England, By George!

Saint George’s Day is, as a rule, celebrated on April 23rd  In 2011 however this was Holy Saturday and so it was moved forward to May 2nd. But be that as it may!

England and religion share a long and chequered history, some of it rather nasty if not indeed downright violent! From Paganism to the many and varied gods of invaders, including the Romans, to Catholicism, Protestantism and later Anglicanism. (How many ism’s can one use in a sentence? Is there a rule?) Who and what to pray to was often a very hit-and-miss affair. Imprisonment, torture or death for one’s beliefs was not uncommon. Such is life!

The flag of Saint George, a red cross on a white background, is incorporated into the Union Flag and duplicated in the ensign of the Royal Navy. (A point of order here: it is only a Union Jack if it flies from the mast of a boat or ship)

The story of Saint George is enigmatic. There is speculation that he’s merely a Christianised version of an older pagan myth. Born in Cappadocia, an area which is now in Turkey, in the 3rd century; it is believed that his parents were Christians. When his father died, George’s mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her.

He became a soldier in the Roman army and rose to the rank of Tribune. The Emperor of the day, Diocletian (245-313 AD), began a campaign against Christians at the start of the 4th century but George is said to have contested this persecution and resigned in protest. In tearing up the Emperor’s order against Christians, George infuriated Diocletian. He was imprisoned and tortured (there you go you see) but he refused to deny his faith. He was told his life would be spared if he would but offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Instead he prayed to the Christian God.

Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis and publicly beheaded. (Not a very nice way to go! I rest my case!) Diocletian’s wife was so impressed by George’s resilience that she became a Christian too and that she was also executed for her faith! (The Romans were also a very unforgiving race)

It’s believed that Saint George was adopted in England because of the story in the Golden Legend where he is supposed to have dispensed with a recalcitrant Dragon to save a fair maid  This was very similar to an Anglo-Saxon legend and so he was quickly incorporated into miracle plays adapted from pagan sources and is a lead figure in Spenser’s famous epic poem The Fairie Queen. But he is not only the patron saint of England! Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece all lay claim to him as do Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice.

He is also patron saint of soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, and he helps those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis. In recent years he has been adopted as patron saint of Scouts! Now that is one hard act to follow!

Nevertheless, George’s popularity lost ground as gunpowder became the primary weapon of war. The lance and the sword diminished in significance and had he not been martyred he would have faced a lengthy redundancy. In 1778 Saint George’s Day was demoted to a simple day of devotion for Catholics in England.

A point worthy of note : In 1940 King George VI inaugurated the George Cross, a plain, bordered cross in silver which bears in the centre a circular medallion depicting St. George giving the Dragon a proper roasting!

The George Cross is generally awarded to civilians who perform acts of bravery above and beyond the boundaries of normal citizenship.

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