The origins of Valentine’s Day are widely disputed, with several Saint Valentines claiming feast days during Lupercalia, an ancient fertility festival celebrated by the Romans from the 13th-15th Feburary.
The two Saint Valentines most commonly associated with the 14th February, were both martyred in Rome. Valentine of Terni in roughly AD 197, and Valentine of Rome in roughly AD 496.
Of the many stories linked to both St Valentines, the most well-known include the tale of Valentine himself falling in love with his jailor’s daughter while incarcerated for practicing Christianity, writing a note for his lover signed ‘from your Valentine’, and a tale of a Valentine who reportedly performed secret marriage ceremonies for Roman soldiers forbidden to take a wife.
The medieval concept of Courtly Love, and the influence of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules in the 14th Century, saw the flourishing of Valentine’s Day’s association with expressions of romantic love. By the 18th Century, handmade Valentines greetings began to make an appearance, with the tradition of romantic poetry continuing into the cards and keepsakes we would begin to recognise as traditional ‘Valentines’ today.
The advances in printing and mass-production during the Victorian era saw the rise of commercially manufactured Valentines greetings, aided greatly by the penny post, which allowed couples to send romantic keepsakes from any distance. Adorned with intricate lace, gold leaf, and embossed decoration, Victorian Valentines used illustrations of flowers, cherubs, and lovehearts to create beautiful and romantic favours.
Many wonderful examples of these 19th Century Valentines still survive, giving us a unique glimpse at how love has been celebrated on this day throughout history. Amongst our collections here at West Sussex Record Office, we have a handmade Valentine sent by William Pitt of Chichester to his future wife Anna Maria Heath on 14th February 1808 (Add Mss 16972). The marriage register for the parish of St Peter the Great in Chichester (Par 44/1/3/1) tells us that William and Ann were later married on 10th September 1820, by license rather than Banns, although a note records the marriage is ‘with the consent of parents’. The Valentine itself is a beautifully intricate illustration of a woman framed in a personalised poem dedicated to Ann. Formed of hundreds of delicate pin-picks, the message appears only when held up to the light, revealing a heartfelt and romantic dedication from a young man in love.
‘When charming Ann gently walks
Or sweetly smiles or gayly talks
How few there can with her compare
So sweet her looks and how soft her air
In whom so many charms are plac’d
Is with a Mind as nobly Grac’d
With sparkling Wit and solid Sense
And soft persuasive Eloquence’
Another Valentine in our collection is a later example of a Victorian mass-produced souvenir (Buckle Mss 401). Sent on 14th February 1870, the envelope is addressed to ‘My darling Valentine’, and written in the hand of Charles Mathew Buckle. Hidden inside the lace-trimmed and rose-wreathed card is a pull-out poem, ‘The Lovers’ Oracle’. A modest Valentines rhyme the verse reads; ‘This simple flower betrays my heart, And breathes for me the wish I wot: It bids my thoughts to language start, And asks thee to Forget me not’.
The Buckle collection at the Record Office holds the papers of the Buckle family, spanning almost 400 years. The archive is mostly used in relation to the family’s connection to Naval and shipping activity, however private correspondence and unique Valentine’s cards like this give us an insight in to how traditions and customs develop and change over the years, and how personal notes can be rediscovered and enjoys hundreds of years later.
So whether you’re spending hours scoring out a poetic message with a pin in the style of William Pitt, or popping out to quickly buy a mass-produced card like Charles Buckle after realising the date, we hope you have a love-filled 14th February and celebrate the romantic feast day of our many Saint Valentines!