Oldest Surviving Valentine

The Oldest Surviving Valentine

The oldest surviving Valentine was written by Margery Brews to John Paston (III) in February 1477. She addressed him as her “right well-beloved valentine,” and didn’t just send him one, but two letters.[1] She seems to have been very much in love with him, as she continues that she is “not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you.”

The Pastons were a gentry family from north-east Norfolk and originally of humble origin. However, within few generations they managed to rise to aristocracy. We know so much about the Pastons, because much of their correspondence has survived to this day. Maurice Keen explains their importance:

The word private is important; letters have survived from earlier periods, but they are mostly of an official nature—the formal letters of public men about public business. Families like the Pastons and the Stonors, however, who now begin to leave us their correspondence, although locally people of wealth and weight, were not in the forefront of political affairs. They were well-established gentry, the middle people, for whom political events had their sometimes terrible consequences but were not themselves responsible for them. Their testimony is doubly interesting: not only are their letters a valuable record, they also give us a touchstone whereby to gauge the reaction of the ordinary, prosperous individual to contemporary events.[2]

Not only do they give us a an idea what people thought about what was happening in their time, but we are also allowed a glimpse into their private lives and their hopes and wishes, as it is the case with Margery Brews’ letter.

John Paston {III) was the second of seven children of John Paston (I) and Margaret Mautby.[3] He had an older brother, also John (II). Our John was born in 1444, two years after John (II).

While John (II) did not display much enthusiasm to get married, John (III) was keen. Life in Norfolk seems to have suited him and he needed the money of a wife’s dowry to take possession of a manor, which had been set aside for him in his father’s will (John I had died in 1466). However, this was easier said than done, and as a younger brother, he was not much of a catch, so that his older brother’s best efforts had so far come to nothing.

This changed in early 1477, when he met Margery Brews. John (III) was at this stage nearly 33 years old. Margery was probably in her late teens, a younger daughter of Sir Thomas Brews, also from Norfolk. She was no heiress, but the family was of good local standing. John and Margery fell deeply in love and both their mothers were very happy with the match.

So it fell to Margery’s father and John’s older brother to worry about the financial details and that is where things got tricky. Margery refers to this in her letters, when she tells John that “my lady my mother hath laboured the matter to my father full diligently, but she can no more get than you already know of”.[4] Eventually in the autumn of 1477, they came to an arrangement enabling John and Margery to get married.

In August 1479, there was a virulent outbreak of the plague in England. John’s younger brother Walter, who had just graduated from Oxford with high hopes from the family, died of the plague, leaving his small share of the Paston estates to John (III). Then in November of the same year, while being in London, John (II) also died. He was buried in the Whitefriars (Carmelite) Priory, as he had requested in his will.[5] John (II) had never married. Their mother died in November 1484, leaving John (III) a rather wealthy man.

John and Margery had their first child, Christopher, in August 1478. Unfortunately, Christopher died young, but two more children, William and Elizabeth, followed. Margery and John seem to have had a happy marriage. While in most of her letters she addresses him fairly conventionally, a letter from her to “Mine own sweetheart” from November 1481 survives.

John fought for Henry VII at the battle of Stoke in 1487 and was knighted on the field. He was a dependable servant, associate, and client of John de Vere, earl of Oxford.

Margery died in 1495 and was buried at the Whitefriars (Carmelite Friary) Church in Norwich.[6]

Later John married again, a wealthy widow, Agnes Morley. This was perhaps not so much a love match, rather than a marriage of convenience, as she was quite wealthy. When she died six years after John’s death, she did not mention any Paston connection in her will and asked to be buried beside her first husband.

John died on 28 August 1504. It is not known where he was buried, but it has been suggested that it might have been next to Margery in the Carmelite Friary.[7] He was survived by his and Margery’s children, their daughter, Elizabeth, and son, William.

1) Both letters are available from The Orb: ‘Two Letters from Margery Brews to John Paston in February 1477’, The Orb. URL: http://www.the-orb.net/encyclop/late/england/valentine.html [last accessed 12 Feb. 2015]

2) Keen, M., ‘The First English Family Letters’, History Today, Volume 9, Issue 5, 1959. URL: http://www.historytoday.com/maurice-keen/first-english-family-letters [last accessed 5 Jan. 2011]

3) Unless otherwise stated, the following is based on Castor, H., Blood & Roses – The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century. Faber and Faber, 2004, pp.271-301; and Richmond, C., ‘Paston family (per. c.1420–1504)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 [last accessed online 5 Feb. 2011].

4) Modern English translation in ‘Love’s labour found’, BBC (14 February 2000). URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/642175.stm [last accessed 12 Feb. 2015]

5) Castor, H., ‘Paston, Sir John (II) (1442–1479)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [last accessed online 5 Fe. 2011]

6) Copsey, R., ‘The Medieval Carmelite Priory at Norwich’, Carmelite Friars (November 2006). URL: http://www.carmelite.org/chronology/Norwich.pdf [last accessed 12 Feb. 2015]

7) Rees Jones, S., Marks, R. and Minnis, A.J., Courts and Regions in Medieval Europe. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2000, p.222

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