18th Century Love Letters Written to French Sailors Finally Opened and Read
More than two-and-a-half centuries after they were originally composed, more than 100 letters sent to members of the French navy by their loved ones have finally been opened and read. The messages from wives, fiancées, parents and siblings reveal astonishing details about the personal lives of the French sailors and their commanding officers, while also offering a rare and intimate glimpse into societal and cultural norms and practices in 18th century Europe.
Unfortunately, the intended recipients never had the chance to read these messages, since the sailors were all captured and taken as prisoners of war by the British Royal Navy while this shipment of mail was still in transit.
The Human Price of War Revealed
The letters were originally supposed to be delivered to sailors serving on a French military ship known as the Galatée, which was sailing from Bordeaux, France to Quebec while in service during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). This large-scale European conflict involved many countries, with the most prominent battles being fought between England and France for control of the colonial lands of North America. Many of the fiercest skirmishes took place at sea, and it was during one such confrontation in 1758 that the Galatée was seized by British armed forces serving on a ship known as the Essex, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of the Galatée’s entire 181-man crew.
During the Seven Years’ war, The Essex, with other members of the British fleet captured French Galatée. (Public Domain)
The French postal administration transport boats carrying the letters had been attempting to catch up to the Galatée for quite some time when it was captured. When postal authorities found out what had happened they forwarded the letters to the Admiralty in London, expecting the latter agency to deliver them to their prisoners. But for whatever reason the British authorities failed to do so, and the mail bag eventually ended up in storage, essentially forgotten but never completely lost. Many years later, the collection of letters was transferred to the British National Archives in Kew, where they remained unopened from that time on.
Amazingly, no researcher ever bothered to take a look at the letters, until they caught the eye of Professor Renaud Morieux from Cambridge University's History Faculty and Pembroke College. Morieux has been working on a book about the experiences of British and French prisoners of war in the 1800s, and he stumbled across the box containing the letters entirely by accident.
"I only ordered the box out of curiosity," Morieux explained in a Cambridge University press release. "There were three piles of letters held together by ribbon. The letters were very small and were sealed so I asked the archivist if they could be opened, and he did. I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written. Their intended recipients didn't get that chance. It was very emotional.”
There were 102 letters in the box in all, and Morieux spent several months reading and translating them. This proved to be a significant challenge, as many of the letters were written by people who struggled with spelling, punctuation and other conventions of grammar. But he eventually was able to complete his work, and he has just released the results of his exhaustive study of the letters in the French journal Annales Histoire Sciences Sociales.
"These letters are about universal human experiences,” he said. “they're not unique to France or the 18th century. They reveal how we all cope with major life challenges. When we are separated from loved ones by events beyond our control like the pandemic or wars, we have to work out how to stay in touch, how to reassure, care for people and keep the passion alive.”
In the 18th century the only way people had to communicate when they were far apart was through letters, which might not be delivered for weeks or months after they were originally mailed. Because deliveries might be few and far between letter writers were motivated to include as many anecdotes and expressions of personal feelings and intentions as possible, which is what makes a find like this so valuable to historians studying past societies and cultures.
Tragically, when the circumstances of the separation involved war, there was no guarantee that those who were separated would ever see each other again.
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While many of the letters were written by parents or siblings, a good share were from romantic partners (wives and fiancées) expressing feelings of love and remembrance, along with hopes that they would be reunited with their current or future husbands someday soon.
One of the love letters written by Anne Le Cerf to her husband is signed-off with a nickname “Nanette”. (The National Archives / Renaud Morieux)
“I cannot wait to possess you,” wrote one wife, Anne Le Cerf, to her husband, Jean Topsent. At the end she signed her note “Your obedient wife Nanette,” suggesting he’d given her an affectionate nickname known only to the two.
“I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife,” wrote Marie Dubosc to her husband Louis Chambrelan, who Morieux identified as his ship’s first lieutenant. “Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest.”
Overall about 59 percent of the letters were signed by women, which included some mothers and sisters in addition to romantic partners.
Marguerite's letter to her son, Nicolas Quesnel, in which she complains for him now writing to her and writes, 'I am for the tomb'. (The National Archives / Renaud Morieux)
“These letters shatter the old-fashioned notion that war is all about men,” Morieux said in an email exchange with CNN. “While their men were gone, women ran the household economy and took crucial economic and political decisions.”
This is not the first time historians have been able to gain insights into past cultures through recovered love letters. For example, scholars learned many details about the intellectual trends and societal norms of the 12th century from studying the correspondence between famed philosopher Peter Abelard and his wife Heloise, who were separated by the objections of her family and could only share their thoughts and feelings through letters during much of their lives.
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What makes this new discovery and study so remarkable and important is the sheer variety of the written sources that Morieux was able to analyze. The picture they reveal of life in 18th century France is complex and fascinating, as is shows how families were impacted by warfare and by the separation and risk to life and limb that such a development entailed.
Top image: Three stacks of French love letters bound together by a ribbon, were finally opened by Cambridge University professor Renaud Morieux at the national archives, Kew. Source: The National Archives / Renaud Morieux
By Nathan Falde