlotte Paston), to try and sort out his affairs, liquidate the estate, and settle a proportion of the family debts.[19] At the time of Blomefield's visit, the Pastons' valuable library, art collection and furnishings had already been sold,[20] but the family muniments were apparently still largely intact although many had already deteriorated and the remainder were in imminent danger of destruction. Soon after Blomefield's visit Oxnead Hall was abandoned, and largely demolished for the sake of the building materials. By 1744 the Hall was described by Thomas Martin as 'in the utmost ruins, ... a deplorable sight'.[21]

Blomefield had announced his plans to visit Oxnead Hall in a letter to Thomas Tanner, the Bishop of St Asaph, on 5 April 1735:

[I] hope to go in about a fortnight to the late Earl of Yarmouth's evidence room, where I have gott admission and find no less than between 30 and 40 chests of antique curiosities and evidences of Norfolk only such as have been collected by some curious person.[22]

Upon his return to his Fersfield Rectory in May, Blomefield made a detailed report to Major Weldon on what he had found, which includes the first substantial reference to the Paston Letters.

There are innumerable letters, of good consequence in history, still lying among the loose papers all which I layd up in a corner of the room on an heap, which contains severall sacksfull, but as they seemd to have some family affairs of one nature or other intermixed in them I did not offer to touch any of them, but have left them to your consideration, whither when I go to that part of the country I shall separate and preserve them or whither you will have them burnt, tho' I must own 'tis pitty they should except it be those (of which there are many) that relate to nothing but family affairs only.[23]

Blomefield was allowed to borrow a number of documents from Oxnead, all of which he listed on a separate sheet, including 'a parcell of old letters cheifly relating to the surrender of Norwich charter and the militia of Norfolk', and the will of Sir John Fastolf.[24] From this it may be inferred that the bulk of the letters remained in situ. Many of the documents he borrowed on that day were later retained in his collection, but whether this was through purchase, gift or absent-mindedness, is not clear.

The next reference comes three years later, in a letter from Blomefield to the antiquary Francis Peck:

I have now perfected a collection I have been doing several years and got all the originals, viz. above a hundred letters of Sir John Fastolf's own hand, an account of the sumptuous palace or castle that he built at Yarmouth, the exact furniture of every room, the expences of the building, the siege of it after his death, its demolition, the originals of all his noble preferments in France, his last will, the account of the money plate &c left at his death, which is almost incredible, his revenues, donations, and whatever was curious during his whole life, by which it appears he was the greatest man of that age and greater than any since.[25]

Many of the letters have been endorsed either with Blomefield's mark or else with his annotations,[26] and reference is made to others in parts of his history printed during the 1740s, although without mention of their whereabouts or ownership.[27] Therefore either Blomefield acquired the collection by himself or else in conjunction with Thomas Martin, who then made his portion available together with Le Neve's collections.

Blomefield died suddenly in January 1752, having all but bankrupted himself and his family by his collecting and publishing activities. He left behind studies in houses at Fersfield and Norwich, each crammed with printed books, manuscript volumes and loose papers that came from his own collections, those of Thomas Martin, Peter Le Neve, and a variety of other individuals and institutions. His widow was anxious to dispose quickly of as much as possible in order to settle his debts, but the only person who could begin to sort out the muddle and identify the ownership of the collections was Thomas Martin. He later wrote in answer to an enquiry about a missing manuscript belonging to the City of Norwich:

the late Mr Blomefield's writings and papers were deliver'd to me in such wretched confusion that my pains have been unaccountable in sorting them out, which I have done in such measure to my own satisfaction.[28]

There are occasional fleeting references to parts of the collection among the notes made by Martin at this time, but nothing very concrete.[29] Eventually in 1755 Martin purchased Blomefield's manuscript collections outright from the widow, but once again there is no reference to the Paston Letters related manuscripts in the sale agreement or associated correspondence. Almost the entire collection was incorporated into Martin's massive library, and nothing more is heard of it until after his death in 1771, although a few stray letters passed into the hands of Blomefield's continuator the Reverend Charles Parkin.[30]

The absence of more specific references to the Paston Letters among the hundreds of surviving documents relating to Martin's and Blomefield's collections raises a question as to the legitimacy of the title that either man may have had to them. Neither Blomefield nor Martin was always scrupulous in dealings relating to the ownership of historical documents, and indeed Martin's custody of the Le Neve collection was entirely illegitimate.[31] Throughout this period the complex and at time acrimonious task of liquidating the Paston estate and settling with the creditors was still in train, and was not completed until 1764.[32] It may be that neither man wanted to advertise his possession, or the potential value, of the letters too widely lest there should be some further claim upon him from some of the institutional creditors who were eventually forced to settle for a fraction of what they were due.

Fenn's acquisition

John Fenn enters the story at about this time, shortly after graduating from Gonville and Caius College in 1761.[33] Over the next five years he appears to have divided his time between further studies at Cambridge, his mother's home in East Dereham, and the home of his friend John Frere at Bacton, in the vicinity of Martin's home in Palgrave.[34] In 1766 he married Ellenor Frere, the sister of his friend, and the couple settled in East Dereham, where they lived for the remainder of their lives. As a teenager, Thomas Martin had been befriended by the elderly Peter Le Neve because of a shared interest in local antiquities. A half century later Martin likewise encouraged young men who might represent the next generation of Norfolk antiquaries; most notably John Ives of Great Yarmouth and John Fenn.

The characters of John Fenn and Thomas Martin could not have been more different however. The young man was sober, upright, and financially prudent, almost to a fault,[35] whereas the older man was a drunken reprobate, who had wasted several small fortunes in his collecting activities. Yet thanks to their mutual love of antiquities Fenn continued to be a regular visitor to Palgrave and their friendship continued without interruption until Martin's death in March 1771.[36]

Tom Martin's valuable library and coin collection had been depleted during the last decade of his life, by sales forced upon him to meet the increasingly pressing demands of his creditors. However the bulk, of his manuscripts, including the Paston Letters, remained in his hands at his death. When Thomasine Martin, his daughter and executrix let it be known that the family were planning to sell his remaining collections, John Fenn and John Ives were among a number of antiquaries interested. Together they drew up the catalogue of the collection, which was subsequently printed by William Whittingham of King's Lynn.[37] Fenn even went so far as to offer £500 for the whole, but this was a fraction of its worth and would not have paid off Martin's debts.[38] The family therefore sold a few choice items to Martin's antiquarian friends and the remainder (again including the Paston Letters) went for somewhat more to Thomas Worth, a Diss chemist and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.[39]

Worth bought the Martin collection as a speculation, and could not maintain his investment for long. He quickly auctioned the pictures, prints, and ancient weapons, and sold the printed books to two Norwich booksellers. He also employed Fenn to help with the sorting, examining and cataloguing of the collection during the spring of 1773. The bulk of the manuscripts were however auctioned in London by Baker and Leigh in April of that year and in May of the next, but the Paston Letters do not figure in the printed catalogues.[40] The receipts from the two auctions of Thomas Martin's collection did not live up to expectations, and Worth was forced to sell further items to Fenn, Ives and other members of the local antiquarian community in the face of his own impending insolvency. He died suddenly in December 1774 and his administrators persuaded Fenn to make arrangements on their behalf to dispose of the remainder of Martin's collection to a bookseller in Harleston named Thomas Hunt.

The exact route by which the letters came to the ownership of Fenn is not entirely clear, and they may have been acquired by him piecemeal between 1773 and 1775.[41] Fenn was apparently permitted by Worth to hold on to certain manuscripts, including some 'Paston papers' in return for his troubles in helping to compile the catalogue of Martin's manuscripts, but he had not acquired the whole collection at this time, and others remained with Thomas Worth. He was also paid in kind for his services by Worth's executors by keeping certain manuscripts, including a 'bundle of Paston letters'. Yet these statements conflict slightly with his own account to the Society of Antiquaries on 30 November 1780 where he indicated that he had purchased them from Worth in 1773.[42] It was uncharacteristic of the man for him not to set out clearly and unambiguously exactly how he came by the letters, and this may be an indication that he was suspicious of their provenance. If this were so, then the statements later made in the foreword to his edition can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.

However, Fenn was certainly in possession of some of the early letters by March 1774 when he sent to Horace Walpole an account of the execution of the Duke of Suffolk, taken from two of them.[43] but others may have been acquired over the following year. At some time during 1775 Fenn drew up a catalogue of the various collections he had acquired from Worth; this includes two clear references to the Paston Manuscripts. Within one chest of fifty drawers were to be found 'Papers and Rolls relative to the Paston Family', and on top of another chest of twenty four drawers were 'Bundles of Papers and Letters relative to the Paston Family'.[44] These were the manuscripts from which he made selections for his five volumes, including the most valuable and interesting of the letters, but they did not represent the collection in its entirety. John Ives had already purchased those manuscripts and letters relating to Sir John Fastolf.

From 1767 John Fenn had been involved, together with Thomas Martin, in seeing the completion of Blomefield's monumental history of Norfolk through the press. The last part of the third folio volume, and two further volumes were being printed by Whittingham in at King's Lynn, from the manuscripts of the late Charles Parkin, Blomefield's erstwhile collaborator. Following Martin's death in 1771, Fenn continued to check the proofs and offer his editorial assistance to the printer until the text was eventually published in December 1774.[45] Thus the completion of this great task coincided with Fenn's acquisition of the Paston Letters, but his decision to go ahead and publish them was to wait for nearly a decade..

Editing the letters

Fenn never lost his respect for Thomas Martin, and was eventually to leave money in his will for a memorial to his friend; nevertheless he was conscious of the enormous waste of money and human effort that had gone into the collection which was so irrevocably dispersed after his friend's death:

It is a truth greatly to be lamented, that almost all general collectors are too apt to become so very attentive to the present pursuit of the day, as to let that engross their whole attention; whereas, would they follow one species of collecting only; and, having acquired a sufficient fund of materials relative to that particular pursuit, then use the same industry in arranging and digesting, those materials, as they before employed merely in collecting them, and when thus put into order, give them to the public, how much good would they do to society, and to themselves; instead of which, as soon as a sufficient quantity of matter is amassed for their originally intended plan, the whole is laid aside, and a new pursuit takes place: thus, wandering from one species of collecting to another, their life wears away; they become old men, and pass to their grave without having benefited their contemporaries by any useful or curious publication; too often, it is to be feared, with ruined, or at least wasted estates, their collections are then dispersed by public sale, perhaps for the same purpose as before collected - to be looked at, laid aside, and forgotten!

            These observations occurred from the editor's particular acquaintance with a great collector, possessed of sound abilities, and whose judgment in points of antiquarian knowledge was extensive; who frequently made resolutions, that next year he would digest his various collections, and form some of them for public inspection: but he wanted perseverance; he grew old; he died in his chair, at an advanced age of seventy-four years, without ever having completed any literary undertaking, and in circumstances from which his children felt the effects of his indiscretions.[46]

Having acquired these valuable letters, Fenn made no secret about his ownership of them or of his wish to see them made available in print for the benefit of the scholarly community.

Over the next five years or so, John Fenn discussed his project with various antiquaries, and in particular with his brother-in-law John Frere. For example, a letter of December 1777 from Frere to Fenn passing on an enquiry from Sir Joseph Ayloffe, contains the earliest description of the collection as 'the Paston Letters'.[47] The first hint of any intention to publish them comes in a letter of May 1780, when Edward King wrote to thank Fenn 'for the perusal of his curious manuscripts, which gave him great pleasure; and he is assured will afford no less to others'.[48] On 30 November of the same year Fenn read the two letters relating to the execution of the Duke of Suffolk, together with his observations upon them, to a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries.[49] However, no further action appears to have been taken at this time.

In December 1781 Fenn paid a visit to Walpole's London home, seeking a copy of the latter's recently published pamphlet on the Chatterton forgeries. The ensuing correspondence led to the loan to Walpole of two of the Paston Letters in May 1782.[50] In return he received a letter encouraging him to proceed with their publication.

I have brought back your Mss myself, for I was afraid of keeping them they are so valuable, especially the Paston letters, which are the most curious papers of the sort I ever saw, and the oldest original letters I believe extant in this country. The historic picture they give of the reign of Hen. VI. makes them invaluable, and more satisfactory than any cold narrative. It were a thousand pities they should not be published, which I should be glad I could persuade you to do.[51]

Fenn then discussed this matter in another written to Sir John Cullum a few days later, which indicates his doubts over his capacity to undertake such a task.[52]

... Some of my Antiquary Friends in town, wish me much to prepare for the press those Letters written during the reigns of H6 & E4 some of which I think I showed you, with a few notes &c which I had written to them ... Mr Horace Walpole much wishes it - I should be glad of your & your Friends opinion on that head - I am aware it would be a troublesome undertaking (for I have copied & noted many) as I must do the whole myself, for I could not procure any one even to transcribe for me, the hands not only being so difficult to those not used to old writings, but the contractions &c so liable to be mistaken - the Collection is certainly a most curious one - so curious that Mr Walpole says he did not know ('till I informed him of these) that there was a single private original letter of those turbulent times extant.

            I could furnish one quarto volume & if that brought m[e no] discredit, perhaps another . . . but I must read much [and] I must write much, for I would not willingly publish th[em] either in a slovenly or a careless manner.

            I have been in some measure arranging them lately, but the heap, & the crincum crancum hands fright me. However if my Friends encourage me, I think I shall venture.

