History of Valentines Day, St Valentine and St Dwynwen

By Terry John Calendar

Every year, on 14 February, we celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day. This martyred saint is chiefly remembered for one thing - that he is the patron saint of lovers.  But who was Valentine, and how did he come to be associated with love and lovers?

Nothing is known for certain and, just to add to the mystery, there are a number of saints called Valentine, most of whom seem to have lived during the time of the Roman Empire.

There are three, however, who may fit the bill! One was a Roman priest and another was Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni) in Italy. Both of these martyrs were buried in cemeteries along the Via Flaminia, near the Milvian Bridge to the north of the city limits of ancient Rome. The third was a saint executed in the Roman province of Africa with a number of companions, but nothing else is known of him. All three were said to have been killed on 14th February, but in different years.

It is possible that the first two of these saints were actually one and the same person. Bishop Valentine was born and lived in Interamna, but was martyred in Rome on 14th February 273 whilst visiting that city. He was buried in a cemetery near the Via Flaminia, but a few nights later his disciples recovered his body and returned it to Interamna.

The offence for which Valentine was executed may seem trivial to us, but it angered the rulers of Rome. The Emperor Claudius II had forbidden his soldiers to marry, so it is said, believing that married men made poor fighters. Valentine performed secret weddings for some of these soldiers, as well as ministering to his fellow Christians, who were suffering persecution at the time. He then gave them heart-shaped pieces of parchment in order to remind them of their vows to one another and to God.   

Valentine was arrested and imprisoned. During his captivity he made friends with a young girl named Julia, the daughter of his jailer. She suffered from blindness, which Valentine miraculously cured. On the night before his execution he is said to have written her a letter, which he signed ’Your Valentine’, an expression adopted in modern Valentines.    

Here in Wales we have our very own patron saint of lovers, who is celebrated on 25th January. Saint  Dwynwen lived in the 5th century and was said to be the most beautiful of the 24 daughters of King Brychan Brycheiniog.  She fell in love with a prince named Maelon Dafodrill, but there were serious obstacles to the marriage. Depending on which version of the story you hear, Maelon either raped poor Dwynwen, despite her vow to remain chaste, or was unfaithful to her, or King Brychan had already promised her to someone else.

Dwynwen, distraught, prayed for a solution to her problem, She received a vision, in which an angel brought her a sweet-tasting potion which erased all her memories of Maelon and turned him into a block of ice. She was then granted three wishes. The first was that Maelon would be released from the ice, the second that she might never fall in love again and, thirdly, that all lovers’ dreams might come true.

Dwynwen became a nun and made her way to Anglesey, where she built a church. Its ruins still exist today on the little island of Llanddwyn, off the coast of Anglesey. Close by is Dwynwen’s Well, a spring of fresh water in which a sacred eel was said to swim. Its movements could predict  the future of lovers and their relationships. Pilgrims would sprinkle breadcrumbs of the water and cover them with a cloth. If the eel took the cloth as well as the breadcrumbs, there would be infidelity in the relationship. If the water appeared to boil or bubble, the lovers would find happiness together.

There was also a bed-shaped rock called ‘Gwely Esyth’ overlooking the well and those who slept on it would be cured of rheumatism if they carved their names in the turf once they awoke.

In the years after her death, Dwynwen’s cult spread across Wales and, though she was not as well known as Saint Valentine, people still celebrated her special day. In recent years it has been marked in Wales by concerts, parties and the giving of  Dydd Santes Dwynwen (St Dwynwen’s Day) cards.

There are also other location associated with St Dwynwen. At Tresilian Cove in Glamorgan there is a huge fissure known as the Cave of Dwynwen. Within the cave is a natural archway known as Dwynwen’s Bow of Destiny. Local people used to throw a stone over the arch, believing g that the number of tries it took to achieve this indicated the number of years that would elapse before the thrower married.

Marriages were also celebrated on the cave. In the 18th century, one such wedding took place there between a Miss Cecil Powell of Llandow and Thomas Picton of Poyston in Pembrokeshire. Their son was General Thomas Picton of Haverfordwest, who fought at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. 

Categories:History

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