Saint George’s Day

By John Constable, English Landscape

23 April

The Feast of Saint George, the patron saint of England, takes place on 23 April. A Syrian soldier in the Roman armies of Greek and Palestinian heritage, George was beheaded in the year 303 by the Romans after refusing to renounce his Christian faith. A church was built in his name shortly after his death by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who came to power a mere three years after George was killed, and who legalised Christianity. George was canonised as a saint two hundred years after his death.

George was born in Cappadocia, which is part of modern-day Turkey. Whilst accounts of his life exist in Middle-Eastern literature from the centuries following his death, the earliest account of linked George to England comes from Bede in the 8th Century. He is mentioned sporadically in other documents until the Crusades, when he became popular as one of several warrior saints. As the Crusades were fought in the Middle-East where George was from, it is possible Anglicised versions of his story was used as propaganda amongst English soldiers. Towards the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1348, Edward III made George the patron saint of the chivalrous Order of the Garter, and his banner—a red cross on a white background—was prominently displayed as part of the Royal Standard. Throughout the war George’s name was used as a battle cry against the French. During the following Tudor period, flags of the saints were banned, with the exception of George. His banner became part of the evolving English flag, particularly at sea, and later consolidated into the Union Jack.

Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and S. George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard.

The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Varagine, translated by William Caxton

George’s link to the Order of the Garter was retrospectively solidified with the publishing of the Golden Legend, which was a collection of stories of various saints and heroes written by the Italian chronicler Jacobus de Varagine in the mid-13th Century. It was translated into English and published by William Caxton, the first English printer and retailer of printed books, in 1483. The story of George was that of his battle with and defeat of a dragon, which resulted in his saving a town and winning the hand of a fair maiden in marriage. In the story, he was a brave and chivalrous knight, and the tale was similar to a common Anglo-Saxon legend which was popular with mummers players at the time. These were actors who would go from town to town performing plays, and with the publishing of the Golden Legend many changed the title character of their dragon-slaying plays to that of Saint George. Due to his popularity with the Tudors, on his feast day it was common practice to wear the flower of the Royal House, which was a red rose. People would pray for his intervention as he was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers who could supposedly cure diseases, though he was also popular with soldiers who often believed George would intervene on the battlefield to assure victory for English forces.

The Feast of Saint George, as a celebration, was not a national holiday in England until over a millennium after his death. Celebrations waned in popularity throughout the Victorian era, and were not restored—other than being used by racist groups, English Nazism, and far-right nationalist movements—until the 1990s when his flag became linked to football celebrations due to a successful series of international matches by England. Since then, Saint George’s Day has become more widely recognised and capitalised upon by political movements. George never visited England, and all the English traditions associated with him are based on fictions and propaganda tied to imperialism, however he is still acknowledged and the history of his folklore within Britain is worth noting. He was a multicultural man of principle who stood for the right to disagree with the state, and it is for this that he should be remembered.

John Constable, English Landscape
John Constable, English Landscape, Public Domain
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