Roses Are Red

Roses Are Red

by Hanna Lindon

Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been about chocolates and flowers. Hanna Lindon takes a look back at the origins and traditions of February 14th

Legend has it that the first Valentine’s card was sent by the Christian bishop, Valentine of Rome. Arrested by the Emperor Claudius for secretly helping Christian couples to marry, he fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter and penned her a farewell note prior to his execution that he signed, “from your Valentine.” Historians now think that this romantic tale is apocryphal, but there’s no doubt that the origins of Valentine’s Day can be traced back to Ancient Rome and beyond.


The story starts in the pre-Christian era, when pagan Romans gathered together on 15th February to celebrate a festival of fertility and cleansing called Lupercalia. There was no flower-giving and card-exchanging. Instead, priests called Luperci would cut thongs from the skins of sacrificial goats and caper around the Palentine Hill in the centre of Rome whipping any young woman who came near them. The idea was that blows with these makeshift whips would increase women’s fertility.

Interestingly, the month of February was originally named after the Lupercalia festivities. ‘Februum’ means purification in Latin and the goat-skin whips used by the Luperci was reportedly called ‘februa’.

Lupercalia was banned in 391 alongside all other non-Christian cults and festivals, but it was soon to be replaced with another celebration. In 496, Pope Gelasius I declared February 14th to be St Valentine’s Day. The identity of the man who this religious feast day was designed to celebrate, however, is still unclear. Some historians believe it was the Roman bishop who penned that romantic note to his jailer’s daughter. Other accounts claim that Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, who was also executed by the emperor Claudius at around the same time.

In the early 1800s, archaeologists were excavating a catacomb near Rome when they uncovered skeletal remains and relics thought to belong to one of these early martyrs. Pieces of this skeleton were distributed around the world and St Valentine’s finger bone ended up in England. Modern day pilgrims can see it displayed in St John’s Church, Coventry.

Geoffrey Chaucer


As far as we know, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Valentine’s Day began to be associated with romantic love. The credit for this transformation seems to lie with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. In his poem Parliament of Foules, he wrote:

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Chaucer was voicing a common belief that birds began to look for their mates on February 14th. This was a widespread notion but it was rooted most strongly in Sussex, where Valentine’s Day was referred to for centuries as ‘the birds wedding day’. People even believed that the bird a girl saw on February 14th would determine the type of man she might marry. Seeing a hen and cockerel together meant you could look forward to an early wedding day, while a blackbird meant you would marry a man of the cloth. A dove represented a kind man, a goldfinch a wealthy man, and a sparrow a man of the country.

By the Elizabethan era, the association between Valentine’s Day and the birds and the bees had become entrenched. In the late 16th century, the poet Drayton penned a poem called To His Valentine in which he wrote:

“Each little bird this tide, Doth choose her beloved peer, Which constantly abide, In wedlock all the year.”

From the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day had been strongly associated with courtly love. The first recorded Valentine’s card was sent by the Duke of Orleans, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt and wrote to his wife: “Je suis desja d’amour tanné, Ma tres doulce Valentinée.” It translates roughly as: “I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine.”

You can still see the Duke’s letter in the manuscript collections of the British Library, alongside the earliest English Language Valentine’s note. Sent by Margery Brews in 1477, it describes her fiancé John Paston as “my right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine.”

William Shakespeare


It was Shakespeare who confirmed that the romantic traditions of Valentine’s Day were well and truly established by the 17th century. In Hamlet, Ophelia refers to a traditional belief that you would marry the first maiden you saw on February 14th.

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.” Shakespeare also knew about Lupercalia. He set the opening scenes of Julius Caesar during the Pagan fertility festival – Caesar even asks Mark Antony to whip his wife in order that she might conceive. Could the playwright have known about the potential connection between Lupercalia and St Valentine’s Day? It’s certainly a possibility.

Of course, Shakespeare has since become associated with Valentine’s Day in other ways. Romeo and Juliet is seen as the ultimate romantic love story, and his Sonnets are among the most quoted poems in Valentine’s cards. The most familiar Valentine’s Day ditty, however, can’t be credited to Shakespeare. It originated in Edmund Spenser’s 1590s epic, The Faerie Queen, which featured the lines:

“She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.”

