Today (February 14) in London History – the Valentine’s Day you’ll never forget

A Valentine’s Day you’ll never forget.


Hey, the current’s too strong. We have to do it. Valentine’s Day. 

But even Valentine’s Day we can London Walks. Put something up here that’s unexpected. And then some. What you’re going to get at the end of this, it’s the wildest, the hairiest, the most shocking Valentine’s Day outing you’ll ever have. You have been warned.

And look, for anyone who has missed it – it surely is in order for me to mention the first-ever Valentine. The claimants – there are two of them – both have London connections. 

The British Library has a letter, penned in the year 1477. The author is the delightfully named young noblewoman, Margery Brews. She’s writing to her squeeze, John Paston. In the letter she refers to him as her right well-beloved Valentine. And she signs it, your Valentine, Margery Brews. She’s being pretty direct there – that should brew some affection.

And then, half a century earlier, we’ve got a card written from a prisoner to his wife. A French nobleman, the Duke of Orleans, is locked up in the Tower of London. He calls her “his very gentle Valentine” – he says, “I am already sick of love my very gentle Valentine. Well, the poor man, he was locked up for 25 years. He never got to see his beloved again. 

About the same time – the 14th century – Chaucer got in on the act. He writes a poem called Parliament of Fowles. It describes a group of birds who get together in the early spring – on Saint Valentine’s day – to pair off. 

Choose their mates for the year. 

The timing and the connection with our feathered friends – it all adds up because the birds are also getting on with it in these early days of spring. Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re busying themselves trying to pair up, find a mate.

Chaucer’s poem made its debut in 1381 and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that’s the first appearance, in English, of the phrase Valentine’s Day.

By one of those weird historical coincidences, 1381 was a year of passion all right – but it wasn’t romantic passion, it was class hatred passion. 1381’s the year of the peasant’s revolt. And the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury having his head chopped off at Tower Hill, I suppose you could make a case that there’s something in the way of a connection there, because that’s what happened to the priest and martyr for whom this day is named. His name was Valentine and he was beheaded in Rome on February 14th, in the year 270.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells us Saint Valentine was selected for the sweethearts’ saint because of his name – sound-wise it’s not far off from an old French word, galantine, meaning gallant. A lady’s lover, in other words. 

And of course Shakespeare also gets in on the act. In his great comedy of love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus and his entourage come upon the four young lovers in the woods, of a midsummer’s morn, and he says, “Good morrow friends, St. Valentine is past,

Begin these wood birds but to couple now?” In other words, the four of them are slow off the mark, four months late in getting around to “doing it.”

Lots of beliefs and customs and country lore associated with the day. It was believed for example that the first two single persons who meet in the morning of Valentine’s Day had a great chance of becoming man and wife. 

And let’s buttress all of this with a few hard facts. Valentine’s Day – sending those Valentine cards and missives – it’s epistolary love-making. And you can get a pretty good idea how besotted the Victorians were – how lovey-dovey Londoners were – by looking at the post office statistics. 

In 1865, for example, on the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, there were 530,000 letters despatched from the General Post Office in London. That’s a lot more than the 300,00 letters that would have gone out on a normal day. And that was not out of the ordinary. In his annual report for 1873, we learn from the Postmaster General that there were 306 extra mail bags, each three feet long and two feet wide for the conveyance of Londoners’ Valentines Day greetings and wishes. They were a soppy bunch, those Victorians. 

And as long as we’re doing hard fact – and, yes, I’ve got a weakness for the species known as hard fact – as long as we’re doing hard fact, here’s an instance of the huge difference an “invention” or a different way of doing things can make. In 1862 Rowand Hill, the inventor of the penny post, let it be known that before his invention the mails had carried about 70 million letters per annum. Along comes the penny post and that figure rockets up to 593 million letters. It octuples. There, I knew I’d get to use that word sooner or later.

Finally, here’s some verse – some Valentine’s doggerel – that I found in a 172-year-old London newspaper. 1850.

It’s titled, A String of Valentines. Verses to, respectively, Lucy, Jane, Mary, Anne, Ellen, Kate, and Caroline.

I’ll read you just one, the one to Mary. And then we’ll take our leave of the lovey-dovey part of this podcast. And head someplace very dark indeed. A London that’s terrifying. A London that’s horrifying.

But our bit of verse first.


Mary’s eyes! they haunt me ever,

In the dark I see them glowing!

Mary’s lips! sweet lips that whisper!

