It was the cocky over-confidence of the French and Henry V’s 8,000 archers at the Battle of Agincourt 600 years ago which lost them the battle.
It gave us a great Shakespeare play, and coloured our anti-French arrogance for all time. It may also have given us the Valentine Card.
Charles, Duke of Orleans, one of the French nobles captured at Agincourt would spend 24 years in England as a prisoner of war. He used his incarceration to develop his reputation as a poet, beginning with a poignant letter to his wife which read “I am already sick with love, my very gentle Valentine...” By the time Victoria was on the throne, so many cards were being sent that postmen were being paid overtime.
Today, one billion cards are sent out for Valentine’s Day, a figure beaten only by Christmas cards. So who was this romantic character, Valentine?
There are about a dozen saints named Valentine including a woman, a virgin named Valentina, martyred in Palestine in 308 AD. Another Valentine was pope of Rome for about 40 days in 827. There is also a more recent Valentine, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988, a Spanish Dominican named St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa. He went to Vietnam as a Bishop but was beheaded in 1861.
But most of the other saints don’t connect to the modern favourite day of sweethearts. The Catholic Church’s ‘official’ Saint Valentine of Rome is a widely recognized third-century Roman. In the year 270AD the Roman Emperor Claudius banned all marriages because he thought that a young married man could not perform well as a soldier. Valentine defied this decree and carried out clandestine marriages, illegitimately performing ceremonies for many young couples. He was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and beheaded. However, whilst in jail he fell in love with the warder’s daughter. Legend has it that the night before his execution, she received a written note from him bearing the words ‘From your Valentine.’ Thus Valentine’s Day as we know it, was born.
The earliest known English valentine may have been sent in 1477 in Norfolk, a letter from Margery Brews to John Paston, whom she described as ‘My right well beloved Valentine.’
Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas, February 14 may be a financial feeding frenzy for the greetings card industry, but in a world weighed down with terror, war and the imposed inequality of austerity, we may as well indulge ourselves by injecting a bit of much-needed joy into the misery of February. So bring on the flowers, chocolates, wine, candlelit dinners and desire. If you’ve a secret passion, here’s your chance. And if you’re lucky enough to receive that unsigned, mysterious card, just remember; romance is still something we can find even if we’re not consciously looking for it.