Saint George for England

By Colman, Rebecca | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Saint George for England


Colman, Rebecca, Contemporary Review


On the twenty-third of April some Englishmen will wear a red rose and others will toast the memory of England's patron saint. Why the English chose St George as their patron saint has long been a puzzle. There is no evidence that St George ever left the Orient, much less travelled as far west as the British Isles, yet his fervent adoption by the English rivalled even that of the Greeks who were the first to call him megalomartyr. His popularity was spread in the west by returning crusaders. Innumerable institutions and communities large and small made him their patron saint. Under his flag, Venetians and Genoese built commercial empires, Portugal fought for independence, the Catalans freed Barcelona from the Moors and Aragon clinched the victory that led to the reconquest of Valencia after the saint appeared at a critical juncture in the battle of Puig. Where no such spectacular triumph accrued to his name, he was associated with important local myths (the Bulgarians identified him with their fabled Thracian Rider) or with traditional rituals, particularly spring festivals. In England's case, however, historians have searched in vain for a comparable connection. He did not appear at a time of great national endeavour but, on the contrary, was adopted after the ignominious defeat of 1066 that cost the English their country. The traditional answer to 'What did St George mean to the English?' has been a list of Christian virtues that is generally considered inadequate, since pious exhortation without concrete expectations has seldom spurred men to action. In recent centuries, industrial and imperial ascendancy has given England's St George world-wide exposure, but his adoption in the first place has remained a mystery.

The maturing of St George into England's patron saint was a slow process spanning several centuries after the Norman Conquest. Before that time he was hardly known outside monastic circles, a fact confirmed by Aelfric, Archbishop of York and author of the first English life of the saint who, writing less than fifty years before the Normans' arrival, differentiated between saints 'honoured by the English nation' and saints like St George whom monks 'honoured among themselves.' The earliest recorded popular recognition of St George was as a battle-cry in the third crusade (1189). A generation later, his feast day was declared a national festival and a century later Edward III made him patron of the prestigious Order of the Garter. In the fifteenth century, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered his festival to be celebrated with the same solemnity as Christmas, and in the sixteenth, St George's superior standing was marked by Henry VIII's ban on the celebration of any other saint's day except his. By Shakespeare's time he might be described as a fully incorporated patron saint of England: he was provided with an English birthplace (Coventry) and an English lord for a father, in the way people popularly authenticate their heroes, no matter what their provenance. His establishment thus appears to have been a gradual recognition of increasing public attachment to a widely popular figure who was not anchored in any way to England.

A greater puzzle, and one that has a close bearing on the case, is that the English did not connect anybody with the most memorable event in their history: the conquest and settlement of Britain. Unlike other people on similar historic missions, the invaders of Britain left behind no memories of their triumph. There are no songs of the deeds of the Angles and Saxons. Old English poems about foreign heroes like Beowulf have survived, but there are no legends of AElle and Cerdic and Ida, telling of heroic days when Angles and Saxons fought battle after bloody battle, as we now know they did from the excavated sites along the Thames and other inlets. The Celts' side of that story is enshrined in the world-renowned legends of the Romano-British King Arthur. It is inconceivable that such a life-and-death struggle should not have left behind similar, deeply-etched folk memories on the English side, stories that ought to have become the cherished beginnings of a patriotic literature. …

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