Fair are they as cherries growing.

Mary’s cheeks! the sweetest peaches

Ripen’d in the sunniest autumn,

Could not match the white and crimson

Which her youthful years have brought ‘em.

Would those eyes look love on me,

Chief of mortals I should be!

Would those cheeks for me but glow,

I would envy none below!

Would those lips say “Love, I’m thine,”

I’d kiss them! – by Saint Valentine.

Ok, ready? I hope you’re strapped in. 

There I was yesterday, dowsing through London’s past, looking for bygone London love and London romance at this time of the year, trying to rustle up something for the Valentine’s Day London Walks podcast. And as you’ve just heard, I made a few finds.

But I also made another find. A find that was like a karate chop across the windpipe.

I was poking around in the 1550s. February of 1554 to be exact.

I came across Henry Machyn’s diary. Henry Machyn was a London provisioner – a businessman – and a parish clerk. In his capacity as the parish clerk he attended lots of funerals, and made notes about them.

In time he started keeping his own chronicle of what was going on around him, in his London. He was no Pepys or Evelyn. He had a sort of heavy, stolid, plodding, banal mind. Utterly matter of fact. No flights of fancy for Henry Machyn. No questioning what he saw. He described funerals, political and religious events, crimes, criminals’ executions, proclamations, strange occurrences, ceremonies, that sort of thing. He just sets things down. Nothing seems to horrify him, no matter how hideous, how horrible the observed thing is.

His mental landscape – and thus his London – is as stark and bleak as the world of an Ingmar Bergman film.

Anyway, here’s his diary entry for February 12, 1554.

The twelfth day of February was made at every gate in London a new pair of gallows and set up: two pairs in Cheapside, two pair in Fleet Street, one in Smithfield, one pair in Holborn, one at Leadenhall, one at St. Magnus, one at Billingsgate, one at Pepper Alley Gate, one at St. George’s, one in Bermondsey Street, one on Tower Hill, one pair at Charing Cross, one pair at Hyde Park corner.

Fifteen gallows. In one day. Put up all over London. No comment, just noted. Noted matter of factly. As if he were writing about trees budding and flowers blossoming and a pair of robins building a nest.

Well, Machyn doesn’t comment but I will. It’s almost beyond imagining what Londoners must have felt that day, seeing those gallows going up. One can sense their dread. Imagine their furtive looks. Pretending not to notice. Keeping schtum. Maybe whispering to their spouse at night in bed. Shusshing the children. All the while knowing that something hideous, something terrible was about to happen. All over their town. 

Two days later – Valentine’s Day – the thing has happened. What Yeats called the rough beast slouching their way has well and truly arrived.

Throughout its long and in many ways terrible history London has been smitten many times – there have been many days when the loss of life was significantly greater than it was on February 14th, 1554. But this is not ledger book stuff, we’re not in real estate here. I’m going to put this as plainly as I can: I think February 14th, 1554 was the most terrible day in London’s history. Not just because of what was done to the victims – but also because of what was done to their fellow citizens. There was something evil about it that just wasn’t there in, say, 1665, when hundreds of Londoners were dying every day, succumbing to the plague. 

And to tie up one loose end, yes, there is a Valentine’s Day connection. Valentine, the priest and martyr, was beheaded. Like some of the people who were hanged from those gallows on Valentine’s Day in 1554.

Here’s Machyn’s diary. Cover your ears if you’re squeamish. 

I won’t be able to sign off afterwards. I just won’t. So I’ll say goodnight here. And see ya tomorrow.

Here’s London merchant Henry Machyn’s diary entry for St. Valentine’s Day 1554.

The fourteenth day of February were hanged at every gate and place in:

Cheapside, six;

Aldgate, one quartered;

Leadenhall, three;

Bishopsgate, one, and he quartered;

Moorgate, one;

Cripplegate, one;

Aldersgate, one quartered;

Newgate, one quartered;

Ludgate, one, and after quartered;

Billingsgate, three hanged;

St. Magnus, three hanged;

Tower Hill, three hanged;

Holborn, three hanged;

Fleet Street, three hanged;

at Pepper Alley Gate, three;

Bermondsey Street, three;

St. George’s, three;

Charing Cross, four (one Booth, the footman, and Vicars, of the guard, and two more);

at Hyde Park corner, three (one Pollard, a water bearer)—those three hung in chains;

and but seven quartered, and their bodies and heads set upon the gates of London;

and at Paul’s churchyard, four.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *