University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Love, courtship and ‘personal sources’ in late medieval England

Dr Maria Cannon is a Lecturer in Early Modern History and specialises in late medieval and early modern family history. She co-ordinates the Level 5 core unit ‘Introduction to Historical Research’ where students are introduced to the range of historical sources available for their independent research and the kind of issues associated with using different types of evidence. In this blog she reflects on one of the examples discussed under the theme of ‘Personal Sources’.

In February 1477 a young woman from a Norfolk gentry family wrote to the man she was engaged to marry. Margery Brews greeted her fiancé John as ‘my ryght welebeloued Voluntyne’, the earliest surviving use of the term in English letter writing. [1] The letter concerns the problems that were threatening to derail the negotiations of their marriage, namely that John felt Margery’s father should be providing a larger dowry (the money and property his daughter would bring to the marriage). Margery appealed to her valentine in emotional terms beseeching him, ‘but if that ye loffe me, as I tryste verely that ye do, ye will not leffe me [… ] Myn herte me byddys euer more to love yowe Truly ouer all erthely thing.’ [2]

The Valentine’s Day love letter, 1477

At face value, Margaery’s words appeal to our contemporary understanding of love, especially at a time of year when our shops, workplaces, and email inboxes are constant reminders of the celebration of romance. Margery and John did indeed marry later in 1477 and this letter is held up annually as evidence of a true love match with one blog likening Margery and John’s story to a fairytale where ‘Margery did marry her knight’. [3] However, as much as we might like to look to the past and see our own experiences and desires reflected back, the context of late medieval letter-writing and courtship processes complicates this picture. Firstly, Margery did not write this letter herself and secondly, it has likely survived due to its part in the process of negotiating Margery and John’s marriage. In a workshop on ‘Personal Sources’ last week I asked my students to consider what a ‘personal’ letter was to people in the fifteenth-century. Does the context in which the letter exists mean we cannot see any evidence of genuine emotion? As historians we need to consider the possibility that the emotions of love and affection were an integral part of the process of the legal joining together of two people and families. While we must understand the context of the expression of emotions, that does not mean we should discount their sincerity.

There are no surviving handwritten letters by Margery and it is likely that she could not write. For women of her social class in the late fifteenth century, learning to write was not necessarily an element of female education. The valentine letter was physically written by one of her father’s secretaries. However, that many (men and women) used scribes to write their letters does not necessarily invalidate the contents. It was commonplace for elite men and women to employ secretaries to undertake the technical task of writing a letter that they had composed. Margery could well have chosen to work with a trusted secretary from her father’s employ who she knew well and trusted. The letter still gives the impression of confidentiality as it ends with the entreaty ‘I besech yowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your-selfe’, an instruction clearly not seen as at odds with the nature of the letter’s composition. John, as the recipient of the letter, would have been under no illusion that Margery had physically penned the letter herself but there is no mistaking that it was from her. Dianne Watt has argued persuasively that the Paston women’s voices are still evident in their letters, even if they were composed collaboratively with the input of secretaries or other family members. [4] Nevertheless, this argument acts as a warning to those looking for the feelings and emotions of individuals through letters which may have had input from others. It challenges our contemporary understanding of the love letter as one composed personally and secretly.

The broader context of this letter leads to further questions for historians seeking to understand the place of love and affection in late medieval courtship. Correspondence was usually preserved in a family archive because it had some significance as evidence for legal or business transactions that may have been needed in future disputes or court cases. Marriage was an important legal matter, and the process of courtship could be prolonged and disputed as the two families negotiated the terms of dowry and property settlement, as was indeed the case for Margery and John. [5] Although Margery entreated John to keep her letter private, it seems extremely unlikely that he would have done so. Her letter was part of the legal formalities of their marriage negotiations, regardless of its focus on the affection and personal relationship between the proposed couple. Margery’s’ valentine letter seems to have been part of a series of letters from her and her mother that were composed with the same secretary and contained similar language and imagery. [6] The important business of arranging a marriage was one that involved the whole family but that is not to say that the couple had no agency or control over the proceedings. Parents were expected to take their children’s wishes in mind and certainly not force them to marry against their will. [7] When John’s parents were beginning their courtship in 1440, John’s grandmother reported happily that the first meeting between the two had been positive and ‘so I hope ther shal nede no gret treté be-twyxe hym. [8] Affection between an engaged couple was an important element of finalising the marriage negotiations and so evidence of this was potentially valuable for future reference. The love professed by Margery in her letter was by no means insignificant alongside more formal financial negotiations.

So, where does this leave us when considering this letter in the category of a ‘personal source’ as I asked my students last week? James Daybell suggests that, even though many letters in this period were ‘semi-private’ and often written and preserved as legal evidence, this does not mean that a mass of expressive and personal correspondence was discarded as without value. [9] It is possible that letters could be both personal and worthy of preservation. In the context of late medieval marriage negotiations, the emotions and language of love existed simultaneously with the legal wrangling of financial settlements. We have no evidence to believe that Margery’s feelings of love towards her intended husband were not genuine. Indeed, her consent to the marriage was important. Even though she did not compose the letter individually, she still sent it under her own name and so claimed the emotions expressed within it. [10] This letter demonstrates the importance placed on a couple developing a positive relationship through the courtship process, albeit in a potentially formal and supervised manner. Understanding the context of letter writing and courtship in late medieval England enables us to see the agency of women and their emotional expression as a crucial part of familial negotiations. Margery Paston’s letter is an excellent example of the complexity of historical sources where a letter could be both personal and of legal significance, a congruence that would have been understood by both her and her valentine.



[1] “Valentine, n.”. OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/221141?rskey=AqJyuC&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed January 26, 2018).

[2] British Library Additional MS 43490 f. 23.

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12419712

[4] Diane Watt, ‘”No Writing for Writing’s Sake”: The Language of Service and Household Rhetoric in the Letters of the Paston Women’, in Dear Sister: Medieval Wome

n and the Epistolary Genre, eds. Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrke Wiethaus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) pp. 122-38.

[5] Diana O’Hara, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 2-3.

[6] Watt, Medieval Women’s Writing p. 153.

[7] Barthélemy Batt, The Christian mans closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training vp of children, trans. William Lowth (London: 1591), p. 100.

[8] BL Add. MS 43488, f. 4.

[9] James Daybell, ‘Medieval Women’s Letters, 1350-1500’, in The History of British Women’s Writing: Volume 1, 700 – 1500, ed. Diane Watt (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012), p. 183.

[10] Watt, Medieval Women’s Writing, p. 154-5.

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