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

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Right reverend and worshipful and my right well-beloved Valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartily, desiring to hear of your welfare which I beseech almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your heart's desire and if it please you to hear of my welfare I am not in good health of body nor of heart nor shall be till I hear from you, for there knows no creature what pain that I endure and on pain of death I dare not reveal. And my lady my mother has laboured the matter to my father full diligently but she can no more get than ye know of for the which God knows I am full sorry. But if that you love me as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore. For if that you had not half the livelihood that you have for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might I would not forsake you. And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go, I advise I will do all my might you to love and never no more. And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not me hinder so for to do. My heart me bids ever more to love you truly over all earthly thing and if they be never so angry I trust it shall be better in time coming. No more to you at this time but the holy trinity has you in keeping. And I beseech you that this bill be not seen of no earthly creature except yourself and this letter was written at topcroft with full heavy heart. By your own M[argery] B[rews].

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.

Start Quote

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

End Quote Julian Harrison British Library curator

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.

(l to r) Keith Edwards, Rob Edwards, Mary Edwards, Richard Buckworth-Herne-Soame, Sir Charles Buckworth-Herne-Soame, Lady Eileen Buckworth-Herne-Soame 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.

The Pastons and their letters

Written between 1422-1509, the personal letters between the Norfolk family are the oldest record of private correspondence in English that survive in Britain.

The bulk are in the British Library, others are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Norfolk Record Office.

The letters offer a unique insight into a medieval family on the make - one that rose from peasantry to aristocracy in just two generations.

They show first-hand testimony of the social benefits the plague brought to the peasantry, the chaotic effects of the Wars of the Roses on the general populace and the individual impact that the Black Death could have on a family.

The last Paston was William Paston, Second Earl of Yarmouth, in 1732. His wife Charlotte was an illegitimate daughter of Charles II.

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.

Margery and John

John Paston III tried until he was 33 to find the "right" wife: she had to be of a good family, reasonably good-looking, and above all, rich.

However, in later letters to his elder brother his standards have dropped - he would settle for "some old thrifty draff wife" (ale wife) if she had enough money.

But this all changed when he met 17-year-old Margery, daughter of Sir Thomas Brews. Although from a good county family, she was not an heiress and her father had other daughters, so her dowry would be small.

However, despite John's emotions being engaged, the Paston family demanded a higher dowry - a dispute which appeared to have reached stalemate until the couple's mothers intervened and the marriage went ahead some time in 1477.

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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