Henry VIII romanceIf you haven’t noticed (quick, buy a card!), today is Valentine’s Day, the day of love.

Contrary to what many people believe, Valentine’s Day was celebrated in Tudor England. Alison Sim, in her excellent book Pleasures & Pastimes in Tudor England writes of how it is mentioned three times in the Paston Letters (a collection of letters and papers from the Pastons, members of the Norfolk gentry, covering the period 1422-1509) in the 1470s. Apparently, “valentines were chosen by lot from among a group of friends, who then had to buy their valentine a gift.” Sim goes on to describe how the steward’s accounts of the household of William Petre show lengths of cloth and gold trinkets being given to valentines who were chosen by lot and that one year “one of the maids was even fortunate enough to draw Sir William himself one year, and was given a whole quarter’s extra wages as her valentine.”

I haven’t found any mention of Valentine’s gifts being exchanged at Henry VIII’s court, but as this page is dedicated to Anne Boleyn, I wanted to share with you one of the love letters that Henry wrote to Anne in June 1528. He wrote it after he received news that Anne had come down with sweating sickness, a disease that could kill people in hours. It was written in French but here it is in English:

THERE came to me suddenly in the night the most afflicting news that could have arrived. The first, to hear of the sickness of my mistress, whom I esteem more than all the world, and whose health I desire as I do my own, so that I would gladly bear half your illness to make you well. The second, from the fear that I have of being still longer harassed by my enemy. Absence, much longer, who has hitherto given me all possible uneasiness, and as far as I can judge is determined to spite me more because I pray God to rid me of this troublesome tormentor. The third, because the physician in whom I have most confidence, is absent at the very time when he might do me the greatest pleasure; for I should hope, by him and his means, to obtain one of my chief joys on earth — that is the care of my mistress — yet for want of him I send you my second, and hope that he will soon make you well. I shall then love him more than ever. I beseech you to be guided by his advice in your illness. In so doing I hope soon to see you again, which will be to me a greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world.
Written by that secretary, who is, and for ever will be, your loyal and most assui’ed Servant,

H. (A B) R.
[the AB being surrounded by a heart motif]

I had always appreciated the panicked tone of this letter, but having never seen it myself I didn’t really appreciate how it can be see as real evidence of Henry’s love for Anne. Author Sandra Vasoli visited the Vatican Archives as part of her research for her book Je Anne Boleyn and was able to view Henry VIII’s love letters to Anne Boleyn. In a talk she did on this for the Tudor Society, Sandi explained how she was blown away by the contrast between it and the previous letters:

“This letter, unlike any of the others in the whole collection, is visually a mess. Seen with the magnifying glass, his pain and anxiety jump off the page. The ink is splattered and smeared by his large hand. Every few words, the quill has been jabbed into the ink and the writing becomes dark and scratchy. There are fine sprays of ink where the nib of the pen caught at the parchment in haste. It is unbelievably heart-wrenching. And, at the bottom of the page, after the closing, he has again drawn his initials, large and enclosing a shakily drawn heart. In the heart are Anne’s initials. It so looks like he is encompassing her in his big arms, surrounding her with himself and his heart. When I saw that letter, the ‘magic’ of documents came alive for me. At that moment, I saw and felt how very much Henry loved Anne.”

This really made me want to get on a plane right there and then and get to the Vatican! I can’t get there at the moment, but Sandi mentioned a book she’d borrowed from the Vatican Archives while she was there, a German book with photographs and transcripts of all of the letters. I’d only ever seen a photograph of one letter so I made it my mission to track down this book and I was able to buy a copy from a bookshop in Germany. I was so excited when it arrived and although photographs can never do justice to objects like this, I too was blown away by the difference between this letter and the others in the collection. I can’t see where the quill went through the vellum, but I can see darker areas of ink, smudges and splatters – some of the splatters are not ink and I wondered if they were even tear stains. It really is a mess compared to the usual neat and beautiful looking letters. It is the appearance, rather than the words, that tell of Henry’s love for Anne. This was more than lust, this was a distraught man worried about the woman he loved with all of his heart.

Here are photos of two letters written by Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, the second being the sweating sickness letter. You can click on the images to make them bigger.

Henry VIII love letter

and the sweating sickness letter (as I call it!):

Henry VIII love letter
Henry VIII love letter

Notes and Sources

  • Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England, Alison Sim
  • The Harleian Miscellany, or, a collection of scarce, curious and entertaining pamphlets and tracts, found in the late Earl of Oxford’s Library, Volume I, London, 1808, p196 – you can read the love letters online at Google Books
  • “Sandra Vasoli on the love letters of Henry VIII”, talk on 6 January 2015, The Tudor Society.
  • “Henry VIII’s Love Letters to Anne Boleyn – The Sweating Sickness Letter”, video by Claire Ridgway, 30 January 2015, The Tudor Society.
  • Die Liebesbriefe Heinrichs VIII an Anna Boleyn, Theo Stemmler.

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