Norfolk on a stick: The village sign that celebrates the first Valentine in English
PUBLISHED: 08:28 11 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:42 11 February 2019
As lovers get set to celebrate February 14, DR ANDREW TULLETT looks to signs that recount a historic romance, and other pages from Norfolk’s past.
The village sign at Topcroft depicts Margery Brews, quill in hand, composing what is believed to be the oldest surviving Valentine’s message in English.
It was written at Topcroft Hall in February 1477.
Margery’s message to her fiancé, John Paston, is far more melodramatic than the usual ‘Roses are red, violets are blue…’. She writes, “…if it pleases you to hear of my welfare, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you.”
That the letter is a genuine Valentine’s is beyond question.
It is directed, “Unto my right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire…”
Sir Thomas Brews, Lord of the Manor and Margery’s father, was not convinced by the match.
He thought Margery could marry into a more prosperous family.
In her letter she makes it clear to John that it is love and not money that motivates her, “For even if you had not half the livelihood that you have, for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you.”
John Paston’s family were not initially in favour either.
They petitioned for a larger dowry. Margery tells John that, “… my lady my mother hath laboured the matter to my father full diligently, but she can no more get than you already know of, for which God knoweth I am full sorry.”
The story does have a happy ending, however. Margery and John eventually married and had three children together – Christopher, William and Elizabeth.
The private letter is now internationally famous and is part of a collection owned by the British Library. It was rediscovered in 1735 among many papers found at Oxnead Hall by Francis Blomefield.
Collectively they are referred to as the ‘Paston Letters’.
Francis Blomefield appears on the village sign at Fersfield, where he was born and where he died.
As well as discovering the Paston Letters he is also famous for producing the first major work on the history of Norfolk.
He wrote three volumes of ‘An Essay towards the Topographical History of the County of Norfolk’ before dying from smallpox in 1752.
Blomefield sent out over 200 questionnaires in his quest for information and travelled extensively across Norfolk to check the veracity of the returns and acquire new facts.
It was during a visit to Oxnead Hall that Blomefield found the letters.
Of the discovery, Blomefield wrote in May 1735:
“There are innumerable letters, of good consequence in history, still lying among the loose papers all which I layd up in a corner of the room on an heap, which contains severall sacksfull, but as they seemed to have some family affairs of one nature or other intermixed in them I did not offer to touch any of them…”
Today the ‘Paston Letters’ are recognised to be of national significance.
They provide a rare insight into the details of the everyday life of a notable East Anglian family between 1422 and 1509, a period that included the Wars of the Roses.
The Paston family derived their name from the Norfolk village of Paston.
The village sign here also celebrates the Paston Letters.
In 1597 Sir William Paston moved the family seat from Paston Hall to Oxnead near Aylsham. The collection of letters obviously went with them.
About seven miles north-west of Bungay, Topcroft’s name is thought to have come from the Old Norse and Old English for Topi’s croft, where a croft was an enclosed area of land for a tenant farmer.
A number of ring ditches, thought to date from the Bronze Age, have been found there, and the village’s oldest building is the 11th century St Margaret’s, which is one of Norfolk’s 124 round tower churches.
The Royal Air Force had an aerodrome just outside the parish boundary, RAF Hardwick, during the Second World War, and it was used by bombers from the US Eighth Air Force before closing in 1945.
A plaque near the Topcroft village sign commemorates the 1995 twinning between that village and neighbouring village Bedingham with the French commune of Melle, the hometown of politician Ségolène Royal.
The 2011 census recorded Topcroft’s population as 268.
-Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk’s 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at email@example.com. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for “Norfolk on a stick” on www.edp24.co.uk