Wednesday 23 April 2014

Saint George Who?

Today, 23rd April, is the feast day of Saint George patron saint and National Day for England.

On their respective patron days the Welsh rejoice St David, the Scots have St Andrew's and the Irish celebrate St Patrick's day like it should be. By the early 15th century, St George's Day had become a major feast and national holiday in England on a par with Christmas. Yet, St George's day in England is not even a national holiday in our times.

What happened to the National Day of the English? The emblem of Saint George is a red cross on a white background but how many flagpoles will we see flying the cross of St George today? Do the English have a problem with their national identity; most of us in England probably know very little of our patron saint. Possibly because the patron saint of England is not even English.

23rd April was declared as St George's day in 1222 by the Council of Oxford but it was not until 1348 that St George became the Patron Saint of England. In 1415, when English soldiers under Henry V when won the battle of Agincourt, St George’s Day was declared a national feast day and holiday in England. During the reign of Henry VIII, the cross of St George was flown by John Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland in 1497 and it was adopted as the ensign of the explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

St George and the Dragon
George's story has endured for over 1,700 years. However, most of what we know of him today comes from legend and myth. Many modern researchers believe he never existed as a historical character. St George's Day celebrations are not unique to England: he is revered throughout the world as the patron Saint of many countries throughout the world; Georgia, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Greece, India, Iraq, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, to name but a few in addition to a large number of individual cities.

Was George Green?
St George of Christianity was associated with a pagan figure associated with the spring festival. Throughout Europe and the Middle East he is known as “Green George” personifying the fertility of nature, and can be equated with the Green Man of early folklore, whose pagan image can be seen in thousands of churches and cathedrals throughout Christendom. St George appears as the central figure in springtime folk festivals and Mummer’s plays celebrating the renewed fertility of the coming summer season. A leaf-covered young man parades as an accomplice of St George, or possibly even as a representation of St George himself. In many legends St George was also associated with the colour green. The Islamic traditional figure of al-Khidr, a dragon slayer, has been equated with St George. The name "Khidr" is taken to mean "the Green One".

The cult of St. George clearly has universal appeal but remains strongest in the Eastern Church where he is venerated as “The Great Martyr.”

The Great Martyr
George is said to have been born in 270 AD in Lydda, Roman Palestine, His father was Gerontius, a Greek Christian from Cappadocia (Eastern Turkey), and an official in the Roman army. His mother, Polychronia was a local Greek Christian of Palestine. He moved to Palestine with his Mother and became a Roman soldier, achieving the rank of Tribunus Militum. George is said to have later resigned his military post to protest against the Emperor Diocletian (r.284 to 305 AD), who led Rome’s most vicious persecution of Christians from his primary residence at Antioch.

St. George before Diocletianus. 
A mural from the Ubisi Monastery, Georgia.
(Wikimedia Commons)
Diocletian issued an edict in 302 AD that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and all other soldiers should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George, being a Christian, objected and protested to the Emperor, an action which resulted in his imprisonment and torture, but he stayed true to his faith.

The Feast of Saint George is still celebrated by Palestinians in the Monastery of St George in al-Khader, near Bethlehem. Here St George is known as "al-Khidr" and according to local tradition, he was imprisoned in the town where the current monastery stands.

Diocletian then had George dragged through the streets and finally, on the 23rd April 303 AD, he was beheaded. Inspired by George’s bravery and loyalty to his God, the Emperor’s wife, Alexandra, became a Christian and was subsequently executed for her faith.

George is said to have been buried at Lydda in Palestine, identified as the seat of his cult by accounts of the earliest pilgrims since soon after his death in the early 4th century. Yet, unsurprisingly for such a popular saint, there are other claims for the burial site of St George, such as the belief that his relics lie in the Church of San Giorgio in Portofino, south of Genoa in Italy. The story goes that Crusaders found where his headless body had been buried in Lydda and intended to bring his relics back to England. After they ran into a severe storm in the Mediterranean they pledged that if they ever met landfall again they would leave the body there as an offering. They found sanctuary from the storm at Portofino.

St. George The Dragon Slayer, from the Church of San Giorgio
However, as patron saint of soldiers and chivalrous orders George is not generally remembered for his martyrdom at the hands of the wicked Emperor Diocletian. At the Siege of Antioch (1097–1098 AD), soldiers of the First Crusade took the city but were then besieged themselves. The Christian Crusaders are said to have experienced a vision of St George which inspired their victory over the Saracens.

When the Crusaders returned to England they brought with them the story of the vision of St George. His reputation spread; the story is etched over the southern door of the church at Fordington, Dorset, which still stands today. It is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to St George.

St George and the Dragon
The medieval legend of St George and the Dragon is over a thousand years old and said to have been brought back to England by the Crusaders with its origins based in Libya.

