By The London Historian
It was The Bard William Shakespeare who wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on”. But, if ‘music be the food’ then surely poetry be the ingredients and London be the restaurant in which we dine. This month I’ll be explaining why it’s time for London to be acknowledged as the true City of Love, not Paris. Yes they have the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, but we have the Tower of London and the Thames. I’m going to roll back 600 years and put forward London’s case for being the perfect place to bring your lover this February, the month of St. Valentine.
Love it or hate it, single or coupled, February the 14th will not go by unnoticed in your office, in your household and in your various social media feeds. On one hand you’ll see the seemingly never-ending pics of couples having candlelit dinners, suggestions by companies of how their business is the best way to spend Valentines Day, gaggles of single girls flocking to see 50 Shades of Grey at the cinema, or the lads who will be cheerfully willing on March 14th (otherwise known to some as #SteakandBJDay). But if you look behind the toe-curling PDAs, heart-shaped bunting, and heaving restaurants, London has a rightful position as the birthplace of Valentines Day starting with Londoner, and ‘the Father of English Literature’, Geoffrey Chaucer.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London around AD 1343, during what is known as the High Middle Ages (less because of any narcotic involvement, more due to great social and political change in Europe). The Canterbury Tales author can be credited with being the first person to link the otherwise ordinary Feast of St. Valentines with romantic connotations. Until then, it was a day set aside to commemorate a priest of Rome who was martyred in AD 496 for ministering Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire. Prior to Chaucer the 14th of February was a day predominantly focusing on sacrifice, rather than romance, ‘sacrifice’ being the appropriate noun for all of us who would rather wake up on the February the 15th having slept through the whole thing. The bird-based dream-vision poem, written in 1382, was appropriately titled ‘Parlement of Foules’, or ‘The Parliament of Fowls’, in which Chaucer wrote “For this was on seynt Volantynys day, When euery bryd comyth there to chese his make” [“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”]. Incidentally, the earliest surviving valentine message can be attributed to Parisian (Oui!) Charles Duke of Orleans in a message to his wife which reads “Je suis desja d’amour tanné, Ma tres doulce Valentinnée”… and before you think I’m about to compromise London’s rightful title as ‘The City of Love’, I must point out that; at the time the Duke was being held at the Tower of London, following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. His 25 years in captivity, within various English castles, makes him practically British!
Following Chaucer in the Valentine’s Day roll call was Elizabethan Londoner Edmund Spenser (more about him later) who first coined the “roses are red” childhood favourite: “She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew”. No one knows exactly where Geoffrey Chaucer was born, but his family lived in Thames Street near the Tower of London. At the time of writing ‘Parlement of Foules’ Chaucer held the position of Controller of Customs of the Port of London, allowing him to live rent free in Aldgate and freeing up his time to write. When I say he “lived” in Aldgate, he literally LIVED in Aldgate. It was one of the gates of the walled City of London and he had a room above the gate. The position of the gate was recently marked by that wooden house on stilts called ‘The Paleys upon Pilers’ and had been described by Chaucer as being “in the very midst of the way between heaven, earth and sea; so that, whatever is spoken secretly or openly in all three of these domains, every sounds must pass to it” – very apt for the birthplace of Valentines Day and the popular modern idea of secret love notes.
Geoffrey Chaucer died on 25th October 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, in what would later be called ‘Poets Corner’; once Edmund Spenser was laid to rest beside him, in 1599, two Valentine’s Day legends side by side. Chaucer and Spenser were later joined, in memorial or resting place, by most of Britain’s greatest writers, playwrights and poets including Thomas Hardy, John Keats, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All of whom spent time in London and overcame adversity to put pen to paper and provide the world with some its most treasured literature. Pain and love are interchangeable within their stories, played out in Hampstead, Chelsea, Islington and the City of London. Romanticist poet Thomas Hardy was not born in London but spent his twenties in the city, using it as the background for characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances. At this time he worked on the excavation of St. Pancras Old Church graveyard, as the Midland Railway was extended to its new terminus of St. Pancras Station. Hardy was responsible for moving the tombstones, which were placed around an ash tree that now engorges the tombs in a circular ménage of eerie history and a dark life versus death metaphor. It is by a sinister twist of irony that upon Hardy’s death his body was separated from his heart, with the former being buried in Poets Corner (at the request of his estate executor) and the latter being buried with his wife in Dorset (at the request of his family and friends).
The connection between love and poetry is around every corner in London, for we are living in a city of temptation and vice, and, love and hate. Head over to Hampstead, home of John Keats who wrote, “I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion – I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more – I could be martyred for my religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that”. On Keats Grove is Wentworth Place (now known as ‘Keats House’) a museum and the place where the Romantic poet penned his best work and fell in love with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne. They met in 1818 and by 1819 he was infatuated with her, but felt that he had little to offer in terms of prospects and financial security. By 1820 Keats was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and was advised to migrate to a warmer climate: Rome where he died on 23rd February 1821, age 25, unmarried. Recent claims by Professor Nicholas Roe, chair of the Keats Foundation, suggest that Keats developed an addiction to opium after using it during the care of his brother who also had TB. Reiterating London’s place as the city of temptation, Samuel Taylor Coleridge also became a victim of London’s easy access opium and its glamorisation by the Romantic literature scene of the time. Highgate village was Coleridge’s home for nineteen years and from 1823, until his death in 1834, he lived at Moreton House in Pond Square. Under the care of Dr Gillman, Coleridge would make regular laudanum trips to Dunn’s the Chemist at Townsend Yard nearby.
When you walk in London you walk in the footsteps of poets Chaucer, Keats and Coleridge, the forefather of Valentines Day and romanticism. We experience the temptation of the metropolis and the pain that goes with living here. Whilst we all hate certain things about London, the pain is overridden by the conflicting feeling of love towards the city. Love and hate. Valentines Day – love it or hate it, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Whether you are happy that Chaucer made that first step towards romanticising February the 14th there is no better place to celebrate its true meaning than in London; on the hills of Hampstead, Poets Corner, or the walking around Aldgate. In the words of The Troggs – “Love is all around me and so the feeling grows”. London is the birthplace of Valentines Day and the only choice for the real City of Love.