A medieval MP’s Valentine’s Day Letters

Dr Hannes Kleineke of the 1422-1504 Commons explains how the commercial holiday we now recognise as St Valentine’s Day was observed by a young lover in the fifteenth century…

It is a little known fact that the earliest known Valentine’s letter was in fact addressed to an MP, albeit a future one. In February 1477 Margery Brewes, soon to be married to the Norfolk gentleman John Paston, wrote two letters to the man, for whom she clearly felt considerable affection. John came from a family with strong parliamentary traditions. He was a younger son of a namesake who had been knight of the shire for Norfolk in the Parliament of 1460-1, and who, when seeking re-election in the following year had been at the heart of a violent fracas which disrupted the electoral meeting of the shire court. His elder brother, helpfully also called John, had taken their father’s old Norfolk seat in the Parliament of 1467-8, and would sit for the urban constituency of Great Yarmouth in 1478. An uncle, William Paston, finally, carved out a more enduring parliamentary career for himself, representing a succession of boroughs in the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VII.

Our John Paston came to the parliamentary game rather late in the day. He was brought up in the household of the Mowbray dukes of Norfolk, and evidently enjoyed the education and training of a young gentleman. Although the Mowbrays had traditionally been supporters of the Yorkist dynasty, John and his brother both fought for Henry VI in the battle of Barnet in 1471. Following Edward IV’s restoration, he was quick to secure a pardon, and took part in the invasion of France in 1475. His activities during the reign of Richard III are obscure, but it is tempting to speculate whether his attitude was perhaps coloured by an earlier acquaintance with the young Anne Mowbray, duchess of York and Norfolk, and wife to the younger of the Princes in the Tower. He was evidently a known quantity to Henry VII, who trusted him enough to appoint him sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk within weeks of his victory at Bosworth. Although sheriffs were legally prohibited from sitting in Parliament during their term of office, the same autumn Paston was promptly returned to the new King’s first Parliament for the city of Norwich. He went on to serve Henry VII at the battle of Stoke, and lived on until 1503.

The young woman who had been infatuated with John back in 1477 was the daughter of another Norfolk landowner, Sir Thomas Brewes of Sall. At the time of writing her letters she was probably in her late teens or early twenties; certainly, she was somewhat younger than the object of her affections. Crucially, it seems, these were reciprocated. Marriages among the landed classes of fifteenth-century England were above all financial and political arrangements, and love was something that could be left to blossom later, if at all. In this instance, it seems that both John and Margery wanted the match, and were supported in this by Margery’s mother Elizabeth Brewes.

Turning now to the Valentine’s letters, it was Elizabeth who was very much orchestrating the whole business: a few days earlier, she had invited John Paston to spend the weekend (Valentine’s day 1477 fell on a Friday) with the family, ostensibly so that he might bring her as yet reluctant husband on side. Of this Margery was aware when she dictated her billet-doux, dripping with saccharine verses of which any modern card manufacturer would be proud:

Margery Brews Valentine

“Right reverend and worshipful, and my right well-beloved Valentine, I recommend myself to you full heartily, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long to preserve unto his pleasure and your heart’s desire. And if it pleases you to hear of my welfare, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall be, until I hear from you:

For þer wottys no creature what peyn þat I endure,

And for to be deede I dare it not dyscure [disclose].

And my lady my mother has diligently put the matter to my father, but she can get no further than you know, for which, God knows, I am full sorry. But if you love me, as I truly trust you do, you will not leave me because of that; for if you had less than half the income that you have, leaving me to do the hardest work that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you.

And yf ȝe commande me to kepe me true where-euer I go

Iwyse I will do all my myght ȝowe to love and neuer no mo.

And yf my freendys say þat I do amys, þei shal not me let so for to do,

Myn herte me byddys euer more to love ȝowe

Truly ouer all erthely thing.

And yf þei be neuer so wroth, I tryst it shall be bettur in tyme commyng.

No more to you at this time, but the Holy Trinity have you in its keeping. And I beseech you that this bill be not seen by any earthly creature, only yourself etc. And this letter was dictated at Topcroft with full heavy heart etc.

By your own M.B.” (Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century ed. N. Davis (2 vols., Oxford 2004), I, no. 415, prose part modernised)

We may feel some sympathy with Thomas Kela, the clerk of Sir Thomas Brewes who had the misfortune to have to take down these lines at his young mistress’s dictation. It would, however, be far more interesting to know John Paston’s reaction: the letter survives, so clearly he did not burn it immediately. There was evidently more to the young woman whom her – arguably biased – mother classed as ‘a great treasure: a witty gentlewoman’, than meets the eye, for John was a man of some experience. Now in his early thirties, he had over the years been linked with nine or possibly ten other women, but none of these associations had resulted in marriage. This time, it was love. Before the end of 1477 the couple were married, and by August 1478 they had a child. The story had a happy ending: the couple’s affection endured. Even after several years of marriage Margery’s letters to her one-time Valentine were addressed to ‘Myne owne swete hert’ , and closed: ‘Sir, I pray you, if you tarry long at London that it will please you to send for me, for I think it a long time since I lay in your arms’.  (Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, I, no. 420, second quotation modernised).


Further reading:

  • Colin Richmond, The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century: Endings (Manchester, 2000), esp. pp. 49-54
  • A second Valentine’s letter from Margery can be seen here

One thought on “A medieval MP’s Valentine’s Day Letters

  1. A very touching epistle. Good to see that it all worked out well. I had no idea that Valentine’s Day had its roots so far back. Live and learn.

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