Insight investigates: Who was the real St. Valentine?

Insight investigates: Who was the real St. Valentine?

Insight investigates: Who was the real St. Valentine?

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Every year on 14 February, sweethearts and lovers around the world offer gifts, flowers, cards, jewellery and chocolate, and enjoy amorous dinners and dates – all in the name St. Valentine. So it may come as a surprise to know that the real St. Valentine was no romantic. In fact, the original tale of St. Valentine is far more gruesome – and elusive. We dive into the history of this day of candy and cupid and find out how Christian martyrs became the patron of love.


The true origins of St. Valentine have been widely debated, with many stories claiming that the real St. Valentine was a priest or bishop in Rome who was executed for performing illegal marriages for Christian lovers. Some say he carried messages between imprisoned Christians and had a romance with a young blind woman who he healed and left a letter signed “your Valentine”.

However, the most likely story is that there were multiple St. Valentines who died on 14 February in the 3rd century. At least two of them were executed under Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in 269-270 A.D, when it was common to persecute Christians. Historians draw this information from the Bollandists. They were an order of Belgian monks who gathered evidence on saints from archived manuscripts around the world for three centuries. Since 1643, the monks have published volumes about the lives of saints, with the last volume published in 1940.

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red balloons and birds flying in front of a classical building


According to these volumes, there were three Valentines who could have been the real St. Valentine. The first Valentine died in Africa on 14 February, however there is no other information about him.

The second was a Roman priest named Valentinus, arrested by an aristrocrat named Asterius, during the reign of Emperor Gothicus. While he was jailed, Father Valentinus preached to Asterius about Christ and salvation and his jailer made a deal with him. If Valentinus could cure Asterius’ daughter’s blindness, he would become a Christian. Legend says that Valentinus did cure the girl’s blindness and Asterius and his family converted. When Emperor Gothicus discovered this, he ordered the execution of the family and the beheading of Valentinus. However, Asterius’ widow escaped with Valentinus’ body and buried it on the ancient highway Via Flaminia. His resting place became the site of his martyrdom and a chapel was later built on the site.

The third Valentine was a bishop of Terni in Umbria, Italy. It’s a similar story, with the bishop preaching to a new convert and healing his son. He was also caught and beheaded during the reign of Emperor Gothicus and his body buried on the Via Flaminia. The Bollandist scholars say there likely wasn’t two beheaded Valentines. Instead there was probably only one saint, with two different stories coming out of both Rome and Terni.

Whatever story you believe, there’s one common thread – none of the Valentines were romantics or patrons of love.

So how did the connection between Saint Valentine and love begin?

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Some historians say that Valentine’s Day may be the Christian replacement of the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February. Lupercalia was originally a ritual where goats and dogs were sacrificed. It later became a festival where half-naked men would run through Rome, marking people with the skins of freshly killed goats. It was said to enhance fertility and bring healthy babies. Pope Gelasius banned the festival around 496 AD. However, there’s no real evidence the Pope brought in a Christian Valentine’s Day celebration to replace the raucous Roman festival.

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boxes of red roses Valentine's Day


The most likely explanation for the connection between St. Valentine and romance stems from Geoffrey Chaucher, the English poet. Chaucer proclaimed that the February feast of St. Valentines was the time when English birds paired off to mate. He wrote “The Canterbury Tales” in the late 14th century and in his “Parlement of Foules”, said:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

After he published this decree, European nobility began sending love letters during the February bird-mating season. In February 1415, the French Duke of Orléans (who was imprisoned in the Tower of London) wrote to his wife that he was lovesick and called her his “very gentle Valentine”. Chaucer may very well have been one of the first influencers!

The idea of February love and romance even spread to Shakespeare’s works. In the 1603 play Hamlet, Ophelia called herself Hamlet’s Valentine. Since then, 14 February has been a day to profess your love. It’s snowballed from love notes to mass-produced cards and sweets on Valentine’s Day. Whether you joyously celebrate love, commiserate with fellow singles, or don’t recognise the day at all, it’s hard to miss the Valentine’s Day bombardment every February.

As for the real St. Valentine? Much like love, the origins of St. Valentine are largely a mystery – but his lasting legacy as the patron saint of love is irrefutable.