And it comes round once again, the day every English bigot loves, an excuse to wave flags and be openly racist. Although, to be fair to them, they’re usually openly racist anyway. I’m certain there are some people who ardently celebrate St. George’s Day who aren’t bigots, but they’re drowned out by the noisy, ignorant ones.
Who was/is saint George?
For those who don’t know, there’s two main legends about Saint George. Firstly, he was supposed to have been born in the Roman Empire, in what is now Turkey, around 280 C.E., and having joined the Roman army, he was executed during the reign of Emperor Diocletian for his Christian faith on 23rd April 303 C.E. He’s a martyr saint, early Christianity is full of them. It may even have some basis in reality; there are early references to him from the fifth century and his tomb is said to be at Lydda. And the Diocletian Persecutions did happen:
The end of the reign was darkened by the last major persecution of the Christians. The reasons for this persecution are uncertain, but various explanations have been advanced: the possible influence of Galerius, a fanatic follower of the traditional Roman religion; the desire to restore complete unity, without tolerance of a foreign cult that was seen as separatist and of individuals who were forming a kind of state within the state; the influence of anti-Christian philosophers such as Porphyry and governors such as Hierocles on the scholarly class and on the imperial court; the fear of an alienation of rebellious armies from emperor worship; or perhaps the disturbances provoked by the Christians themselves, who were agitated by doctrinal controversies. At any rate, some or all of these factors led Diocletian to publish the four edicts of 303–304, promising all the while that he would not spill blood. His vow went unheeded, however, and the persecutions spread through the empire with an extreme violence that did not succeed in annihilating Christianity but caused the faith of the martyrs to blaze forth instead.
Diocletian was quite an interesting emperor, stabilising the Empire after the anarchy of the 3rd century and introducing the tetrachy system, as well as reorganising Imperial government generally. In this he laid the foundations for the eventually break up of the western Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire.
The second legend has no basis in reality at all. A dragon is preventing the residents of a town from getting to their water supply unless they feed it one victim a day. eventually, it’s the king’s daughter who’s on the menu. St. George comes riding along and slays the dragon, saving the princess. It was a very popular play in the middle ages, and is still a part of traditional mummery and morris dancing. It is also pure fantasy. As much as I hate to admit it, dragons don’t exist, as anything other than metaphors anyway. The story was popularised in the Legenda Sanctorum (Readings on the Saints), later known as the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) by James of Voragine , published in 1265.
The origin of the legend remains obscure. It is first recorded in the late sixth century and may have been an allegory of the persecution of Diocletian, who was sometimes referred to as ‘the dragon’ in ancient texts. The story may also be a christianized version of the Greek legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster at Arsuf or Jaffa, near Lydda (Diospolis), where the cult of St George grew up around the site of his supposed tomb.
Officially, nobody believed the dragon-slaying legends, they were helpful for converting and teaching lessons to an audience who already had a tradition of hero tales involving dragons. St. George represents a group of virtues – fortitude in defence of Christianity. courage and honour – and is venerated in many churches from England to Ethiopia and the Near East. (Christianity first took hold in Asia and Africa; the oldest Christian churches still surviving are the Ethiopian Church and Egyptian Coptic Christianity, and until relatively recently there were extensive Christian communities in what is now Iraq, Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when you think about it, geographically, as Palatine/Israel is on the edge between both continents).
He is currently the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; and of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (second to St Mark), as well as England. He is patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry; of farmers and field workers, Boy Scouts and butchers; of horses, riders and saddlers; and of sufferers from leprosy, plague and syphilis. His veneration in the Catholic Church was down-graded in 1969 to the lowest category, commemoration, an optional memorial for local observance. This is because, while popular and possibly real, there aren’t any actual details of his life or death recorded. In 496 C.E., Pope Gelasius in De libris recipiendis includes George among those saints ‘whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God’.
What does this possibly fictitious third century Roman soldier/martyr saint have to do with England?
Bugger all. No, really. He never set foot in Britannia, the Roman province, if he existed.
So how did he come to be patron saint of England?
That is a different story. George had a wide-spread following in the Near East and was first recognised as a saint in about 900 C.E.
During the Crusades, St. George. popular in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, is said to have appeared to rally the troops at the Battle of Antioch (1098). Similar stories travelled back to western Europe with returning Crusaders, who’d heard them from Byzantine soldiers. In 1191-92, while campaigning in Palestine, Richard I put his troops under the protection of St. George. Sometime after this the red cross on white was established as the uniform of English soldiers. In 1348 King Edward III declared George Patron Saint of England and of his new order of chivalry.
A lesser holiday in honour of St George, to be kept on 23 April, was declared by the Synod of Oxford in 1222; and St George had become acknowledged as Patron Saint of England by the end of the fourteenth century. In 1415, the year of Agincourt, Archbishop Chichele raised St George’s Day to a great feast and ordered it to be observed like Christmas Day. In 1778 the holiday reverted to a simple day of devotion for English Catholics
Other possible patron saints
If the country really needs a Patron, then you could always consider St. Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia. He fought alongside King Alfred of Wessex, against the Vikings but after the defeat of his army in 869/870 he was captured. Refusing to share power, he was (according to Abbo of Fleury, quoting St. Dunstan) tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Then beheaded. His head was located with the help of a talking wolf who was heard calling ‘Here, here, here’ until it was found and reunited with his body. Until Edward III changed it to St. George, St. Edmund was England’s patron saint. There have been two attempts in recent years to have him returned in place of St. George. Be a bit of a bugger though, we’d have to change all the flags from red crosses on a white background to a white dragon on a red background. This banner was taken into battle, until it was supplanted by the st. George cross under Edward III. His bones are currently in Arundel Castle. His saint’s day is 20th November.
