St. George is England’s patron saint, and today is his Big Day, yet we English hardly notice the occasion, and certainly don’t celebrate it, unlike our neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, who mark their special saints’ days in style.
This lack of enthusiasm is said to be because of the English stiff-upper-lip culture of not getting too excited about things – which is rubbish, in my opinion. We can get excited about the Olympics, or a royal wedding, (or even football, they tell me…though this last leaves me cold, I have to confess.)
Well then, are we just too irreligious these days, or too lazy, to go bananas about a saint? Maybe we don’t think he’s good enough…though a knight who risked his life to rescue a damsel from a dragon seems pretty good to me.
Sadly, it’s too good to be true. The dragon-and-damsel part of George’s story is pure myth. The town terrorised by the evil dragon who demanded a human sacrifice every day…the king’s daughter due to be handed over to him…and George riding to the rescue, capturing the dragon and eventually killing it, having converted the whole town to Christianity…a great tale, but not the reason he was made a saint.
Mind you, his real life, what we know of it, had its own share of drama, and his courage and loyalty were outstanding. He was born in the third century of Christian parents in Cappadocia, (now part of Turkey but then a province of the Roman Empire.) He became a Roman army tribune, but when Emperor Diocletian began persecuting Christians, George resigned from the army in protest, and tore up Caesar’s order against the Christians. The Emperor was, not surprisingly, furious, and George was imprisoned and tortured, but refused to give up his Christian faith. He was executed, and his martyrdom led to his becoming a saint.
George was revered in Europe all through the Middle Ages, and miracles and myths gradually collected round him. Many people doubtless believed in dragons…but for the more sceptical, there was symbolism too, because the dragon was equated with the devil. Gradually George’s flag, the red cross on a white background, came to be regarded as an emblem of England, and by the time that he was made patron saint of the Order of the Garter by Edward 111 in the 1300s, the dragon-slaying exploit was the major part of his legend. He became truly part of English folklore…including giving his name and image to a good many “George and Dragon” pubs!
He’s still a powerful symbol in modern times. King George VI established the George Cross as a medal for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’, and its silver cross has the saint on it…slaying his dragon of course.
I’d say this is a patron saint to be proud of, whether in real life or in myth. But how can we English be persuaded to give him the kind of celebration he deserves on this day every year?