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Who Was St Valentine? Why do we celebrate on 14th February?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

Who was St Valentine?

It turns out that there are at least three different saints named Valentine, or Valentius, but the most popular candidate for our St Valentine was a priest in 3rd century Rome, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II.

Claudius noticed that recruitment to the army was down, and decided that this was because married men were reluctant to leave their wives and families behind. He decided that single men would make better soldiers, so outlawed marriage for young men.

However, Valentine stood up for love and secretly carried out marriage ceremonies, in defiance of the Emperor’s orders. When Claudius found out, he had Valentine thrown into prison with a sentence of death.

Legend has it that whilst in prison, Valentine fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who visited him during his confinement. On the night before his execution, he was said to have written a note to her, signed “from your Valentine”.

Dried flowers in the shape of a heart with cupid's arrow drawn on in chalk

Why 14th February?

In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius declared the first feast day of St Valentine on 14th February. Some say it was chosen to commemorate the supposed date of Valentine’s death.

Another suggestion is that it is linked to the celebration of Lupercalia, which took place around February 15th, and was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture; or the Norman celebration of Galatin’s Day - and Galatin meant “lover of women”.

A third theory is that during the Middle Ages it was commonly believed that birds began their mating season on 14th February, as mentioned in one of the earliest known mentions of Valentine’s Day by Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem “Parlement of Foules”, believed to have been written in 1382:

“For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make”

Why do we send cards?

Again, there is no clear origin, but one of the oldest known written valentines still in existence today, was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, when he was 21 years old. He had been captured during the Battle of Agincourt and imprisoned in the Tower of London, and wrote the poem to his young wife, Bonne of Armagnac, who he refers to as his “gentle Valentine”:

“I am already sick of love,

My very gentle Valentine.”

Sadly, he was in prison for 25 years, and never saw his wife again, as she died some years before he was released.

Picture of the marriage of Charles of Orleans and Bonne of Armagnac

The marriage of Charles of Orleans and Bonne of Armagnac at the Chateau de Dourdan, from The Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry . (Credit: Online Library of Liberty)

In Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century, and by the middle of the 18th century it was common for friends to exchange small tokens of affection, or handwritten notes.

Like so many other romantic traditions (see blog post: Why Do We Wear a White Wedding Dress?), the modern Valentine’s Day card truly gained in popularity in Victorian Britain.

By 1900, improvements in printing technology meant that printed cards were used more and more, and cheaper postage rates also contributed to an increase in the popularity of sending Valentine’s Day greetings: 60,000 cards were posted in 1835, but after the introduction of the penny post in 1840, that number increased to 400,000!

Open envelope with a card with the word Love

Nowadays, St Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated across the world, including South Korea, Argentina and Mexico, as well as Great Britain, the United States and Canada. In the Philippines, it is the most popular date on which to get married, and in the UK and USA, it is a popular time for a proposal - will there be an extra sparkly gift for you, this year?

Pink and white striped trinket dish with the word Love in gold letters and and a diamond engagement ring

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