Saint George's Day
April 2007
St George(ish)

The Irish have St Patrick’s Day with Guinness and traditional music, the Scots have Burns’ Night, haggis, and tartans, even the Welsh have daffodils and eistedfods, but what do the English have – what English anniversaries, traditions, or heroes are there?

April 23 is St George’s Day, patron saint of England, but what do we know about St George today? Probably very little. He was a warrior, dragonslayer, and protector of fair maidens, and if there is a popular image of St George it is as a knight in shining armour, battling with gruesome foes to save damsels in distress from the clutches of evil – but I wonder whether even this holds the imagination any more. St George has become almost completely identified with his symbol: a pure white shield emblazoned with a crimson cross. For centuries this was the flag of all England, proclaiming the unity of the country, today it forms the central component of the Union Jack, but for the past decade it has been most associated with the antics of the English football team.

St George was traditionally one of the earliest Christian martyrs, and also has mysterious affinities with folk lore and lost legends – including the Green Man – as well as with other cultures and traditions. He was, for example, a patron saint of farmers, husbandmen, saddlers, horsemen, and sailors, as well as being a healer and a protector of knights, soldiers, archers, and armourers, and he has been adopted by (among many other countries), Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, and Slovenia. But his primary identification remains with England. St George was a warrior saint, perhaps originally a Roman soldier from Palestine, and as a warrior he was a favourite hero of the knights of the medieval crusades. The toughest troops on the crusades were considered to be the English, as England had the most efficient and successful army in Europe at the time. Gradually, St George and the red cross became the symbols of England, and there were celebrations in his honour by the 1200s. In 1399, St George’s Day was officially recognized as a public holiday, that one could be fined for not attending.

Pace-Egging Play

Times have clearly changed. The cross of St George fell out of popular use 250 years later, when Oliver Cromwell adopted the flag, and it became associated with the Civil War and lost popularity – until at Euro ’96, English football supporters began to wear the colours of St George as opposed to the red-white-and-blue of the Union Jack, which of course stands for the whole of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Coincidentally, a few weeks after Euro ’96, the Church of England recognized St George’s Day as a ‘feast day’.

All of this led to a revival of St Georgism. The first St George’s Day greetings cards were mass-produced in 1995 and currently sell about 50,000 every April. The Sun newspaper launched a campaign to revive the celebration of St George’s Day and there is currently an on-line petition calling for 23 April to be a public holiday. In 1999, the English Tourist Council changed its logo to a flag of St George, and even the Christian name ‘George’ became almost five times as popular as it had been in the previous decade; it is the name under which Prince Charles intends to rule. The revival has since continued, and more recently the English Folk Dance and Song Society have been sponsoring St George pageants across the country.

St George’s Day will see a number of events taking place in the area, not least in the Beacon villages. South Zeal will be hosting the annual pace-egging play featuring St George, medieval brawling (dancing), and other English festivities. You never know, you might enjoy it rather more than England’s current sporting performance....

Nick Groom - 1st April 2007

Nick Groom plays St George in the Ramsley Pace-Egging play on 23 April. He is also the author of The Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag, which appears in paperback this month.

Editors note: For those who are interested you can still access last month's discussion on the division of the local Benefice here.