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 .