VALENTINE’S Day is upon us - but how did it all start?

DAVE WELBOURNE writes: Over a billion Valentine cards are sent each year worldwide. Billions of pounds are spent on cards, chocolates, flowers and ‘romantic’ meals. But far from romantic, the origin of Valentine’s Day is grisly. It lies in the 3rd century AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II. Three Valentinas were executed that century. One of them, a priest, was beheaded for helping Christians escape from Roman prisons. While imprisoned, he fell in love with the gaoler’s daughter and sent her a letter signed ‘your Valentine’.

During Claudius II’s reign it was decreed that to produce better soldiers, young men shouldn’t marry. Valentine disobeyed this and continued to marry young couples secretly. Claudius had him arrested and beheaded. Another Roman priest named Valentinus was arrested and held in custody under an aristocrat called Asterius who’s said to have promised if he could cure his daughter of blindness he would convert to Christianity. Valentinus restored her sight and Asterius and his family were baptised. Claudius ordered them all to be executed. Valentinus was beheaded and a sympathetic widow buried his body and buried it at the site of his martyrdom on the Via Flaminia ancient highway from Rome.

At a festival called Lupercalia, where dogs and goats were sacrificed, half naked men raced through the streets of Rome and pregnant women believed if they were touched by one of them they would have a healthy baby. As with a number of pagan festivals, the Christian church took over and in this case replaced it with St Valentine Day.

Around 1,000 years after the martyr’s death Chaucer wrote of the feast of St Valentine as a time when love birds mated. European nobility sent love notes. The Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London after Agincourt, wrote to his wife calling her his ‘gentle Valentine’. Henry VII hired John Lydgate to compose a Valentine note to Catherine of Valois. Shakespeare’s Ophelia called herself ‘Hamlet’s Valentine’. Through the centuries, English people expressed love on February 14 and by the 18th century tokens of affection and handwritten notes were sent.. By the late 19th century cards were mass produced.

In the Middle Ages the Church was fond of claiming to possess important relics. Many churches and monasteries claimed bits of Valentinus’s body. Santa Maria in Rome displayed his skull. Churches in Madrid, Prague, Poland, Malta, Greece, Birmingham and Glasgow all claimed relics. Glasgow has been called ‘the City of Love’ because a forearm of one of the Valentines is believed to be in its Church of the Blessed St John Duns Scotus, decorated with red roses. Services for lovers are held there and it’s a popular place to propose on Valentine’s Day.

In 1537 Henry VII declared February 14 a holiday. Red roses are sent because they were favourites of Venus, goddess of love. The expression ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’ is from Medieval times when women put their names into a bowl, men drew a name of his ‘Valentine’ and pinned it on his sleeve.