Has St George had his day?

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The flag of St George flying over St Mary's church

We report elsewhere in Rye News on the civic parade to mark St George’s day. The question I want to raise here is whether St George is still relevant in our 21st century society? And if so, in what way? Who was this man and why is he remembered at all?

George (we don’t even know his surname) won fame as a Roman soldier, probably serving in Greece or a Greek colony around the Mediterranean, who converted to Christianity. He was executed in about 300 AD under the emperor Diocletian, when he refused to forswear his faith and uphold the official religion of the gods. That act of defiance won him posthumous iconic status as a saint in many countries, including Greece, Portugal and Georgia. He was apparently introduced to England by King Richard the Lionheart, returning from a crusade.

Myths sprang up and were conflated with others, the most enduring of which involved the slaying of a dragon. There is a folk tale in many cultures of beautiful maidens (sometimes a princess no less) who are sacrificed to a marauding dragon which demands this tribute annually to allow the townspeople to live in peace. St George is depicted most famously in a 15th century painting by Paolo Ucello. He is shown in shining armour mounted on a white charger, holding his banner and stabbing the unfortunate creature to death. This fitted well with the romantic tales of chivalry from King Arthur and his Round Table and is echoed in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth at the battle of Agincourt “Cry God for Harry, England and St George”. Evoking the virtues of personal endeavour and bravery, these images appealed to schoolchildren of my generation and earlier.

A good myth has many lives. St Michael also slew his dragon, as created in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer some years later. The winged two-legged dragon was identified as the great worm of Satan, This victory over evil reached into the modern age with Jacob Epstein’s sculpture outside the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. So the memory of the martyr and his character became lost, and the myth was turned into another avenue in the service of church and state.

It was only a step from the dragon myth to recast St George’s emblem of the red cross (for the blood of Christ) on a white cloth into a militaristic symbol for the conquest of the infidels, and especially the recovery of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The flag of St George has retained its power as a symbol, a rallying point for nationalist sentiment and cohesion, always valuable to governments for the very reason of its appeal to popular tradition.

The flying of the St George’s Cross holds narrower, darker connotations which cannot be ignored. It is a feature of the football terraces, and more recently of fervent Brexiteers. It has a hard edge and plays to the Little Englander group-think mentality. Or more happily, it might seem to belong to quaint rural pastimes, something like the Morris men and the pancake races that raise faint feelings of nostalgia for a past innocence.

Nevertheless, it keeps a nobler association in our minds. We think of the Red Cross ambulance units in wartime. We think of civic parades where we come together to give thanks and renew our commitments to peace and public service. There are some who disdain exhibitions of national identity: “The nation state is a thing of the past” they say “and we are citizens of the world.” Tell that to the people of Ukraine!

The day of world government is a long way off and indeed the economics of globalisation have been cast in doubt by recent events such as the Covid zero-tolerant measures in China which have revived the importance of home grown production. “Small is beautiful” is a powerful slogan, which has not yet seen its time. If it is true, as some philosophers claim, that it is ideas that rule the world, then the idea and ideals of St George will be with us for some while yet.

Image Credits: Kenneth Bird .

13 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article – one to surely excite ‘Little Englander group-think mentality’ to quote the article.

    In my childhood in Rye I never really thought much about St. George’s day – it seemed to be a quaint strange thing, a bit like Morris dancing: curious, steeped in vaguely remembered history and enjoyed by the elderly. As time passed: the 1970s days of the National Front; the 80s, 90s, naughties of our disgraceful history of football violence and shame; and more recently since the Brexit debate, vote and final leaving, it has again taken a more sinister nationalistic turn.

    I had a conversation last year with a black friend who grew up in South London in the 70s. As we chatted outside a South London boozer a white van drove past flying many flags of St George “Oh that always makes me shiver” she said “when I grew up in Brixton and you saw that flag you knew a whole of bad things were about to happen.”

    So celebrate if ye must: just remember not everyone will.

  2. And rightly so, you say we don’t know what he looked like, but isn’t that the case with for most of our myths and legends, even Jesus was depicted as a tall fair haired white man which bearing in mind where he came from will obviously be nowhere near the truth.
    The other three saints are all celebrated with a gusto that could be described as over the top but poor old St George is always the poor relation, sadly the flag has been connected to the more unsavoury side of being English but as the photos show there far more good than bad in England so why not be proud of our flag and country.

  3. St George was foisted on England by King Edward III, who sacked the 3 existing national saints. St. Edward the Martyr, King of East Anglia for whom Bury St Emdunds was named, was unceremoniously dumped. Edward the Confessor, the only King of England to be canonised lost the gig and Gregory the Good – Pope Gregory I who sent St Augustine to Canterbury – was also dropped! Given Gregory is patron Saint of musicians, singers, students and teachers, he gets my vote to replace St George!

