The 23rd of April is St. George’s Day here in England. There is something inherently romantic in the many artistic depictions of St. George. He is often in full armour, brandishing a weapon, and on the verge of killing a dragon. Later on in this post, I hope to convey the importance of St. George in the history of England and of Britain itself.
Since St. George is a Christian saint, I had a look at info about him on Catholic Online, which stated, “Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for God’s holy truth. St. George was a brave martyr who was victorious over the devil. He was a soldier in the army of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and he was one of the Emperor’s favorite soldiers. Now Diocletian was a pagan and a bitter enemy to the Christians. He put to death every Christian he could find. George was a brave Christian, a real soldier of Christ. Without fear, he went to the Emperor and sternly scolded him for being so cruel. Then he gave up his position in the Roman army. For this he was tortured in many terrible ways and finally beheaded.”
That doesn’t sound so good, does it?
I went to the more reputable Oxford DNB article, where this seemed a lot closer to the truth: “George [St George] (d. c.303?), patron saint of England, is a figure whose historicity cannot be established with certainty.”
Unfortunately, the social media world is crawling with people using St. George to further their political or social views, which is sad. There was a spectacularly politically-charged piece about St. George on The Independent today (no doubt because we’re fast approaching Election Day), which said:
George was born in Syria to a Greek family. He served in the army of an Italian city-state and ultimately died living in Turkey. His parents, though Greek-speaking, were born in Cappadocia in central Turkey and Palestine respectively.
Do people fail to understand that modern countries such as Italy, Turkey, and Palestine didn’t exist as we now know them? For one thing, he was born in the Roman Empire Province of Syria-Palaestina, which was a unification of the lands of Roman Judaea and Roman Syria. Also, why is there such emphasis placed on his being “Middle Eastern”? What, and Jesus wasn’t? Does it even matter? As the excellent historian, Ian Mortimer wrote, “Clearly, it does not matter where a saint came from. It is what he stands for – the message of his life – which is important. In all the cases above, St George stands out as unique in one respect. His message has absolutely nothing to do with converting people to Christianity. St George stands for the courage to face adversity in order to defend the innocent. The triumph of good over evil, through courage.” You can read more of Mortimer’s article on George here.
Exactly. Regardless of his origins, there has been an attraction to this saint’s story throughout history, and the story about his defeating a dragon (which represents Satan). Let us have a look at some more beautiful paintings that were inspired by him. I think some of the finest works depicting George came from the 1400s on.
According to Ann. Mon. (Rolls Ser.), iv, 10., the chapel of St. George’s was erected by Robert d’Oilly I in 1074 within the castle of Oxford. That’s one of the first references to buildings named after him in England.
Up until the reign of Edward III, the patron saint was Edward the Confessor. Things changed when Edward came to the throne. In 1348, he founded the College of St George and the Order of the Garter. The latter is “The Most Noble Order of the Garter is among the earliest of numerous orders of chivalry founded during the Middle Ages in the major courts of Europe.”
In 1475, King Edward IV commissioned the building of St. George’s Chapel, at Windsor Castle. To this day, the Chapel is an incredibly beautiful Christian site.
The Tudors, experts in the art of propaganda, also used St. George to their advantage. Most of them, with the exception of King Edward VI (who was sceptical about the saint), incorporated something to do with St. George.
Elizabeth I had a talent for making herself into a symbolically powerful monarch. She often had references to her purity and virginity in her portraits.
According to the Oxford DNB, “It remained customary, moreover, for knights of the order who were unable to attend the annual Garter feasts to celebrate St George’s day, with all the splendour at their disposal, wherever they happened to be (the earl of Essex did so at Dublin in 1599), thereby further advertising the greatness of the monarch and her association with the saint.”
If you have a look at the literature of this Late Tudor period, you’ll find many references to St. George. William Shakespeare most memorably mentioned him in Henry V:
‘Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ – Henry V, Act III, 1598.
As for the Stuarts of the 17th and 18th-centuries, they too recognised St. George’s importance. It is no coincidence that three Late Stuart monarchs chose to have their coronations on the 23rd of April – St. George’s Day.
In his entry for the 23rd April, 1661, John Evelyn wrote:
Was the coronation of His Majesty Charles the Second in the Abby-Church of Westminster at all which ceremonie I was present.
Evelyn then goes into considerable detail about the event. Samuel Pepys was present at this event as well, and he also wrote about this coronation in his entry for the 23rd of April, 1661. Pepys, after complaining that he had to wait several hours before the king arrived in the Abbey, had a little bit too much fun celebrating (from the Latham & Matthews edition):
“Mr. Hunt and I went in with Mr. Thornbury (who did give the company all their wines, he being yeoman of the wine-cellar to the King) to his house; and there we drank the King’s health and nothing else, till one of the gentlemen fell down stark drunk and there lay spewing. And I went to my Lord’s pretty well. But no sooner a-bed with Mr. Sheply but my head begun to turn and I to vomitt, and if ever I was foxed it was now…when I waked myself wet with my spewing.”
In 1664, Thomas Lowick published a History of the Life & Martyrdom of St George, the Titular Patron of England, which unfortunately I cannot find to include here but for the image on the left.
Following Charles’s death in 1685, his brother James became King James II. Again, on St. George’s Day, James chose to be crowned. Evelyn still writes about this coronation, although he himself did not attend because he did not wish to leave his poorly wife on her own. Let’s see his post for that day anyway, 23rd April, 1685.
“Was this day of his Majesties Coronation, the Queene was also crown’d, the solemnity very magnificent, as the particulars are set forth in print: The Bishop of Ely preached, but (to the greate sorrow of the people) no Sacrament, as ought to have been: However the King begins his reigne with greate expectations and hopes of much reformation as to the former vices, & prophanesse both of Court & Country: Having been present at our late King’s Coronation, I was not ambitious of seeing this Ceremonie.”
Evelyn also wrote about Queen Anne’s coronation on St. George’s Day in 1702:
“Was Queen Ann Crowned with all possible magnificence & Pomp, the Archbishop of York preaching on _____. It was a bright day, and every body much pleased & satisfied.”
What tends to be even more controversial is the English flag itself. Only in very recent times (less than fifty years), the flag of St. George has been mainly associated with football or, by some, as a symbol of racism and imperialism. Yes, there is a red cross on the flag, but honestly, this country has a very long history of Christianity, so it shouldn’t be shocking. Yes, it seems to have been first used during the Crusades, but that’s also part of this nation’s history. St. George is the patron saint of England and he is worshipped in several places throughout the world.
Personally, I am tired of being warned by people to take down my flag because it will be offensive to immigrants. I am an immigrant and I chose to live in this country because I love it, respect it, and do not wish to change it. As a cultural anthropologist as well as a historian, I see no reason why the English people should be told they have no right to celebrate their heritage and culture. Why should Scottish people be congratulated for being proud of their heritage when English people are vilified for doing the same? It is nonsensical. Every single culture I have studied throughout the world has had good and bad elements and have helped and have exploited. Not a single culture, not a single group of people in history has been beyond fault.
I’ve covered a little bit of the history of St. George, and you can see that over the past several hundred years, he has been an important figure to the nation. Why should that change? Why should we not celebrate St. George’s Day?
I love celebrating national holidays – I enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, although I’m not Irish, I was in Paris once for Bastille Day, the 4th of JuIy (USA), etc. I’d love to participate in national holidays throughout the world because it would be so great to see people showing a love of their tradition and culture. Such days bring people together in a wonderful way (and not just by going down the pub, either).
And so on this day we call St. George’s Day, I want everyone who wants to display the flag to be able to do so without shame.