Today – the 23rd April – is St George’s Day. Patron saint of England, soldiers, boy scouts and one of the most famous early martyrs across the world. It’s well known that St George was not from England, so how did he end up as the country’s patron saint? And where has his medieval popularity gone?
Very few historical facts of his life have survived, but St George the man was probably born in the Syria Palaestina Roman province between 275 and 285 AD. He served in the Roman army under Emperor Diocletian, who issued an edict in 303 AD that all Christian men in the army should be arrested, and that all the other soldiers should make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. As a good martyr should, George refused, and endured all kinds of tortures designed to make him recant his faith before he was finally decapitated. The cult of St George first grew up among Christians in the city of Lydda – now Lod – where his body was buried.
But that’s not what he’s really famous for, is it? Admit it, you’re all here for the dragons.
This particular story was added in the 13th century by returning crusaders, and it definitely carries more than a whiff of the popular courtly romance stories of the era. The classic, most developed version can be found in the Golden Legend collection of Saints’ Lives from around 1260. It goes that when George was a travelling knight (not many of them in the Roman army, but go with it), he came to the city of “Silene” which is either modern Cyrene in Libya, or Lydda. Here, a dragon had unhelpfully made its nest on the city’s water source. Every day the citizens had to persuade the dragon to leave its nest for a bit so they could collect water, and they achieved this by offering it lunch: a sheep, or if a sheep couldn’t be found, then a maiden. The lasses were chosen by lots, and on the day St George was passing, the city’s princess had been picked, and was accordingly tied to a rock where the dragon could find her. Instead, St George made the sign of the cross in front of the beast and killed it, prompting the whole city to convert to Christianity, they were so impressed and grateful for the deed.
This epic story was a pretty good public relations move for the saint – he gets a memorable, exciting backstory, and an instantly recognisable trademark that makes him a popular figure in illustrations. It’s worth noting that the maiden-sacrifice-hero-slays-monster story appears in all sorts of places, such as in the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda. This is a story with pre-Christian origins. Because of this, in the past, people have tried to use the dragon story to prove that St George himself was a myth, but the fact that it does not appear in any early histories of him indicates that the tale was a later invention.
As I’ve said, St George’s cult arrived in England with the returning Crusaders who had come across his cult in the Holy Land and took a shine to his status as a soldier saint. He famously appeared to the Crusader army at the Siege of Antioch in 1098, inspiring them to win the battle for the city. The Synod of Oxford officially recognised St George’s Day in 1222, and by the mid-14th century he appears to have ousted native Saint Edward the Confessor as patron saint of England (presumably the masses preferred a striking hero, who fitted in with the era’s fashion for chivalry, to a pious king). He was popular with the most famous medieval soldier, Edward, the Black Prince, who founded the Order of the Garter around 1348 under St George’s patronage.
A good way of judging a saint’s popularity in the medieval era is to see how many guilds (organisations devoted to religions or charity work) were named after them. St George’s name was taken by lots and lots of guilds, particularly in Leicester, Norwich, Coventry, York, Stratford and Chester (but not London, surprisingly). These guilds carried effigies of the saint and his dragon around their parish every April, as near to his saint’s day as possible, and these events became spectacular and extravagant affairs – a highlight of the local church calendar. St George’s Day celebrations included the performance of Mummers’ plays which also appear around Easter, Christmas, New Year and anywhere Morris dancers fancy putting on a bit of entertainment. These usually follow the same format, of a presenter, a ‘knight’ (or George) appearing and boasting of his sword-fighting prowess. Next, a second knight appears to challenge him, and is killed. Another character, lamenting the death, brings in a doctor who boasts of his skill and, after negotiation of fees, brings the knight back to life. Or it’s a straightforward baddie-versus goodie. More characters can come in as different areas have different traditions.
Mummers’ plays continue today, on their own or more usually put on by traditional dance teams. The famous Earsdon calling-on song of North East rapper follows the format of introducing five “heroes” found in the plays, including “Brave Elliot” and the son of Nelson – not George, but in his mould. It depends on when the song was being performed, because people liked to add a few topical characters. Pubs in Swalwell host a big dance team event on St George’s Day – only I can’t get this year because I’m packing for my forthcoming southern travels.
Apart from mummers’ plays and some pageants, there aren’t any folklore events or traditions I can otherwise find linked to St George’s Day. Please let me know in the comments below if you know of any! This is no doubt due to the fact that the English generally tend not to take such enthusiastic interest in commemorating the day as, say, the Irish do in commemorating St Patrick. As with all other saints, St George did suffer somewhat during the Reformation: his status as national saint failed to save his statues being destroyed by religious reformers, and most of his processions dwindled away in popularity or became more secular events. There have been various movements since 1660 to make the 23rd a public holiday, but none has ever taken hold. This national apathy has been blamed on a lack of patriotism, but I think it’s more complex than that. National identity is a multi-faceted subject. As a country, England has not suffered invasion since 1066, and so there has been no need to assert the country’s distinctiveness (for example, there’s no agreed national costume) or have a symbolic person other than the monarch to rally under. This could be an inner confidence – “we don’t need to make a fuss” – or keeping quiet because a desire to apologise for the empire era means a self-conscious restriction on national celebration.
So, short of any folklore and traditions I can whimsically suggest to you, I’m going to have to think of typically-English things you could do to celebrate St George’s Day, if you’re so inclined. I recommend perhaps a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they combine St George with a celebration of William Shakespeare’s birthday, or to an English Heritage site, where the day is usually an excuse for medieval re-enactments. Otherwise, I suggest you get yourself a plate of fish and chips, or chicken tikka masala, watch a bit of morris dancing while enjoying a pint of real ale and complain about the weather. Because it looks nice outside right now, but I bet as soon as you nip out the clouds’ll cover the sun.
And I shall leave the last word to the great Richard Thompson…