Was the first Valentine’s Day card sent by a French king?

by Steve Martindale

A small town in the heart of Indre will again welcome lovers from across the country on 14th February and the nearest weekend. Why the attraction? The town of Saint-Valentin is the only place in France to bear the name of the patron saint of lovers. Residents deck their homes in blooms, the Jardin des amoureaux (lovers’ garden) opens its gates and free concerts take place to serenade courting couples. A post office, specially constructed for the week, sells commemorative stamps and postcards for the most ‘authentic’ Valentine’s card you’ll ever send.

If all that romance brings matters to a head, it’s even possible to take things one step further and tie the knot in the flower garden, with everything laid on, from hotels, hair and make-up to wedding cars, photographers and champagne. All you need to do is say “I do”….

Each year, on 14th February, men and women across the globe spend billions of euros on loved ones, all in the name of Saint Valentine. But who was Saint Valentine and why is he associated with love?

Rather than being a ‘Hallmark’ holiday, Valentine’s day, much like Halloween, has its root in paganism. In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring, a time of fertility, new life and regeneration. Lupercalia was the main festival at this time, celebrated between 13th and 15th February and commemorated the legend that Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a she-wolf (lupa). During the festival, priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The boys of the town would then cut strips of hide from the goat, dip them in sacrificial blood and gently slap the young women of the town and the fields of crops. Despite sounding gory, the women of ancient Rome welcomed this ritual as they believed it made them more fertile for the coming year.

Later in the day, the names of all the young women would be placed into an urn from which the young men would pick one and this pair would then be coupled for the next year. This often led to marriages, but was considered un-Christian by the church and there were repeated attempts to outlaw the festival.

“At the time the festival was clearly a very popular event, even in an environment where the Christians were trying to close it down,” according to Professor Lenski of the University of Colorado. “So there’s reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we’ll just call this a Christian festival.”

The church pledged the festival to Saint Valentine, whose saint’s day fell on February 14th – right in the middle of the Lupercalia – but little is known about Saint Valentine. There are three saints named Valentine or Valentinus, but the most probable candidate is the Saint Valentine who fell foul of the wrath of Emperor Claudius II and was put to death. No more is known about him, but subsequent legends suggest that Claudius had decreed that all young men should remain single, as unmarried men made for better soldiers. Valentine, feeling this was unjust, conducted clandestine marriages for young lovers, until he was discovered and sentenced to death.

The legend was further extended to suggest that he sent the first Valentine’s Day card from his jail cell, allegedly to his jailer’s daughter who had visited him during his confinement, which he signed “from your Valentine”. Saint Valentine grew in popularity and by the Middle Ages he was one of the most popular saints in France and England.

The first recorded Valentine’s card was sent by Charles, Duke of Orléans, in 1415 to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. This greeting card is now housed in the British Library in London.

Several years later, it is believed that King Henry V hired a writer named John Lydgate to compose a Valentine note to his belle, Catherine of Valois.

In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated in the 17th century and by the mid-18th century it was common for people of all social classes to exchange items of affection or small notes of love. The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day really began in earnest with the mass-production of Valentine’s Day greeting cards. The first cards rolled off the lines in the 1840s in the US thanks to Esther A. Howland, who has since become known as ‘the Mother of the Valentine’.

In recent times, more than 1 billion cards are sent every year worldwide, making it the second biggest day for the greetings card industry, behind Christmas when more than double that amount are sent.

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