Eastern Orthodox depictions of Saint George slaying a dragon often include the image of a young maiden looking on from a distance. The usual interpretation is that the dragon represents Satan and the young maiden is Alexandra, the wife of Diocletian.

The Western version of the legend developed as part of the Golden Legend, compiled in the 13th century and became a late medieval bestseller. The Golden Legend was one of the first books printed in the English language by William Caxton in 1483.

Rejected by the Church
When St George's day falls too close to Easter, religious observance is permitted to change. According to the Church of England's calendar, when St. George's Day falls between Palm Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter inclusive, it will be moved to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter. Interestingly, St. George’s Day is held on 6th of May in the Eastern liturgical calendar, which, considering the associations with the Green Man, is perhaps nearer to where it should fall.

In 1969 the Vatican downgraded the patron saint of England when St. George was demoted to a mere "local" or secondary saint. During the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, St George was removed from the Universal Calendar. Thirty saints were removed from the official liturgical calendar during these reforms because of a lack of historical evidence to support their existence. However, these saints were not "de-canonized," and their feast days can still be celebrated locally.

However, in 2000, Pope John Paul II restored Saint George to the Universal Calendar, and he appears in Missals as the English Patron Saint.

Campaign for an English Patron Saint
The whole matter of St George, his historicity and his association with England is rather tenuous to say the least. Perhaps we would do better with a English king as our patron saint?

There were several national saints of England, such as Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr, until Edward III (1312-1377) adopted Saint George and associated him with the Order of the Garter because he believed that England should have a fearless champion as its patron saint.

Edward the Confessor (c.1003-1066) was the last of the Anglo-Saxon king of England, traditionally seen as unworldly and pious, but his reign was notable for the disintegration of royal power from the House of Wessex and transference to the Godwin family, which ultimately led to the downfall of England at the Norman Conquest. Edward was canonised in 1161 by Pope Alexander III, and is commemorated on 13 October by both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He was the first Anglo-Saxon and the only king of England to be canonised, the last of a tradition of uncanonised English royal saints including King Edmund the Martyr.

Edmund the Martyr (d.869), venerated as a sacred king of the Anglo-Saxons of the East Angles, he was murdered by the Danes aged only 29 years. After killing Edmund, the Great Heathen army spent sometime pillaging East Anglia before invading Wessex in 870.

The martyrdom of St. Edmund
It is believed Edmund refused to share power with the Danes who he saw as heathens and Godless. He was captured and tied to a tree, shot with arrows and beheaded. His body was buried in a wooden chapel near to where he was killed. Thirty years after Edmund's death, he was venerated by the Vikings of East Anglia, who produced coinage to commemorate him. Later his remains were transferred to Bury St Edmunds, where Athelstan founded a community devoted to his cult in 925 long before the Abbey was established there in the 11th Century. In 1010, Edmund's remains were translated to London to protect them from the Vikings, where they were kept for three years before being returned to Bury. In 1020, King Canute, who converted to Christianity and rebuilt the Abbey, made a pilgrimage to Edmund's shrine and offered his own crown upon it as expiation for the sins of his forefathers. The shrine was destroyed in 1539 and the bones of St Edmund disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

He was declared England's national saint, attended by royalty and honoured as far north as Iceland, he was renowned for his miracles of fertility and protection. But his martyrdom was unrecognised for 250 years.

Unlike St George, there is no argument to St Edmund's historicity, who died as a martyr to his Christian faith at the hands of heathen invaders. And he is English. A campaign called for St Edmund to be re-instated as patron saint of England in 2006. A petition was submitted to Parliament but the plea was rejected by the government.

A new campaign was launched in 2013, led by BBC Radio Suffolk's Mark Murphy, author Mark Taylor and the Bury St Edmunds brewery Greene King, who argue the country needs a "unique" patron saint because George currently holds the role for 17 countries. The campaigners also want a new bank holiday to be added to the calendar in his honour. Who could argue with that?

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1 comment:

  1. There's a link between George and Edmund. Alan Rufus, an 11th century magnate, had as a paternal aunt, Adela, first Abbess of Saint George's in Rennes. Alan, however, was buried in the cemetery outside the south door of the Abbey of St Edmund (in Bury St Edmund, of course). His family and the monks of St Mary's Abbey (which he had founded) in York then persuaded Abbot Baldwin to reinter him inside the Abbey, closer to the saint's shrine.

    Aside: Alan's male line came from Vannes (Gwened) in Brittany, which was settled from the post-Roman kingdom of Gwynedd in Wales. Matrilineally he descended from Melisende of Maine, who may possibly have been a female line descendant of Eadgifu of Wessex, Edward the Elder's daughter, and through her of several Queens of Mercia.


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