St George and Merrie England!
by Mike Oettle
THE calendar entry for 23 April reads: “George, Martyr, 4th century.” It’s a curious survival when one considers that the Roman Catholic Church has dropped this date from its universal calendar on the grounds that George is more a legend than an authentic saint.
Yet some knowledge about him would be helpful since he is the patron saint of England – and therefore also of the Church of England and, in a sense, of the Anglican Communion – as well as of Portugal, Aragon and a number of Italian and Greek cities and towns including Padua and Mantua, not to mention a few centres in Germany, Switzerland, Czechia, Slovenia, Croatia and Russia. And in most of these places 23 April is still St George’s Day.
Information about him is hard to come by – the Encyclopædia Britannica has two paragraphs, my tome on church history not a word – and I finally tracked him down in a Victorian book called Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould (an eccentric who, incidentally, was the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers!). According to his gentleman, George is usually supposed to be the unnamed martyr mentioned by the church historian Eusebius, a soldier who in AD 303 publicly tore to pieces an edict of the Emperor Diocletian (ruled AD 285-313) against the Christian churches in Nicomedia. The protester was immediately executed.
His popularity rapidly grew – and so, unfortunately, did the list of fantastical miracles attached to his name. In the Middle Eastern churches he is or was believed to have been put to death seven times, each time miraculously recovering – this appears to be a Christianisation of the old Semitic myth of the god Tammuz. The George of the seven miracles is also revered by Islam, under the name Gherghis or El Khoudi.
More familiar to us is the set of legends derived from an Indo-European myth, in which George arrives in time to rescue a princess condemned to death (much against her royal father’s will) to satisfy the cravings of a dragon for human flesh. George is supposed to have speared the dragon and then either beheaded it on the spot or, using the maiden’s girdle as a halter, led it to her father and beheaded it in his presence.
It is this legend that appears to have been especially popular among knights returning from the Crusades, which would account for George’s adoption as a patron saint so widely in Europe. As early as 1098 he is credited with helping the Franks at the Battle of Antioch, and – as a soldier – he always seems to have been a saint who helped armies win battles.
England’s patron saint under the Normans and early Plantaganets was ironically, a Saxon king, Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-1066). (An earlier King Edward [martyred in 978] is also remembered as a saint.) George crept in first as patron of the Order of the Garter in 1348 under Edward III. (George had previously been made patron of an Austrian order of knighthood, too.)
The following year Edward, during the siege of Calais, is said to have suddenly drawn his sword and called out: “Ha! Saint Edward. Ha! Saint George!” According to Thomas of Walsingham, these words “instilled spirit in his soldiers and they fell with vigour on the French and routed them”. From then on, George was England’s favourite, and Pope Benedict XIV declared him to be England’s protector.
The blood-red cross of St George now also became associated with England. This had not always been George’s: the Archangel Michael appears to have found his way into heraldry first, as a knight in silver armour with a red cross on his shield, surcoat and banner, symbolically killing the Devil in the shape of a dragon. This image was transferred to George, however, and appears in the regalia of the Order of the Garter.
It was the custom of the times to have, in addition to the king’s banner of his coat of arms, a “badge” flag, often bearing a cross. Many such crossed banners were presented by the Popes, and one which crops up all over the former Holy Roman Empire is the white cross on red of the empire – it’s even the origin of the Danish flag, called the Dannebrog, and the Swiss flag. Until George came on the scene, England’s badge was a white cross on blue, but this was replaced by St George’s red cross – today the central element in Britain’s Union Jack. (The white cross on blue was adopted by France, and is today [with white fleurs-de-lis added] the flag of French-speaking Quebec.)
The cross of St George wasn’t only a flag, though. While every knight and nobleman had his coat of arms, not all had a livery to dress their men-at-arms in, and soldiers without livery would wear the country’s cross as a surcoat (cloth covering for their armour) when fighting for the king: so the English soldiers marched in white surcoats with red crosses or, if in livery, with white armbands bearing a red cross (very different in meaning from today’s Red Cross emblem). One wonders if the “red cross army” might have inspired Onward Christian Soldiers.
While the combined crosses of St George, St Andrew and “St Patrick” have replaced the plain cross of St George as Britain’s national flag, the red cross is still the proper flag to fly from an English church. The red cross also finds its way into the coats of arms of Anglican churches across England and around the world. The compass rose emblem of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa has at its centre a silver (or white) shield bearing this cross and the letters CPSA; and the arms of the Diocese of Port Elizabeth, too, are based on St George’s cross.
Legend or no, St George has left his mark on the English-speaking world.
In closing: While St George has always been a fighting man by reputation, his name has quite a different meaning: the Greek name Georgios (GewrgioV) means a husbandman, a tiller of the soil. The popularity of the name George seems to have little to do with its meaning: it symbolises England, and has become even more popular since it was the name of four kings of Britain from the House of Hanover and two more (of the House of Windsor) during the 20th century. In America, it often honours George Washington.
 It must be noted, however, that the Roman Catholic calendar for England and Wales retains St George’s Day as a feast day.
 Patron saint, that is, in the eyes of both Anglicans and Catholics.
 This small town near the Bosporus, now called Izmit, was the capital under Diocletian and Constantine.
 The image of St George killing the dragon appeared on the tie of a gentlemen’s club in Port Elizabeth, the St George’s Club, which has since merged with the Port Elizabeth Club. Other institutions use the image similarly.
 St Patrick was not a martyr, and so has no cross – but when the Union Jack was devised it was decided that a third cross should be added to the existing Union Flag. The red saltire (diagonal cross) on white was borrowed from the Fitzgerald family (an ironic borrowing, seeing that the Fitzgeralds were originally Anglo-Norman conquerors), and also from a Unionist brotherhood called the Order of St Patrick, to represent Ireland.
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Write to me: Mike Oettle