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Oxnead is a deserted village which lies on the River Bure - approximately 4 miles south-east of Aylsham. The name derives from the Old English for pasture for oxen.

Oxnead Hall was one of the homes of the Paston family. It was originally built around 1580 by Admiral Sir Clement Paston with money that he raised from ransoming a captured French Admiral. In 1671, when Robert Paston was in residence, the hall hosted King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza. It was remodelled by Nicholas Stone between 1631-42. (Stone also sculpted some memorial busts of Paston family members which can be seen inside Oxnead and Paston churches.)

Oxnead Hall

Oxnead Hall today

Oxnead Hall Gardens

However, by the eighteenth century this once great Norfolk family had declined and William Paston, Second Earl of Yarmouth, was forced to sell the hall and estate to pay off debts. The hall was sold to Admiral Anson the circumnavigator in 1757 and then eventually demolished - with only the servant's wing remaining in tact.

Among the effects left in the house when it was sold were a great many letters relating to the family's affairs - dating back to the 15th Century. Fortunately these letters found their way into the hands of the Norfolk historian Francis Blomefield. However, they then passed into the hands of a chemist at Diss before eventually being obtained by Sir John Fenn of Dereham. In 1787 Fenn published the first selection of the letters. The complete collection of approximately 1000 letters was published in the 1870s.

Many of the Paston Letters centre around Margaret Paston - either as writer or recipient - and provide a fascinating insight into the War of the Roses period. Many were written at Caister Castle which the family inherited (via a contested will) from Sir John Fastolf. Like Parson Woodforde's diary, the letters were not written with literary fame in mind - but purely to pass information and record daily events. Agnes Paston - who lived in the hall - was also one of the family letter writers.

The church at Oxnead contains a number of memorials to members of the Paston family - including a marble bust of Katherine Paston (who died in 1636) and the grand alabaster tomb of Sir Clement.

Oxnead Church

St. Michael's Church, Oxnead

Sir Clement Paston's Tomb

Sir Clement Paston's Tomb

Lady Katherine Paston's Tomb

Bust of Lady Katherine Paston

Lady Katherine was the inspiration for two poems: the first was a memorial sonnet which is carved on a tablet just to the right of her bust.

Needes she another Monument of Stone,
Who had so many better than this one,
All which were with noble hearts, whom her decease
Transmuted into marble Niobes:
Each Tombe was arch'd about with weepeing eyes
Whom sorowes blasts did likewise cristalize:
True Pietye, Vertue, Love, and honour'd blood,
On both sides as Corinthian columnes stood:
Three Children Angells were which did disperse
Youth, Beautye, Wealth, like flowers on each hearse:
A foliage of humane fraile estate,
The basiment of the worke did variate:
But Glory, like a Pyramid above,
The Fabricke crown'd, & reach'd y Court of love.

The second poem, entitled On Lady Katherine Paston's Tomb at Oxnead, was written by Michael Rivière (1919-1997) and is an intriguing piece about St Michael's Church and the demise of Oxnead Hall and the Paston family.  Rivière, who was the father of the novelist William Rivière, lived for many years at Dilham Grange.
Sun set three hundred years,
These marble shadows on the wall still stand,
Fixed by her husband’s grief, and Stone’s hand,
Long vanished skill, and wealth, and tears. 

Outside her dilapidated
Church the usual June again transposes
The graveyard offals into grass and roses,
Beauty and corruption equated, 

Balanced principles,
Whereby this white memento-mori is
Now mere memoria pulchritudinis,
New summer dappling her walls. 

We’re not the tomorrow, alas,
Of this lady’s wish; her treasures scattered for ever,
Her mansion now green mounds beside the river,
Not a Paston left to wear her flesh… 

And since we put the resurrection
Even of annual crops to chance,
Eternity of blood’s no longer, as once,
Any man’s confident possession. 

We do with less than that:
The uncertain hope that someone not yet born
May saunter here on a remote June morning
To find the key under the mat. 

In 2021, I wrote the following sonnet about the Pastons:


On a low hill above the River Bure
They built their grand mansion of many wings -
A symbol of their power and greatness there:
Opulent, ornate and fit for kings.

But like all dynasties, the Pastons fell
And, in time, their great hall crumbled too:
So only cold busts in the church now tell
How this old family ruled and how through

The centuries they flexed their might - and thanks
To writs, contested wills and artistry
They rose up quickly through the Norfolk ranks -
But might have vanished into history

But for a chest of letters that were found
Among the debris on the Bure-side ground.

Oxnead Hall was extensively redesigned by the photographer John Hedgecoe (1932-2010).


More Photographs of Oxnead

More Paston Family Photographs

Read a Paston Letter





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