There is no definitive proof about the identity of the man behind the name St Valentine. Indeed, several saints bear the same name.
The holy man whose name now defines 14 February is most likely a third-century Roman priest called Valentinus. At that time, the Empire was ruled by Claudius II, who had strong anti-church convictions. He was deeply opposed to marriage and made it unlawful.
In contravention of Claudius II’s demands, Valentinus performed secret wedding ceremonies for Christians, for which he would pay the ultimate price. On 14 February in c269 AD, he was given a three-way execution – beaten, stoned and decapitated.
It cannot be known for certain whether this is the right person as little else is known about this Valentine. Another man of the same name lived in this period and was also martyred by Claudius II. One legend about St Valentine – whichever one he was – states that, before his execution, he befriended the blind daughter of his jailer and restored her sight. Before his death, he wrote a note to her, signing off: “From your Valentine”.
When Pope Gelasius took charge of the now-flourishing Catholic Church in the late-fifth century, he made 14 February a Christian celebration in Valentine’s name.
Information is scarce, but in the 1300s, men and women used to draw names from a bowl to decide their ‘valentine’ on 14 February. The names were attached to their sleeves for a week. The date was picked because it was considered to be the beginning of mating season for birds. People must have thought that: if the birds can enjoy romance, why not them?
The festivity continued to grow over the centuries – Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned it in his Parliament of Fowls (c1400) and it appears in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet – so people started giving gifts and cards. It is now one of the most commercially successful holidays of the year.