St George – do we like him, or not?

I was almost thirty before I knew when my nation’s patron saint’s day was. I discovered it by accident by visiting a cathedral on this date = 23rd April.

 

George – who took over from St Edmund as England’s mascot – is less well known and celebrated here than our Celtic neighbours’ saints. Pubs in England will promote St David, St Andrew, and St Patrick’s days, but in school I was never asked to make a St George’s day thing; never attended a party for him as child nor adult. I’ve not seen the St George flag – a white background with a red cross – hanging out on this day, any year.

 

In Britain, we don’t use our national flag that much, unless there’s a royal occasion. They appeared at the most recent royal weddings, for which we all got a holiday; for the Queen’s landmark milestones, and on her palaces.

 

The just-for-us English Georgian one is seen in one of three contexts: six nations rugby, the football world cup; or by nationalists such as the English Defence League who march occasionally, proclaiming messages that most of us consider dangerous, for they are unwelcoming of other nationalities which live among us. Hence, there is concern and derision for this use of the flag and perhaps why, when it’s not an international sporting fixture, that we don’t display them. Note that whereas it’s considered a sign of national pride for our Celtic neighbours to get their flags out, it’s been noted that in England, we must have the pan-island Union Jack (which has the Georgian cross in it, combining England and Scotland’s flags but not Wales). Perhaps this point is why people like EDL do attract a following.

 

There is a fourth place that we might encounter St George – in churches. He’s not that common as a dedication for parish churches, unlike Mary, Paul, Peter, Andrew, Trinity.

He’s not found by fishing ports, like Nicholas, nor town gates like Botolph and Giles; not popular in a region in which he lived like Cuthbert or Edmund (in Northumbria and East Anglia respectively).

 

In English cities of multiple medieval parish churches, only Norwich has any Georges (2 out of 31); none of London’s 39, York’s 19, Bristol’s 14, Cambridge’s 15, Ipswich’s 12 (I’m allowing ruins and chapels as well here)… not in any of our other cathedral cities or county towns… save Canterbury, whose George in the high street (1 of 12) was obliterated in the last war.

 

Even checking the lost churches of these cities, which sometimes doubles the amount of dedications, I found only one George, ever, in London (in Botolph Lane) out of c100 parish churches in the old city; and nor could I swiftly think of any just outside it. None other of Norwich’s total 63 medieval dedications, nor any of its monasteries, were to St George. There’s one at Stamford (Lincs)… but not many in England, and I can only think of them in towns, not rurally.

The most famous English church dedicated to George is the chapel at Windsor castle. This vast perpendicular space is at the heart of the country’s largest castle and one of the places we most associate with our monarch, now and historically. It is from here that knighthoods are dispensed, in the order of this patron saint, which involves garters – yes those sort!

 

George lived in the 3-4th centuries, thus before English parish churches were conceived; rededication is possible. So it is significant that someone who became and stayed our patron and who died 1700 years ago, whose Order is 700 years old, has few churches to his name.

 

I noted that from Georgian times, George does appear in new churches, and not just Anglican ones. A Unitarian in Exeter, a German Lutheran church in the city of London, bear the name George, when saints and people’s names are unusual as part of these denominations’ titles.

 

In Bristol, England’s then second city, there’s a regency St George near the centre (and an area to the east); there’s a contemporary one in Brighton’s Kemptown (a town created by a George); a late 19th C monster in Jesmond, Newcastle – home of the Geordies; and there are three in Edinburgh’s new town (18th and 19th C), a building venture dedicated to King George. Glasgow has a 19th C George in the Fields and its original sibling, a more central late Georgian George, which like in Edinburgh, has its own square – a royalist, unionist statement. There’s an 18th C George at Great Yarmouth, home of Nelson’s naval hospital and column.

