“Love letters are an expression of intimacy; their words allow us insight into the private relationships of people down the ages,” writes Andrea Clarke in a book that brings together a collection of manuscripts looking at 2,000 years of romance. Published by the British Library, Love Letters traces a history of Britain through “handwritten, intimate exchanges between couples,” that “span centuries, cultures and continents”. Here’s our pick of eight that offer a different slant on the past.
Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, c.1528
Occasionally, messages of love appear between the lines, as in the jottings in the margins of this devotional Book of Hours, produced in 1528. They are love notes between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, scribbled beneath significant illuminations. According to Clarke, Henry chose to write his “on a page depicting the man of sorrows, thereby intentionally presenting himself as the lovesick king”. Anne, meanwhile, wrote hers “below an image of the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son”, implying that she would succeed where Catherine of Aragon had failed, and provide him with an heir.
Henry’s wish to divorce his first wife and marry Anne helped bring about the English Reformation. Clarke, who is Curator of Early Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library, believes it’s important to see the original love letter in the writers’ own hand. She tells BBC Culture: “I think the exchange of love notes in the Anne Boleyn Book of Hours – when you actually hold that manuscript in your hands, and with hindsight you’re looking at something that was the beginning of a process that caused such seismic religious change – that’s fairly powerful.”
Henry’s message (in French): “If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall scarcely be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry Rex forever.”
Anne’s response (in English): “Be daily prove you shall me find / To be to you both loving and kind.”
Catherine Parr to Henry VIII, July 1544
The love letter can offer a glimpse of duty as well as passion. Henry VIII married his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, on 12 July 1543 at Hampton Court Palace. Catherine was twice-widowed and in love with Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry’s third wife, Jane. Yet she appears to have grown affectionate towards Henry by the following year, when she wrote this letter while he was on his final military expedition to France. Despite the strength of the bond the letter suggests, she married Thomas Seymour within months of Henry’s death in 1547: she died in 1548 after giving birth to their first child.
“Whereas I know your Majesty’s absence is never without great respects of things most convenient and necessary, yet love and affection compelleth me to desire your presence. And again, the same zeal and love forces me also to be best content with that which is your will and pleasure. And thus love maketh me in all things to set apart mine own commodity and pleasure, and to embrace most joyfully his will and pleasure whom I love. God, the knower of secrets, can judge these words not to be only written with ink, but most truly impressed in the heart.”
Earl of Essex to Elizabeth I, 18 October 1591
“Looking at an image of the manuscript of the Earl of Essex’s impassioned, noble letter to Elizabeth I, with its fold-lines still visible, one starts to imagine the queen loosening its silk ties, breaking the wax seal, and unfolding the letter,” writes Clarke in Love Letters. She argues that the original manuscripts can “add another dimension to our understanding.”
Robert Devereux was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I within years of arriving in court in 1584. They exchanged more than 40 letters between 1590 and his death in 1601, when he was executed for treason after organising an abortive coup d'état against the government. In this letter, from October 1591, Devereux follows courtly convention to take on the role of Elizabeth’s lover.
“At my return I will humbly beseech your Majesty that no cause but a great action of your own may draw me out of your sight. For the two windows of your privy chamber shall be the poles of my sphere where, as long as your Majesty will please to have me, I am fixed and unmovable. When you think that heaven too good for me, I will not fall like a star, but be consumed like a vapour by the same sun that drew me up to such a height. While your Majesty gives me leave to say I love you, my fortune is as my affection, unmatchable.”
George Villiers to James I, 29 August 1623
Often, seemingly innocuous letters can hint at a different truth, with an affectionate tone masking something deeper. “As both King James VI of Scotland and later as King of England, James I’s sexuality and choice of male partners were the subject of gossip from the taverns to the Privy Council,” writes Clarke. “When James inherited the English throne from Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, it was openly joked that ‘Rex fuit Elizabeth: nunc est regina Jacobus’ (‘Elizabeth was King: now James is Queen’).” The son of an impoverished Leicestershire squire, George Villiers first met the king at a hunt in 1614. A few months later, he had been appointed the Royal Cupbearer; in 1615 he was knighted and appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber and in 1616 he became Viscount Villiers.
By 1617, he had become the Earl of Buckingham – when the Privy Council protested, James pronounced that he loved him”‘more than any other man”. In 1623, when he wrote this letter to James from Madrid, where he was conducting marriage negotiations for the King’s son, Villiers had become the Duke of Buckingham. Contemporaries saw James and Villiers as lovers: in a 1652 book, Edward Peyton wrote that “the king sold his affections to Sir George Villiers, whom he would tumble and kiss as a mistress”.
“Sir, judge whether I have pleasure or not in writing to you, for though I thought to have made an end on the other side, methinks it’s too soon here; but I fear I have troubled you too long. And I have too lately said I love you better than myself, so in writing longer to please myself, I should give to what I have already said a contradiction, wherefore I’ll end with craving your blessing.
Your Majesty’s humble slave and dog, Steenie”
Horatio Nelson’s last letter to Lady Emma Hamilton, 19 October 1805
Horatio Nelson married Frances ‘Fanny’ Nesbit in 1787. He began an affair with Emma Hamilton in 1798; they had a daughter three years later. Their relationship caused a scandal, and Nelson was keen to avoid publicity, destroying her letters to him and asking Emma to do the same with those he sent. “Emma could not bear to do so and kept every one,” writes Clarke. “Few documents in the British Library’s collections are more evocative than this, Nelson’s final letter to Emma, which was found unfinished on his desk after he was fatally wounded by a French musket ball while on the deck of the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar.”