Fenn also asked his brother-in-law to raise the question of the publication of the letters at a Council Meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, and also particularly to seek the views of Richard Gough and Edward King. However the Society was wracked by internal dissension, and the replies received at this time were not very encouraging.

... they both agreed in saying that it was doubtful whether a work of that kind would have a great and immediate sale; but could not suppose there was any hazard of your getting any discredit from it. However we may talk of the matter by & by - I confess the soc. not thinking the letter communicated to them worth printing is no favourable symptom, at least so far as the leading men there may be supposed to lead the public taste. When they declared their design of not publishing, I said, I supposed they had no objection to returning you the letter &c. but to my great surprize that they chose to decline.[53]

By the following October the transcription had been completed and Fenn was again seeking advice from Edward King about how best to present them in print. He was determined that he would also produce an edition that would be of use to scholars, however.

[King] is much pleased & thinks them extremely curious. He recommends printing duplicates of each letter, one as you have transcribed it, the other, by way of translation without abbreviations, not altering the words (though I should think in a transcript of that kind, when a very obsolete one occurred, a more modern one might be inserted in italics) for he thinks that numbers would read those letters with great instruction & amusement from the matter, to whom the stile &c would render them unintelligible.[54]

Although the preparation of two versions of each letter was to enlarge the work and delay publication by more than a year, Fenn accepted the idea of a parallel text, in order to make the work more accessible to lay readers, and overcome the fears of his friends that the work would not otherwise sell sufficient copies to warrant publication. However, he was not then working as fast as he was able. Indeed, during the winter months of 1783/4 the Paston letters were put to one side, whilst he embarked upon a separate work           entitled Repertorium Chiro-Typicum Containing a Collection of Fac Similes or Apographs taken from the Original Autographs or Signs Manual of Emperors Kings, Princes, Nobles, Bishops & remarkable commoners'.[55] Although the compilation of this work was a digression, the skill he developed in making such facsimiles were later useful in providing illustrations for the letters.

By the spring of 1784 Fenn had returned to the Paston Letters. He approached a London engraver named Thomas Cook, with an original painting of Henry VI from his own collection,[56] and in sending a copy to Walpole, he wrote:

I ... intend it for a frontispiece to my original letters, should I ever publish them. Do you think it will answer that purpose? I intend to amuse myself this summer in transcribing such of those letters as are not already done, rendering them into modern English and adding historical notes where necessary - And should I meet with any difficulties in my progress, a permission to apply to your learned and ingenious pen would be an honour I should most highly esteem.[57]

A year later his manuscript was sufficiently advanced for him to start to look for a publisher, although his task was not perhaps completed until 25 August 1785; the date of the Conclusion to the second volume. In this he summed up his general approach as an Editor:

Reader, We have now finished our Tour; I hope to our mutual satisfaction.

If you have received any pleasure from the Rarity of the Scenes, from the Manners of the Times, or from the Historical Information, which you may have acquired, I shall be happy; and shall consider the Care, Trouble, and Attention, which I have bestowed, in smoothing the Road, in improving the Landscape, and in erecting a few Guide-Posts for your ease and direction, as having been employed for an useful purpose.[58]

Following the success of the first two volumes Fenn later secured the services of William Dalton, a remarkable seventeen-year-old lad then serving his articles with James Smyth a solicitor in Dereham, to assist with the remainder. Dalton  took responsibility for the initial transcription of each letter, or for revising Fenn's earlier transcription where appropriate. Fenn, on the other hand, remained responsible for the modern translations, the footnotes and the introductory matter.[59] Each man appears to have worked directly from the originals rather than from one another's transcripts, with the result that occasional small errors in the transcripts do not re-occur in the parallel translation.[60]

The accuracy of Fenn's (and later Dalton's) transcriptions was subject to more detailed scrutiny than any contemporary publication following questions about the authenticity of the letters which came to a head in 1865 and 1866. The text of the fifth volume was subject to examination by the foremost historical scholars of the time, and compared with the newly re-discovered originals. A number of literal and some verbal inaccuracies, were identified although these were not blamed upon the editor, since he had not lived to see this volume through the press. In the opinion of a Committee set up by the Society of Antiquaries.

Under any mode of editing with which persons accustomed to this kind of literary work are now acquainted, a very great many of the inaccuracies which have been described would have disappeared in the correction of the press. .... the wonder is not that there are so many inaccuracies, but that they are not more numerous and more important.[61]

James Gairdner, who was Fenn's main champion in this debate and also one of the scholars invited to investigate the standards of editing of the letters, was content to accept Fenn's readings for his own scholarly editions, published a century later:

A large number [of letters] have been compared already, and the comparison inspires the greatest confidence in his care and accuracy. His misreadings are very few, his method of procedure having been such as to prevent their being either many or serious; while as to his suppressions I have found no reason to believe, from what examination I have been able to make, that any of them were of very material importance.[62]

Where Fenn's work was weakest however was in his dating of the letters, although he was working at a time, and in a location where he could not benefit from published sources that would have enabled him to be more accurate. He was however aware of this problem, particularly with respect to the more domestic letters included in volumes 3 and 4, and notes the difficulty in his Preface, hoping that 'his criticising reader, instead of carping at small faults, will grant a proper indulgence for what he has endeavoured to do'.[63] The draft of the Preface is a little more revealing of his true attitude in this respect:

I have done my utmost to e[illegible word] them as much as possible tho' the exact date is of little consequence.[64]

During the period leading up to the publication of the first collection of letters, Fenn undertook research on topics ancillary to the historical content of the letters. In particular, he took a great interest in the origin, quality and size of the paper upon which his letters were written, and made preliminary investigations into the history of paper making during the fifteenth century, noting the passage from Wynkyn de Worde's edition of De proprietatibus rerum, about John Tate's mill at Hertford.[65] He perhaps got this information from his correspondent William Herbert, who was then compiling an enlarged edition of Joseph Ames's Typographical antiquities.[66] Likewise he also started to record the watermarks on the letters, and learned how these were made.[67] According to John Bruce, Fenn 'was the first English antiquary who gave representations of these marks, and applied them as a test of antiquity'.[68]

Similarly he investigated and described other matters relating to his letters such as the type of handwriting and ink used, the way in which the letters were folded, the use of seals and other means of enclosure, and the modes of conveyance employed.[69] The full range of watermarks, seals, and signatures, together with some examples of numerals found in the letters, were later to be illustrated as plates, so that the editor might refer to them in his individual descriptions (Figures 1-3).

Fenn was also most conscious that, once published, the authenticity of his letters would be questioned, particularly following the publication of Chatterton's Rowley poems and MacPherson's epic Fingal. Doubts regarding the authenticity of both of these works were already widespread. Indeed, Fenn's experience of fifteenth-century handwriting and ornamentation, the representation of numbers, and the use of paper rather than parchment in informal writings, all enabled him to cast yet further doubts upon Chatterton's poems in letters to Horace Walpole.[70] In order to overcome any suspicions of his letters Fenn initially sought signed certificates attesting to their authenticity from some of the most famous antiquaries among his acquaintance, including Sir John Cullum, Craven Ord, Horace Walpole, and Edward King.[71] These appear to have been solicited between September 1784 and May 1785, once the text was ready for publication. However in the event, Fenn did not make use of them, preferring instead to devote some space in his preface to a comparison of various features of his genuine letters with Chatterton's forgeries:

Every criterion of authenticity accompanies the original documents; no novel or suspicious anecdotes will stagger credulity; no new hypothesis is to be established, or even proposed; no inveterate faith in received history is to be shaken; no eccentric genius is to appear, and call for admiration of talents, that exceeded his means of improving and displaying them.[72]

Likewise, it is clear from the wording on the title page, that the engravings of paper-marks and signatures were intended to authenticate the letters. These precautions, together with the display of the originals by the Society of Antiquaries, were sufficient to allay any suspicions of the letters among Fenn's contemporaries although three quarters of a century later this was once again to be a source of controversy among the scholarly world.

The detailed preface to the first volume also deals with such matters as the orthography of the letters, their provenance, the problems of dating them, his general method of editing and providing annotations. In addition to an accurate text, description and annotations for each letter he also provided his readers with other detailed apparatus for using them, including a Table of Contents, a Genealogical Table, and a tabular Catalogue of the Letters showing the Autographs, Water Marks, and Dates of each.

Thus, for 'a smatterer in antiquity', working at a time when standards of historical endeavour are not usually well regarded, Fenn showed considerable scholarship and maturity in his role of editor. He was a careful and painstaking editor, particularly in the preparation of his manuscript and in the employment of an amanuensis to check his own work. According to A.J. Collins 'For the age in which Fenn lived his work is beyond praise'.[73] Yet, as will be seen below, he was later to adopt a rather cavalier attitude towards the correction of the proofs of his volumes, and his lack of supervision during the reprinting of the second edition meant that his work is marred by a number of minor, although unnecessary, misreadings and omissions.

The choice of publisher

According to Fenn's autobiography, during a visit to London in April 1785 Fenn 'treated with Messrs Payne & Cadel concerning the publication of his Original Letters, but not approving their terms he came to no agreement with them'. Between May 1785 and February 1786 Fenn, by then back in Dereham, kept up a long and detailed correspondence with his brother-in-law in London concerning negotiations to agree terms with an appropriate wholesale bookseller. Two of the most eminent London booksellers were again approached, John Payne, and George Robinson, with a view to their purchasing the work outright or taking a share of the profits. Detailed negotiations were carried out with both simultaneously, although,  understandably, both were non-committal about outright purchase until they could see the finished work:

He [Robinson] said it was impossible, without seeing something of the work, to know what offer to make for it, but I saw plainly that he would like to have it. He asked if it had been shown to anybody - I told him Payne and Cadel had seen a small part of it. I suppose says he, Payne carried it to Cadel, & he was a great fool for his pains, if any thing offers worth having, Payne has never sense enough to keep it to himself.[74]

One of the reasons for these prolonged and complex negotiations was the difficulty experienced by John Frere in pinning down the booksellers and then reporting back to the editor in Norfolk:

I did not write, having nothing to say, but that when I went to Cadel's they told me the Printer had not yet made his report. I have called since, as I could find opportunity but have ... never been able to see Cadel - his wife is dying at Carshalton and he is always upon the road backwards and forwards, that I have missed him both here and there, and Payne will do nothing without him.[75]

Robinson was no less elusive however:

I doubt not but your patience must be quite exhausted as mine has been some time, ... I have hunted after Robinson, day by day, for his proposals; but he is canvassing after a city place, that is vacant, for his son & I have never been able to get to the speech of him, though he has appointed an hour to come to me & I staid expecting him 3 hours after it was past. I have this morning left a peremptory message for him, but as they did not know in the shop when he would be within, I have little hope of seeing him time enough for the post, if at all, & therefore write this while I may.[76]

When Frere did eventually get to see them, seeking to clarify some point or put forward an alternative suggestion, he frequently received short shrift.

Receiving no answer from Payne I called upon him last week, when he told me in a short, & I thought not very civil way, that he had nothing further to say to Mr Fenn - that he was in possession of his & Cadel's proposal and that they understood he was gone into the country to complete the work. I then thought myself at liberty to talk with Robinson[77]

George Robinson was later described as 'the most enterprising, intelligent and communicative bookseller with authors of his day'.[78] His original tentative proposal was for a 'guinea quarto', that is a volume which would retail at one guinea, but which would be sold to the trade at 16 shillings. A print run of 750, he estimated, would cost approximately £240, therefore requiring a sale of 300 copies to break even. The remaining 450 copies, when sold, would yield a profit of £360 which would be divided between author and publisher. The copyright would remain with the author who would be at liberty to make his own terms for a future edition, or else continue with the old agreement.[79] The author would also receive twenty free copies for presentation to his friends and those who had assisted him.

This figure was something of a disappointment to Fenn, who had naively assumed that the half share of the profit would be calculated upon the retail, as opposed to the wholesale, price. However, Payne had likewise spoken of 'the allowance to the Pater-noster-row man' in his estimates,[80] and there was very little difference between the booksellers in the terms they were offering. Ideally Fenn would have preferred not to get involved with profit-sharing:

I told them as you knew nothing of the secrets of the trade, your wish would be to receive a specific part (I mentioned 1/3) of the selling price, whatever it might be; rather than 1/2 the profit. I don't know whether they will agree to it; but, if they do not, I suppose I am to take 1/4 rather than the uncertain sum that may arise from the nett proceed.[81]

However, the only price that he could secure for the outright sale of the edition was £100,[82] and after holding out for more free presentation copies he was ultimately forced to accept profit sharing as the means of financing the work.