There’s also St. Edward the Confessor, King of England until 1065 and bringer of no end of trouble thanks to his stupid relatives in Normandy and inability to write down exactly who he wanted to follow him on the throne, was also popular. Indeed, King Edward I, II and III, were named for him in an attempt to draw on his legacy and legitimise their existence.
If we really must have a patron saint, why not someone that wasn’t a really useless king? There’s always Saint Hilda, of Whitby. Clever, intelligent, brokered the arrangement between Celtic Christianity and Roman Catholicism in England, loved by many and influential in early English Christianity, and apparently turned snakes in ammonites.
How about St. Audrey, of Ely? Her real name was Etheldreda. Married twice, renounced her second marriage to join a nunnery. after a long argument with her husband, the king of Northumbria, and a bishop who really thought she shouldn’t do that sort of thing. Later, she left her nunnery in what is now Yorkshire, and with help from her father, the king of East Anglia, set up a double house in Ely – Eel Island – which still exists as a cathedral. Another woman from a royal family, she was connected by marriage to all the kingdoms of England and was highly influential in her time.
Saint Bede the Venerable is also another good choice. A scholar and historian who left us with some of the earliest written records of England. He was an okay poet and I think he might have had a bit of a crush on St. Hilda.
At the very least they should be considered; they were early English converts to Christianity, actually existed, left tangible evidence of their lives and influence in England. Which, if we must have patron saints, surely goes in their favour?
I never quite got why the Scots chose St. Andrew, when they could have St. Columba? Alright, he lived on Iona off the west coast, from where he launched his bid to convert the Scots, and was an Irish/Celtic/Insular Christian, as opposed to Roman Catholic (and boy! were they opposed to Catholicism!) but it makes more sense than one of Jesus’ disciples. Saint Patrick of Ireland and St. David of Wales make sense, they were either born there (St. Dawi) or they spent large parts of their lives and preached in the country (St. Patrick). If you’re going to have a patron saint then someone who has some connection to the country makes sense.
Why, precisely, do we need a patron saint?
I don’t think we do. It’s a religious concept, an outdated one. Although we are officially a Protestant Christian country, with an official religion, in reality we’re a secular country. In fact, the 2011 census (source 3) showed that there had been a decrease in numbers identifying as Christians in England and Wales, from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011, and a quarter of the population (25.1%) reported no religion. I wonder how many of the 59.3% are culturally Christian rather than actively Christian?
It seems rather daft to me to have a saint’s day or a patron saint when a large number of the population are either not religious, follow other religions or aren’t actively Christian – cultural Christians rather than actual believers. In 2015 church attendance figures for all denominations were at less than 3.5 million (source 4), down from just over 5 million in 1980.
As this graph clearly shows, less than 1,000,000 attend Anglican services, that state religion I mentioned earlier, some of you may have heard of it, goes by the name Church of England? About the same number attend Catholic services. I suggest that this supports my idea that most people who answered ‘Christian’ on the 2011 Census are culturally Christian rather than actively Christian. They celebrate Christmas and Easter because it’s ‘what you do’. rather than because it means anything.
As with the big chocolate eating festivals, saints days have become divorced from their original purpose – the honouring of religious figures, who are supposed to represent the people they patronise in the court of heaven.
If it isn’t religious, what’s it about?
The current celebration of saint’s days in the countries of the British Isles seem to have less to do with religion and more to do with nationalism, especially since all but Eire are officially protestant countries, and saints are a Catholic and Orthodox element of Christianity, not a Protestant one. It’s all a lot of alcoholic excess and flag-waving rubbish, a chance for newspapers and right-wing political groups to drum up rabid nationalism, xenophobia and support for insupportable ideas.
If I was being generous I’d say it was about having a focal point for celebrating a country’s history and culture, and I have no problem with people wanting to celebrate that, but why does it have to centre around a flag rather than tangible achievements – like the NHS, universal enfranchisement, free primary and secondary education, or works of literature?
As a slightly related aside: no, it’s not true that you can be arrested for flying the St. George Cross, nor is it considered offensive. It’s a lie made up by The Sun. Facebook groups and certain newspapers have been sharing this nonsense for years, and people actually seem to believe it. It all came about because in 2010, ahead of some major football tournament it was proposed that pub owners could ban people wearing any football shirt from their pub, if they wanted to. The proposal was based on the well-known connection between alcohol, football matches and violence. It never actually happened but The Sun spun it up into a ‘they’re banning England shirts and flags because it offends foreigners’ story, and then people bent on causing trouble picked it up and ran with it.
There is flag protocol, which is generally adhered to on public buildings and there are rules for boats and ships, and technically no private individual has an absolute right to fly any flag, but in practice, on private dwellings you can fly any damn flag you please.
23rd April is also Shakespeare’s Birth and Death Day. He got pissed up celebrating his birthday, and died of excess alcohol. I think I prefer to remember Mr Shakespeare, he actually left something of value to the country. And definitely existed.
1. Encyclopaedia Britannca
- Contributor: Jean Cousin
- Article Title: Diocletian
- Website Name: Encyclopædia Britannica
- Publisher: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.
- Date Published:November 15, 2017
- URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diocletian
- Access Date: April 23, 2018
- Access Date: 23rd April 2018
3. Office of National Statistics
- Access Date: 23rd April 2018
- Access Date: 23rd April 2018