  4. I wish the British, or those that prefer to be known as English, Scottish or Welsh, would all fly their flags just as Americans do. I love driving around America and seeing the Stars and Stripes on full view. And surely the only way to try and bury the negative ways in which the Union Jack has been abused is for us all to reclaim it and fly it with pride. What with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee nearly upon us get the Union Jack out and leave it up.

  5. Thank you for an interesting and informative article. The previous study materials for the UK citizenship test, for example, included needing to know all four saints days but little else as to why each of the four nations had their specific saint designations. It seems that St George the myth, the man and the flag all hold symbolic meaning that’s part fantasy and part historical need for identity. It’s horrifying to see the far right grab this symbol and shocking for it to be manipulated by some Brexiters who are particularly xenophobic and anti-European. I do wonder if the Union flag would be a better placed symbol for an integrated and forward thinking UK. Nationalism no matter where it is can be a very dangerous political movement (even in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion).

  6. Agree strongly with Andrew Mclaren the Union Jack should always be flown,I have always wondered what the Red Cross on a white flag is all about !!

  7. I’d consider myself a patriotic person, but chest-thumping nationalism, lapel badges and polyester flags don’t do much for me. Symbols are all very well, and can be unifying, but it’s what these arms and emblems and banners actually stand for that matters, I think. I remember seeing the Union Jack on a tent in which Yazidi refugees were living, having been driven out of their homes by extremists in Iraq. I was quite surprised to find a lump in my throat. But I could count lots of other occasions where people co-opt the national symbols for less worthy endeavours, and I sometimes find something else rising in my craw! Napoleon said a throne’s just ‘a bench covered in velvet’, and similarly, a flag’s just a gaudy rag. It’s what you do with it that matters.

  8. Wow – having grown up poor in Birmingham (my two best friends from childhood are Jamaican heritage) and having spent my working life near Gravesend (very mixed area and having Sikh, Muslim, European etc neighbours, colleagues and friends ) it is only now having retired and living near Rye that I am experiencing the full xenophobia of middle class white people against poorer British people who voted for Brexit. So used to controlling decisions Remainers cannot let it go. Like my friends from Birmingham I voted for Brexit – for me it was for the UK making decisions – see Tony Benn’s 5 principles of democracy. I accept that on both sides some people voted in their own self interest. For Remainers it meant cheap labour producing goods/ services yet not impacting on any services as cheap labour cannot afford to live in wealthier areas and the ability to own abroad/ travel (unlike poorer people for whom the former is out of the question and the latter consists, if you are lucky, of a two week holiday in Spain).
    St George is also patron saint of Portugal – a place I enjoyed visiting a couple of times- liking Europe or even feeling European is nothing to do with the political structure that is the EU. We are not a country that has any significant number of far right people. The fact that 5 million EU citizens have, post Brexit, applied for settled status shows this.

  9. England adopted the flag of St George, and via that route began to consider him a patron saint, for a simple reason: protection of shipping in the Mediterranean. The flag was already used by the then much more powerful naval force of Genoa (it still is: if you visit that Italian city, you’ll see it everywhere).

    An annual tribute was payable from England for using the St George’s Cross in this way, and a few years ago the Mayor of Genoa requested payments in arrears!

  10. Good idea, let’s get rid of the cross of St George with one exception, we’ll leave it as the centre piece on the union flag.
    Or let’s get rid of them both and start again, why not a plain white flag to be flown on all buildings of authority where we seem to be surrendering to anyone with something to protest about.

  11. I know that’s tongue in cheek, but I don’t see why we need to frame the life and culture and values of the nation in martial terms. We might be fighting, metaphorically, to keep our heads above water, but there’s nothing existential about our plight. The only thing most of us on here are ‘surrendering’ to is time, Tony! And time brings change. The values of our generation, and or our fathers and mothers’ generation won’t be the values of our kids. But those values will be right for them. We can’t change ‘change’. We just have to get used to it. Lastly, in a democracy, I don’t know who we’d be ‘surrendering’ to – ourselves?

  12. I will read all of the comments above later.

    I believe St George’s Day should be a National Holiday or at the very least A Town Holiday in Rye Royal (450th Anniversary of the Visit of Queen Elisabeth the First in 2023 !)

    Our Country and Our Heritage are important.

    That said, I will read other people’s comments and possibly comment again.

    Jonathan Dellar

  13. Although I consider myself to be a proud Brit, I feel that we should all have the choice to celebrate whoever/whatever we wish! There’s no right or wrong in my opinion and we are fortunate enough to make our own decisions without being judged or punished, as those in many other countries are.

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