When it came to choosing which of the rival offers to accept John Frere advised that there was more prestige attached to the names of Payne and Cadel on the title page, but that Robinson 'I think will be disposed to give all he can afford for it, if it be only to spite Cadel whom he does not love'.[83] In December 1785, Frere submitted the finished manuscript to Cadel's printer who produced a revised estimate for the production costs of £250. It then became clear that Payne and Cadel were envisaging a wholesale price of only 14 shillings, and a division of the profits three ways.[84] There was now a somewhat greater difference between the two proposals, and in January 1786 Fenn decided to use Robinson, who produced his own definitive costing based on a retail price of £1. 16. 0.[85] Robinson's printers were therefore asked to prepare a specimen sheet for approval by the author. By this time Frere was clearly getting exasperated with his role of acting as Fenn's London agent and he made it clear to his brother-in-law:

With respect to the printing, I do not see how it can go on without you on the spot, at least at first; if I had leisure to correct the press (which I am sure I shall not). I should not dare to undertake it.'[86]

Although Fenn appears to have visited London at this time to finalise the details of the proposed production and approve the specimen, he was not in a position to remain there for the duration of the printing. Instead he sought to make suitable arrangements to be able to supervise the production and correct the proofs at a distance. This included persuading various friends in Parliament to supply Robinson with postage franks dated at regular intervals so that he might send the packages at no additional charge.[87] He also appears to have made his peace with his brother-in-law, who continued to offer occasional assistance, conveying messages and reporting back on progress. Also, in his typically prudent manner, Fenn drew up a list of items which he wished to see specified in the contract with the bookseller. These included such matters as the responsibility for any additional cost of carriage or other incidental expenses associated with proof correction, specifying the return of his original manuscript 'clean and entire' after printing, ensuring that the types and paper to be used would first be approved by the author, and arrangements for payment in the event of his death.[88] Similarly he drew up a document entitled 'Directions to the Printer concerning the Original Letters', which indicated the layout of text and notes on each opening, with the transcript on the verso and the modern rendering on the recto, and such additional points as where he wished to see italic and black letter used, and that the dedication should be in a larger letter than the remainder of the work.[89] Once Robinson saw the completed manuscript, however, he decided to venture only an edition of 500 copies.

Robinson's final account does not survive, but in 1933 Graham Pollard published the text of a transcript of notes apparently made by Fenn, after it had been rendered.[90] This document seems to have been compiled prior to the negotiations for terms for a reprint, and the figures quoted have all been rounded. Out of the £900 receipts for the sale of the complete edition, £300 was deducted as expenses, and a further £200 as the discount given to the retail booksellers. Fenn therefore received £200, one half of the remainder, together with 30 free copies half bound 'for my trouble in correcting the proofs, journies to London &c'. The expenses included not only the costs of paper, printing, and advertisements, but also for Fenn's copies charged at cost, and for the 'quartern copy' allowance.[91]


The printing business employed by George Robinson and his partners was that of Archibald Hamilton of Falcon Court in Fleet Street. Cadel and Payne's printers had assured Fenn that the work would take in the region of six weeks to print - two months at the outside. There is no record of any such schedule promised by Robinson, but all concerned were certainly expecting less than the nine months that were ultimately taken. The surviving correspondence relating to the printing is full of complaints about delays and the unreliability of printers together with associated explanations and excuses. For example, by the middle of March 1786 Fenn was already becoming alarmed at the delays in the supply of proofs and asked Frere to enquire into the cause:

I had, before the receipt of your letter, enquired into the progress of the work, & found Robinson as much dissatisfied with the printers delays as you can be: he had indeed more reason than you, for the disappointment frequently rendered his franks useless & increases the trouble he gives his friends: he however confesses to be [sic] that he was aware the severity of the weather was such that the compositor could not do half their work; I hope now they will make the press sweat.[92]

Robinson's sour observation at this time is perhaps a perennial one in the relationship between a publisher and his printer 'Printers are so very full of Work, and their men so very negligent that it's hardly possible to get them to keep any time'.[93] By the following month, however, Robinson had worked out a revised, and somewhat more leisurely schedule than had originally been proposed:

I have now so settled it with the Printer to send twice a week Viz. Tuesday, Friday - & that not less than three sheets one Week & four the other shall be done. When I talked with Mr Frere about the time it would take to print the work, it was not expected to make so much, or did I suppose the proof sheets were to be sent into the Country, however, all I can do shall be done to forward it.[94]

When there were no franks available, the proofs were transmitted to the author in the regular weekly parcels between William Barker, the local bookseller in Dereham, and his London correspondents, Messrs Sawbridge and Law.

Few of the surviving letters to Fenn are from Archibald Hamilton himself, although on one occasion the editor pointed out that the compositors had started correcting the spelling of his transcriptions and expanding the contractions, and so Hamilton wrote personally to assure that it would not happen again.[95] However, there are a fair number of letters from Christopher Pigeon, who appears to have been Hamilton's foreman. Pigeon had a chatty style of writing, when addressing the rather stuffy editor, especially when he was writing to explain or apologise for the late delivery of promised sheets. Several examples from August and September 1786 will give a flavour of their style:

... The difficulty of obtaining Franks hath been the sole cause of the Irregularity of the Arrival of the Proofs. - I send you Sht Ii by this parcel. ... I assure you that neither the Compositor or I have relaxed in our Attention since you left town: but when 4 Sheets are with you, or on the road, or waiting for Franks, we can proceed no farther till we have a return for press.[96]

Three weeks later, Pigeon used one of the valuable franks merely to send the author a proof of the title page and simultaneously explain that the promised four sheets were following in a bookseller's parcel together with the copy. He then cheerfully reported:

The last of the letters in R. III's reign is in Hand, & will be finished in the beginning of next week - We then fall on The Trimmings, the copy of which is received by your most obedient Pigeon.[97]

But a week later he was apologising for another problem:

I take shame to myself for the blunder of last Saturday; though it was owing to the great multiplicity of Business I then had on my Hands, I deserve punishmt for that Inattention I should perhaps censure in another. I will very chearfully pay the expence incurred by my Mistake ...This day we do nothing in the Pr. Office (except yr Hble Servt), the men having their Annual Feast, before lighting Candles; so that it luckily happens that one frank will answer my purpose.[98]

The next week later there was yet another excuse:

You will probably be disappointed in not receiving more than Two Proofs this week, & Two odd pages. The reason I shall now assign: as the Preface you will observe is on a different Type from the body of the work; consequently retarded the Compositor, as the first Sheet or two of the work, in collecting the Materials. The same reason will account for the apparent Delay of the contents, which again vary in the Type.[99]

By the end of September, Pigeon had run out of plausible excuses and so had to resort to the truth:

Sir, I feel myself very unhappy in not being able to make a better use of the Frank than to inclose an Apology for what I know will be a great disappointment to you. Business has been so circumstanced this week with regard not only to Monthly, but other Publications, that we have been obliged to avail ourselves of every Hand in the House, not even your's excepted; & but by vigorous excertions & all nights work we could not have acomplished it. - It is now done: you shall have no farther stops.[100]

Fenn appears to have adopted the carrot and stick approach when dealing with Pigeon, on occasions sending him small presents of game to keep him sweet or else chiding him for his lack of progress or for some mistake made. However by mid-November, when in spite of everything, the work should have been finished, Fenn appears to have grown so tired of Pigeon's excuses that he wrote to complain to Robinson. This appears to have had the desired effect. Both Robinson and Pigeon wrote back, the latter in rather hurt tones:

This Evening I send off per Mrs Law's Parcell all the Sheets printed off - The Pedigree goes to press Tomorrow. Also Proofs of the Whole of the Body of the Work. There remains only the Cancel. I have not time to write more at large at present, its being past 4. - The heavy Charges brought against me, I must defer answering to the next time I trouble you with an Epistle. - Neither Mr Ro[binson] or Mr. Ha[milton] has been to blame & the apparent Neglect has arisen from unavoidable Accidents - not through any Inattention of yr most obt H St,

Christo[pher] Pigeon.[101]

Eventually on 22 November 1786 Robinson wrote to send the title page for approval and enquiring when Fenn would be able to come to town for the publication.[102]

Fenn was not particularly good at the detailed checking of his proofs, and appears merely to have given them a cursory examination prior to approval; on at least one occasion production was delayed whilst Pigeon queried readings which were clearly incorrect.[103] Once the corrected sheets were printed off however, he received three copies from the printer, one of which was then passed to William Dalton. The outcome of this unconventional method of working was that by the end of October when the work was almost printed there was a further list of eighty-four corrections and additions, as well as the requirement for a complete page to be replaced. Fortunately there was an odd half-sheet required for the title and half title of volume 2, and so it was possible also to include the cancel, and a two-page list of errata without having to schedule an entire new sheet through the press.[104]

The final arrangement of the work, and the exact contents of each volume were not therefore determined until the end of October when all the text together with the majority of the preliminaries had been set. In the event the book only contained 96½ sheets, as opposed to the 105 estimated for, each of which cost one guinea to set and print. The saving was partially offset by extras not included in the original estimate such as the inclusion of the Paston family pedigree, a long-primer broadside presumably advertising the work, unspecified 'Table work', and a 2½ sheet index. In addition £3. 6s. 4d was charged for the 'corrections, alterations &c' referred to above, and 14s. 1d. for postage and carriage. As a result the charge for letterpress printing came to £107. 9s. 11d as opposed to the estimated £105.[105]


Fenn was determined that his work should be well illustrated, and, in addition to his portrait of Henry VI that he had already had engraved for a frontispiece, he specified a number of additional engravings. These included an engraving of the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy,[106] one of the badges of the house of Lancaster,  a plate of seals from the letters, and another one with representations of watermarks[107] (Plate 1). Thirteen plates contained facsimiles of the signatures found in the letters, presumably some of which had been copied originally for his work 'Repertorium Chiro-Typicum' (Plate 2). Fenn also commissioned a vignette containing his own arms and Caister Castle for the title page. All these illustrations were produced by Thomas Cook, whose detailed bill for engraving and printing each of them is likewise preserved among Fenn's papers in the Norfolk Record Office.[108]

            Midway through the production of the work, Fenn decided that he would like to produce about fifty copies with the engravings on a better quality paper so that they might be hand-coloured. Enquiries were made and specimens sought from a Mrs Taylor who appears to have been running a business while her husband was confined by sickness.[109] Her charges for this work were seven shillings per hundred copies of each plate. Once all concerned had approved the specimens, Robinson wrote:

it strikes me that all our purchasers who see or hear of the Cold plates will want them Cold & therefore I submit it to your consideration whether we had not better colour the whole number of these same plates at once, something more may be put upon the Book to pay for it. I have stopt the working of these plates upon comn Paper until I receive your answer by which I shall be governed.[110]

Fenn then went one stage further, and suggested that the plates to be coloured should be printed in red, but he was discouraged from doing so by the engraver who said:

... if they are worked in red they will not take the colouring so well as if done in black. This indeed must be evident to any body on consideration I have therefore directed him, to work them in black.[111]

The idea of printing some of the engravings in red ink was however revived for the second edition and for later volumes. The three illustrations selected for hand colouring were Fenn's own portrait of Henry VI, Brooke's drawing of the St Omer's window, and the badges of the House of Lancaster. According to Robinson, 'great care is taken by Cook in working all the plates and I hope the whole will give you satisfaction', despite which Fenn was sent copies of the title page from which the engraved vignette of Caister Castle had been omitted.[112]


By the middle of October 1786, Robinson queried the date for publication with Fenn, and asked when he should begin advertising. At that time he was confident that the book would be ready within a month - coinciding with the next meeting of Parliament, which he considered to be a good date for such a publication. A few days later he wrote again to report that Parliament would not meet until after Christmas and he had decided to delay placing any advertisements until he heard from the author.[113] As usual, Fenn asked his brother-in-law to discuss the matter with Robinson and report back, which he did on 25 October:

I think it is certain that Parliament will not meet before Xmass - whether that should put off the publication is the question. For my own part I don't see any reason for it - your book is not of a nature that the curiosity, of such readers as have any curiosity concerning it, should be allayed in 2 months time. Robinson observed to me, sagaciously enough, why Cadel, & some of the other top retail booksellers, don't chuse to publish but in the spring. viz. because such of the nobility and gentry, their customers as are in the country will perhaps order their books of their bookseller in the neighbouring town & they will lose their profit. That is no reason with you, nor with Robinson who is in the wholesale way & I should think its coming out before other works might find it purchased among people who don't care to buy every thing that comes out, which it might lose, if it had to stand the market with 4 or 5 other books. I have often heard people say - 'Bless me! what number of guinea-quartos are come out this spring - 'tis impossible to buy them all!' You will consider about it & give Robinson your directions accordingly.[114]

No decision had been made a fortnight later when Robinson wrote to confirm that the book was almost ready:

... all will be ready by the end of next week - both Books & Copper plates and as I think the time of publication very immaterial, I wish to leave it intirely to yourself that you may fix a time that will best suite your convenience, we cou'd publish very well on Friday the first of Decr or in the Week after, but as I have said before make it convenient to yourself & when you have determined, please to favour me with a line and I will then send the Advertisemts to the following Papers - St James's Chronicle, General Eveng Post, London Do, London Chronicle, London Packet, Morning Chronicle, Morning Herald and any other you please. If we publish in Jany I think unnecessary to advertise before the Middle of December.[115]

In the event the date for publication was determined not by any commercial considerations but rather Fenn's desire to present a copy to the King. The work was therefore not advertised until 30 December as being 'In the Press, and in January will be published', and again on 1 February as 'On Thursday next will be published'; but in the meantime the press report of Fenn's attendance at the royal levée, and his presen­tation of a copy had given the work more effective publicity among polite society.

Dedication and presentation

Coincidentally with the original negotiations for a publisher, John Frere was using his political contacts to make enquires about the propriety of dedicating the forthcoming book to King George III. He made enquiries through Dr George Pretyman, William Pitt's private secretary and subsequently Bishop of Lincoln, who was distantly related to the Frere family. Ultimately, in July 1785, the Prime Minister was persuaded to raise the matter during one of his audiences:

With respect to dedication, the King only enquired if Mr Fenn was a man of character & on receiving the proper assurance consented in the most gracious manner. I mentioned this to the booksellers, but they will not allow that they shall sell one copy more on that account.[116]

As the work approached completion fifteen months later, Fenn wrote once again to Pretyman:

I have lately received account from my Bookseller informing me that my Letters will soon be ready for publication, and as I fear I must intrude upon you for your assistance relative to my introduction both to his majesty, & to Mr Pitt. I shall be glad to know when you return to town, that I may fix the time of publication accordingly.[117]

Pretyman replied that he would be out of London until after Christmas, but indicated that Fenn might take the necessary steps to visit William Pitt and seek an audience with the King. However, Pretyman's absence may have been the reason why the publication was delayed still further until the end of January.

There then came the thorny question as to the most appropriate form of binding for a presentation copy, and both Frere and Fenn took advice from several quarters. George Nichol, the King's bookseller, suggested that the two volumes should merely be bound in a marble cover, as 'the K[ing] always chuses it, as then he can bind it his own way & uniformly with his other books of the same nature.'[118] Fenn was not very happy with this advice and asked his brother-in-law if he could enquire further at the Prime Minister's office. Frere replied with a little irritation:

I know not how Mr Pitt can be enquired of, as to the binding of his Majesty's books, and Dr Pretyman is out of town; but I should think Nichols the highest of all authorities upon the subject.[119]

However Frere chose also to solicit the views of friends in London who had presented books in similar circumstances:

Mr King thinks, when books are presented at the levèe, they should be bound, but I lay no great stress on that, as I suppose he chuses to have done right himself, & his book was (what the King complains of) mortal fine. At least I did not think it a foundation for giving any directions to Robinson before you came. At all events, let your book be of plain red morocco, only gilt on the back.[120]

The definitive answer eventually came from Downing Street:

I have made enquiry about the binding of Books presented to the King, & understand it is very immaterial as to the Colour, provided they be handsomely bound. Red Morocco gilt or any other Colour, will, I am inform'd be perfectly proper, & I hear it is likewise usual to present them in marble paper.[121]

According to Fenn's 'Autobiography':

On the 29th of January 1787 Mr Fenn was introduced to His Majesty at the Levee by Mr Pitt, when he had the honour of presenting a copy of his Original Letters elegantly bound in two volumes quarto... His majesty received them very graciously, conversed with the Editor concerning them, & he had then the honour of kissing his hand. The King was much pleased with the publication & mentioned it more than once at his succeeding Levees & immediately ordered copies of the work to be placed in his several Libraries.[122]

Presentation copies were also sent out to a variety of friends of the author who had offered assistance in one way or another, including Horace Walpole, George Steevens, Craven Ord, John Brooke, Robert Potter, and of course William Dalton. He also made a number of gifts to institutions such as the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society, and Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.[123]

The second edition

On 6 February 1787, four days after publication, Fenn and Robinson entered into an agreement for a second edition; this was not to be a straight reprint, but rather one which included additions and corrections.[124] Fenn was almost able to dictate his terms which determined the use of superior quality paper, and inclusion of a number of additional plates.[125] In addition, the existing plate of seals was to be printed in red ink. The contract also guaranteed to the author £300 in staged payments, irrespective of the volume of sales. These were exceptionally generous terms for an author at this time and an indication of the publisher's confidence in the success of the new edition. Indeed Fenn's 'Advertisement to the Second Edition', dated 23 March 1787, noted that the rapid sale of the first was 'a convincing proof of the taste of the age for authentic documents of former times'.[126]

The additions and corrections noted on the title page primarily involved changes to the Preface and the addition of some further notes. Fenn particularly acknowledged assistance in this respect from his friend George Steevens whom he described as 'the Learned and ingenious Editor of Shakespeare'. According to Fenn, he had 'enriched them with several valuable notes, and [...] likewise pointed out many errors, which his accurate knowledge of our ancient language, customs and manners enabled him not only to discover; but also to correct'.[127] However, as Norman Davis points out, Steevens' 'corrections' were sometimes unfortunate, and led the editor into errors of transcription that were not in his original edition.[128] Also it is clear that only the few simple errors from the Preface to the first edition and the genealogical table that were identified in the list of corrections to the first edition were incorporated into the second. The seventy-odd errors and omissions previously identified in the text or translations of the letters appear to have been quietly ignored by the printers of the second edition, the editor, and the publisher.[129]

The printer of the second edition was not Archibald Hamilton but rather Lockyer Davis, for Robinson later refers in a postscript to a letter to Fenn the fact that 'Davis had two presses broken by some accident, which occasioned the delay'.[130] The reason why Robinson decided to change printers at this stage is not clear, for Hamilton and Pigeon were later employed by him for setting and printing the second batch of letters two years later.

Herman Merivale, the nineteenth-century critic who questioned the authenticity of the letters, was later to refer to the 'so-called second edition', implying that the text of the letters was printed from the original setting of type.[131] Except in those instances where there are additional footnotes, the text of the letters in the second edition is very similar indeed to that of the first, and clearly the intention of the printers was to copy the originals as closely as possible. Yet, in every case there are sufficient detailed differences such as press figures, the use of square or round brackets, slightly different designs of black letter types, etc to tell them apart.

In any event the reprinting was virtually complete by mid-April, when proofs of the preface and some other sheets were sent to Fenn. Robinson had deliberately delayed advertising the improved second edition until then as there were still some copies of the first available in the retail book shops. The new edition was therefore scheduled to be published on 1 May.[132]

By this time, Fenn had been informed of the continuing interest of the King in the originals of the Paston Letters, and he decided to present them to the Royal Library. A proposal was therefore sent to Pretyman, and subsequently to Pitt, offering to attend his Majesty and present him with the letters. Fenn also sought an interview with Frederick Barnard, the Royal Librarian, 'for his instructions relative to etiquette &c', but this request was refused since he knew nothing of the matter.[133] On Friday 18 May 1787 Fenn heard from Pitt's office that he was to attend St James's Palace on the following Wednesday together with the original letters, when he was to be offered a knighthood - a singular honour to be bestowed upon the editor of such an historical work.[134] However the award was not without some financial expense, for Fenn's account of the proceedings of that date ended with the laconic note 'the Fees paid to the different officers of the Royal Household on this occasion amounted to £103.13.6'.[135]

The originals of the Paston Letters, bound in three morocco volumes, presented at this levee never found their way into the Royal Library however. After the ceremony, 'having been last seen in the hands of Queen Charlotte',[136] they disappeared from public view for a century.

The second edition included an additional plate of the funeral monument and armorial bearings of Sir William Paston in North Walsham church, which had originally been drawn by John Ives, and was loaned to Fenn by the topographer Francis Grose. In addition there were also two plates containing four facsimiles of handwriting in the original letters also indicating how they were folded, addressed, and sealed (Plate 3). The Gentleman's Magazine of September 1787 published an enquiry from a purchaser of the first edition with respect to these plates.

S. desires us to hint to Sir John Fenn (who is too liberal to want more than a hint), that the additional plate should be given, or at least sold, to the former purchasers.[137]

Fenn had also received a number of similar applications addressed directly to himself and so he wrote to Robinson, sending the relevant plates, and suggesting that he print a further 300 to 400 copies for sale. However he found that Robinson had already printed copies specifically for that purpose.[138] The editor was therefore able to respond publicly to the request in a positive way.

Sir John Fenn is greatly obliged to Mr Urban's correspondent S. (p.1001) for his hint. He immediately wrote to his publisher, Mr. Robinson, and received the following liberal answer from him: 'Sir, in respect of the two additional plates to the second editions [of Original Letters], I have always given them, and shall continue to give them, to the purchasers of the first edition, without expence.' Sir John hopes that this immediate attention to our corespondent's hint, will not only manifest his desire to oblige all those who did him the honour to purchase his work, but will likewise shew the publick the polite and generous behaviour of Mess. Robinson.[139]

The critical acclaim accorded to the Paston Letters, referred to above,[140] continued throughout the summer with further reviews appearing in the Critical Review and the Monthly Review in June. The editor continued receiving congratulatory letters, particularly from those to whom he sent presentation copies. He also received enquiries from others previously unknown to him, notably the former bookbinder turned topographer, William Hutton of Birmingham, who was then planning to write an account of the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was seeking additional information:

It is with more pleasure than I can describe, that I have seen your Original Letters; I think them one of the richest treasures in the english language; my attention is captivated, they cause me to forget to eat and to sleep. An enlightened age, and a greatful Prince, will not suffer merit to pass unrewarded.[141]

In December 1789, Fenn received a letter of enquiry from his friend John Brooke, although not on his own behalf:

My friend Mr Lodge has copied and arranged for the press as many of the Shrewsbury letters in our office as will fill two 4to Vols. at least, and having spent some years of time about them, is desirous when they are sent out into the world, that he may reap some profit as well as reputation by his labours: - I conclude all authors make a common cause in assisting one another against booksellers; can you give him any information or advice which may help him in this business? It will be considered a great favour.[142]

Thus the signal success of the first collection of Paston Letters appears to have generated much historical activity based upon the publication and use of contemporary documents. Yet in spite of all the publicity and the continuing admiration of the work, the sales of the second edition did not live up to George Robinson's expectations. As Frere wrote six months later, when Fenn was seeking a quotation for a second collection of letters:

I have often heard him say that the curiosity of the town respecting the 2 first volumes was satisfied - that he had not got a guinea by them - & in particular he declared that when (as is the custom of the wholesale booksellers) he gave his annual dinner to the retail ones at Xmass (when they give their principal orders for their years stock) he did not receive from the whole trade an order for a single copy.[143]

Volumes 3 and 4

Following the favourable reception of the first collection of letters, Fenn decided to go ahead with the editing of a further selection, this time from the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV.[144] On this occasion the young William Dalton was employed to carry out the initial transcriptions. Within a year of the publication of the second edition of volumes 1 and 2, Fenn had prepared a third volume containing a further 110 letters and was well advanced in a fourth of comparable size. In May 1788 he wrote to Robinson describing the new volumes, which he felt could be published by January 1789, and asking his terms.

... from the very fair & honourable behaviour which I have already experienced from you I can on no account think of offering this continuation of the work to any one, or of accepting any proposals till yours had had the preference.[145]

Fenn suggested that each of the new volumes could represent a guinea quarto in its own right, and 'if I may credit the opinion of an antiquary friend or two who have seen them and on whose judgement I can rely, they will be full as eagerly sought after by the public as the last.'

Robinson did not share Fenn's optimism, having been disappointed with the receipts from the second edition, and would make no offer until he had seen the manuscript, which was sent to him forthwith.[146] Having submitted it to the printer, he came back with an offer that was no better than that for the first edition. Five hundred copies would be printed at Robinson's expense. Fenn would be allowed only six copies, which would be charged to those expenses, and the two parties would divide any profits once all costs had been recouped. Fenn had been hoping for an offer on the lines of one half of the advertised price of the books together with thirty-three copies, and expressed his disappointment to Robinson,[147] but before declining it outright he once again sought the advice of his brother-in-law. John Frere suggested that perhaps Fenn's pattern of printing two copies of each letter was a little extravagant, and that he might consider compressing the two volumes planned into one. However, if Fenn were determined to follow his existing pattern of publication then he was inclined to accept the bookseller's offer.

Robinson is reckoned by some who know more of booksellers than I do the fairest man in the trade and I verily believe he would not have run the risque (by so decided an offer) to have sent you to another publisher, if, from his experience respecting the former volumes, he had seen a reasonable prospect of advantage in a more liberal one. His proposal of printing no more than 500 seems like a proof of the sincerity of his opinion; as, if he thought those would soon sell, he would then have to come to you to make a second bargain & perhaps one, on that supposition, less advantageous.[148]

The editor  vainly attempted to hold out for more free copies, but eventually by the end of June he accepted Robinson's terms. In July he despatched the third volume to the printers, and in September the fourth. However, he was left with a degree of resentment over the terms which he had to accept that was soon to give rise to further complications.

Fenn had clearly been irritated by the time and trouble he had been put to in correcting the proofs of his first two volumes, and he disliked dealing directly with the printers. He had however regarded the additional thirty presentation copies as some repayment for seeing the work through the press. He therefore stipulated that he would not undertake to correct the press, but would rather agree to 'look over the sheets' if sent to him in the agreement for the second edition.[149] This attitude was somewhat out of character for a man who in every other respect seems to have been a careful and precise editor. But on this occasion, where the majority of the work was a straight reprint, and the publishers were anxious to proceed as quickly as possible, this was not a matter of great concern. However, now that he was reduced to a mere six presentation copies of volumes 3 and 4 Fenn considered himself entitled to hand the matter over entirely to his publisher and refuse to correct any proofs. From the point of view of the printer and publisher, it was an entirely different matter when they began setting two further volumes from manuscript, and realised that the author was not willing to correct the sheets on a regular and conscientious basis.

At first Robinson was reluctantly willing to go along with Fenn's wishes in this matter, which would also save him some trouble and expense:

... on enquiring I find the printer unwilling to proceed with your work unless the proofs are read by you - however after you have inspected the inclosed if you think they can do tolerably well without you, you shall not have any more sent.[150]

No reply to this offer is preserved, but less than four weeks later the publisher had repented of his previous lack of assertiveness and was sending an ultimatum to his editor.

By last post three proofs were sent of your work & as soon as you return them three more will be forwarded & if you chuse and can spare the time to read them, the work will now go on rapidly but if you cannot read the proofs the work must stop where it is, as it is impossible to get any body here to undertake the business - indeed I never knew a Book printed without the Authors or Editor reading the proofs.[151]

Fenn appears to have relented, and good relations between the two men were restored early in November when virtually all the letterpress was complete and Robinson was writing both to acknowledge receipt of the gift of a brace of pheasants sent by Fenn's gamekeeper and also to apologise for yet another mistake on his part:

I am happy to acquaint you that the drawings are found, and truly sorry I alarmed you about them. When the parcel came I opened it and found the four drawings (engraved) looked at several other enclosures and found them all Copy. When you wrote for proof of Paper Marks &c I desired Pigeon to examine the copy for drawings, & he told me there were not any - however this day on rect of your  letter I went to the printing house & found them in a blue wrapper as you described. You shall have proofs of them all next week. The Catalogue Lists Explants of Seals &c are all safe whatever appearance the hurry of business may have occasioned.[152]

Various letters written by Robinson and Pigeon over the next six months follow a similar pattern to those written during the production of the first two volumes. In December 1788 Robinson acknowledged receipt of parts of the text and various drawings for illustrations, and promised that they 'shall be put in hand immediately and all possible expedition used both by printer and engraver'.[153] Six weeks later he returned the package of proofs, which had been mislaid for several days by a servant of the Member of Parliament who was due to frank them, once again offering the vain hope that they might now 'proceed without any more interruptions untill we finish'.[154] Pigeon in the meanwhile had written to report that he had 'been exceedingly ill; kept to his bed with a fever for nine or ten days'.[155]

Early in February 1789 Robinson had to report an even more serious delay:

The strictest search has been made for the Missing Manuscript Letters to no purpose - in short they are totally lost by the carelessness of the Printer. Mr Hamilton will pay any body you chuse to employ to write them over again.[156]

Notwithstanding the loss of this copy sufficient progress had been made by the end of March to warrant advertising the proposed date of publication as 23 April,[157] and on 3 April the publisher was promising:

four sheets a Week will be regularly printed untill the whole is finished, from this you can estimate when we shall publish, no time shall be lost. The copy for the King shall be hot pressed in readiness for binding the moment the last sheet is worked.[158]

There were however to be yet more delays. A letter from Robinson of 17 April reported 'an idle week in London' and further put back publication until the 12 May.[159] Furthermore, in an attempt to make up for the lost time, 'poor Pigeon tried to do more than could be well done' in setting the Preface, which was so incorrect as to require a further set of proofs.[160] However the revised publication date was adhered to since the collection includes a letter from Fenn's nephew John Hookham Frere, dated 19 May, gratefully acknowledging receipt of a copy.[161]

Fenn's second preface once again related the story of the successful first collection, and then went on to discuss the basis of the second selection, which were more with private and domestic matters.

In these Letters the private life of individuals is laid open; we become acquainted with family occurrences; we see the transitions from joy to sorrow, from pain to pleasure.

He also discussed the subjects covered, apologising for the inclusion of a few letters 'relative to amours in low-life, where the language is perhaps vulgar,' and such matters as their means of conveyance. Finally Fenn promised to the public one final volume of letters 'should he find by the reception these may meet with, that the public taste continues favourable to his pursuits'.[162] However, the more muted public reception of these volumes, compared with the first two, may be judged from Fenn's intended preface to the fifth volume, written two years later: 'though the eagerness of public curiosity was abated, the Editor still had reason to be perfectly satisfied with the pains he had taken in pursuing his former plan'.[163]

The third and fourth volumes contained a further sixteen engraved plates and an engraved vignette of Framlingham Castle for the title pages. There were six further plates of autographs, four containing water-marks and two of seals. He also included three coloured engravings of monarchs and noblemen, taken from painted windows in Bedford, Coventry, and Lichfield, by John Brooke. The frontispiece to the fourth was a detailed and lifelike contemporary drawing of Edward IV in the possession of Thomas Kerrich, of which the editor had gone to great trouble to secure a copy. Fenn had raised the possibility of using the recently developed technique of aquatint in conjunction with traditional engraving for this illustration. Aquatint could produce the good tonal effects required, particularly when combined with hand colouring.[164] Robinson admitted that he was 'totally unacquainted' with the technique and had to seek advice, which was not very encouraging:

I now learn that a plate in this way will seldom take of more than 200 impressions, never more than 250. I therefor must wait your farther directions about this Engraving.[165]

Fenn presumably had to abandon his plan, for a fortnight later the drawing was in the hands of his engraver Thomas Cook, who reported 'there is a great deal a Work in it, that we will be particular in observing the directions, & will do it well.'[166] This was due to the substantial amount of shading which preculded the use of hand colouring. There survive several proof copies of this illustration, one of which contains Fenn's detailed corrections and observations, together with corrected proofs of some of the letterpress for this volume.[167]

The Preface to the third volume claims 'the execution of the plates will shew the Editor's desire to bring forward his work to advantage, as no expence has been spared either in the engraving or in the colouring of them'.[168] This is shown in the remarkable final engraved plate  of Volume 3 which contained a further collection of seals. One of the drawings endeavoured to show the relationship of the seal of the letter to the written direction. Thus the greater part of the plate was printed with red ink, but one tiny part showing the hand-written direction to the letter had been separately inked in black.

Volume 5

Following the publication of volumes 3 and 4 in May 1789, Sir John Fenn and his amanuensis set to work once again to prepare a fifth and final volume of letters for the press, which would bring the published correspondence to the latter part of the reign of Henry VII. The two men made reasonable progress towards a fifth volume when in November 1790 Fenn received news that would cause him to repent of his knighthood. He immediately wrote to the Earl of Orford, the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk;

My Lord,

Seeing my name this day in the List of Gentlemen proposed for Sheriff of this County for the ensuing year, I take the liberty of mentioning to your Lordship, how I feel myself circumstanced.

As a private Gentlemen, I should never, most probably, have been thought of for that office, but having been the Editor of a work which the King was pleased to approve, & for which, as an honourary mark of his royal approbation he was likewise pleased to confer upon me the honour of Knighthood, I now fear this token of His Majesty's favour has been the occasion of my name appearing as above; & as I am at this time closely engaged in a further continuation of the same work, by which not only my time, but my attention, is compleatly taken up, I could wish through your Lordship's interference to be excused from serving an Office, which will not only interrupt my intended proceedings, but will occasion me many other inconveniences.[169]

He also wrote to Pretyman (by then Bishop of Lincoln) in similar terms:

I have lately been busily employed in preparing a farther continuation of my Original Letters for the press & meant to have dedicated the next spring & summer to the completion of them, but this office would find me other, & often very disagreable employment.[170]

The Earl replied to assure him that 'unless you Happen to be the most Proper Person in my opinion of the three Considered you will not certainly be recommended to His Majesty'.[171] However, this was of small comfort since Fenn was clearly the most suitable candidate; one of the other nominees had already served in the office, and the second was an impoverished knight, who lived in Suffolk. Fenn, on the other hand, had been an active and conscientious Magistrate throughout his adult life and had previously served in the office of Deputy High Sheriff. He was perhaps a little unfortunate, for within twelve months the Earl had died, and was succeeded by his friend Horace Walpole, who would have been more disposed to intercede on his behalf. However, in the climate of panic among the establishment that followed the French Revolution, with fears of an imminent national uprising, or even an invasion, Pitt's government was not readily going to excuse any suitable candidate from serving in such an important local office. Likewise, Fenn's own keen sense of duty to his locality associated with his rank, ultimately prevented him from refusing to serve.

Thus the work on the fifth volume was put to one side, and William Dalton moved from Dereham into practice at Bury St Edmunds. Fenn also abandoned his plans for a detailed history of the Paston family drawn from various unpublished manuscripts still in his hands. The greater part of 1791 and a significant part of 1792 were devoted to the arduous, expensive, and largely unrewarded office of High Sheriff.[172] As with all such official tasks, Fenn undertook his duties with the utmost zeal, copying and studying the various laws relating to the office and even reviving the custom which had fallen into disuse, of attending in person the execution of criminals, 'as adding to solemnity and impressive awe of the scene'.[173] Characteristically he also undertook historical research into the office and duties of the Sheriff, and left behind a detailed account for the benefit of his successors in office. It was during this stressful period that Fenn suffered a mild stroke from which he largely recovered.

During the winter and spring of 1792/3 he once again returned to his work as an editor, although with impaired eyesight, so that he was no longer able to read by candlelight. In a letter to Richard Gough dated September 1793 he was claiming to have 'nearly finished my fifth volume of Paston Letters, which I hope will, by next summer, go to the press, but to whose press I am not yet certain'.[174] However, in February 1794, before he could begin negotiations for publication, he suffered a further apoplectic attack 'while in the act of paying his daily visit of duty and affection' to his elderly mother.[175] He died a few days later.

The final collection of the letters, including a number of drawings for the engraver, was left almost ready for the press at Fenn's death. All that was wanting was some minor work on the footnotes. His long-suffering brother-in-law John Frere sought the advice of Richard Gough as to their publication, but nothing resulted in these negotiations.[176] The manuscript of this volume, together with the originals remained with the Editor's widow until her death in 1814, when it passed into the hands of her nephew William Frere, Serjeant at Law, and Master of Downing College Cambridge. Unfortunately, the manuscript became separated from the original letters, which were put away and lost sight of by the family. William Frere eventually saw the final volume through the press in 1823 and appended a detailed biographical account and an engraved portrait of his late uncle.[177]  He was not however able to check either the transcripts (which were in the handwriting of William Dalton) or the subsequent proofs against the originals, and inevitably this was the least accurate of the published volumes. If Frere preserved any correspondence or other documentary evidence relating to this publication, then they remain in private hands together with the original printers' copy.[178]

The fifth volume is of no less bibliographical interest than the previous four. Although it was designed to be uniform with the earlier volumes, it nevertheless illustrates the substantial changes in book production that had taken place in the intervening thirty-four years. It was printed by Charles Roworth for John Murray, the printer and publisher of the Quarterly Review. The volume was printed upon wove paper, using in a 'modern' typeface, without the long 's'.[179] The running headline 'Paston Letters' was also substituted for the earlier version 'Original Letters' but the wording on the title page remained the same. The other significant difference is that the fifth volume displays examples of intaglio, planographic, and relief illustrative processes. The majority of the illustrations, including the various facsimiles, were printed lithographically by Charles Hulmandel, rather than engraved..


For three quarters of a century after their first publication the Paston Letters were accepted as a uniquely reliable source of information on many different aspects of life during a period of English history lacking in evidence. Historians of the early nineteenth century such as Henry Hallam, John Lingard, or Dawson Turner all made copious use of them, as did more popular authors such as Charles Knight in his Pictorial history of England. However, none of the original letters had been seen in public since Fenn's death, a fact which eventually gave rise to further suspicions about their authenticity. Rumours about the letters were circulating before 1860 when William Dalton was interviewed on the subject shortly before his own death, and was able to produce his own manuscript notes made during the transcription.[180] In that year Mary Frere, William's widow, took 'one packet of original Paston letters' to London to show to Daniel Gurney, a family friend and member of the Society of Antiquaries.[181] No public announcement of their whereabouts was made, and as far as the scholarly world was concerned the location of all the letters remained unknown. The following year Albert the Prince Consort expressed an interest in trying to find the missing letters donated to George III, when he was next at Buckingham Palace, but this plan was cut short by his own premature death in the December.[182]

In September 1865 Herman Merivale, a civil servant in the India Office, gave voice to the rumours and suspicions that had been circulating for some years. He published a lengthy, detailed, and reasoned essay questioning the authenticity of the letters and circumstances surrounding their publication:

I venture to lay before the readers of the Fortnightly Review what I will by no means call a disproof of the authenticity of the famous Paston Letters, but some reason at all events for entertaining doubts of their genuineness.[183]

Noting the mysterious disappearance of the originals, the several inconsistencies and ambiguities in Fenn's story of their provenance, and the improbability that such papers should have survived for a minor Norfolk family, he suggested that the letters could not be taken at face value. Although Merivale was careful to include evidence from both sides of the case, in the end he suspected them to be forgeries or else a group of original documents which had been amended or otherwise tampered with by their editor:

... it is impossible for me not to regret - in having to support a case which rests, there is no use in disguising it, on a charge of literary mystification; and that, apparently, against a gentleman, long deceased indeed, but who passed through life with the repute of high respectability, and left it followed by the regret of many attached friends. This is a subject on which I will say but little, for every reader will appreciate at once the embarrassment of my situation. I write with no intentional disrespect to the memory of Sir John Fenn; but historical truth requires a fearless investigation of the genuineness of commonly received documents, even when it cannot be conducted without involving imputations of this class on those who can no longer defend themselves.[184]

Merivale concluded his essay with a challenge:

I can truly say, that it would give me great satisfaction to be persuaded that my own ingenuity was at fault; and that, although the authenticity of the Paston Letters cannot be established on positive ground (unless the lost originals should ever be discovered), yet we are entitled to use their curious and amusing, if not very important contents, as they have hitherto been used, in illustration of the most obscure period of English history since the Conquest.[185]

The Paston Letters quickly found their champion in the historian James Gairdner of the Public Record Office who published an equally detailed and reasoned response, in which he examined every known detail of the story of the letters and sought to answer virtually all the doubts expressed by Merivale:

To impose a fabrication of this sort upon the world, even if only for a time, requires no ordinary ability; but to do it so successfully as not to be found out for generations after, is a feat I will venture to say, quite unparalleled in literature. ... And all this, if fabricated, was done in the retirement of East Dereham, in Norfolk, where, as the editor complains, he was at a distance from public libraries! Yet he also engraved the paper-marks and seals of letters, in the hope they would prove 'a means of ascertaining the dates of many old writings;' and in point of fact we have such paper-marks elsewhere, and such seals elsewhere. The inconceivability of forgery, as we take all these things into consideration, becomes almost inexpressible, especially when they know how little would have been required to impose on the easy faith of the eighteenth century.[186]

