“Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”
William Shakespeare, Henry V
When the name of St George is mentioned in Britain these days, our thoughts turn to English patriotism, as summed up in Shakespeare’s rousing conclusion to King Henry V’s famous speech, given before he leads out his men to victory over the French army at Agincourt.
On 23rd April every year, we celebrate the feast day of England’s patron saint. But who was he, and how does he come to be a symbol of England? Did he really slay a dragon? And why is our national day not a public holiday and an occasion for mass public celebration like those of the other countries of the British Isles?
Let’s start with what we know of the man himself. According to tradition, he was born to wealthy parents in Roman-ruled Palestine, and lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a senior officer in the Roman army and a favourite of the Emperor, Diocletian. However, he was raised as a Christian and spoke out against Roman persecution of the emerging religion, refusing to carry out acts of violence against fellow Christians. He publicly declared his faith in a face-to-face confrontation with the Emperor, who offered him land, money and titles to renounce his faith. As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed by beheading. He came to be venerated as a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox church over subsequent centuries. When Western European crusaders were fighting in the Holy Land a thousand years ago, this figure of a brave, Christian soldier led to the saint being adopted by many knights, who brought George and his legends back to the West.
So what about that dragon? Slaying mythical beasts, particularly dragons, is something that crops up a lot in legends, and is very often a metaphor for fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds, defying the political powers that are in place, and for battling against and triumphing over evil. St George’s military background, defence of his faith and refusal to submit to Roman authority fit all of these criteria, and it is perhaps no surprise that dragon slaying was added to the legends that were built up around him, and popularised in the West by chroniclers who had accompanied the Crusades.
St. George is not England’s original patron saint. Several other figures, including Saxon kings Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, had been viewed as the most important “national” saints in the medieval period. It is down to later kings that St George overtook them. Himself a famous crusader, Edward I had his armies fighting the Welsh under the banner of St George and the saint became a symbol of English royal strength (especially in military terms). This was continued by Edward III, who made St George the patron of his new Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in England, and Henry V whose devotion to St George was not just a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination. The outstanding military victories achieved by these successive kings helped to turn the saint from a royal saint to a national one. As well as being patron saint of England, he has that distinction for various other countries – including Ukraine, Portugal and Georgia although the latter, despite many claims to the contrary, is not named after him.
The flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, was a widely used symbol at the time of the crusades and became associated with St George when groups of knights adopted him as their patron (in other words, the flag was assigned to the saint and has no link to him in terms of the original legends). The flag became part of the insignia of the kings of England and, after the split from the Roman Catholic church, was the only saint’s banner permitted to be used in English churches – thus cementing its position as a symbol of English identity and independence. When the United Kingdom was established as a political union, the cross of St George represented England (and Wales) in the new Union Flag.
Despite a long history as patron saint, St George’s feast day has never been celebrated as a major holiday in England. This contrasts with his counterparts in Wales (St David), Scotland (St Andrew) and, especially, Ireland (St Patrick). These days, many towns and cities do have “St George’s Day” events, but these generally take place on the closest weekend to the actual day. It is not a public holiday, despite limited but growing calls for it to be declared as one. The reasons why the English patron saint’s feast is celebrated to a lesser extent probably lies in England’s political dominance of its neighbours. In their cases, local traditions and symbols were very important as representations of their continuing independent spirit and culture despite being politically ruled by England. There was no need for this to happen in England and so it never really did. In recent years, greater political self-determination in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and ongoing debates over the future of the United Kingdom as a political entity have led to a growing search for a distinctly “English” – as opposed to British – identity. This has manifested itself in a growing number of St George’s Day events, and increasing use of the flag as a national symbol (helped by its association with sports teams, notably the England football team – witness the number of flags on cars and in windows around the time of the major international tournaments). However, this has not been without controversy as the flag also has very negative connotations through its use by football hooligans and extreme right-wing political parties. There have been concerted efforts to “reclaim” the flag, as part of a wider move to establish a positive and inclusive English identity for the future.
So when we see those flags flying today, and no doubt during the forthcoming World Cup, we are witnessing the latest chapter in a centuries-old story that moves from the Roman army, to the Crusades, to the Reformation to modern England. And even if there wasn’t really a dragon involved, that’s a pretty impressive story.