Love letters to French navymen uncovered after 265 years

Wives and girlfriends haven’t sent love letters written on paper to their men at war for a long time. Instead, the feelings are usually expressed on WhatsApp and with emoji symbols. 

All such messages – whether written in ink or digitally – are about universal human experiences. When we are separated from loved ones by events beyond our control like wars or pandemics, we have to work out how to stay in touch, reassure, care for people, and keep the passion alive. 

In the 18th century, people could only send handwritten letters, but what they wrote about feels very familiar to what people send now to describe how they cope with major life challenges. 

Over 100 just-discovered letters sent to French sailors by their fiancées, wives, parents, and siblings were never delivered because they were seized by Britain’s Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War, taken to the Admiralty in London, and never opened. The collection is now held at the National Archives in Kew. 

A French flag hangs from a window of a restaurant decorated for Christmas holiday season in Strasbourg, France (credit: REUTERS)

Now, scholars have opened and studied them for the first time since they were written in 1757-1758. The missives provide extremely rare and moving insights into the loves, lives, and family quarrels of everyone from elderly peasants to wealthy officers’ wives. Precious new evidence about French women and laborers and different forms of literacy are also provided. 

“I cannot wait to possess you,” wrote Anne Le Cerf to her husband, a non-commissioned officer on the Galatée, a French warship. She perhaps meant “embrace” but also “to make love to you.” She signed “Your obedient wife Nanette”, an affectionate nickname. Imprisoned somewhere in England, Jean Topsent would never receive Nanette’s love letter.

Prof. Renaud Morieux, from Cambridge University’s History Faculty and the nearby Pembroke College, spent months decoding these and 102 other letters written with unusual spelling, no punctuation or capitalization, and filling every inch of the expensive paper they appear on. He has just published his findings today in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales under the title “Lettres perdues Communautés épistolaires, guerres et liens familiaux dans le monde maritime atlantique du xviiie siècle’ (“Lost Letters of Communities, Wars, and Family Ties in the 18th-Century Atlantic Maritime World”).

“I ordered the box just out of curiosity,” Morieux said. “There were three piles of letters held together by ribbon. The letters were very small and 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.”

Why are the letters significant?

Since during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), France commanded some of the world’s finest ships but lacked experienced sailors. Britain exploited this by imprisoning as many French sailors as it could for the duration of the war. In 1758, out of 60,137 French sailors, a third were detained in Britain. 

During that war as a whole, there were 64,373 French sailors imprisoned in Britain. Some of these died from disease and malnutrition, but many others were released. In the meantime, their families waited and repeatedly tried to contact them and exchange news, Morieux said. 

“These letters show people dealing with challenges collectively. Today we would find it very uncomfortable to write a letter to a fiancée knowing that mothers, sisters, uncles, neighbors would read it before it was sent, and many others would read it upon receipt. It’s hard to tell someone what you really think about them with people peering over your shoulder; there was far less of a divide between intimate and collective.”

In the 18th century, sending letters from France to a ship – a constantly moving target – was incredibly unreliable and complicated. Sometimes, people sent multiple copies to different ports hoping to reach its destination. Relatives also asked the families of crewmates to insert messages to their loved one in their letters. Morieux found extensive evidence of these strategies in the Galatée letters that like so many others never reached their intended recipients.

The French postal administration had tried to deliver the letters to the ship, sending them to multiple ports in France. When they had heard that the ship had been captured, they forwarded the letters to England, where they were handed to the Admiralty in London.

“It’s agonizing how close they got,” said Morieux, who believes that officials opened and read two letters to see if they had any military value but – deciding they only contained “family stuff” – gave up and put them into storage.”

The letters convey both romantic love and more often family love, but also offer rare insights into family tensions and quarrels at a time of war and prolonged absence. Some of the most remarkable letters were sent to the young sailor, Nicolas Quesnel, from Normandy. On January 27, 1758, his 61-year-old mother, Marguerite – who was almost certainly illiterate – sent a message written by an unknown scribe to complain:

“On the first day of the year, you have written to your fiancée. I think more about you than you about me… In any case, I wish you a happy new year filled with blessings of the Lord. I think I am for the tomb. I have been ill for three weeks.”

A few weeks later, Nicolas’ fiancée, Marianne, wrote to instruct him to be a good son and write to his mother and to stop putting her in an awkward situation. It seems that Marguerite had blamed Marianne for Nicolas’ silence. Marianne wrote: “The black cloud has gone, a letter that your mother has received from you, lightens the atmosphere.” Quesnel survived his imprisonment in England and, Morieux found, joined the crew of a transatlantic slave trade ship in the 1760s.

Over half of the letters were signed by women and provided rare insights into female literacy, experiences in wartime, and social networks. “These letters shatter the old-fashioned notion that war is all about men,” Morieux said. “While their men were gone, women ran the household economy and took crucial economic and political decisions.”

Morieux’s study calls for a more inclusive definition of literacy. “You can take part in a writing culture without knowing how” to write or read, he said. “Most of the people sending these letters were telling a scribe what they wanted to say, and relied on others to read their letters aloud. This was someone they knew who could write, not a professional. Staying in touch was a community effort.”

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