Yet in spite of his certainty of their authenticity, Gairdner could not explain the absence of all the original letters:

The only point involved in mystery is the disappearance of the original letters; and from this mystery and the circumstances attending it I by no means wish to withdraw attention. The question should be continually kept before the notice of all who by possibility may help to throw a light upon it, and no efforts should be spared in any quarter to ascertain what has become of the MSS. That they still exist there can be very little doubt, and their recovery would be most important. The Letters might then be edited anew in one complete chronological series, including all those omitted by Sir John Fenn, and the dates corrected by comparison with each other; for never until this is done shall we know the full value of this wonderful collection. Mr Merivale will therefore have done excellent service if his observations lead to further enquiry.[187]

This exchange appears to have stirred both the Frere family into searching for many of the originals, and also the members of the Society of Antiquaries into investigating Merivale's charges. Most fortunately those letters published by William Frere, were quickly re-discovered by his son Philip Frere at the family home in Dungate in Cambridgeshire, together with many others not published by Fenn. A meeting of the Society of Antiquaries was held on 30 November to discuss the matter, at which the originals for volume 5 were displayed. Merivale was present and publicly retracted his accusations.[188] The Society then set up a detailed and rigorous enquiry into the authenticity of the re-discovered letters and of the standards of editing displayed by Fenn and his amanuensis. The committee produced a lengthy report to the members the following Spring, concluding that the original letters were unquestionably genuine, they remained undefaced, uninterpolated and untampered with, but that the book contained 'a considerable number of literal and some verbal inaccuracies'. Above all, they concluded:

... there was no want of good faith in any of the persons engaged in its preparation or publication; but that each of them, according to his degree of competency and ability, and the means of obtaining accuracy at his command, and according also to the mode of publishing such documents then prevalent, endeavoured to do what was right.[189]

In June 1866, the Society sent a memorandum to the Treasury recommending the acquisition of the letters for the nation, and offering £500 towards the purchase price. As a result they were acquired by the British Museum the following year, together with much of Fenn's correspondence and other manuscript collections.[190] The following year Gairdner set to work preparing a new and complete edition of the known Paston Letters in a single chronological sequence, retaining Fenn's transcriptions but with revised dates and amended annotations, which was published in three volumes between 1872 and 1875. Before doing so however, and on occasions during the progress of his edition, he made enquiries as to the whereabouts of the missing letters from volumes 3 and 4 with the members of the Frere family, notably the with the descendants of John Frere.  To his understandable annoyance the missing letters, together with a further ninety others hitherto unpublished, came to light, where he had always expected to find them, just as his work was almost completed. An account of the discovery together with transcripts of some of the new letters was however included in an appendix to Gairdner's third volume. These had remained at Roydon Hall passing from John Frere, to his eldest son John Hookham Frere (the translator of Aristophanes) and in turn to his son John Tudor Frere before being re-discovered by a cousin George Frere about 1875.[191] They were offered for sale at Christie's in 1888 and eventually purchased by the British Museum in 1896.[192]  Gairdner was able to incorporate the texts of all these letters in a new edition of 1901, and in his 'definitive' edition of 1904', which were still based upon the Fenn transcriptions.

Finally, in 1889, a century after their disappearance, George III's missing letters were rediscovered at Orwell Park in Suffolk, in the collection of a descendant of Dr George Pretyman. Since there was doubt over their ownership, which had to be settled by law, it was some time before they too were auctioned in 1931, and then acquired by the British Museum in 1933.[193] Some other Paston Letters which had never belonged to Fenn, but were rather acquired by John Ives, eventually found their way into to the Phillipps collection and were purchased for the nation in 1919.[194] Thus, with the exception of a few strays, the Paston Letters are all now among the manuscript collections of the British Library.


Captions for the Illustrations

Plate 1. - One of the plates of tracings of Water-marks (Original Letters, ii Plate XIII, plate size 175mm x 230mm).

Plate 2. - One of the plates of autographs (Original Letters, ii Plate VII, plate size 175mm x 228mm).

Plate 3 - Two examples of the 'crincum crancum hands'. Facsimiles of parts of letters from Richard Nevile Earl of Salisbury and Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Plantagenet (Original Letters, ii (2nd edition only) Plate XV, plate size 235mm x 173mm). This plate, together with another facsimile (Plate XVI) was drawn by G.S. (presumably George Steevens).

Plate 4 - One of the plates of seals (Original Letters, iii Plate XXIII, plate size 175mm x 234mm). The greater part of this plate is printed in red ink, although the inscription on Nos. 10-11 - showing the manner of sealing and addressing correspondence - is printed in black.

[1].              Original Letters, Written during the Reigns of Henry VI., Edward IV. and Richard III. by Various Persons of Rank or Consequence, ed. by John Fenn, 5 vols (London: J. & G. Robinson, 1787-1823), hereafter cited as the Original Letters. An abbreviated version of this paper was read to the Bibliographical Society on 14 December 1993.


[2].              Letter from Horace Walpole to William Cole, 28 May 1774,  Horace Walpole's Correspondence, ed. by W.S. Lewis, 48 vols (Oxford 1937-83), I, 330.


[3].              European Magazine,  II,  March 1787, 161. Reviews, comments, extracts, or notices of the first volume of the Paston Letters'  appeared in Gentleman's Magazine LVII, February 1787, 165-66, June 1787, 472-4, and 526-7, September 1787, 815, November,1787, 947, and LVIII, February 1788, 109, European Magazine, II , February 1787, 76-78, March,1787, 161-2 and June  1787, 388; English Review, March 1787, 226; Critical Review, LXIII, June 1787 247-252; Monthly Review, LXXIX, July 1788, 45-51; Dodsley's Annual Register for 1787 (1789), 96-115; and Archæologia, IX, 1789 30, 255-267.


[4].              Letter from Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory 1 February 1787, Walpole, Correspondence, XXIII, 556.


[5].              Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his Friends: a Series of Eighteenth-Century Letters, (London, 1919), pp.325-74.


[6].              Letter from Edward Mills to John Fenn, May 1787, Norfolk Record Office (hereafter NRO), Colman Manuscript COL 8/98, 'Letters of Congratulation thanks etc. 1787/8'.  Parson Woodforde also enjoyed reading them (The Diary of a Country Parson ed. by John Beresford (Oxford, 1926), II, 311-2. Hannah More, on the other hand, was not so enthusiastic, describing the style as 'barbarous', Memoirs of Hannah More, ed. by W. Roberts (London, 1834), II, 50.


[7].              Original Letters, iii, Preface, p. xvi. A letter for thanks from the Society for a presentation copy and for his intention of exhibiting originals, dated 1 February 1787 is in NRO, COL 8/98.


[8].              Letter from John Frere to John Fenn 12 June 1782, NRO, COL 8/97, 'Letters relating to the publication of the Paston Mss. 1777-1786'.


[9].              Letter from Francis Blomefield to Major Thomas Weldon, 13 May 1735, The Correspondence of the Reverend Francis Blomefield, ed. by David Stoker, (London, 1992), pp.84-85.


[10].            Notably, the two main editions edited by James Gairdner,  The Paston Letters, 1422-1509, 4 vols (London, 1872-5), and 6 vols (London, 1904),  and The Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, edited by Norman Davis, 2 vols (Oxford, 1971-6). A third volume of this new edition, edited by C. Richmond, is in preparation.  Also the Norfolk Record Society  has published The Correspondence of Lady Katherine Paston 1603-1627, Vol. XIV, (Norwich, 1941).


[11].            H.S. Bennett has provided an excellent account of the content of the letters in The Pastons and their England (Cambridge, 1990).


[12].            Bennett, The Pastons, pp.124-5.


[13]             Original Letters, I. xix-xx.  In the draft of his Preface (BL  Add. MSS 27452 fo.32) Fenn included the words 'but by what means is uncertain' after 'Peter Le Neve, Esquire,  Norroy'.


[14].            For a detailed account of Thomas Martin's collecting activities and his acquisition of the Le Neve manuscripts, see David Stoker, 'The Ill-gotten Library of 'Honest' Tom Martin, in Property of a Gentleman: the Formation, Organisation and Dispersal of the Private Library, 1620-1920, ed. by Robin Myers and Michael Harris, (Winchester, 1991), 90-111, and Blomefield, Corresp., 19-22. Unfortunately both of these sources transpose the names of Le Neve's wives. It was Frances Le Neve rather than Prudence who later married Martin.


[15].            R. W. Ketton-Cremer first cast doubt upon the ownership of the letters by Le Neve in his essay 'The treasure of Oxnead', in Norfolk Assembly, ed. by R.W. Ketton-Cremer (London, 1957), 212-22. This view is also supported in M.F. Serpell 'Sir John Fenn, his friends and the Paston Letters', Antiquaries Journal, lxiii, (1983), 95-121, p.98.


[16].            Original Letters, I. p.xi.


[17].            Serpell 'Sir John Fenn',  98, also notes information from Norman Davis to the same effect.


[18].            For a description of Le Neve's methods of dealing with many of the historical collections that came into his hands see The Chorography of Suffolk, ed. by Diarmaid MacCulloch, (Ipswich, 1976) pp.1-4.


[19].            K. N. Marshall, The Pastons 1378-1732, (Norwich, [1956]).


[20].            Catalogue of the library of the Right Honourable the Earl of Yarmouth ... sold ... the tenth ... April, 1734. ... By Olive[r] Payne [London, 1734].


[21].            Ketton-Cremer, 'The treasure of Oxnead', p.214.


[22].            Blomefield, Corresp, p.82. Bodleian Library, MS Gough Norfolk 2, ff. 29-42, contains Blomefield's transcripts made during this visit, dated 29 April 1735.


[23].            Blomefield, Corresp, pp.84-85. Blomefield also described the remaining muniments he found as follows: ... There are 10 boxes of court rolls, surveys, extent books, deeds, and other things material to the severall manors and tho' a great number of them are very ancient yet may be of service, and therefore I cautiously preserved them all. There are 3 trunks and chests full of the ancient and present title deeds to the manors and estates, all which I carefully putt together. There are 2 boxes of old leases only, which I layed by, not knowing but they might be of some service.
                According to your order, I putt all the chimicall papers into a box by themselves and gave them to Mrs Amyas
to preserve for you. There is another box full of the pardons, grants and old deeds, freedoms &c belonging to the Paston family only, which I laid by themselves, for fear you think them proper to be preserved with the family, they don't relate to any estates. In another large chest I placed those antiquities that I made use of, and that are of no manner of service to the title, (always placing those that were, among the usefull evidences). They are cheifly ancient deeds, account rolls, muster rolls, and many other things of that nature in relation to the county.
                I looked over every loose paper and what letters were historical, as such that related to the surrender of the Norwich
and Yarmouth Charters &c. I took them out and carried them home with me, as I did the History of Yarmouth and some other things which were too tedious to extract there, all which I enterd in a note which I left for you with Mrs Amyas....


[24].            Blomefield Corresp. p.85. 'A coppy of the note left with Mrs Amyas at Oxnead in Norfolk for Major Weldon. May 3. 1735 Taken from Oxnead.


[25].            Blomefield Corresp., p.216. The manuscripts referred to are now BL Add. MS 39848.


[26].            For example, of the first collection of letters published by Fenn (BL Add. MS 43488-91), Blomefield's endorsements appear on MS 43488 ff. 7, 15, 31, 32, 42, 52; MS 43489 ff. 32, 35; and MS 43491 fol.9. Thomas Martin's endorsements appear on MS 43490 ff. 12-49 and 43491 fol. 26.


[27].            For example F. Blomefield, An essay towards a topographical history of Norfolk,  2nd edition, 11 vols (London, 1805), VI, 386. Blomefield usually gives a source for the documents he cites, such as 'penes P.L.N.' or 'penes T. Martin' for items belonging to Le Neve or Martin.


[28].            Letter to Nehemiah Lodge of Norwich, 11 April 1755, NRO MS 453. Similarly a letter from Charles Parkin to Thomas Martin, 23 June 1752 (NRO Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society Deposit (NNAS) C3/2/10) refers to a visit to Blomefield's study in Norwich shortly after his death.


[29].            For example, Martin compiled 'A catalogue of Mr Blomefield's own collections in Manuscript' which lists, on page 2 under the section entitled 'More modern manuscripts on paper', 'there is the entry 'Two volumes of letters bound in rough letter concerning the Pastons' (NRO, NNAS C3/2/10). (These two volumes relate to the  correspondence of the first Earl of Yarmouth between 1661 and 1679 and are now among the Bradfer-Lawrence Manuscripts in the NRO) Similarly, there is a receipt from 29 September 1752 for a number of documents removed from Blomefield's home by Martin, which includes a parchment copy of the will of Sir John Fastolf.


[30].            These were bequeathed, together with Parkin's other manuscripts, to Pembroke College Cambridge in 1765. They are described in the 5th Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, 484-5. There are also various stray letters and other documents from the collection in BL Add. MSS 33597, and 28212, which were also apparently in Blomefield's hands although their subsequent provenance is not clear.


[31].            Stoker, 'The ill-gotten library of 'Honest' Tom Martin', pp.97-98.


[32].            Marshall, The Pastons, p.43. NRO MS 488 contains Abstracts of the title of Viscount Anson compiled circa 1820 and copies of various conveyances dating back to the sale of the Paston properties in 1758.


