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SAINT GEORGE’S DAY

by Elspeth

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Today is the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England.  Very little is actually known about the real St. George, so much so that Pope Gelasius said that he was one of the saints ‘whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God.’ 

In fact, the story of St. George is so wrapped in myth and legend that some believe that he never existed or that he’s a Christianised version of an older pagan myth.  (Because of this uncertainty, in 1969, Pope Paul VI demoted Saint George to ‘optional worship’ but, in 2000, Pope John Paul II reinstated him to full membership of the calendar of saints.)  In the early centuries of Christianity, followers would write up fabulous accounts of the lives of their heroes, enhancing their reputation, but leaving the details of their lives very blurred, and this is what seems to have happened with St. George.

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It’s said that George was born in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey) in 270 AD where he was brought up as a Christian. When his father died, his mother returned to her native Palestine, taking her son with her.  At the age of seventeen, George joined the Roman army, rising to the rank of Tribune and, although he served under a pagan Emperor, he did not renounce his Christian faith.

Around 303 AD, Emperor Diocletian started to persecute the Christians and, when George pleaded with him to spare their lives, the Emperor had him imprisoned and tortured to try to get him to deny his faith.  George showed incredible courage by refusing to do so and, as a punishment, was dragged through the streets and then beheaded on 23rd April 303 AD.  It’s said that Diocletian’s wife was so impressed by George’s resilience that she became a Christian and that she too was executed for her faith.

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The image most familiar to us today is that of the saint dressed in a white tunic emblazoned with a red cross, astride his stallion as he kills a dragon, representing the devil, to rescue a damsel in distress.  However, as the slaying of the dragon was only credited to St. George in the twelfth century, long after his death, this is one of the reasons why many believe that this and the other stories connected with St. George are fictitious.

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In 1222, the Council of Oxford replaced St. Edmund with St. George as the patron saint of England, declaring that 23rd April be celebrated as Saint George’s Day.  The reason for this decision was probably because the story of George slaying the dragon was similar to an Anglo-Saxon legend, making him a more suitable person to be England’s patron saint than Edmund.  After the declaration, St. George was incorporated into miracle plays and is the prime figure in Spenser’s famous epic poem The Faerie Queen.

When Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, the most senior order of British chivalry, he put it under the patronage of St. George and the magnificent St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, completed in 1525, is the Order’s spiritual home.  In 1940, King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’, and the design chosen for the medal, usually awarded to civilians, was of St. George slaying the dragon on a silver cross.

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It may surprise you to learn that St. George is also the patron saint of Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Portugal, Russia and Germany!  One wonders, therefore, how George decided which side to support during various conflicts, including two World Wars!  A whole host of people are also supposed to be looked after by St. George, including archers, cavalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, scouts, soldiers and those suffering from leprosy and the plague!  Some people have campaigned for St. Alban to be the patron saint of England instead of George and who can blame them when he’s shared by so many!

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As well as Saint George, quite a few famous people died on 23rd April including Ethelred the Unready in 1016, Ethelred, King of Wessex in 871, William Wordsworth in 1850, Rupert Brooke in 1915 and, of course, William Shakespeare who’s also said to have been born on the same day, although the only evidence we have about his first few days is that he was baptised on 26th April. 

The national flower of England is the rose, adopted around the time of the War of the Roses, fought between the Royal House of Lancaster, whose emblem was a red rose, and the Royal House of York, whose emblem was a white one.  In 1845, the Lancastrian Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III and the Yorkists at the Battle of Bosworth Field, claiming the throne of England to become King Henry VII.  However, as his claim was a rather shaky one based on the illegitimate Plantagenet line, Henry strengthened his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York whose floral emblems were then combined to make the Tudor rose – a red rose with a white centre.

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In this year’s St George’s Day window, there are lots of red and white beanie bears, bearing either a St George’s cross or a rose.  The star is, of course, a dragon-slaying bear although I must admit he seems to be on quite friendly terms with his arch enemy, the dragon

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