Who was St Valentine a simple question however, it is a difficult one to answer because there seem to have been three Valentines, two of whom may certainly have fitted the bill as patrons of lovers. All three though were martyred.
Not much is known about either of the saints and certainly of one a Valentine who suffered in Africa with a small troupe of companions very little is recorded. The other two were men of the cloth one being a priest in Rome and the other a bishop in what is modern day Terni.
In medieval France and England it was believed that the 14th of February saw the pairing of birds to mate; an event that was recorded in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules. So the medieval romantics considered the 14th of February an auspicious day for lovers to sing each others praises by penning prose or poetry to their suitors.
A number of stories have grown up around St Valentine one being that the Roman emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers and forbade his troops from marrying. A priest, Valentine, considered this unjust and in defiance of the emperor’s decree continued to marry soldiers to their betrothed. When Claudius discovered Valentine’s actions he was ordered to be put to death.
Another tale surrounding St Valentine is that he may have written the first ever Valentine. While in prison and awaiting death Valentine is said to have fallen in love with his jailer’s daughter and immediately before his death it is claimed that he wrote to young girl a letter and signed it ‘From your Valentine’, a form of address that is still used today.
It is thought that one or other of the Valentines either died or was buried in the middle of February around the year 270 CE.
Of course claims and counter claims abound one such claim declares that the early Christian church decided to celebrate St Valentine’s Day in an effort to Christianise the pagan festival of Lupercalia. In pre-Christian Rome the ides of February was the beginning of spring and this was considered a good time for ritual purification. Houses were cleaned and then salt and spelt, a kind of wheat, was sprinkled on the floors in an act of further purification.
Add to this that the ides was also a time when Roman fertility festivals were held and it was generally believed that on the 15th of February Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus. This mixture of fact and fable provides a powerful melding of Pre-Christian and Christian traditions that remain to this day.
On Valentines Day it is the tradition to send a love letter or a card expressing one’s desire, ardor and love. The oldest known Valentine note is a poem written in 1491 by a prisoner of the Tower of London Charles, Duke of Orleans who dedicated it to his wife. A few years later King Henry V commission John Lydgate to pen a Valentine’s note to Catherine of Valois. And so a tradition was born that continues to this day.
It is not just cards that are sent on St Valentine’s Day many postal administrations produce special Valentine stamps also.