April 23rd is St George’s Day. He is the patron saint of England as well as Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and many cities across the world (Eastern Orthodox churches, using the Gregorian calendar celebrate on 6th May).St George was an important figure for the 12th century Crusaders, his emblem of a red cross on a white background was adopted as the flag of England during this time. In the 1300s Edward III put his Order of the Garter under the banner of St George. During the 15th century his feast day was celebrated by compulsory church attendance and a prohibition of work. The importance of St George’s Day has waned since the 18th century, after the union with Scotland in 1706 created the United Kingdom. The English are much more reticent to celebrate their nation than the Irish, Scottish or Welsh. Perhaps wary of nationalism after two World Wars, the Balkan conflicts and the wars amongst former Soviet Union countries, not to mention the near break up of the UK after last year’s Scottish independence referendum. Sadly the symbols of England and St George have all too often been appropriated by right wing, rascist nationalist organisations. Fortunately this seems to be starting to change and people of all races and religions are finding the confidence to be English within a United Kingdom.
So who was St George anyway? He was born around 280 AD to a Greek Christian family in the Middle East, controlled by the Roman Empire.He followed his father and joined the Roman Army, serving the Emperor Diocletian. This pagan emperor was getting paranoid about the increasing influence of Christianity and ordered the execution of all Christian soldiers. Holding George in high regard he attempted to convert him and tried to persuade him to make offerings to the Roman gods. However, George refused to recant his Christianity, even after torture, and was beheaded. However, he did manage to convert Alexandra, Diocletian’s wife to Christianity. She swiftly followed him to martyrdom!
So where does the dragon slaying come from? This seems to be a legend from the Middle East, brought back by Crusaders. Apparently a city had the misfortune to have a dragon that lived in their only water source. The only way to get water was to appease the dragon with a sheep to eat. When they ran out of sheep the sacrificial offering inevitably became maidens, drawn by lots. One day it was the bad luck of the daughter of the king. In a remarkable turn of fortune St George happened to be passing as she was being offered to the dragon. George slayed the dragon, rescued the princess, converted the city to Christianity and saved the day.Art from all over the world depicts St George slaying a dragon as a maiden looks on. This is of course metaphorical; the dragon represents Satan and the maiden is the Empress Alexandra saved from Paganism.
By a serendipitous coincidence April 23rd is considered the birth date of William Shakespeare, it is also thought to be the day he died 400 years ago (1616). It seems apposite to leave you with a quote from his play, “Henry V”; the rallying cry prior to the battle of Agincourt:
“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”