What are the two most romantic days of the year? One, obviously, is Valentine’s Day. The other, for a pair of lovebirds anyway, is their anniversary.
That got me to thinking… what if we combined the year’s two most romantic days to take a look at some of the great Valentine’s Day anniversaries we could be celebrating today? It was such an awful idea I couldn’t resist.
So without further ado, here are history’s five greatest Valentine’s Day anniversaries…
#5. February 14, 1778: The American flag is recognized at sea for the first time
Although it became the most loving and essential friendship of American history, the Americans and French took their sweet time consummating the relationship.
The American Revolutionary War against the British Empire began in April, 1775, with the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” What began as skirmishes in Lexington and Concord soon spiraled across the colony of Massachusetts and the rest of the 13 colonies. In July, 1776, colonial leadership finally determined reconciliation was impossible and declared their independence.
To help their chances, the Americans began courting Britain’s mortal enemy, France, as an ally. The Franco-English rivalry stretched across centuries, continents, and a bunch of major (and long!) wars. France was tempted to support the American cause to damage British standing. In truth, it had already done so in minor ways before their full entry, but for a while it seemed as if more significant support would be a waste of French lives and treasure. For much of the war’s earliest stages, the outclassed American continental army, despite the best efforts of George Washington (the 14th most influential figure in Western history!), was routed by the professional British military.
That is, until American triumph in October, 1777’s Battle of Saratoga. The Americans’ first major victory in upstate New York showed that the ragtag army in need of a shower might somehow defeat a global superpower. Soon after, the USS Ranger, under the command of future Led Zeppelin bass guitarist Captain John Paul Jones, sailed for France with the news.
In France, ambassador Benjamin Franklin, who had been mired in difficult treaty talks, eagerly received the news and parlayed it into a winning negotiation strategy. The French finally agreed to help, and the two sides finalized the Franco-American Treaty on February 6, 1778.
On February 14, as Jones and the Ranger bobbed off the coast before departing from French waters, the French warship Robuste, as if to cement the new friendship, gave the new American flag a nine-gun salute, the first ever recognition of the American flag at sea.
#4. February 14, 1076: Pope Gregory VII excommunicates King Henry IV
Pope Gregory and King Henry of Germany and Italy had a love-hate relationship… as in they loved how much they hated each other. Their primary disagreement was over investiture, or the appointment of clergy, essentially a proxy front for the period’s broader Church vs. state conflicts. Although the Roman Catholic Church’s traditions stated that appointments to various clerical levels — from priests to popes — were determined from within the organization, Henry felt that the clergy on his lands should be appointed by the king. The Church considered his actions as simony— the selling of sacred things. These were not baseless accusations; Henry indeed used these valued and powerful offices to reward favors.
Members of the Church, including Pope Gregory VII, instructed Henry to stop this practice of “lay investiture” — or a state leader empowering clergy. Henry reacted like kings throughout time and did whatever the hell he wanted. In September of 1075, he appointed a new Bishop of Milan despite Pope Gregory appointing someone else.
In January, Henry’s posture grew even more aggressive. He organized a council of loyal bishops — the Synod of Worms, named after the German town, not the gross wiggly things you used to step on — to pull its support of Pope Gregory, followed by Henry demanding a papal abdication. Henry also wrote an incendiary letter to the Pope, criticizing his papacy. The letter ended, “I Henry, king by the grace of God, do say unto thee, together with all our bishops: Descend, descend to be damned throughout the ages.” In other words, he told the Pope — the Pope – to go to Hell.
The Holy Father did not take kindly to his unholy child. On February 14, Gregory excommunicated the mutinous monarch, kicking him out of the Church, denying him sacraments, and stamping his ticket to a torturous afterlife. Soon after, Gregory released “all Christians from the bonds of the oath which they have made or shall make to [Henry]; and I forbid any one to serve him as king.”
King of a heavily Catholic amalgam of states, a neutered Henry did not handle this breakup well. Sensing he was about to lose his position, he groveled all the way to Canossa Castle in northern Italy, where Pope Gregory wintered as a guest of a Tuscan noble. There, King Henry suffered his humiliation of Canossa, where lore says he humbly waited outside in monk’s clothing, barefoot, for three blizzardy days, seeking absolution. Gregory finally relented and welcomed the frostbit Henry back into the Church.
You’d think that’d be the end of it, but alas. Once Henry re-positioned himself, he starting picking his own bishops (Forrest Gump voice) agaaaiiiiin, and Pope Gregory excommunicated him agaaaaiiiiin. But this time, Henry avenged himself. He rose up against Gregory by besieging Rome in the early 1080s. Gregory eventually capitulated and fled. Henry’s handpicked successor, the Antipope Clement III, elevated the king to Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Pope Gregory eventually landed in exile at a castle in Salerno, where he died in 1085, days after he withdrew all of his excommunications, save two — one of them Henry’s.
The struggle between Church and state over investiture continued for decades after, but no rivalry quite matched the intense love-to-hate relationship of Pope Gregory and King Henry.
#3. February 14, 1613: Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V of the Palatinate
What’s this?? An actual wedding story for today’s Valentine’s Day post? I had to do one.
Princess Elizabeth Stuart was quite the eligible bachelorette. Her father, King James, was sovereign over England, Scotland, and Ireland. Upon the death of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth of England (the 19th most influential figure in Western history), he had inherited the Stuart and Tudor domains, stacking atop his head crowns from across the British Isles. Although the younger Elizabeth grew up as only third in line to inherit these crowns, many suitors were eager to associate themselves with the increasingly powerful family.
