By Pat Hirst - Museum and Guide Volunteer

Even if we’ve never sent or received a Valentine card, we all know the date and contemporary meaning of Valentine’s Day, 14th February. But who was Valentine, and how and why is he associated with this particular day? It could be a case of ‘Will the real Valentine please stand up?’ because there are 3 possible contenders who all lived at roughly the same time, and who would fit the bill: Valentine, Bishop of Terni; Valentine, a Christian priest in Rome; and Valentine, a priest from North Africa.

Since so little is known about this last priest, we can probably discount him as a candidate for the true Valentine. There is also confusion about the two remaining Valentines, whom some sources say are in all probability the same person because their stories are so similar. Thanks to Benedictine monks, who in 1643 began publishing the 68-folio volumes of ‘Acta Sanctorum” (Lives of Saints) after years of researching original manuscripts, we know there was a priest called Valentine who was beheaded on the orders of Claudius II (Claudius Gothicus), in 269AD. He had attracted the emperor’s attention by preaching the Christian message and conducting marriages between young men and women against the emperor’s express orders. At the time married men were not expected to serve as soldiers, and if they did, were considered poor recruits because it was believed they were too concerned for the well-being of their wives to commit whole-heartedly to warfare.

Valentine was arrested and put into the care of Asterius, an aristocrat. Committed to trying to convert pagan Romans to Christianity, Valentine spent much of the time explaining the tenets of his religion, including all the miracles that had cured people of various ailments. Asterius had a blind foster daughter (some sources say a blind son), and he made a pact with Valentine saying that he would convert to Christianity if he could heal her. As soon as she was cured, Asterius and his whole family became Christians and Valentine was released from prison, along with all the other Christian prisoners. Some sources say he went on to meet Claudius Gothicus, who was impressed by his intellect until Valentine tried to persuade the emperor to stop paying homage to pagan gods and turn to Christianity. Enraged, Claudius ordered him to suffer the ‘triple execution’ of being flogged, stoned and beheaded - on 14th February.

In 496AD, pope Gelasius I erected a basilica over the supposed grave of Valentine on the Via Flaminia on the outskirts of Rome, (both Valentines were believed to be buried there), and, concerned by the continuing pagan celebration of Lupercalia between 13th and 15th of February, decreed that St Valentine should be honoured on 14th February to detract from the old Roman feast days.

Although before his torture and execution he left a note for Asterius’ daughter signed ‘From your Valentine’, he was not associated with romance and love for another thousand years. The English poet Chaucer is currently credited with popularising 14th February as a day for lovers with his poem ‘The Parlement of Foules’, where in 1381, he states: …For this was sent on Sent Valentynys Day When every brid cometh there to chese his make… and this theme was taken up by Charles, Duke of Orleans whose love letter to his wife written on 14th February 1415 while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt, is the first known Valentine letter. It is now in the British Museum.

Although St Valentine was removed from the Catholic liturgical veneration of Saints in 1969 because of the confusion surrounding his identity, he remains on the register of officially recognised saints, and there are many reliquaries purporting to contain his remains: there is a flower adorned skull in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, as well as bones in Birmingham Oratory, and since 1999 a small wooden box marked ‘Corpus Valentini Martyris’ in St John Duns Scotus in Glasgow. In 1836, the Carmelite priest John Spratt received a gift from Pope Gregory XVI of a small vessel said to be smeared with the blood of Valentine, which is now in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin.

St Valentine is now the Patron Saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, fainting, travelling and plague as well as that of lovers. The word Valentine comes from the Latin meaning strong, powerful or worthy.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.


St. Valentine’s Bones 6 Surprising Facts About St. Valentine St. Valentine  The Surprisingly Dark Story of Valentine's Day Who was Saint Valentine? St. Valentine, the Real Story The ‘real’ St. Valentine was no patron of love Valentine's Day wasn't always about love Chaucer and the origins of Valentine’s Day St. Valentine