We all know that Valentine’s Day is named after St Valentine. But that doesn’t quite explain why it’s grown into the behemoth of romance that it is today. Sure, Valentine is the patron saint of lovers. But there are loads of other patron saints of lovers (St Raphael, St Dynwen, St Nicholas of ‘Santa Claus’ fame, St Joseph…to name but a few). And Valentine’s story only has a tenuous link to romance. Other saints have far more romantic stories. So why does Valentine get all the lovey dovey glory?
Well, you can probably blame a combination of ancient pagan festivals, a lovestruck king, and Geoffrey Chaucer.
The joys of spring
One thing that’s notable about Valentine’s Day is that it’s well placed from a romantic point of view. It’s around mid-February that the seasons start to rev up. Blossoms are emerging, ewes are lambing, birds are practising their mating songs - it’s beginning to feel a lot like spring.
Because of this, a lot of ancient pagan festivals were held in mid-February. The Romans enjoyed a festival called Lupercalia at this time, during which they celebrated the mythical moment when founding twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. In the British Isles, a festival called Imbolc (literally translated - ‘Ewe’s milk’) was celebrated in the middle of February, to mark the end of winter.
The lovestruck King
In 1382, Anne of Bohemia married King Richard II of England. The date chosen for the wedding was (you guessed it) the 14th Feb. It’s likely that mid-February dates were considered auspicious for a marriage due to all the birds’n’beesy reasons mentioned above.
Fast forward a year, and lovestruck Richard wanted to mark the occasion of his first wedding anniversary. Everyone who wanted to find favour with the court presented the couple with gifts and tributes. But Geoffrey Chaucer took it one step further. He immortalised the royal couple’s wedding anniversary forever…with a poem about fowls.
The Parlement of Foules
In fairness, Chaucer probably did not forsee the centuries-long influence his actions would have. He only really wanted to make an impression on Richard and Anne through the art of poetry. But the poem he wrote caused quite a stir.
It’s called ‘The Parlement of Foules’ (in modern English this more or less means ‘The Meeting of Birds’). You can read it here. It’s got a strange structure to modern eyes - there’s a dream within a dream, and meetings with old gods, and a section set in Hell for no particular reason…but the main action occurs at an assembly of all the birds in the country. The birds have gathered to choose their mates for, as Chaucer tells us, ‘this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan eury byrd comyth there to chese his make’ (‘this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes here to choose their mate’).
Well, King Richard and Queen Anne thought that the concept of birds choosing their mates on their wedding anniversary was the cutest thing ever. And (possibly because Richard was a monarch with a temper) so did everybody else. From that day on, Valentine’s Day was known as the day when birds choose their mates. It’s not exactly a big jump from there to a day celebrating romance in all its forms.
Poor old St Valentine got swept along for the ride. Tales of his romantic miracles and endeavours were shoehorned in or bigged up to make the saint fit with the mood. It’s even possible that the original St Valentine was quietly booted from the position and replaced with another feller who already had a story about marriage attached to his legend. We can’t prove that - but it is worth noting that the Roman Catholic church quietly removed St Valentine from the Calendar of Saints in 1969. When asked why this had been done they released a vague statement about mistaken identities and lack of evidence. Make of that what you will.
Happily ever after?
Sadly, Anne of Bohemia died aged only 28. Richard was heartbroken - so much so that many at the time thought he had been driven mad by grief.
The years after Anne’s death were not good ones for Richard. He became increasingly mentally unstable. His moods were volatile and his decisions bizarre. Ultimately, this led to his downfall at the hands of rebel nobles. He was deposed just five years after Anne of Bohemia died. Decades of bitter warfare followed.
So….not the happiest of endings for the very first Valentine’s couple. Or for the country they ran, for that matter. But hey - the story about the birdies is cute, right?