Georgian churches – from the era – are traditionally English; solemn, quiet, not given to fuss; upright pews for stiff sitting, lips and values; orderly; places for mayor’s swords to rest in public ceremonies celebrating status; cerebral, but not given to displays of public affection, or the indulgent colourings in of our Victorian or Catholic, ahem, neighbours…

There’s a couple more Catholic churches dedicated to St George – such as Southwark’s RC cathedral and again in Norwich – not centrally. These are later 19th C dedications.

 

I note that George is not a British monarch’s name until the German house of Hanover takes over the throne; and that four kings are named George in a row; and then George returned last century to make an Edward sandwich (our first king, who built the palace that became ‘mother of all parliaments’) when we were being very imperial and class and might driven. And it’s a George who instigated a cross for military bravery in the last war. Hmm…

————

 

I was feeling uncomfortable about George the dragon slayer and this sort of Englishness.

 

I wasn’t sure about the dragon, who is the symbol of our neighbour, Wales. Note that name means ‘foreigner’ (a name given by the English to those whose self moniker means ‘fellow countrymen’) and this dragon seems to be about squashing threats of those that are different or other. I note too that dragons are important symbols to China and elsewhere.

 

I was further appalled to check the official St George website, royally appointed, who is trying to promote this under proclaimed saint, and their version of the dragon myth:

 

Pagans placate a sleeping dragon (well, let it sleep then!) with an unwitting sheep in order to get their essential supplies; and when sheep run out, they turn to the women. If the princess hadn’t drawn the lot to be dragon fodder – no doubt a good looking one – would St George have turned up to rescue her? On a white horse!! And killed the blessed thing (NOT on his horse) so that the villagers could get the water that the dragon nested by. (Was there no other water source? No reasoning and negotiation? No befriending the dragon?) Oh, and this feat naturally got the wayward barbarian Pagans turning to Jesus (well, the religion named after him) since the dragon slayer was of course already a convert…

 

So blonde, tall (Aryan) George, in his pennant shield with traditional armour on the horse (supposedly female fantasies), is usually depicted killing some poor alien beastie below him (not even what the story says), looking ugly and in agony. Supposedly too the picture of chivalry, and symbol of crusaders (more attacking foreigners and ‘dragons’ in the name of Christianity)…

 

Then I read a little more about Georgie not Porgie and felt a little more comforted.

 

One – EDL fascists – he’s not even English! (He’s from Turkey and lived in Persia, a part of the world you’re often harsh about). Ironic for crusaders then…

I bet we don’t even say his name right here.

 

But – I began to like his story and feel he is especially appropriate. Converted to Christianity, swift riser in the Roman army… still bored and cynical (when’s the dragon coming?). Well, the real dragon of George’s life was his emperor, Diocletian, who persecuted Christians in times of unrest and who were standing up to his harsh regime.

Then there was a supposed plot against Diocletian’s #2 by Christians – note there had to be reasonable reason – and so churches were shut (ringing any bells?) and scriptures burned; citizenship, if not life, would be forfeited for those found foul of the Emperor’s decree.

George wouldn’t do the worst that he was asked to by his paymaster, and in fact, he took down some Roman posters. But his paymaster was in the city, and George knew he was about to be cooked goose… Indeed, despite his brave and reasoned arguments, and his former favour, Diocletian put him to death for refusing to renounce his faith.

I’m now suspicious about that as a reason for martyrdom… rival Edmund claimed that too.

But… regardless of whether my facetious retelling (based still on the royal St George website) is true, it’s interesting that this is what the official fans purport and this is what the Catholic church canonised him for.

Not only courage, but compassion. Not for mass conversion, military might or beastie brutality, but for refusal to comply with unjust orders, to order his 1,000 men to bully citizens, and to renounce his faith and principles. George was willing to also disobey the scriptural mandate (did it yet say this, or was that later king’s scribes?) to obey earthly authority, but George must have felt that as this clashed with what he felt God was asking of him and what he lived by, that he must follow his God and his conscience. And he even told the Emperor off for his unjust rule.

Now I’m impressed.

Maybe this George is worth giving attention to afterall.

I hear that he has long been revered, not just here, but in many parts of the world.

May we and would-be Diocletians continue to remember him.

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