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  • Penrith and Eden Museum

The Valentine Card

Valentine card to Mrs. Ann Stables, Howtown, Martindale, 1871

In AD 496 Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th a day to celebrate the life of St. Valentine who had been martyred over two hundred years earlier and buried on Rome’s Via Flaminia. As there were several saints and martyrs of that name the story became confused over time. One version tells how Valentine had performed clandestine marriages for soldiers against the orders of the Emperor who had ordained they remain single, another how he had fallen in love with the daughter of his jailer and had written her a letter signed ‘from your Valentine’. The Pope’s aim, it seems, was to supersede the Roman fertility festival of the Lupercalia with a Christian one. It would be less raucous and discourage the old practice of whipping women with the skins of sacrificed goats to help them conceive.

In 1382 in his poem ‘The Parlement of Foules’ Geoffrey Chaucer describes how birds choose their mates on St. Valentine’s Day and in the following century Charles, Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt confessed in a poem addressed to his wife that he was sick with love declaring her ‘my Valentine’. In 1420 John Lydgate composed for King Henry V the Valentine verses sent to Catherine of Valois. Among the Paston letters, we find the earliest Valentine’s Day love letter – one sent by Mary Brewes to her lover, John Paston. The Tudor well-to-do popularised the sending of Valentine letters and drew lots to choose a ‘Valentine’ who would present a gift. This might be a length of cloth, a gold trinket, or a quarter’s wages in the case of a maid whose master was entered and drawn as a lot. There was a belief that the first person you saw on the day would be your ‘Valentine’ which led to some near comical situations as recorded later by Samuel Pepys in his diary.

By the Georgian age printed cards appeared, and the uniform penny postage of the Victorian period further increased their popularity. By then elaborate embossed and perforated cards, mimicking lace, with sentimental romantic and whimsical imagery, were the norm. That in the Museum’s archives is a typical example. It was posted on February 10th 1871 to Mrs. Ann Stables, Howtown, Martindale, nr. Pooley Bridge, Penrith. The 1891 Census lists John Stables of Bobbin Mill Yard, occupation gardener, married to Ann who was born at Plumpton, and possibly the parents of the Anne Stables baptised at Martindale 23rd January 1848, daughter of John and Anne Stables; one R. Stables, possibly a son, is recorded as falling in the first round in the light weight wrestling at the Ullswater Sports as reported in the Penrith Observer of August 26, 1890.

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