Who was Saint Valentine?

256px-Gesteck_in_HerzformEvery year in the Western world we celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day on 14th February with red roses, cards, and gestures of romantic love.

However, it wasn’t until the poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer came along in the fourteenth century that the name of Saint Valentine was connected with romantic celebrations. Prior to that, there is no evidence of any connection between the ancient Roman festivals and celebrations of martyrs named Valentine, and the St. Valentine’s Day we recognise today.

So who was Saint Valentine?

There were many Christian martyrs who had the name Valentine, but there are three popular candidates for the Saint Valentine who is commemorated on February 14th.

Valentine of Rome was a priest who was martyred in about AD 496. His relics were kept on the Via Flaminia, in the catacombs of San Valentino in Rome until the Middle Ages, when he became considered so important they were transferred to the church of Santa Prassde (also in Rome), and became a focus for large numbers of pilgrims.

The next contender for the celebrated Saint Valentine is Valentine of Terni. He was the Bishop of Interamna (now called Terni in Italy). Around AD 197 he is believed to have been martyred during the mass religious persecutions organised by Emperor Aurelain. Like Valentine of Rome, Terni was also buried on the Via Flaminia, but his relics were stored at the Basilica of Terni, which later became known as the Basilica of Saint Valentine.

As well as these two “Valentines”, there is one other credible candidate, but very little is known about him. This Valentine was martyred on the 14th February in an unknown year in Africa along with a number of his companions. His head was preserved and displayed in Winchester Abbey, where it was venerated in the Middle Ages.

It is unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure which of these men was the model for the Saint Valentine still remembered across the world on 14th February. What is certain, however, is that not one of them had anything to do with romance.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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