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First Valentine: Lasting legacy of 500-year-old love

  • 14 February 2011
  • From the section UK

Love it or hate it, even the most hardened anti-Romeo will be hard pressed to avoid Valentine's Day this year. But as an exhibit at the British Library currently on show is testament to, there is a first for everything - even on Valentine's Day.

It is a letter, written from a young woman to her love, and is the first Valentine in the English language. And, for the first time, the descendants of Margery Brews and her betrothed John Paston have been traced.

In 1477 Margery wrote a letter to her John pleading with him not to give her up, despite her parents' refusal to increase her dowry.

Addressing her "ryght welebeloued Voluntyne" (right well-beloved Valentine), she promised to be a good wife, adding: "Yf that ye loffe me as Itryste verely that ye do ye will not leffe me" (If you love me, I trust.. you will not leave me).

Her beloved might have had his mind on business, driving a hard bargain for her hand in marriage, but Margery still had her sights on romance, and so secured her place in English history.

"It might not necessarily be that nobody had used Valentine in any context before, but this is probably one of the first times it was written down," says British Library curator Julian Harrison.

And for Cambridge historian, Dr Helen Castor, the importance of Margery Brews' letter and the light it sheds on relationships at that time is hugely important.

"One of the wonderful things about this particular letter is that it is so private," she said.

"It gives a real sense of the relationship between a young man and young woman wanting to marry.

"Without this letter we wouldn't know that this was a love match," she said.

Image caption The family, from Coalbrook Dale, Shropshire, had no idea of their link to the Norfolk Pastons

While romantics 534 years later might celebrate Valentine's Day with fine dining, chocolates and flowers, Margery is left pleading with her love not to leave her while pledging her heart over all "earthly things".

She promises her undying love: "Myne herte me bydds ever more to love yowe truly" (My heart me bids ever more to love you truly), and speaks of her ailing body and heart over her fiance's continuing silence.

However, modern-day lovers be reassured, like any self-respecting fairytale romance the heart did (finally) rule the head and, despite her father's stubbornness over her dowry, Margery did marry her knight.

The couple had a son, William, in 1479. Margery died in 1495, John in 1503.

Their 16th and 17th generation descendants - by way of a king's illegitimate offspring - were traced via the family history website MyHeritage.

Living in Shropshire and until then unaware of their genetic link to a Valentine milestone, Sir Charles Buckworth-Herne-Soame, his wife Lady Eileen, their son Richard, his sister Mary Edwards, husband Keith and son Rob recently saw the missive for the first time.

For historians, the Paston Letters have long been a fascinating insight into the soap opera lives of gentry in the Middle Ages.

Most documentation which survives from medieval times are legal and governmental records, financial accounts and property deeds. Few personal letters exist and even fewer are written by women.

The archive of more than 1,000 letters - most in the British Library - is written by three generations of the Norfolk landowning-family over a period of 70 years.

Family fall-outs, parents nagging, clashes with the aristocracy and parties while mother's away are all detailed.

But Margery's letter, as the first English Valentine, has added significance for scholars and is currently part of a British Library exhibition on the evolution of the English language.

Dr Castor says it sheds invaluable light on such relationships at the time.

"We tend to assume that marriages in this class at this time were arranged for dynastic reasons, but Margery's letters show that everything else was slotted in around the fact that this was a couple who really loved each other."

For archaeologist Rob Edwards, 38, and great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of the couple, the letter is a link to the past he relishes, particularly as he works in history.

"It really reminds you that the people you are studying are very much like ourselves. They have the same feelings and the fact that they are related really does add an extra dimension.

"You can imagine it, trying to get a bit more towards the wedding from your parents. This money is going to set you up."

Julian Harrison agrees.

"The letter shows they were no different to us. They had the same loves, desires and financial problems."

The medieval writer also had other things in common with their modern counterpart.

Don't think the advent of mobile phones and e-mails is the first time abbreviations have littered correspondence, they often abbreviated a word or two in the Middle Ages - Margery used wt for with, for example.

And while her letter is also written on paper, there is one key difference. She didn't write it herself. It would have been dictated to a man who would have written it for her.

However, says Julian Harrison: "The fact that she isn't writing the letter doesn't mean she can't write, it means she can afford someone to write for her.

"People have assumed that people in the past were illiterate, but actually levels of literacy may have been higher than we think."

Richard Buckworth-Herne-Soame, 40, recognises some but not all family traits in the letter, while his mother, Lady Eileen, notes time have changed. She admits she brought no dowry to her marriage.

"No he didn't drive a hard bargain," she says of Sir Charles.

But, Richard adds: "We still have the stubbornness."

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