Early depictions of St Valentine show him humbly submitting to having his head chopped off. Not terribly romantic but he wasn’t associated with romance back then, he was basically a martyr who happened to have performed a miracle or two.
The Queen Mary Psalter, 1310-20, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 243r, British Library
It was only in 1375 when Chaucer’s poem ‘Parliament of Fowls’ was published that a link was forged between St Valentine and romance. The link comes from the lines
‘Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate,’
Apparently birds went out to find their mates on February 14 so why shouldn’t unmarried boys and girls should do the same?
But if St Valentine wasn’t originally the patron saint of hearts and flowers, who was he?
That’s a moot point. There are two contenders:
Contender 1 is the 3rd century Bishop of Terni, Narnia and Amelia. Yes! There is a real place called Narnia, it’s a hilltop town in Umbria. C S Lewis loved the name and used it for the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Placed under house arrest with a local judge because of his faith, the Bishop proves a point by restoring sight to his captors blind daughter. The judge converts, releases loads of Christians from prison and of course allows his excellency to roam free to carry on preaching, whereupon he becomes a nuisance and is sent to Rome to repent or get bludgeoned and beheaded. Instead of repenting he tries to convert Emperor Claudius II, which leads to his head getting chopped off.
Unknown artist, Saint Valentine of Terni and his disciples, 14th century, Lives of the Saints, (Codex: Français 185, Fol. 210), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
Contender 2 wasn’t a Bishop but a priest. The story here goes that St. Valentine was imprisoned for marrying Christian couples and aiding Christians being persecuted by Claudius II in Rome. According to legend, while in prison Valentinus fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer and guess what? He restored her sight and all the jailors converted so he was given the option to repent and renounce his faith or get bludgeoned and beheaded.
I’m not the only one who thinks these stories are rather similar, especially because both Valentines were reported to be buried in the same place in the north of Rome. There’s no official ruling on whether they were the same person or not and in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar, because so little is known about him. Luckily the church still recognizes him as a saint.