St Valentine's Day

The World’s First Valentine’s Card

St Valentine’s Day 2017 is almost upon us and once again more than 30 million cards and presents will be exchanged in the UK alone, in what has become one of the most commercial days in the modern calendar, second only to Christmas. It is a a far cry from the original idea of St Valentine’s Day, which was a romantic festival to celebrate the life of St Valentine of Rome, who was sentenced to death in the 3rd century AD by the Emperor Claudius II for ministering to Christians and marrying Roman soldiers in secret, when it had been made illegal for them to marry. Here we look at life before the commercialisation of St Valentine’s Day and the world’s first Valentine’s card.

In Great Britain the first recorded mention of St Valentine’s Day, came in a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382, Parlement of Foules, which is believed by many to have contained the first link, of the Feast of St Valentine on February 14th, with romantic love. Shortly afterwards in 15th century France, February 14th then became an annual feast day celebrating love, with lavish banquets, singing and dancing to mark the occasion.

Appropriately it was a Frenchman who re-introduced this back into Britain around the same time, when the Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, committed a Valentine’s note to paper for the first time, which is acknowledged as the first written St Valentine’s Day message. He wrote to his wife “Je suis desja d’armour tanne, Ma tres doulce Valintinee”. Indicating that he was sick with love for her on the Feast of St Valentine.

Remarkably the first British Valentine’s message, recorded in the English language, is preserved today in the British Library in London. It was from Margery Brews to her Fiance John Paston, in which Margery describes him as her “right beloved Valentine”. This is now acknowledged as the first British card and from this the practice of sending cards and gifts developed, helped on by Shakespeare’s mention of St Valentine’s Day in Hamlet, with Ophelia reciting lines about tomorrow being St Valentine’s Day.

Today and the modern world are a far cry from those gentler times, when romantic love was the driving force. As it is now often commercialism and advertising that fuels frenzied St Valentine’s Day activity but as you open your card or unwrap your gift on the 14th, spare a thought for those figures in history who helped make this great festival of romance what it is today.  But still with the power to make or break hearts.