[33].            John Fenn, was born in Norwich 26 November 1739, the son of John Fenn (1707-41) a surgeon of moderate fortune. An account of his life is given by  Serpell, 'Sir John Fenn', (pp.94-113). A maunsucript entitled 'Memoirs of the Life of John Fenn Esqr M.A. F.A.S. &c Including Some short Notices of his Friends and Contemporaries. Drawn up by Himself in 1782 and continued' is preserved in the NRO (SO 50/4/13, hereafter cited as Fenn 'Autobiography). Fenn's obituary (compiled by Richard Gough) was published in the Gentleman's Magazine 54, (February 1794), pp.189-90.


[34].            Serpell, 'Sir John Fenn', pp.98-9.  Fenn knew the area around Martin's home at Palgrave well, having been educated at the nearby Botesdale School.


[35].            The rather glowing account of his character given by his nephew in the 'Advertisement' to the fifth volume of the Original Letters (pp. x-xxxi) tends to be confirmed by other independent contemporary descriptions.


[36].            Fenn later prepared his 'Memoirs of Thomas Martin, Gent.', which he read to the Society of Antiquaries 23 November 1789. These were later expanded and eventually were published in Norfolk Archaeology, xv, (1904), 233-48).


[37].            A Catalogue of the Library of Mr Thomas Martin of Palgrave in Suffolk, Lately Deceased, (Lynn, 1772). See also Paul Grinke, 'John Ives and the library of 'Honest' Tom Martin', in The Warden's Meeting: A Tribute to John Sparrow (Oxford, 1977), pp.39-42.


[38].            Fenn's 'Autobiography' fol.28.


[39].            Fenn wrote 'An account of the disposal and total dispersion of Mr Martin's various collections' (Norfolk Archaeology, 15, (1904), 248-66) in which he mentions the figure of £630, whereas Grinke ('John Ives and the library of 'Honest' Tom Martin') cites notes from Ives quoting a price of £800. Other figures have been cited elsewhere.


[40].            A Catalogue of the very Curious, Valuable and Numerous Collection of Manuscripts of Thomas Martin ... (London 1773) and A catalogue of the remaining part of the library of the late well known antiquary Mr Martin ... (London, 1774).


[41].            The circumstances surrounding Fenn's acquisition of the letters is discussed in some detail by Serpell, 'Sir John Fenn', p98.


[42].            Society of Antiquaries Minute Book XVII, fol. 181.


[43].            Letter from Walpole to John Fenn, 30 March 1774. Walpole, Correspondence, XVI., 231.


[44].            NRO, NNAS C3/2/11.


[45].            David Stoker, 'Mr Parkin's Magpie, the Other Mr Whittingham, and the Fate of Great Yarmouth', The Library, 6th ser XII, 1990, 121-131 (p.122). (Letters to John Fenn from the printer and publisher William Whittingham relating to this matter are preserved in NRO NNAS c3/2/4). The preliminaries and indexes to this work emerged from the press over the next year.


[46].            Original Letters, I., Preface pp.ix-xi. Fenn's draft is BL Add MS 27452 fol. 23-51. The wording of the first of these paragraphs was altered in the second edition although the message was essentially the same.


[47].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 December 1777, NRO, COL 8/97.


[48].            Letter from Edward King to John Fenn, 1 May 1780, NRO, COL 8/97.


[49].            According to Fenn, (Original Letters, I. 51) an account of the meeting was entered in to the Society's Minute Book XVII, fol. 181.


[50].            Letters between John Fenn and Horace Walpole, Walpole, Correspondence, XVI, 236-43. The pamphlet referred to was the Letter to the Editor of the Miscellanies of Thomas Chatterton, privately printed by Walpole in 1779.


[51].            Letter from Horace Walpole to John Fenn, Walpole, Correspondence, xlii., 95.


[52].            Letter from John Fenn to Sir John Cullum 26 May 1782, NRO NNAS c3/2/4. Cullum did not reply until the 16 August 'I hope when you was in London you was persuaded to form the Resolution of publishing your ancient and curious Letters, which with your own Notes and Illustrations cannot fail of being a most welcome Acquisition to the Public'.


[53].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 12 June 1782, NRO, COL 8/97. The two letters were subsequently returned and were printed together with Fenn's observations upon them in Original Letters, I, 38-51.


[54].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 12 October 1782, NRO, COL 8/97.


[55].            Fenn's 'Autobiography' (fol.54)  'The collecton as thus finished amounted to 913 signatures, 800 of which were copied from originals in his own possession; the remaining 113 were copied from their originals in the British Museum, Pepys's Collection in Magdalen College Library in Cambridge; & a few from private Libraries & from authentic printed or engraved Books. He likewise made an Index to the whole; & then had them bound up in two quarto volumes in chronological order.'


[56].            Accounts from Cook, NRO, COL 8/97, and BL Add MS 27453 ff 207 and 211.


[57].            Letter from John Fenn to Horace Walpole, 14 June 1784, Lewis, Horace Walpole's Correspondence, XLII., 98. According to his 'Autobiography' (ff 44-5) 'He likewise wrote over again his "Memoir of the Life of Mr Thomas Martin, which he not only now enlarged but likewise elucidated by additional notes, Observations; & at Dr Kippis's request sent it to him to be inserted in his new edition of the "Biographia Britannica".These little undertakings gave a variety to his employment, his chief work being the preparation of the Paston Letters'.


[58].            Original Letters, ii, [343], Fenn's draft is BL Add MS 27452 fol.52.


[59].            Richard Almack, 'Remarks on the Authenticity of the Paston Letters', Archaeologia, XLI, (1867), 33-37, and Society of Antiuqaries, 'Report of the Committee on the Paston Letters', Archaeologia, XLI., (1867), 38-74. Many of Dalton's detailed notes are preserved in BL Add MS 27453 ff.164-175. Dalton was to remain working with Fenn until late 1790, and so was responsible for the transcriptions of virtually all of the remaining letters published. He subsequently became a prosperous solicitor in Bury St Edmunds, and died in 1860, in his 94th year, Notes and Queries,2nd series, X (1860), 357.


[60].            James Gairdner gave a detailed description of the part played by each of the two men in the 'Preface' to both his editions (1904, pp.13-5).


[61].            'Report of the committe on the Paston Letters', Archaeologia, XLI., (1867), 38-53.


[62].            The Paston Letters . Preface, I. 11-12.


[63].            Original Letters, III, Preface p.ii


[64].            BL Add MS 27453 fol.22.


[65].            Original Letters, I Preface pp.xx-xxi..


[66].            Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities; or an Historical Account of the Origin and Progress of Printing in Great Britain and Ireland, Augmented by William Herbert, 3 vols, (London, 1785-90).  Some letters from Fenn to Herbert are published in  John Nichols, Illustrations of the literary history of the eighteenth century, 8 vols. (London, 1817-58), V, 167-172.


[67].            There was a paper-mill at Lyng, approximately four miles from Fenn's home, which was making white paper at this time (David Stoker, 'The early history of papermaking in Norfolk', Norfolk Archaeology, XXXVI (1976), 241-52). The mill owner, John Hamerton, moved in the same social circle as Fenn, and was known to Robert Potter and James Woodforde, both of whom Fenn also knew well.


[68].            John Bruce, 'The authenticity of the Paston Letters', Archaeologia, XLI., (1867), 15-32 , (p.22).


[69].            Fenn also contributed an article on the history of the postal service to the Gentleman's Magazine, LIV, (1784), 644.


[70].            Letter from John Fenn to Horace Walpole 4 May 1782,  Walpole, Correspondence, XVI., 240-2.


[71].            These letters and certificates, dated between September 1784 and May 1785 are preserved in NRO COL 8/97. Similar certificates were used a decade later to attest to the authenticity of the Ireland forgeries.


[72].            Original Letters, I, p.xv.


[73].            Friends of the National Libraries Annual Report, 1933-4, (London, 1934), 20.


[74].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 26 May 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[75].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 16 December 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[76].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 January 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[77].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 12 July 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[78].            William West, Fifty Years' Recollections of an Old Bookseller, (London, 1837), p.92. According to C.H. Timperley, Robinson had 'before 1780 the largest wholesale trade that was ever carried on by an individual' (Dictionaries of Printers and Printing, (London, 1839), p.808.


[79].            Letters between John Frere and John Fenn, 12 July 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[80].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 19 July 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[81].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 1 December 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[82].            Letters from John Frere to John Fenn, 16 & 21 December 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[83].            Letters from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 July and 24 August 1785, NRO, COL 8/97.


[84].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 December 1785, NRO, COL 8/97. The following note accopanied this letter
Messrs Payne & Cadell's Proposals Jan
y 7 1786.
70 Sheets No 750 at 1.1.0 ------------                  73.   13.     0
105 Rms paper fine ------------------                 105.     0.     0
Plate & Working -------------------                       50.     0.     0
Advertisements & Incidents----                          21.     7.     0
                                                                        £250.     0.     0
750 Books when sold will produce at 14/        525.     0.     0
Deduct                                                              250.     0.     0
Profit                                                                 275.     0.     0

                Mr Fen 1/3d                                                        91.   13.     4
Mr Payne                                                            91.   13.     4
Cadell                                                                  91.   13.     4
                                                                        £275.     0.     0
To give £100 for the Edition or to divide the profits when all are sold.


[85].            NRO COL 8/97
[In John Fenn's handwriting] Mr Robinson's Terms for Printing my Original Letters. 7 Feby 1786.
750 Copies to be printed entirely at his expence, he finding & paying for every Article what ever relative thereto.
As soon as a sufficient number of copies are disposed of, to repay the Expences of the work & every article to be charged exactly as he pays for it.
I am to divide half the profits of the sale & am to have immediately on the publication 20 Copies free of all expence in boards & 2 Copy properly bound to present to the King.
The original MS &c to remain mine & to be returned clean & entire.
My plates of H VI., & Badges to be paid for
And I am to have a number of Impressions from all the Plates free of expence, the Plates being to be found & engraved at his cost.
The account to be settled whenever I desire it up to the then time.

Mr Hamilton's Calculation of the No. of sheets:
Titles                                                                                                       ]
Dedication                                                                                               ]
Expl. of Frontispiece                                                                              ]sheets
Preface                                                                                                    ] 10
Contents                                                                                                 ]
Pedigree                                                                                                   ]
Letters                                                                                                     93 ½
Catalogue of letters                                                                                   1 ½
Sheets                                                                         Pages
105                                                                                820 qto.

500 Copies
226 Copies to be sold to pay the expence =                259. 18. 6
1/2 Profit                                                                       126. 0. 0

750 copies
307 Copies to be sold to pay the expence =                353. 16. 3
1/2 Profit                                                                       222. 16
Difference                                                                       96. 16
[In Robinson's handwriting]
Mr Robinson's Estimate 11 Feby. 1786
Printing 105 sheets at 1:1:0                                          105. 0 :0
Paper 105 reams 1:1:6                                                  107. 12: 6
Engraving - Working & Paper for 15 Copper plates      32. 15:
Advertisement and other incidental expences                 14. 12: 6

                500 copies                                                                             260.           -.              -
20 Copies to Mr Fenn
480 at 1.3.0. amount to                                                         552.           - .            
Profit when sold                                                                   292.           - .             -

Printing paper &c for 500 Copies as above                          260. -.         -
Additional 250                                                                      93.             16.           3
750 copies                                                                             353.           16.           3
730 at 1. 3.0 amount to                                                          839.           10.           -
profit when sold                                                                   485.           13.           3


[86].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn  25 January 1786, NRO COL 8/97.


[87].            The Oxford English Dictionary describes a Frank as 'a superscribed signature of a person, e.g. a member of Parliament, entitled to send letters post free' or else as 'a letter or envelope bearing such a superscription'. The misuse of such Franks by the friends and acquaintances of Members of Parliament had grown to such an extent by the late 1830s that Rowland Hill estimated that the Post Office was then carrying seven million free franked letters each year compared with 88 million which had been paid for (Chambers Encyclopaedia). BL Add MS 27453 ff.102-125 contains twenty three examples of the franks used signed by various Members of Parliament and dating from 9 March and 27 October 1786.


[88].            Memoranda in Fenn's handwriting in NRO COL 8/97
Book       Jan 1786.                 Memoranda
Time of publication                [blank]
Time of setting [blank]
Correcting the press - Carriage & other incidental expences occurred by me to be allowed.
Plates of Henry VI, & Devices to be paid for -
Impressions of all the Plates for myself
The MS Copy to be returned piece by piece clean & entire as soon as the Compositor has done with it.
2: Payment &c in case of Death & Copies to be given exclusive of my 20 by you to persons whom I shall ask for Franks &c to send the sheets & return them again
Specimens of Letters Paper, Engraving &c to be approved by me.
Expences of altering the Copy, notes &c from my Corrections Errata &c 2?
The plates to be engraved directly.
Mr Robinson No. 25 Pater Noster row
Mr Hamilton No. 2 Falcon Court, Fleet street.


[89].            Included in British Library Add. MS 27452 fol. 57.


[90].            Graham Pollard 'Account of the expense of printing the Paston Letters', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 11, (1933-4), 105-7. Pollard dates the document as 1788 or early 1789, but it appears rather to have been compiled in February 1787 immediately prior to the negotiations for the second edition.


[91].            This was the established trade practice of supplying twenty-five copies of a work for the price of twenty-four, in addition to any other agreed discount.


[92].            Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 14 March 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[93].            Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 14 March 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[94].            Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 4 April 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[95].            Letter from Archibald Hamilton to John Fenn, 18 March 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[96].            Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 9 August 1786, NRO, COL 8/97. The letter continues with an account of the rate of progress of the sheets through the press during the summer of 1786.
You left Town June 17 last - 7 Week 4 Days. The proofs sent are 18. viz.
         June            23   P.Q.R. -                3
                            30       S.T. -                2
         July              3           U -                1
                            11      X.Y. -                2
                            13    Z. Aa -                2
                            21   Bb. Cc -                2
                            25         Dd -                1
                            29          Ee -                1
    August              1          Ff -                1
                              5     Gg Hh                2
                              9              Ii                1


[97].            Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 2 September 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[98].            Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 9 September 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[99].            Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 16 September 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[100].           Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 30 September 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[101].           Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 7 November 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[102].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 22 November 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[103].           BL Add. MS 27452 fol.150.


[104].           Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 21 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97. The 'Corrections and Additions' appear, together with the 'Directions to the binder' on an inserted leaf between d1 and d2, immediately following the Preface of Volume 1 of the first edition. The list was not included in the second edition, even though virtually none of the corrections had been made to the text.


[105].           A copy of Archibald Hamilton's bill to Messrs Robinson, dated December 1786, is preserved in NRO, COL 8/97, together with Robinson's account with Fenn. The former does not include the cost of the paper used (97 reams at £1.1s.6d per ream), which was presumably supplied to the printer by the bookseller, nor the cost of the engraved illustrations or the advertisements.


[106].           This was copied from a stained glass window in the Dominican Church of St Omer's, by Fenn's friend John Brooke, the Somerset Herald.


[107].           The idea of engraving the plates of watermarks and seals may have come from John Lewis of Margate whose Life of Mayster William Caxton (London, 1737) and A Dissertation on the Antiquity and Use of Seals in England (London, 1740) contained them. There was clearly a developing interest in watermarks during the latter part of the eighteenth century. In March 1786 Fenn received a letter from John Thorpe, the Rochester antiquary who had been shown the proofs of Fenn's plates, and not understanding the nature of his work, offered a tracing of the 'curious and odd Water-mark' in his copy of The boke of Haukyng, Huntyng, and Cootarmuris printed at St. Albans in 1486 (STC 3308). Letter from John Thorpe to John Fenn, 29 March 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[108].           NRO COL 8/97. There are also transcripts of accounts from Cook in BL Add. MS 27453 ff.207-9.


[109].           Letters from George Robinson to John Fenn, 14 & 19 September 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[110].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 11 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[111].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 24 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[112].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 13 December 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[113].           Letters from George Robinson to John Fenn, 11 & 19 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[114].           Letters from George Robinson to John Fenn, 25 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[115].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 14 November 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[116].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 12 July 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[117].           Draft letter from John Fenn to George Pretyman, 29 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[118].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 25 October 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[119].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 7 December 1786, NRO, COL 8/97.


[120].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 12 January 1787, NRO, COL 8/97.


[121].           Letter from John Smith to John Fenn, 19 January 1787, NRO, COL 8/97. George III's presentation copies of Vols 1-4  survive in the King's Library (BL 195.e.11-14), but have been rebound.


[122].           NRO SO 50/4/13 fol.58


[123].           The letters of thanks and congratulation received as a result of these gifts are preserved in NRO, COL 8/98.


[124].           NRO, COL 8/97. Contains the following agreement in Fenn's handwriting and sold by Robinson:

                Memorandum of an agreement between John Fenn Esqr & Messrs George, George James, & John Robinson Booksellers in Pater noster row London made this sixth day of February 1787.

                                We George, George James, & John Robinson agree to print &c in two volumes in quarto a second edition of Fenn's Original Letters written during the reigns of Henry VI &c consisting of five hundred Copies, the type & manner of printing them to be the same as that of the first edition, & on a paper superior in quality to that of the first edition with the same Plates, which are likewise to be on a similar paper, which plates are to be repaired where necessary & four of them in each Copy properly coloured according to specimens delivered & in Mr Fenn's professing the whole to be done at our expence & published within three months of the date hereof, the public selling price of each Copy to be one pound sixteen shillings in boards, the Copy Right, Plates &c remaining Mr Fenn's property. We likewise agree to pay to Mr Fenn or his order the sum of one hundred pounds of lawful money &c on the day of publication, one other hundred pounds &c within three months after, & one other hundred pounds &c within six months after that, but if the edition shall be sold in a shorter time, then the payments to be made at a shorter times.

                                We likewise agree to deliver to Mr Fenn Thirty Copies of the work previous to the publication, in half binding one of them to be bound in red morocco, gilt &c & four of the Copies to be on royal paper free of all expence whatever & likewise to repay to him any money paid by him in the Course of the publication relative to the work.

                                But if we shall print seven hundred & fifty Copies of this second edition then we farther agree to pay to Mr Fenn on the beginning of the sale of the last two hundred & fifty Copies the sum of one hundred pounds of lawful money &c within six months after or on the quicker sale of the said Copies fifty pounds &c more, over & above the said first mentioned three hundred pounds.
[signed by Robinson] For self and partners,
Geo. Robinson.


[125].           Pollard, 'Account of the expense ...', p.106.


[126].           Original Letters, 2nd ed. i, p[xxxiii-iv]. Fenn's draft is BL Add MS 27452 ff.146 & 181.


[127].           A letter from Steevens to Fenn is preserved together with his notes in BL Add MS 27452 ff. 319-24.  The additions are identified in the text and footnotes with an asterisk.


[128].           Davis, The Paston Letters and Papers, p.xxv.


[129].           According to John Bruce, 'The Autheticity of the Paston Letters', p.24 all these corrections had been made, but he had clearly not checked beyond the first 7 or 8 items on the list.


[130].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 14 April 1787, NRO COL 8/97.


[131]            Herman Merivale, 'Are the Paston Letters Authentic?', Fortnightly Review, VIII, 1st September 1865, 129-49, (p.129). James Gairdner discussed this point in his rebuttal of this article, 'The Authenticity of the Paston Letters', Fortnightly Review, VIII, 15 October 1865, 577-594, (p.582).


[132].           Robinson  wrote again to Fenn on 2 May indicating that the edition and been delivered, forwarding Fenn's presentation copies and seeking instructions as to the first of the three staged payments of £100 (NRO COL 8/97).


[133].           Letters from John Fenn to George Pretyman, 15 April 1787, NRO COL 8/97, and to William Pitt, 19 May 1787, and Frederick Barnard, 10 May 1787, NRO COL 8/98.


[134].           The dignity of the Knighthood had fallen into some disrepute at this time having been used primarily as a means of repaying political or financial favour. This was recognised by Pretyman, who offered the following assurance to Fenn 'Sir, you must not take this in the light that the conferring of this honour has been considered in for some years, it is His Majesty's Determination not to confer it in future but as a testimony of real merit in the person, whom he advances to this Dignity' (NRO NNAS SO 50/4/13 fol.59). The dignity of the order was not lost on the recipient, and over the next three months he postponed his further studies of the letters to carry our research into the historical background of the order of knighthood. He wrote 'An essay on Knighthood', which was published anonymously in the Gentleman's Magazine LVII, (1787), 677-679.


[135].           NRO COL 8/97 also contains a details description by Fenn of the ceremony.


[136].           John Bruce, 'The authenticity of the Paston Letters', p.26. The original bindings for these three volumes have been lost, but the title panels from the spines have been preserved in BL Add MS 43488-90.


[137].           Gentleman's Magazine, LVII,  ( 1787), 1001.


[138].           Letters between John Fenn and George Robinson, 5-8 December 1787, BL Add. MS 27454 ff.3-5.


[139].           Gentleman's Magazine, LVII., (1787), 1104.


[140].           Page 000 above.


[141].           Letter from William Hutton to John Fenn, 28 August 1787, NRO, COL 8/98. Information derived from the Paston Letter's and Fenn is acknowledged in Hutton's Battle of Bosworth Field (London, 1788) pp. vi, viii, 29, 42.


[142].           Letter from John Brooke to John Fenn, 26 December 1789, NRO, NNAS. C3/2/6. The reference is to Edmund Lodge's Illustrations of British history, biography, and manners in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI., Mary, Elizabeth, and James I., 3 vols. (London, 1791).


[143].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 June 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.21.


[144].           Letter from John Fenn to George Robinson, 17 May 1788, BL Add. MS 27454, fol.7 and Original Letters, V. p.vii. 'Advertisement'.


[145].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 17 May 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.7.


[146].           Letters from George Robinson to John Fenn, 21 & 26 May 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 ff.10 & 12. There is also a receipt for the carriage of the manuscript to London (fol.11).


[147].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, c.17 June 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.19.


[148].           Letter from John Frere to John Fenn, 21 June 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol. 21.


[149].           A sentence to this effect is included at the end of a draft copy of the agreement in BL MS 27453, fol.208. However it is not clear whether this actually formed part of the agreement since the remaining text of the agreement is in the first person as if written by George Robinson and partners, whereas this is in the first person as if written by Fenn.


[150].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 13 August 1788, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.29.


[151].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 9 September 1788, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.30.


[152].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 7 November 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.34.


[153].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 3 December 1788, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.40.


[154].           Memorandum 10 January, and letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 23 January 1789, BL Add. MS 27454 ff.43-4.


[155].           Letter from Christopher Pigeon to John Fenn, 5 February 1789, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.48.


[156].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 27 February 1789, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.49.


[157].           This was the date given on Fenn's preface to the third volume. By chance it was also the day of public thanksgiving for the recovery of George III from his second bout of madness.


[158].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 3 April 1789, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.57.


[159].           Letters from George Robinson to John Fenn, 17 April  and 12 May 1789, BL Add.MS 27454 ff.60 & 67.


[160].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 28 April 1789, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.65


[161].           Letter from John H. Frere to John Fenn, 19 May 1789, BL Add. MS 27454 fol.69. The original handwritten wrapper of MS 27454 also indicates 12 May as the date of publication.


[162].           Original Letters, III, Preface, xvi.


[163].           Original Letters, V, Preface, xli.


[164].           Geoffrey Wakeman, Victorian Book Illustration, (London, 1973), p.37.


[165].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 3 February 1789, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.46.


[166].           Letter from George Robinson to John Fenn, 27 February 1789, BL Add.MS 27454 fol.49.


[167].           BL Add.MS 27455 fol.87.


[168].           Original Letters, III., Preface, xiv.


[169].           Draft letter from John Fenn to George, Lord Orford, November 1790, NRO COL 8/103. This packet contains various letters, papers, accounts etc. relating to Fenn's period in the office of sheriff.


[170].           Letter from John Fenn to George Pretyman, 15 November 1790, NRO COL 8/103.


[171].           Letter from George, Lord Orford to John Fenn, 19 November 1790, NRO Col 8/103.


[172].           Fenn later noted in his 'Autobiography' (fo.64) that his year in office had cost him £377 0s 0d.


[173].           Original Letters, V, Advertisement, p.xxvi.


[174].           Nichols, Illustrations of literature, V. 179.


[175].           Original Letters, V, Advertisement, p.xiii. Fenn is buried at Finningham near Eye in Suffolk, where there is a mural monument to him inside the church.


[176].           Letter from John Frere to Richard Gough 17 February 1794, Nichols, Illustrations of literature, V. 181.


[177].           Original Letters, Written During the Reigns of Henry VI. Edward IV. and Richard III. By Various Persons of Rank or Consequence, vol. 5 (London, 1823).


[178].           Serpell, noted the existence of the Printer's copy for this volume'now in a private collection', 'Sir John Fenn',  p.120.


[179].           By this date some printers had at their disposal 'record types' designed initially for the publications of the Records Commissioners to display the various contractions found in such  writings more accurately, but these were not used in this instance.


[180].           Notes and queries,2nd series, X (1860), 357.


[181].           There is a note to this effect, witnessed by Isabel (daughter of William and Mary Frere) and dated 11 June 1860, BL Add MS 27455 fol.176


[182].           Almack, 'Remarks on the Authenticity of the Paston Letters', pp.34-5.


[183].           Merivale, 'Are the Paston Letters Authentic?', p.129.


[184].           Ibid., p.134-5.


[185].           Ibid, p.149.


[186].           Gairdner, 'The Authenticity of the Paston Letters' pp. 584, and 589


[187].           Ibid, 594. Herman Merivale's motives in writing this article are open to question, it was perhaps an attempt to force those branches of the Frere family holding Paston Letters to admit as much publicly. It is noteworthy that Herman Merivale's brother Samuel was married to Judith Frere, the daughter of George Frere, (the grandaughter of John Frere and grandneice of John Fenn)..


[188].           Joan Evans, A history of the Society of Antiquaries,(Oxford, 1956), p.301. The detailed evidence and discussion was subsequently published at length 'Report of the Committee on the Paston Letters', Archaeologia, XLI., (1867).


[189].           Report of the Committee on the Paston Letters, p.53.


[190].           They now constitute BL Add. MSS 27443-6. The Paston Letters from the 16th and 17th centuries, related documents, and some of Fenn's notes, drafts, correspondence and other papers relating to the publication are now BL Add. MSS 27447-27455. Philip Frere is said to have built his Cambridge home 'Paston House' with the proceeds of this sale (Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th ed (London, 1969), II. 228.


[191].           James Gairdner, The Paston Letters, 'Preface' pp.8-10.


[192].           BL Add. Mss 34888-9.


[193].           BL Add. Mss 43488-91.


[194].           BL Add. Mss 39848-9.