This was later adapted in an 18th century book of nursery rhymes to read:

Edmund Spenser

“The rose is red, the violet’s blue,

The honey’s sweet, and so are you.

Thou art my love and I am thine;

I drew thee to my Valentine:

The lot was cast and then I drew,

And Fortune said it shou’d be you.”


The first Valentine’s traditions can be traced back to the Middle Ages. According to Henry Bourne in his 1725 work Antinquitates Vulgares, a custom of ‘drawing names’ had become popular by the early 18th century.

“It is a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day,” Bourne wrote. “The names of a select number of one sex, are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a name, which… is called their Valentine, and is also looked upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.”

It was around this time that love charms and potions also became increasingly popular. One tradition saw girls pin bay leaves to their pillows on the eve of St Valentine’s Day, hoping to dream of their future husbands. Sixteenth and seventeenth century sources also detail some truly disgusting love potions, including periwinkles mixed with leeks and earthworms, Spanish flies and blood, and fried mashed worms combined with bodily fluids.

Some men would demonstrate their affection by pinning a heart-shape piece of paper to their sleeve with the name of their beloved written on it. This custom led to the expression: ‘wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve’.

It was in the mid-18th century that the passing of love notes first became popular. Postal services had begun to be more affordable and lovers began to send cards decorated with lace. The Diary of Samuel Pepys contains regular references to Valentines’ missives, and towards the end of the 18th century a selection of advice pamphlets was published. The idea was that lovers could leaf through a selection of verses and choose one to suit their own situation. This verse comes from The New English Valentine Writer:

“Was there ever an urchin like Cupid so sly? Well armed and mounted aloft in the sky; He wound, and we love, and then off he does fly. That I have wounded, alas, is too true, and that I can only be healed by you; Is likewise a fact. Ah! What shall I do? I’ll rely on thy pity, dear charmer of mine. Sure you’ll not break the heart of thy poor Valentine!”


By the beginning of the 19th century, so many people exchanged Valentine’s cards that factories began to mass produce them. There were 60,000 Valentines sent in 1835, despite expensive postage costs, and this number increased to 400,000 after the invention of the postage stamp in 1840. Not all of them were genuine. The Victorians popularised the sending of ‘vinegar Valentines’, which were designed to insult the recipient. The University of Birmingham has an example showing a woman with a large nose. The verse underneath this picture reads, “On account of your talk of others’ affairs,  At most dances you sit warming the chairs, Because of the care with which you attend, To all other’s business you haven’t a friend.”

A more humorous vinegar Valentine displayed at York Castle Museum contains a loop of real human hair tied into a moustache and a pointed message: “For the New Woman! With St Valentine’s Heartiest Greetings and Best Hopes that she will receive another [moustache] – With A Man Attached.”

By the mid 19th century, people had already begun to send presents as well as cards on Valentine’s Day. It was around this time that the very first Valentine’s chocolate box was produced, fashioned in the shape of a heart and decorated with Cupids and roses. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that discontent surrounding the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day was already emerging in the Victorian era. The New York Daily Tribune  ran an article in 1847, when the holiday had become popularly established in America, bemoaning the loss of old-fashioned romance.

“There was a time when Valentine’s Day meant something,” the piece declared, “then it was a business of real lovers and there was sweetness under its delicate shy disguise. Good [graces]! that’s gone long ago. Now nobody makes more than a joke of it. We hate this modern degeneracy, this miscellaneous and business fashion. Send a Valentine by the penny post too? Bah! Give us the sweet old days when there was a mystery about it.”


Today, Valentine’s Day is one of the most anticipated holidays in the UK. Brits collectively spend more than a billion pounds on cards and presents every year, and not all of that goes on flowers and chocolates. Gifts have become ever more creative. From supercar driving experiences to printable love coupons and from personalised portraits to the latest techy gadgets, inventive presents are increasingly replacing traditional choices.

Of course, Valentine’s Day isn’t all about treating the one you adore – this celebration of romantic love is one of our most historic traditions. Next time you’re feeling a tad jaded about the February 14th festivities, just remember you’re taking part in a tradition that dates back thousands of years.