Valentines: Love is in the Archives

The celebration of love and romance on the feast day of St Valentine, 14th February, apparently has its roots in centuries-old associations with Spring, and in particular the belief that this date marks the start of the mating season of birds. The celebration enjoyed increasing popularity during the 17th century, and by the mid-18th century it was very common to exchange letters and small gifts or love-tokens on this day. Pre-printed cards, heralding the mass-produced cards available today, gradually replaced other offerings and were in circulation from about 1900.

Our collections here contain a number of items relating to love and romance, as well as to Valentine’s Day itself.

ZQG XII 7/25 This page for February, from an almanac of 1717, notes the feast day of St Valentine on the 14th, and the Zodiac sign associated with the moon on this day (4th column) is Leo – aptly symbolised by the body part the heart.

Whilst no printed Valentine cards have yet come to light, the Cayley of Brompton archive (collection ZCA) contains a fantastic selection of mid-19th century Valentine letters and poems, received by Catherine Worsley of Hovingham Hall. Letters were an essential part of courtship during the Victorian era, when little opportunity presented itself for lovers to be alone together. Catherine was then in her twenties, and had many admirers hoping to win her affections and eventual hand in marriage.

ZCA Letter 17 Valentine from Richard Hugh Cholmondeley

The letters – ranging in tone from the jovial to the serious – are colourfully illustrated with family crests, self-portraits, dancing couples, love hearts, angels, Cupids, domestic scenes and riches. Catherine is at times referred to as ‘Katy Boo’, ‘pretty, pretty Kate’, or – as in the case of George Cayley’s letters – ‘Cousin Kate’. The senders sign their missives with either their full names, elaborate initials, or else leave clues to their identity in the drawings (surnames on book spines). They include George Cayley, Frederick Alison, ‘CGB’ (a friend of George Cayley’s), Richard Cholmondeley, John Dent of Ripston Hall, and John de Bewerley of Bewerley Hall. In a series of verses, the latter denigrates himself in terms of personal attributes (“eyes like a pig” and “hair like rats’ tails”), and signs his Valentine as “Ye knight of doleful countenance”. Yet his firm confidence in being the heir to Bewerley Hall, with its 12, 000 acres, together with his many servants and his high income, allows him to claim assuredly, that he is: “really not to be sneezed at”.

In the event, however, Catherine married her cousin, Sir George Allanson Cayley, 8th Bt., in July 1859. They lived at Brompton, and had three children.

The ZCA Valentine collection also includes a love letter sent by an unnamed admirer to Catherine’s brother, Arthington Worsley. It features a watercolour image of a heartbroken girl, and is unusual in that it was then regarded as inappropriate for young women to send Valentine letters to those they loved.

ZCA Letter 10 The anonymous Valentine sent to Arthington Worsley

Other records we hold relating to love and romance, though not necessarily Valentine’s as such, exist in the form of letters, poems, songs and even recipes for cakes! They are generally part of family archive collections, and frustratingly do not always possess associated details.

ZAZ Box 75 Phinetta Faire and Feat, undated, but the musical notation is 16th-century in style

The Hutton of Marske archive (ZAZ) contains among some miscellaneous papers an undated, probably 16th century, love song: “Phinetta Faire and Feat”. It is handwritten on paper, and was possibly copied from another source (as was the fashion at this time). The lyrics are quite melancholic and despairing, for a love quite obviously unrequited: “If I sigh or laugh, shee calls me clowne”, and “My greefe is her delight, my joy her frowne”.

This collection also contains an account book (ZAZ Box 75), that has been doodled in on the inside covers! Young Barbara and Mary Hutton write their names alongside those of two or three gentlemen. Were these fellows just friends, or prospective husbands perhaps? Either way, Barbara and Mary do not end up marrying these gentlemen.

ZAZ Box 75 Account book

It was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries to send puzzles to loved ones, and lovers’ knots were popular. This wonderful example is part of collection Z.936 – a small bundle of miscellaneous deeds and papers discovered at Howe End, Kirkbymoorside. It is possibly 18th century in date, but we hold no other related details.

Z.936: A True lovers’ knot (undated, but possibly 18th century)

A section of letters and papers (ZEW X) in the Feversham/Duncombe archive includes among the family and personal letters a love letter dated 1672. We sadly don’t know the recipient, but it is signed by one John Booth, and was sent from York. 

ZEW X Love letter from John Booth of York, 1672

Romantic poems are commonly copied in personal journals and diaries, or in commonplace books. Here are a couple of heartfelt examples from a commonplace book in the Norton Conyers archive (ZKZ) and from William Robinson’s (of Constable Burton) early nineteenth century commonplace book in a collection of various North Yorkshire deeds and papers (ZAK).

Cooking tasty dishes and baking cakes has long been recognised as a way to win someone’s heart, and a WWI cookbook published by Reeth Methodist chapel contains some delightful recipes for Love Cakes and Lovefeast bread (recipes 17 & 20). The book also includes humorous recipes for a long lasting and happy relationship (Recipes 14 & 78) 

Doubtless our collections will contain more examples of love and romance than those highlighted here, and of course there are many instances of boys and men with the forename ‘Valentine’ in the parish registers and in Quarter Sessions records of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the name was a popular choice.

However you wish to celebrate it, we wish you a happy Valentine’s Day.

Further reading

History.com History of Valentine’s Day

One thought on “Valentines: Love is in the Archives

  1. Lovefeast cakes have nothing to do with Valentine’s Day ! A Lovefeast was a Christian meeting of prayer and testimony and a cup of water was apssed around and pieces of the Lovefeast cake.

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