PASTON, Robert (1631-83), of Oxnead, Norf. and Pall Mall, Westminster
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Family and Education
b. 29 May 1631, 1st s. of Sir William Paston, 1st Bt., of Oxnead by 1st w. Lady Katherine Bertie, da. of Robert, 1st Earl of Lindsey. educ. Westminster; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1646; travelled abroad (France). m. 15 June 1650, Rebecca (d. 16 Feb. 1694), da. of Sir Jasper Clayton, Haberdasher, of London, 6s. (3 d.v.p.) 3da. Kntd. 27 May 1660; suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 22 Feb. 1663; cr. Visct. Yarmouth 19 Aug. 1673, Earl of Yarmouth 30 July 1679.1
J.p. Norf. 1659-d., commr. for oyer and terminer, Norfolk circuit July 1660, assessment, Norf. Aug. 1660-73, dep. lt. c. Aug. 1660-76; high steward, Great Yarmouth 1674-d., ld. lt. and v.-adm. Norf. 1676-d.; freeman, King’s Lynn 1679.2
Gent. of privy chamber 1667-d., jt. receiver of greenwax fines 1677-9.3
Paston was descended from a medieval judge who bought Oxnead in 1423. The judge’s son, the central figure in the famous family letters, was elected knight of the shire in 1461 and 1462. Paston’s father, a ship-money sheriff, bought a baronetcy on the eve of the Civil War. Royalist in sympathy, he took refuge, with Sir William Doyley, in the Netherlands. His estate, valued at £5,594 p.a., was sequestrated, and plate to the value of £1,100 seized to pay the army of the eastern association. He returned in 1644, and through the good offices of Sir John Potts recovered his estate on contributing a further £500 to the parliamentary coffers. He was named to the county committee, and held local office throughout the Interregnum and until his death after the Restoration. It was posthumously claimed that Paston himself visited the exiled Court on his travels, and contributed to its scanty funds. Nevertheless he was added to the commission of the peace in March 1659. At the general election of 1660 he was returned for Thetford, presumably on the Howard interest; but his only committee in the Convention was for elections and privileges. He was knighted at Canterbury as one of the party that rode out of London to greet the King, and proposed for the order of the Royal Oak, with an income of £800 p.a. On 28 Nov. he spoke against giving statutory force to the Worcester House declaration for modified episcopacy, and he supported the restitution of the dukedom of Norfolk to the head of the Howard family.4
At the general election of 1661 Paston was returned for Castle Rising, another Howard borough. He was no more active as a committeeman in the Cavalier Parliament, being appointed to the elections committee in five sessions and to only four others, and he was ‘no frequent speaker, but delivered what he had a mind to say very clearly’. His interest in alchemy brought him into the Royal Society as a founder member, but he did not neglect more orthodox measures of repairing the damage done to the family fortunes during the Civil War, and in the autumn of 1664 he seized the opportunity of bringing himself into favourable notice at Court. The Government required £2,500,000 to finance the second Dutch war, but Lord Chancellor Clarendon felt that so large a sum should not be proposed by
any man who was related to the Court or was thought to be in any grace there that might dispose him, nor yet by any gentleman, how well soever thought of, who was of small estate, and so to pay little of so great a sum he was so liberal to vote.
Consequently it was decided to find one ‘of those Members who were honest worthy men, and looked upon as lovers of their country and of great fortunes, unsuspected to have any designs at Court’. After two other Norfolk Members had refused, Paston accepted, in hopes of a peerage as well as some financial reward to offset his increasing pecuniary embarrassment. The motion for supply on 25 Nov. 1664 was followed by ‘a deep silence’, broken only by Paston’s recommendation of such a sum as would ‘strike terror ... into the enemy’. He continued:
The machine of war requires strong hinges to play upon, and straitness or good husbandry in this case would show us ill managers, who to save a stake would venture the loss of the game. What I would urge is that a sum may be determined that the King may be sure of, and such an one as may supply his occasions plentifully. When this is ascertained it will both encourage those that fight for him and discourage the boldness of those that dare oppose him.
Although the House was initially stunned into silence, the motion was eventually successful, and with Clarendon guiding the Upper House the necessary supply was granted. It did not escape the notice of Andrew Marvell, however, that the two prime movers might be appropriately described from their corpulence as ‘burdens of the earth’:
Hyde, whose transcendent paunch so swells of late that he the rupture seems of law and state; Paston, whose belly bears more millions Than Indian carracks, and contains more tuns.
Paston wrote triumphantly to his wife:
The service I have done the King ... is so great that I am looked on in a capacity of not being denied anything in his Majesty’s power. The King intends me personal thanks and great promises, I hear. But in modesty I forbear the Court for a while. It was the happiest opportunity for a foundation of somewhat considerable that ever God Almighty put into my hands.
He made his appearance at Court in December, when
the King was in a very great crowd; as soon as he saw me he came to me from the company and took me into a corner of the room and told me, ‘Sir Robert Paston, your kindness to me and more especially at this time I’ll never forget, and if my favour and respect may ever manifest itself to you, you are sure of a friend in me’.
His first reward came in the form of strong court backing for a bill to extend the boundaries of Yarmouth so as to include his property at Southtown, or Little Yarmouth, across the river, and to grant him an imposition on all deals brought into the country through the port. Moreover it would greatly enhance the value of his estate by enabling fish and other merchandise to be landed on both sides of the Yare. There was considerable opposition in Great Yarmouth itself from the merchants and the corporation, and his successful motion for the supply had earned him the enmity of some in the House; but he received much support from the King and court party, including Lord Townshend (Sir Horatio Townshend), the lord lieutenant of Norfolk, and ‘the best friend I have in the world’. On 6 Feb. 1665 he wrote to his wife that ‘the King is extremely concerned for it and will not suffer any Parliament man to be on the guard but to attend it’. At the third reading on 4 Mar. the bill passed by a majority of one; but the propriety of Paston’s voting on a matter in which he was interested was queried. Immediately he offered to withdraw, and the bill was then passed by means of the casting vote of the Speaker. Paston calculated that it would bring in some £2,000 a year.5
Paston hoped for other rewards, including a peerage, which he had been promised by Sir Charles Berkeley II. On 25 Mar. 1665 he wrote to his wife that the King had
above 20 times repeated it to my friends that none was nearer his heart than myself, that he intended to mend my honour and fortune, the which I heard this day from his own lips in his bedchamber, viz. that he will speedily make me a nobleman of England and besides will grant what I can find to make suit for. Some public considerations reprieved the honour now, for the King thinks it would look too near a contract to have just done it at this time; but the words and ways of a prince are not to be disputed. I hope I shall make the best advantage of both.
Paston did not get his title immediately, but he resolved to ask for ‘somewhat that ... shall set me free in the world and put some money in my purse’, for, as he told his wife, ‘I know so much what the want of money is and what the straitness of a fortune is’. He petitioned for the lease of the customs on wood, glass, earthen and stoneware, oranges, lemons and pomegranates, for which he offered a rent of £2,700 p.a. It was estimated that in one year these customs had brought in £4,741. His petition was granted, and he was given a 21-year lease of the wood farm to start from September 1667. The following year, however, it was pointed out that the extensive rebuilding consequent on the fire of London had enormously increased the value of the farm as far as wood was concerned, and in October he was obliged to agree to increase his annual rent to £6,500 p.a.6
Sir Thomas Osborne, who had married Paston’s cousin, included him among the Members to be engaged for the Court by the Duke of Buckingham in 1669, probably through his brother-in-law Sir John Clayton, and two years later the Opposition listed him as a government supporter. When the King arrived at Oxnead in September 1671 after visiting Sir John Hobart at Blickling, he told Paston that ‘he was now safe in the house of his friend’. Despite royal favour, Paston’s finances remained precarious, chiefly owing to his extravagance. He wrote to (Sir) Joseph Williamson that he was
on the brink of those necessities that no man of the nation of his quality or fortune is, the King’s intentions of favour in his farm being anticipated four or five years, his own revenue seized for a mortgage on £10,000 and himself hated and oppressed on every side.
He suggested that the King might buy his lands at Little Yarmouth. Nothing came of the suggestion or of his other schemes to make these lands more profitable, including proposals to build a whole new town there for merchants and a customs house. Both suggestions brought him again into conflict with the merchants of Great Yarmouth.7
Paston’s eldest son married one of the royal bastards in July 1672, and in the following summer Paston himself at last achieved the coveted peerage as Viscount Yarmouth. Christopher Hatton ascribed the honour partly to his son’s marriage, and partly to the friendship of Osborne, now Lord Treasurer Danby, who also reduced the rent for the wood farm on the grounds that the rebuilding of London was virtually complete. A court peer in the Upper House, he replaced Townshend as lord lieutenant in 1676, and worked tirelessly for the government interest in Norfolk elections, achieving considerable success even in the adverse circumstances of the exclusion crisis. He died on 8 Mar. 1683 and was buried at Oxnead.8