Be my Valentine?

on Friday, 01 February 2013. Posted in Events

The 14th of February is a date which many of us either love or hate, as a time to celebrate romantic love; be bludgeoned over the head with one’s single status; or feel obliged to spend money much too soon after Christmas, depending on your outlook! However it has roots which go back a lot further than the modern commercial jamboree.


The origins of the festival date back to the Roman festival of ‘Lupercalia’ which took place from 13th – 15th February and involved nudity and a good deal of unruly behaviour which I won’t go into here but which was designed to promote fertility for the year ahead!

Then around AD197 a Christian known as Valentine of Terni was martyred in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. He was apparently imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome – hardly the stuff of romance! According to legend he died on 14th February but this is, in fact, unlikely to be true. Another Christian martyr in the time of Emporar Claudius was Valentine of Rome, a priest or bishop who gave aid to prisoners. There are apocryphal stories that he was carrying out clandestine weddings, and that his execution took place on 14 February.

The first official link between ‘Lupercalia’ and Christianity came in AD 497 when the then Pope made the 14th February St Valentine’s Day, making a Christian feast day out of the formerly pagan event. Later on, in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate” in his ‘Parliament of Fowls’, which is thought to be the first linkage of St Valentine’s Day to romantic love. Shortly afterwards Charles the Duke of Orleans wrote the first recorded Valentine’s note to his loved one, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

In the 18th century the passing of ‘love-notes’ became popular in England, such as this hand-made Valentine from the collection in Wiltshire and Swindon Archives [image 161-133]

Center in faithful Hearts, united thus in One.
ES & PHL (in an emblem of linked hearts)
God most benign!
Do Thou incline,
Such, soon to be,
Thy fixt Decree;
And with unceasing Influence,
Bless, greatly bless, the Consequence.
Happy, thrice happy Day that Day shall be,
When this fair Emblem realized we see.
1778 John Lovell.” [Reference 161/133]

PHL is very likely to be Peter Harvey Lovell, son and heir of John and Sarah Lovell of Cole Park near Malmesbury. However ‘E.S.’ is a mystery! Peter went on to marry Charlotte Willes to whom he had proposed marriage in 1800. In 1778 he would still have been at school in Bath, and so ‘E.S.’ could be a woman to whom he had a youthful romantic attachment. How serious the attachment was the archives do not tell us – I cannot find any letters from Peter to the mystery lady, or vice versa. His mother’s aunt was a Mary Smith of Shaw, near Melksham, so it is tempting to speculate that ‘E.S’ is a member of the same family but it is only speculation at this point. If anyone knows the answer I would love to know!

In 1797 ‘The Young Man’s Valentine Writer’ was published, suggesting appropriate messages for inclusion in love-notes. As postal services became more affordable the St Valentine’s Day card began to be mass-produced in the early 19th century paving the way for the modern era of traditional cards, chocolates, flowers, jewellery and so on.

Not many of the estimated one billion cards sent worldwide at this time will have the power of this simple poem from 1827 sent to Mrs Pyke of Broad Somerford [reference 3047/7]:

“I have loved thee in sickness; I’ll love thee in health,
And if want be our portion why love be our wealth;
Thy comfort in sorrow, thy stay when most weak,
The troth I have plighted I never will break.”

Nevertheless in years to come it would be nice if one or two heart-felt messages from today are kept for the archives of the future, for our descendants to read and ponder the nature of romantic love - or the power of advertising, whichever we believe in the most!

Claire Skinner

Principal Archivist


Accredited Archive Service