The manuscript concludes with a few lines written in another hand. “When the letter was delivered to Lady Hamilton by Captain Hardy, she added an anguished note to the end,” writes Clarke. “It is far more poignant to see Emma Hamilton’s handwritten note – ‘Oh miserable wretched Emma, oh glorious & happy Nelson’ – on his final, unfinished letter to her than it is to read it in a transcript.”
“Victory Oct[ob]er 19th 1805 Noon, Cadiz ESE 16 Leagues
My Dearest beloved Emma the dear friend of my bosom, the signal has been made that the enemys combined fleet are coming out of port. We have very little wind so that I have no hopes of seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success, at all events I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the Battle.”
Charles Dickens to Catherine Hogarth, May 1835
Charles Dickens married Catherine Hogarth in April 1836, the same month he published the Pickwick Papers. A year earlier, just after they became engaged, he had written a letter to her with a mixed tone. Although he claims that his feelings for her have “led me to forget all my friends and pursuits to spend my days at your side”, he also expressed hesitation. “The sudden and uncalled-for coldness with which you treated me just before I left last night, both surprised and deeply hurt me,” he writes, “because I could not have believed that such sullen and inflexible obstinancy could exist in the breast of any girl in whose heart love had found a place”.
Those doubts were prescient: despite having ten children together, Charles and Catherine were to become estranged in 1858, after he began a relationship with an 18-year-old actress. (He wrote to his friend that “Poor Catherine and I are not made for each other… What is now befalling I have seen steadily coming”.) Yet she kept everything he had written to her. According to Clarke, “Catherine carefully preserved the letters she had received from her husband, both before and after marriage, so ‘that the world may know he loved me once’.”
“My object in writing to you is this: If a hasty temper produces this strange behaviour, acknowledge it when I give you the opportunity – not once or twice, but again and again. If a feeling of you know not what – a capricious restlessness of you can’t tell what, and a desire to tease, you don’t know why, give rise to it – overcome it; it will never make you more amiable, I more fond or either of us, more happy. If three weeks or three months of my society has wearied you, do not trifle with me, using me like any other toy as suits your humour for the moment; but make the acknowledgement to me frankly at once – I shall not forget you lightly, but you will need no second warning.”
Charlotte Brontë to Professor Constantin Héger, 18 November 1844
It’s not the words alone that speak to us. “Some of the physical items have a story to tell on their own,” Clarke tells BBC Culture. “There’s an item that was torn up and then sewn together, or just the addition of a doodle, or you can see that some documents have been through the wars.” One of the most fragile letters in the collection was ripped up and thrown away by its recipient. While studying languages at a boarding school in Brussels run by Professor Constantin Héger and his wife, Charlotte Brontë became infatuated with her teacher. After returning to England, she wrote several letters to him – but he discarded them all. “Incredibly four of her letters have survived,” writes Clarke. “Curiously, it is thanks to his wife – who retrieved them from the waste paper basket and sewed them back together – that we are privy to their content today.”
As Clarke points out, Brontë’s stitched-together missives offer us a glimpse into the mind of the novelist. “The letters are deeply poignant and reveal the extent of Charlotte’s passionate feelings for the professor, her desire to see him, her despair at his silence and ultimately her resigned desolation and sense of rejection – emotions that she would later pour into Jane Eyre and Villette.”
“I wish I would write to you more cheerful letters, for when I read this over, I find it to be somewhat gloomy – but forgive me my dear master – do not be irritated at my sadness – according to the words of the Bible: ‘Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaketh’ and truly I find it difficult to be cheerful so long as I think I shall never see you more.”
Rupert Brooke to Cathleen Nesbitt, 1913
“The raw passion of love is perhaps best represented in the letter sent by Rupert Brooke to Cathleen Nesbitt.” Clarke describes a letter written by the World War One poet in 1913 that was previously unseen. The British Library acquired a collection of 82 letters from Brooke to Nesbit in 2007, unlocking a heartfelt testimony of the two-year romance between the couple.
Brooke died from blood poisoning on 23 April 1915, on his way to fight at Gallipoli. Clarke describes another letter: “As if intuiting his approaching death, he wrote to Cathleen from ‘off Gallipoli’ on 18 March: ‘Oh my dear, Life is a very good thing. Thank God I met you. Be happy and be good. You have been good to me. Goodbye, dearest child – Rupert.’” Clarke says the letters show a human side to a famous figure. “You learn about history at a political level in school – in such and such a year this happened; in such and such a year, this happened – whereas looking at the manuscripts takes it back to that point where two people found themselves attracted to each other,” she says. “You see it through a personal lens – an intimate moment.”
“I wish to God you were coming in through the door now: and that I could hold your hands. There’s beauty when we’re together. I understand – in a way I understand you completely: because I love you so.
I’m madly eager to see you again. My heart goes knocking when I think of it. I don’t understand…
Little child, I will kiss you till I kill you. Be gentle with me. Goodnight
Do not answer lengthily. I write this because I like writing it. But answer points of fact briefly. It’s a practical world.”
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