As a result, she seemingly had her pick of prominent European men. Victor Amadeus, who was the Prince of Piedmont, the King of Spain’s nephew, and heir to the Duke of Savoy, came calling. So did the Dutch Prince Maurice of Nassau. England’s champion was Theophilus Howard, Lord Howard of Walden. Also interested was Frederic Ulric, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Even the powerful King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, and the future King Louis XIII of France were potential mates. And that’s just the short list.
Each was dismissed due to some fatal flaw; some were of “lower stock” than her family sought, and some didn’t place the Stuart family in a stronger position. France’s Prince Louis was Catholic during a time where the English would really rather she not be married to one. And, in the case of the otherwise perfect Protestant King Gustav, he was at war with Denmark, home of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne.
Ultimately, Elizabeth and her family settled on the rather nervous-looking Frederick V of the Palatinate.
A noble in the Protestant section of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick and his family worried Elizabeth might marry a Catholic, which may lead to momentum for their denominational rivals. (Protestants and Catholics were in the midst of decades of violence, a buildup to the looming Thirty Years’ War.) In the spring of 1612, hoping to steal her away from Louis or any other Catholic suitors, Frederick’s family sent fixer Hans Meinhard von Schönberg to negotiate with Elizabeth’s family. Hans delivered. In May, the parties signed a marriage contract.
Things then moved quickly. The couple, both 16 years old (they were born just a week apart in August of 1596), met in October. Frederick formally proposed in January, and then, on February 14, 1613, they got married in a luxurious Westminster royal wedding attended by Oprah and watched by millions on the BBC.
The couple went on to have thirteen children. (How… romantic?) The most historically notable of these kids was the 12th, Sophia. Remember how Princess Elizabeth was just third in line for the English throne? Her older brother and heir apparent to the throne, Prince Henry, died before their father, moving Elizabeth to second-in-line. Her young brother Charles eventually succeeded James as Charles I in 1628, and he eventually had children, dooming Elizabeth’s chances for the throne. However, Charles’s descendants were not long for the throne. Charles had three kids — Charles, Mary, and James.
Although both Mary and James had children of their own (two of whom married each other — Mary’s son William & James’s daughter Mary — which is a little too Games of Thronesy for my liking), the Stuart line stopped with that generation (William & Mary didn’t have any kids, thank goodness) when Queen Anne died in 1714 without children. To find the next monarch, the lineage had to be traced back up to our co-main character, Princess Elizabeth Stuart, who had passed away decades earlier on February 13, 1662, one day short of the 49th anniversary of her wedding.
Elizabeth’s daughter Sophia had married the powerful Elector of Hannover, another powerful German noble named Ernest Augustus. The Electress was slated to be heir to the Stuart crowns, but she died in 1714, just two months before Anne. She had already had children however, the oldest of which was George, who therefore inherited the British throne even though Elizabeth’s bloodline has been so thoroughly Germanized that the new King of England did not speak English.
George’s son became King George II, and George II’s grandson became King George III, the ruler against whom the American colonists fought a revolution that included John Paul Jones sailing to France to give notice of the American victory at Saratoga.
But never forget that George III was the great great great grandson of Frederick V of the Palatinate and Princess Elizabeth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, who got married on Valentine’s Day in 1613.
#2. February 14, 842: The Oaths of Strasbourg
Not all love is romantic love. Sometimes, there’s brotherly love too. Alongside that brotherly love, of course, is sometimes intense brotherly hatred.
Such was the case with the grandsons of Charlemagne (the 21st most influential figure in Western history). After the great Frankish king had conquered half of Europe in the late 700s and early 800s, his son, Louis the Pious, did his best to maintain the empire his father had built:
Unfortunately, Louis’s not so Pious sons each wanted to inherit Europe’s greatest empire since Rome, and they fought several civil wars for control, both before and after Louis’s death in 840. Louis preferred the eldest, Lothair, inherit the empire, but his two younger brothers, Louis and Charles, had other plans.
On February 14, 842, Louis “the German” and Charles “the Bald” — I share an affinity for the latter, for some reason — took their “Oaths of Strasbourg,” swearing to ally against their older brother and split the empire between them. This oath gave them the upper hand in the Franks’ civil war, forcing Lothair to the table for negotiations, culminating in 843’s Treaty of Verdun, which divided the empire in three:
Lothair and his successors had an impossible time defending the borders of their middle kingdom, and slowly the territory eroded as the West and East Frankish kingdoms evolved.
The final resting points of those evolutions?
France and Germany.
That’s right — the Oaths of Strasbourg in 842 made France and Germany possible. What a consequential Valentine’s Day.
#1. February 14, 1990: Voyager 1 takes a picture of Earth “suspended in a sunbeam”
Few images in history should make us all love each other as much as this one does.
The photograph was taken by the darling Voyager 1 space probe. Launched in 1977, it took our first close-up pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, passing the latter more than three years after it launched. Its final inertia took it on a course for deep space. (The trajectory did not take Voyager 1 to the furthest planets, Uranus and Neptune.)
Ten years after Saturn, mission control decided to turn Voyager‘s camera off to conserve power and prolong the probe’s other instruments in preparation for collecting data on interstellar space. Shortly before doing so, however, its camera was pointed back home for a series of final photographs from a distance of 3.7 billion miles, or more than 40 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth. One of those photographs, taken on February 14, 1990 and shown above, depicts Earth across this immense vacuum of space.
In it, we are less than a pixel.
I could try and fail to write ten thousand meaningful words about this photograph and what it represented, or I could just relay words from the man most qualified to do it succinctly, poetically, and timelessly.
Carl Sagan, ladies and gentleman.
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.Carl Sagan
In other words: love each other.
Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers.
If you liked today’s PPFA Five, you might like these other lists…
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And can I interest you in a book about the Top 30 Most Influential Figures of Western History??