London History Bulletin – February 14

February 14th is of course Valentine’s Day. This London History Bulletin tells the tale of the important London Valentine’s Day connection.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Loose end from yesterday’s London History Bulletin about the Financial Times and the building it calls home. 

Emma from Montreal got in touch to ask which walk takes in the FT building. That’d be Shaughan’s Hidden London walk, Emma. Runs every Monday and Friday morning.

And that brings us to Valentine’s Day. February 14th. 

And sure enough, London’s in the thick of the action. On February 14th, 1477 a young lady – a teenager named Margery Brews – writes a love letter to her fiance, one John Paston.

She calls him her “right well-beloved Valentine.” It’s the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in the English language. It’s one of the treasures of London. It’s part of the Paston Collection of letters held by the British Library.

And to fill in the picture a little bit more, Margary, the author of the Valentine’s letter wasn’t in London, she was in her village in Norfolk. And for that matter, she didn’t pen the letter herself, she dictated it to a clerk. Margary almost certainly couldn’t write and she may have been unable to read. But that doesn’t make her words any less heartfelt. She doesn’t hold back. She pleads with John not to give up on her. She says their love is blossoming. Here’s a taste.

“and if you command me to keep me true where I go I wise I will do all my might you to love and never no more. And if my freendys say that I do mys, they shal not me let so for to do. Myn herte bydds euer more to love yowe Truly ouer all erthely thing.”

While it wasn’t a May-December relationship John was quite a bit older than Margery and much more worldly. He was ambitious. He was in London aiming to become an MP.

He was 33. He’d been linked previously with ten women. But hadn’t got to the altar with any of them. And was in need of a wife. 

He also wanted a larger dowry than the one being offered for Margery. 

Margery’s mother stepped in and persuaded John that her daughter was right for him, despite that smaller-than-he’d-hoped dowry. The two of them got married two months after the Valentine’s letter was sent.

Now why February 14th? Well, that traditionally was the day that birds got together to find a mate. Cue Ella Fitzgerald: 

Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love. 

And conveniently enough, St Valentine, well, one of the St Valentines – apparently there were several of them – was martyred on February 14th. And guess what, as well as being the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages, he’s also the patron saint of beekeepers.

1477 is a long time ago. But sending that first Valentine’s letter that love-struck teenage girl may well have been adding a knot to a rope of tradition that already been around for a century. Sometime around 1375, the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote a poem called Parliament of Fowles. In it he links the tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St Valentine’s feast day. Chaucer’s poem is forthright about the matter. It says February 14th is the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. St Valentine’s day as St Valentine’s Day may stem from these two lines in that poem:

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day

Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

It’s been a birdy – no not in that sense – Valentine’s Day for this aging lover in Bangkok. From Chaucer to Mick Imlah. That span arches over six centuries of English poetry. I’ve been particularly taken this morning with a couple of lines from Imlah’s Diehard about Walter Scott. Lines about birds getting it together and what mating – taken to extremes – can lead to. The lines in question read: he, the youthful Walter Scott, Had tried his hand at breeding bantams – kinds of domestic fowl ‘in which the cock is pugnacious’. Only, through overbreeding, certain strains – the Leinster Buff, with its tremendous neck and breast, or the Scotch Grey – had grown effete, And shunning a proud tradition, would rather flap  In circles round each other like big dusters.” Pugnacity to flapping like big dusters. I defy you to tell me you’re going to get stuff like this anywhere else but at London Walks.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. 

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 14th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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