What stories are associated with the patron saint of love? If you get a card on Valentine’s Day and don’t know who it’s from, it’s entirely appropriate. For we don’t really know who St Valentine was….
1. Who exactly was St Valentine? The most commonly accepted story about the patron saint of Love is he was a bishop who was martyred on 14 February in 269 — with the date instituted as his feast day by Pope Gelasius I in 496. According to one tale about Valentine, a judge put him under house arrest, argued with him about Jesus, and ended up asking him to cure his daughter’s blindness. The miracle convinced the judge and entire his family and household to be baptised. Valentine then continued to evangelise, which infuriated Emperor Claudius II, who had him arrested and condemned to death. The bishop’s last act before his beating, stoning and decapitation was to send a letter to the judge’s daughter, signed “your Valentine” — hence the tradition of Valentine messages on 14 February.
2. Another version of St Valentine’s life claims that he was caught secretly performing weddings for Christian couples, so Emperor Claudius II had him executed — thus linking Valentine for ever with sacrificing his life for love.
3. Or how about this version: while awaiting his death sentence in prison, Valentine was visited by a girl with whom he fell in love, and it was to her he wrote, signing off as “your Valentine”.
4. Yet another narrative suggests Valentine’s wedding ceremonies thwarted the emperor because married men did not have to serve in the army and Valentine reminded the bridegrooms of their vows by handing them hearts cut from parchment — yet another link to the world of romantic love.
5. Champions of St Valentine include Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, who wrote about him in his Parlement of Foules, linking him to the pairing of birds in springtime: “For this was on Seynt Valentynes day / Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.” Alban Butler, author of Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the 18th century, also encouraged his cult.
6. If relics are your thing, you have plenty of choice when it comes to St Valentine. You can visit his skull, adorned with flowers, in a casket in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. Or take a trip to the Church of St Anton, Madrid, where some of his bones were a gift from a pope to King Carlos IV. He then handed them to the priests running the church for safe keeping. Other parts of his body are apparently scattered all over Europe — in Prague, Lesbos, Vienna, Malta, Roquemaure, France, and in Poland.
7. In the UK, you can say a prayer for your beloved before the relics of St Valentine in Blessed John Duns Scotus Church, Gorbals, Glasgow, or his reliquary in the Birmingham Oratory or in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin.
8. Where you won’t find St Valentine is in the church and catacombs of San Valentino, Rome. His remains were moved from there in the 13th century and scattered.
9. If you are a loved-up romantic, an apiarist, and suffer from fits, then Valentine really is your man. He is not only the patron saint of lovers but also of beekeepers and epileptics.
10. While the world has gone crazy for Valentine (£855m spend in the UK in 2019 alone on cards, flowers, chocolates, gifts and romantic meals) the Roman Catholic Church has grown decidedly cool. Despite being one of its most famous saints, Valentine was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, although Anglicans and Lutherans still observe 14 February. Open a Roman Catholic missal, though, and you’ll discover the 14 February is now the feast of two ninth-century brothers, SS Cyril and Methodius, both monks, and known as apostles to the Slavs for their work in evangelising Eastern Europe.
St Valentine remains, however, extraordinary in his popularity among those who love love.
Catherine Pepinster is the author of Martyrdom: Why Martyrs Still Matter, published by SPCK