Episode 118: Will you be my Valentine?

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In this episode, 118, we look at the history of Valentine's Day, as well as how our Tudor friends would have celebrated. Plus we examine it in the context of the liturgical year, and look at Candlemas, which is 2 February, and the ending of the Christmas season. Valentine's Day comes just in between Christmas and Lent, the buildup to Easter. This calm of empty space in between the two major events in the Christian calendar.

Book Recommendation Alison Sim: Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England (that's my Amazon affiliate link - you pay the same price, and I get a commission - hooray)

Other Resources History's oldest valentine: https://www.history.com/news/historys-oldest-known-valentine-was-written-in-prison King's Lynn Market https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/researchandarticles/kingslynn Paston Valentine at the British Library http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126579.html

Rough Transcript

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 118 is all about Valentine’s Day in Tudor England.

So, it’s the season of LURVE, and everywhere you go the shops are filled with red, pink, and white hearts with cheesy messages on them. So, did our Tudor friends celebrate Valentine’s Day? If so, how? And in what context? Let’s discuss. It’s important to remember that all holidays like this were celebrated in the context of the Church year. Holiday literally means holy day. On February 2 we saw the final celebration of the Christmas season, which is Candlemas, when the Baby Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, as described in the Gospel of Luke.

This was also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, about six weeks after the birth of Jesus. From Luke Chapter 2 22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses,Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,    you may now dismiss[c] your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,    and the glory of your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In England, this celebration was seen as the birth of Spring.

The service saw all the parishioners processing with candles, blessed and lit by the priest. The candles represented Christ,  but they were also seen as having supernatural powers, and would drive away evil spirits. They could also be used to hurt people, and some believed that witches would drop wax from the candles into the footprints of their target, and that would cause that person’s feet to rot. Some towns celebrated with processions, such as one in Yorkshire where one of the members of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin dressed as Mary, and was followed by men representing Simeon and Joseph, and then two more men representing angels.

The angels held a frame with 24 candles, while other members of the guild walked behind. Musicians followed and at the church the one representing Mary would give a doll to one representing Simeon at the altar. Then the candles were blessed. The reformers naturally went after Candlemas because of the superstition associated with it. But Henry was a fan of the holiday, and in 1539 he officially protected it, though he did warn that the candles should not be seen as being at all magical. Still, people would light Candlemas candles during sickness, and give them to dying people. Elizabeth finally banned these rituals in 1559.

So then, just under two weeks later, we have St. Valentine’s Day. Let’s look at the history of Valentine’s Day in general, and then talk about how our early modern English friends would have celebrated. The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome.

When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured.

According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl–possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories all emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic and–most importantly–romantic figure. By the Middle Ages, perhaps thanks to this reputation, Valentine would become one of the most popular saints in England and France.

While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia.

Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus. Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity and but was outlawed—as it was deemed “un-Christian”–at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance. Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written Valentine’s didn’t begin to appear until after 1400.

The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of Londonfollowing his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. It was  a few lines in a poem, written by Charles, who was also the nephew of King Charles VI, in 1415, when he was 21 years old. In the poem, Charles uses the term “Valentine” referring to his wife, but his expression of love was more somber than the holiday greetings that we’re usually accustomed to.

However, when you think about the circumstances under which the letter was written, that’s no surprise. My very gentle Valentine, Since for me you were born too soon, And I for you was born too late. God forgives him who has estranged Me from you for the whole year. I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.

Having been imprisoned for 25 years, Charles was never able to see his wife’s reaction to the letter. She died sometime between 1430 and 1435, before reuniting with her husband or bearing any children.

In 1420, Henry V hired John Lydgate to compose a Valentine for Catherine of Valois “Seynte Valentine of custome yeere by yeere Men have an usance, in this regioun To loke and serche Cupides kalendar, And chose theyr choyse by grete affeccioun, Such has been move with Cupides nocioun, Takying theyre choyse as theyre sort doth falle; But I love oon whiche excelleth alle.” Moving on several hundred years, The Paston letters, the largest private collection of 15th century correspondence (named after a Norfolk family who rose from being peasants to aristocracy over the course of about 100 years)  mention it three times in the 1470’s.

In fact, we have what is likely to be the oldest Valentine’s Day love letter in England written from Marjory Brewes to her love, John Paston. At the time, these two were seemingly star crossed lovers - while they both wanted to marry, their families were against the marriage, for various reasons having to do with finances and dowers. But as Margery shares, her mother is working behind the scenes to change the mind of her father. And it did work out in the end, as the couple married, had a son, and were together for over 20 years. Here is the letter, adapted for more modern 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. By your own Margery Brews.

People celebrated in a variety of ways. In some places, valentines were chosen at random from among a group of friends, and then they had to buy their valentine a gift. The household accounts of William Petre show gold trinkets and cloth as gifts to valentine’s that were chosen at random.

The accounts show that one of the maids won the proverbial lottery and chose Sir William one year, and he gave her a quarter’s wages extra as her valentine. I came across stories online of Henry VIII making Valentine’s Day an official holiday by royal charger in 1537, and I wanted to find out whether that was true or not.

So I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that there is a royal charter that involves valentine’s Day from that year.  But it wasn’t to make Valentine’s Day an official holiday. It was a charter for a Valentine’s Day fair in King’s Lynn, rather than overall Valentine’s Day holiday.

There are links to that, as well all the sources and articles I used  on the website at Englandcast.com. And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. And remember to get your Tudorcon tickets at Tudorfair.com.