While generally overshadowed by St Patrick (who ironically was British), there is a growing chorus for England’s patron saint to be celebrated further. Recently, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has proposed making it – along with the three other British saints – a public holiday, but who exactly was he and what did he do?
Like so many characters from history, it is astonishing how little we actually know about the man or his life; or if he even existed – or if he did, if any of the stories about him involved him in anyway.
When we think of St George, we think of a medieval knight in shining plate armour, carrying the red cross standard on a white background and slaying a dragon, but was any of it true? And if not, does it matter?
St George was born in, what is now Turkey, during the late Roman Empire (circa 275AD), to a Palestinian mother and a father in the Roman Army. When his father died, George’s mother took him to Palestine at the age of fourteen. It is extremely unlikely he would have ever visited Britannia (Britain), which was the extreme wild west of the vast empire (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland not existing at the time).
Following his father’s footsteps, George joined the Roman army, becoming a high ranking officer. The ‘pagan’ Emperor Diocletian was cracking down on the unruly Christians, a Jewish cult who refused to honour the divinity of the Emperor or the pantheon of other gods. In 303 Diocletian ordered that any soldiers who were Christian either abandon their faith or be expelled from the army. George, as a Christian, refused to do abandon his beliefs. Diocletian then offered George wealth and titles to renounce Christianity, but again George refused. At the end of his tether, the Emperor executed the soldier on 23 April of that year. George would become a martyr.
The stories of George slaying the dragon would not emerge for another eight hundred years or so from the Middle East. The tales were most probably brought back to England from the holy land during the times of the crusades. Certainly the English flag of St George was taken from that of the Templar Knights by Richard the Lionheart, and has been used ever since.
The appeal of a warlike warrior saint to medieval Europe is obvious. King Edward III decided to make George England’s official saint in 1327, believing he embodied English values. George ws extremely popular, Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, Palestine, Serbia and Lithuania adopted him too.
The Palestinian martyr who defied an Emperor became a dragon slaying Englishman in the centuries beyond. His day is celebrated on April 23rd, the same day we celebrate the birth of William Shakespeare.
But ultimately, does it matter? St Patrick wasn’t Irish and St Andrew was not Scottish either. The story and adventures of St George have survived the ages; and as an embodiment of English values – whether or not they were George’s – belongs to those who celebrate him and not the man himself. And for those who worry about racist or xenophobic connotations to the Saint; is it comforting to know he was a fundamentalist Arab who refused to bow to injustice, persecution and the might of the Western world?