As It Happens·Q&A

These centuries-old letters never reached the French soldiers they were meant for

The intimate letters meant for French sailors have finally been opened, more than 200 years after they were sent. Historian Renaud Morieux uncovered the letters after going through a box at Britain's National Archives.

The intimate letters give us a glimpse into the lives of French soldiers and their loved ones, says historian

Old unopened letters sit in a pile
The letters before they were opened and read by Renaud Morieux at The National Archives. (Renaud Morieux/The National Archives)

The intimate letters meant for French sailors have finally been opened, more than 200 years after they were sent. Historian Renaud Morieux uncovered the letters after going through a box at Britain's National Archives.

"I cannot wait to possess you," reads one letter, he says. Another says, "I can assure you that days last entire months, and months count for years."

The letters were sent during the Seven Years' War, between 1757 and 1758. But the letters aren't just scintillating love letters, according to Morieux. He says they give us a peek into the lives of a group of people that we don't know much about, and how they wrote and spoke.

Morieux spoke with As It Happens host Nil Köksal about the find. Here's part of that conversation. 

What exactly did you find when you opened that box?

Yeah, it was a wonderful moment and also a moment tinged with sadness as well. Wonderful because as a historian you rarely get a chance to peek into the private letters exchanged by people dead 250 years ago. And there's sadness because the very fact that I found those letters meant that they never reached their addresses.  

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It's heartbreaking. Who were they meant for? Who were they supposed to reach?

So they were sent to the crew of a French ship called the Galatée, and it was actually supposed to go to Canada in Louisbourg, in New France…. And the ship was captured by the British navy. 

And so the letters were then forwarded in a bag of letters to Portsmouth. At the time there were about 20,000 prisoners of war in England, French prisoners. And so probably that wasn't the priority of the British government, to try and deal with finding the addresses of those letters.

They were meant for sailors ... but who exactly were the people writing these letters and sending them?

Yes, that's a very good question. It took me some time to work this out. I knew there were letters written mostly by family members, but also sometimes the neighbours. But the vast majority of the lot of these letters were written by sailors' wives or fishermen's wives. 

So that gives us access to a very different kind of class, people who usually, we don't know how they spoke, we don't know how they wrote. They used the first person in these documents. So you get a much clearer sense of their emotional state and also the complexity of the choices they had to face.

An old letter.
This is a letter from a mother sent to her son in 1758. (Renaud Morieux/The National Archives)

They are treasures, clearly, in many ways. Can you read us a bit of one?

All those letters expressed, as I said, a sense of pain and worry because they were not sure they would be reunited with their dear ones. 

So one is by someone … who wrote to her husband … to lament and I quote, "the boredom and impatience caused by not being able to enjoy your kind presence. Because I can assure you that days last entire months, and months count for years."

Or this letter written by Nanette ... who again talked about her boredom and, but also concluded the letter by saying, "I cannot wait to possess you." And this is a rare example of physical desire.

These are so personal and intimate. And as I mentioned, these were unopened. So, how how did you go about the ceremony of that?

I was exhilarated. You have to go slowly, simply because deciphering this stuff is not always easy. The writing is sometimes terrible. It's written by people who are not necessarily literate. So the writing is phonetic. They don't use paragraphs and it's atrocious spelling. 

An old, opened letter.
This is one of the many love letters Renaud Morieux uncovered. (Renaud Morieux/The National Archives)

There was one in particular that caught our eye as well. This is a mother, I believe, writing to her son. And he's away at war, not in the best of circumstances, but she's scolding him. Can you read a little bit of that one for our listeners? 

Yes, with pleasure. So she writes in, as you said, in a very tragic way. So if one is being cynical, she's a bit of a drama queen, if one forgets about the context. 

But she writes, "On the first day of the year, you had written to your fiance," to her son called Nicholas Cannell, who's in his early twenties. "I think it's the least you can do for me to have the slightest preference in writing to me. I think more about you, than you about me."

There is a tendency … to romanticize wars of the distant past. And we certainly know now in our everyday lives that there is nothing romantic about war. It's horrific. And we see that on a daily basis. So I wonder how that sits with you and what you want people to take away from these kinds of discoveries.

I think that's a wonderful point you're making. There was for a long time the tendency to see the 18th century in particular, it's been described as, "war in laces." That kind of stuff. In fact, these wars were terrible, terribly violent. Many people died of disease. Many people died because of malnutrition. 

And so these letters are, sure, I talked about emotions, but emotions are not just love. They're also about fear, about pain. 

The fact that wars are not just about big battles, where we just count numbers of people. I think wars are human experiences, universal human experiences. 

And that's a rare example of how people felt about this, but also how they did deal with this. And there is something in these letters about a sense of collectivity, so you basically rely on others to deal with those horrible times.


Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him by email at

Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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