Every few years an enterprising reporter does a bit of googling and stumbles across the letter from Margery Brews to her suitor John Paston, which is regularly described as the oldest English-language Valentine greeting. Of course, well before the fifteenth century people were celebrating St Valentine’s Day, and the feast is referred to in English by fourteenth century authors (‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make’ in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules providing the most obvious example), but it does seem that it was not until the mid-fifteenth century that people were referring in written English to their sweethearts as Valentine. The English poetry of Charles d’Orleans gives us a sweet example: Als wele is him this day that hath him kaught
A valentyne that louyth him.
With this in mind, we can imagine the young Margery Brews, probably in her late teens, sitting down to write a letter to John Paston, addressing him in a newly-fashionable term. But who were the couple, and how did their relationship come about?
The Pastons were a Norfolk gentry family. They are the most famous gentry family of the later middle ages, largely because of the voluminous correspondence they have left behind them. As study of other gentry families has now shown, the Pastons were in many ways atypical; while many of their peers seem comfortable mostly playing a role in local society, the endlessly ambitious Pastons were constantly enmeshed in political intrigue. The John Paston who was written to by Margery Brews was the second son of John Paston (his elder brother was also, very helpfully, also called John!), and was thirty-three in 1477. So he was older than Margery, and he had been looking for a wife for some time. The letters make it clear that he had been on the prowl for a decade; between 1467 and 1477, John pursued at least ten matches, none of which were successful. John wanted to marry a wealthy woman, but as a second son he was unlikely to find an heiress. John’s letters regarding these failed suits are mostly all business, aside from a pensive letter of 1472, where he sadly notes of a Jane Godmerston that ‘her lyvelode and myne bothe should be to lytyll to leve at our ease’ and notes that it would be better for him to drop his suit than ‘bryng hem in peyn… Sey bettyr for me,’ he entreated his elder brother, who was charged with delivering the disappointing news to Jane. John Paston II, from his letters at least, appears to have been a more readily charming and eloquent man than his brother, and John III was clearly hoping that his rejection would be couched in kinder terms than he knew how to deliver.
Five years later, John was probably feeling rather desperate. Gentry and rich merchant sons typically married in their twenties: William Stonor was about twenty-six; Robert Plumpton was twenty-five; Richard and George Cely were in their mid-twenties. Margery Brews, meanwhile, was probably somewhere between sixteen and twenty, based on the date of her parents’ marriage and what we know of her siblings. The Brews were a respectable local family, but they were not particularly wealthy. We do not know when precisely Margery and John met, but we do know that Margery’s mother Elizabeth invited John to spend the weekend of the feast of St Valentine at their family estate. A serious discussion of marriage must have taken place for Margery to have written the following letter (I have borrowed the modern English translation from the BBC for the ease of readers who aren’t familiar with Middle English):
Unto my right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire, be this bill delivered.
Right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your hearts desire. And if it pleases you to hear of my welfare, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you. For there knows no creature what pain that I endure, and even on the pain of death I would reveal no more. And my lady my mother hath laboured the matter to my father full diligently, but she can no more get than you already know of, for which God knoweth I am full sorry. But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore. For even if 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, indeed I will do all my might you to love and never anyone else. And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not stop me from doing so. My heart me bids evermore to love you truly over all earthly things. 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 have you in keeping. And I beseech you that this bill be not seen by any non earthly creature save only yourself. And this letter was written at Topcroft with full heavy heart.
Be your own Margery Brews.
It is very tempting to take this letter at face value as a passionate expression of love. What medievalist doesn’t thrill to think of reading the sweetly entreating words of an adolescent girl, boldly expressing her feelings? This is the conventional reading by other historians. In my book I problematise this reading a little. From the context of the other letters, it becomes clear that John Paston felt that Sir Thomas Brews was offering an insufficient dowry for Margery. Sir Thomas, on his part, was ‘lothe to be stowe so meche uppon one doghter’ when he had other daughters for whom marriage portions would need to be provided. It seems that John may have said that he could not then marry Margery. Margery wrote the letter above, and a few days later wrote him another in reply to one he had sent (which has unfortunately been lost). She said she was pleased that he was going to come back to Topcroft. The passionate language of the first letter gives way to a more practical tone. She writes baldly that ‘I lete yowe pleynly vndyrstond that my fader wyll no more money parte wyth-all in that behalfe but an c li. [£100] and l  marke, whech is ryght far fro the acomplyshment of yowr desyre. Wherfor, yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde.’ Here she presented herself as the dutiful daughter and future wife by distancing herself from the male-dominated business at hand, making it clear that the matter was ‘betwyx my fadur and yowe’. Margery then emphasised that her father would concede no further ground, whilst simultaneously subtly suggesting that surely she was a sufficient prize. This letter is to my mind the more interesting of the two. It provides a perfect blend of affection and calculation that is familiar to any reader of the gentry letters, where the most successful family members show sentiment matched with business acumen. I wonder if this letter, more than the one before it, showed John Paston (whose mother, Margaret Paston, is one of the most formidable characters in the letter collection, and who would have given him a good example of what it took to be a successful gentry wife) that Margery was worth more than the small sum of her dowry.
Did Margery take the initiative in writing to John? I am a little sceptical about this. Unmarried women seem to have written very few letters, and this correspondence is carefully worded to frame her family’s interests. I do not imagine that a young lady could easily have written to a suitor without her parents’ knowledge or consent – and in any case both letters are in the hand of her family’s regular scribe. Perhaps these two love letters were composed as a family affair. But that does not, in my view, diminish their impact; it simply shifts it from a focus on romantic love to thinking about the affective ties of the gentry family more generally. The medieval gentry did not marry for romantic love alone, nor for their individual benefit. Marriages were made that would benefit both families. Family came first in making a match, not one’s individual preferences. Family helped you find prospective mates, and family helped you seal the deal. John was not unusual in using his brother as a go-between; George and Richard Cely, wool merchants, similarly regularly aided each other in finding suitable ladies as they competed with other young men on the busy London marriage market. A father’s consent, meanwhile, was vital. Thomas Stonor refused the financial terms Margery Blount’s family demanded for her marriage to his son William. William was left rather dispirited by this, indicating he may have had real affectionate feelings for Margery Blount, but there seems little evidence that he argued with Thomas over the matter. In marriage cases, a father’s word was often law. Margery Brews’ mother Elizabeth, according to Margery’s letters, tried to persuade Sir Thomas to increase her daughter’s dowry, but Thomas stood steadfast. Only in very rare cases did medieval gentry marriages upset the family hierarchy.
And so in this case it was left to John Paston to bend, or to retreat. He bent. He and Margery were married that year, and by August 1478 had a child. Why did John give in? Had a decade of rejection bruised him sufficiently that he took what opportunity he had? Perhaps; but I think that the letters indicate that there was a true affection between him and Margery. Whether in February 1477 he was in love with her as she insists she was in love with him is impossible to prove. But in 1484, Margery wrote to John, who was in London on business, and requested that if he planned to stay in town long that he send for her, for ‘I thynke long sen I lay in your armes’. Seven years, several pregnancies and the everyday business of marriage had not quelled Margery’s desire to be held by the man she addressed as ‘Myne owne swete herte.’ For this newly-married historian, that, rather than the story of their courtship, is the real romance of Margery and John Paston.