The real St Valentine: single, a rebel and a martyr

Ask a simple question, get a complicated answer. This certainly applies when you ask, who was St Valentine?

While records are sketchy, many historians have reached several conclusions about this elusive saint: 1. He was likely to have been a Catholic priest, and therefore, single; 2. He rebelled against Roman authority in order to protect others; 3. He was martyred for his faith.

As such, the type of love that St Valentine personified was nothing like the commercialised romantic love we celebrate today. Instead, he was an example of “heroic love for the Lord and his church“.

Who was St Valentine?

There are three likely candidates for the ‘real’ St Valentine.

Very little is known about the first candidate, apart from a historical record of a man named “Valentini” who died on February 14 during the third century. He is believed to have died as a martyr in Africa along with 24 soldiers.

The second candidate was a Roman priest and physician. He comforted Christian martyrs during a time of persecution under Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. Eventually, St Valentine was also arrested, condemned to death for his faith, beaten with clubs and beheaded on February 14, around AD 270.

And the third candidate was the Roman Bishop of Interamna (now Terni, located around 100km from Rome). He too was arrested and decapitated during the time of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, dying on February 14, around AD 270.

As the last two St Valentine candidates share such similarities, many scholars believe they are, in fact, the same person.

Why did St Valentine become famous?

The most common narrative about St Valentine – and the one that links him to romantic love – is that he was a priest who married couples during the reign of Claudius II. This is significant because, at that time, marriage between young people had been outlawed in an attempt to keep soldiers focused on war rather than wives.

Meanwhile, polygamy was rife in that society, as one Catholic priest noted in an interview with CBN. And so, by continuing to wed couples in secret, St Valentine was upholding the Christian church’s belief in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman for life.

Another well-known story about St Valentine revolves around an incident when he was under the custody of an aristocrat (and perhaps a judge) named Asterius. While under arrest, Valentine took the opportunity to try to convince Asterius about the truth of Jesus and his Christian faith.

Asterius challenged Valentine to prove it. He presented Valentine with his blind daughter and said if Valentine could restore her sight, he would convert.

Apparently, Valentine placed his hands over the girl’s eyes and chanted: “Lord Jesus Christ, en-lighten your handmaid, because you are God, the True Light.” And the girl’s sight was restored.

It’s believed that Asterius then “broke all the idols around his house, fasted for three days and became baptised, along with his family and entire 44 member household”.

Some sources say it was this incident that led Emperor Gothicus to order Valentine’s execution. Others think it was his continuing attempts to convert people to Christianity or his crimes of marrying Christian couples and aiding Christians being persecuted by the emperor in Rome. Or it may simply have been that Valentine refused to renounce his faith. Whatever the reason, Valentine’s gruesome demise is another cause for his recognition as a Catholic saint and martyr.

Valentine was sentenced to execution by beating and finally decapitation. And while the year of his death is open to debate (it was around AD 269/270), sources record February 14 as the date.

Another legend about St Valentine stems from his day of execution. It says that St Valentine created the first-ever Valentine’s card – when he wrote his final words in a letter to the daughter of Asterius and signed the letter “from your Valentine”.

St Valentine is believed to have been buried on the Flaminian Way – an ancient road extending from Rome to Rimini in north-eastern Italy. Later, Pope Julius I (333-356) built a church at the site of this St Valentine’s tomb. However, in the thirteenth century, Catholic sources say his relics were transferred to Rome’s Church of Saint Praxedes, where they remain today. These sources also claim that archaeological digs in the 1500s and 1800s have found evidence of the tomb of St Valentine.

Fact or fiction?

The origins of Valentine’s Day are obscured by the lack of historical details.

Some suggest that St Valentine never actually existed and the celebration is a “Christian cover-up of the more ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia in mid-February.”

However, according to other sources, it was the Benedictine Order that maintained the church of St Valentine in Terni during the Middle Ages who continued to spread the stories of St Valentine in their monasteries in France and England.

There is little doubt that somewhere along the way, the truth of St Valentine has become embellished and distorted.

The link between Valentine’s Day and lovers was solidified a thousand years after St Valentine’s death, when Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, decreed the February feast of St Valentinus be linked to the mating of birds in his Parlement of Foules. This was based on a popular belief during the Middle Ages that birds mated midway through February, and hence February 14 seemed the perfect date.

“Soon, nature-minded European nobility began sending love notes during the bird-mating season. For example, the French Duke of Orléans, who spent some years as a prisoner in the Tower of London, wrote to his wife in February 1415 that he was ‘already sick of love’ (by which he meant lovesick.) And he called her his ‘very gentle Valentine’,” writes Lisa Bitel in The Conversation.

In the following centuries, February 14 became known as the date to send notes to loved ones. And of course, with industrialisation and commercialisation, retailers jumped on the opportunity to expand this expression of love to cards, chocolates, flowers and other romantic gifts.

In 1969 the Roman Catholic Church removed St Valentine from the General Roman Calendar – its liturgical calendar that indicates the celebrations of saints. The reason cited for this decision was the lack of reliable information about St Valentine, although the church still continues to recognise him as a saint.

And while Valentine’s Day is now synonymous with cupids, hearts and sentimentality, Catholic Education asserts that this celebration still has “a Christian message that should be remembered”: “The love of our Lord … is a sacrificial, self-less, and unconditional love. Such is the love that each Christian is called to express in his own life, for God and neighbour. Clearly, St Valentine, no matter which one, showed such a love, bearing witness to the faith in his dedication as a priest and in the offering of his own life in martyrdom.

“On this Valentine’s Day, looking to the example of this great saint, each person should offer again his love to the Lord, for only by doing so can he properly love those who are entrusted to his care and any other neighbour. Each person should again pledge his love to those loved ones, praying for their intentions, promising fidelity to them, and thanking them for their love in return. Never forget Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15:12-13). St Valentine fulfilled this command, and may we do the same.”

Valentines fun facts
  • Valentinus (from the Latin “valens”, meaning to be in good health) was a common name in ancient Roman times, which explains why there are many candidates for the saint.
  • St Valentine is also known as the patron of people with epilepsy because the account of his life includes the restoration of an epileptic child.
  • St Valentine has become the saint who announces the coming spring (which arrives in mid-February in the northern hemisphere), which is why he is sometimes represented holding the sun in his hand.
  • And, among other things, St Valentine has also been dubbed the patron saint of beekeepers –  charged with“ensuring the sweetness of honey and the protection of beekeepers”.