Historical records suggest more than one St. Valentine existed, but the most notable figure was a Roman priest who defied Emperor Claudius II by performing marriages illegally. He was martyred when Claudius the Cruel carried out his execution on Feb. 14 around A.D. 270.
Claudius’s reign was characterized by acts of tyranny and brutal conquests. In an effort to recruit more soldiers for his campaigns, Claudius outlawed marriages and engagements to discourage men from forming attachments that prevented them from joining the army. St. Valentine opposed the law by conducting marriage ceremonies in secret. The Prefect of Rome sentenced him to death, and St. Valentine was beaten with clubs and beheaded. Some accounts say the priest was originally jailed for helping Christians, but didn’t receive a death sentence until he tried to convert Emperor Claudius.
In 496, Pope Gelasius established the 14th of February as St. Valentine’s Day. Historical accounts suggest its romantic associations stem from the pagan Feast of Lupercalia, which Pope Gelasius sought to replace with a church-sanctioned holiday. Other legends attribute the Valentine’s Day tradition of exchanging cards to the saint’s final act while imprisoned. He allegedly befriended the jailer’s daughter and left her a note “From your Valentine” before his execution.