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From martyrdom to capitalism: A timeline of Valentine’s Day

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As soon as Christmas is over (or sometimes even before!) our shops begin bursting with heart-shaped chocolates, red roses and Valentine’s Day cards with poems sweet enough to cause a cavity.

But why is February 14th associated with romantic love, and how did Valentine’s Day as we know it evolve? Explore our timeline below and discover how the 45th day of the year became the day of love.

269 AD – Saint Valentine is martyred in Rome

We know very little about Saint Valentine, even the legends surrounding his martyrdom and legacy are unclear, but it’s believed that Valentine was a priest or bishop who ministered to Christians in 3rd century Rome; a time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. Some legends claim that Valentine performed secret Christian weddings for couples during the reign of Emperor Claudius so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war, as it was forbidden for soldiers in the Roman army to be married at this time. Another legend claims that Valentine was imprisoned for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods, and his prayers during his time in captivity cured the jailer’s daughter of her blindness. When he was taken to his execution, he is said to have left her a note that was signed, ‘Your Valentine’.

1382 – Geoffrey Chaucer writes his Parlemant of Foules

The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules.

‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make’

The poem follows a dreamer through a temple of Venus wherein he witnesses Nature convening a parliament for the birds to choose their mates. The poem was written to celebrate the first anniversary of King Richard II of England’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. Their marriage of 12 years was ultimately not a popular one, but when Anne died in 1394 Richard mourned her deeply. It’s unclear as to whether the Saint Valentine Chaucer refers to in his poem is the Valentine associated with February 14th, as February was already a month associated with birds finding their mates in the Middle Ages, but it was gradually during this era that Valentine’s Day began to be associated with romantic and courtly love.

1477 – Margery Brewes writes a Valentine letter

The Paston Letters are a collection of correspondences from 1422-1509 in England, including letters, state papers and other important documents that the Pastons, a family of Norfolk gentry, sent to each other and others who were connected with them during this period of history. The collection includes the earliest surviving Valentine letter in English, in which Margery Brewes wrote to her future husband, John Paston, and called him, ‘my right well-beloved Valentine’.

1613 – Elizabeth Stuart marries Frederick V, King of Bohemia

The wedding of King James I of England and VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark’s second child and eldest daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, took place at the Palace of Whitehall on 14th February 1613. The marriage was enormously popular and celebrated throughout London and Heidelberg. John Donne wrote his Epithalamion Vpon Frederick Count Palatine and the Lady Elizabeth marryed on St. Valentines day to celebrate the match – ‘Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is’ – which drew on the legend of mating birds. 13 years earlier, William Shakespeare also mentioned ‘Saint Valentine’s day’ in Hamlet.

1835 – 60,000 Valentine’s Day cards are sent in the UK

Even though sending letters and cards through the post was expensive in the UK at this time, 60,000 Valentine’s Day cards were sent. The custom of sending cards had become so popular that they were now produced in factories and decorated with fabric and lace.

1840 – Sir Rowland Hill reforms the UK postal service

With the introduction of the first adhesive postal stamp, the Penny Black, postal rates were reduced throughout the UK, making it possible for more people to use the postal service and to send letters anonymously. The following year 400,000 Valentine’s Day cards were sent in the UK, and it’s believed that the opportunity for anonymity saw the rise of raunchier poetry.

1868 – Cadbury introduces heart-shaped boxes

It was thanks to Cadbury’s creation of filled chocolates in heart-shaped boxes, designed specifically for Valentine’s Day, that filled chocolates became associated with the holiday. While the focus had always been on sending poetry in cards or letters, by the 20th century, chocolates, flowers and jewellery had become a normal and expected part of Valentine’s Day gift-giving.

Present day – The internet

Since 2000 and the rise of the internet, more and more people celebrate Valentine’s Day digitally with e-cards, with around 15 million e-Valentine’s Day cards sent in 2010. While it has its roots in Christianity, Valentine’s Day is considered a ‘Hallmark holiday’ by many people today because of its commercialisation, and the focus on buying gifts rather than writing poetry.

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