The History of Valentine Day

Detail from Valentine card

Hull Museums have a large collection of Valentine's Cards and other objects associated with Valentines but where did the tradition originate? The history of Valentine's Day is surrounded in mystery, though February has always been the month of romance. St Valentine's Day contains both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.

Valentine card

Who was Valentine?

It is believed that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than married ones he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine realised this injustice and performed secret marriages for young lovers. When Valentine's actions were discovered Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Valentine card
It is also believed that Valentine sent his first 'valentine' greeting himself. While in prison it is believed that he fell in love with a young girl, daughter of a prison jailor. Before his death, it was suggested that he wrote her a letter, which he signed 'from your Valentine'; a saying that is used in cards today.

Most of the myths and legends show Valentine as sympathetic, heroic and a romantic figure. By the Middle Ages Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.

Survival of Valentine cards

The oldest known Valentine still exists today as a poem written by Charles Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. The greeting that was written in 1415 is part of the manuscript collection at the British Library in London. The Oldest known Valentines message in the English Language is also at the British Library, written in Norfolk more than 500 years ago, the love letter dates to 1477 and was from Margery Brews to her fiance John Paston.

Valentine Card
Most that survive in the Hull Museums collection are Victorian in date (1837-1901). They are usually handmade and hand printed so would have been very expensive to produce and purchase, until printing became cheaper and mass produced.

Valentine Card
In the United Kingdom Valentines Day began to be popular in the 17th century. By mid 18th century it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes. Public displays of affected were discouraged at this time so a card or token could say things that people couldn't.