Saints can be a bit odd. Most are obscure and unknown, whilst a few give us an excuse for a good old knees-up. Take Ireland’s St Patrick, who was really an Englishman, and is celebrated with green face paint, lots of Guinness and street parties.
George, the patron saint of England, whose feast day is being celebrated at various venues across the city this coming Monday (see G3 for details), is relatively new to the party scene. Perhaps we English are struggling to work out what being English really means, now the Welsh and Scots have their own government/assembly? We see his flag at football matches and the Last Night of the Proms. But who exactly was George?
He died in 303 in Diospolis, Palestine, and was killed for his Christian faith. He was probably a soldier, and churches were dedicated to him in Jerusalem from the sixth century. He also became a patron of the Byzantine armies.
The famous story of George and the dragon became popular in the West through the Golden Legend, which was translated and printed by William Caxton. The dragon, a local pest that terrorised the whole country, poisoned with its breath all who approached it. Every day it was appeased with an offering of two sheep, but when these grew scarce, a human victim was chosen by lot.
The lot had fallen on the king’s daughter, who went to her fate dressed as a bride. But George attacked the dragon, pierced it with his lance, and led it captive by the princess’s girdle as if it were completely tame. George told the people not to be afraid, baptised people as Christians, and rid them of this monster. George killed the dragon and 15,000 people were baptised. He would take no reward, but asked the king to maintain churches, honour priests, and show compassion to the poor.
The cult of St George took on new dimensions for England during the Crusades. King Richard I placed himself and his army under George’s protection. By then he was the special patron of soldiers. In 1222 his feast day was made a holiday, and King Edward III founded (under the patronage of St George) the Order of the Garter for which the fine chapel of St George at Windsor was built by Edward IV and Henry VII.
St George has a wide portfolio. Apart from being patron saint of England, he is also the patron saint of soldiers, knights, archers, armourers, and husbandmen. He was also invoked against the plague, leprosy and syphilis. He has 160 churches in England dedicated to him. There is a 16th century window at St Neot’s Church in Cornwall that has this inscription: “Thou, among those saints which thou doest see/Shalt be a saint, and thine own nation’s friend/And patron; thou Saint George shalt called be/St George of merry England, the sign of victory.”
So however merry you are on 23 April, raise a glass to good old George and that poor dragon.
And whilst on the subject of saints, there’s a special anniversary on 19 April that will probably not be mentioned in conversation by Danes in bars around town this week. It is the 1,000th anniversary of the murder of St Alphege when he was archbishop of Canterbury. He was clubbed to death with ox bones by a group of drunken Danes after a meal at Greenwich. I will raise a glass to poor old Alphege too. Thank God the Danes are friendlier today.