Monday 23 April 2007


William Shakespeare who was born (and who also happened to die) on 23rd April, famously shared this date in the annual calendar with St George, Patron Saint of England.

This is doubtless why, in his play, Henry V (Act 3, Scene 1), the Bard has King Hal spur on the English troops at Agincourt with the rousing words:

"I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the Start. The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge,

Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’”

And, indeed, it was after that particular punch-up with the frogs in 1425 that St George received his Patron Sainthood. However, his patronage is not exclusive to this sceptered isle since he is also the patron saint of Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal and Serbia as well as the cities of Istanbul, Ljubljana and Moscow and a raft of professions, organizations and disease sufferers!

Most of us know little or nothing about the dragon-slaying, maiden-rescuing saint who (despite not being English) finally cemented his thorough-going Englishness with a visionary appearance to the Crusaders, sporting white robes emblazoned with a red cross, while they were busy laying siege to Antioch in the 11th Century.

Legends rather than facts surround George, but the common belief is that he was born into a Christian family in the 3rd Century and followed his father into the Roman army winning various promotions until he was part of the personal guard to Emperor Diocletian.

When, in 303, Diocletian launched a wholesale persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, George had the bad luck to be ordered to take part in the Christian-bashing, whereupon he not only owned up to being a True Believer, but was rash enough to suggest that Diocletian was wrong!

The Emperor was - not surprisingly - unamused and immediately ordered George to be tortured and executed as a traitor.

After several nasty experiences including laceration by the Wheel of Swords, George was decapitated outside the walls of Nicomedia on April 23rd, 303.

George’s story spread and people soon started venerating his memory until, in 494, Pope Gelasius I announced George’s canonization as part of a list of those "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." Which suggests that the Pope didn’t know much about him either!

Although many artists have shown George’s famous combat with the dragon, it is - as I'm sure you're aware - disappointingly just a myth...

As the story goes, the dragon allegedly terrorised the city of Cyrene (or, possibly, Lydda) in Syria and could only be placated by regular offerings of human sacrifices that were chosen by lot - a regrettably random system that, one day, resulted in the King's daughter being picked for dragon-fodder.

Fortunately Soldier George happened by, slew the dragon, rescued the Princess and, as a thank-you, everyone in the neighbourhood instantly converted to Christianity.

Apart from the proliferation of Flags of St George in World Cup Years, most English folk have pretty much given up on the saint - and bearing in mind our dismal showing in the World Cup, that is scarcely to be wondered at

Now, however, the English Tourist Board is campaigning to give the Day named in George’s honour a higher profile - maybe even to the extent of having it declared a national holiday!

Whilst that is probably unlikely, true patriots will certainly want to visit St Georges No apostrophe? How frightfully unEnglish!

This is the place to purchase all your St George's Day essentials such as George Cross t-shirts, mugs and umbrellas as well as English Wine Selections and other nifty knick-knacks such as a Shakespeare pocket watch.

The site also plays the Battle Cry from Henry V and 'Land of Hope and Glory' and proudly quotes the words of Winston Churchill:
"There is a forgotten, nay almost forbidden word, which means more to me than any other. That word is ENGLAND."
The revival of the cult of St George has also resulted in a new line in greetings cards - another opportunity for blatant commercial gain; but then, after all, we are a nation of shopkeepers! The cards show either the saintly knight at the gallop…

…or, if you're inclined towards supporting the underdog, the fire-breathing (but sympathetically endearing) dragon!

[Images: Portrait of Shakespeare by John Alcorn; 'Saint George and the Dragon' by Ucello; cards by Second Nature]


Anonymous said...

Did you know that here in Belgium, it is St Michael who slew (do I mean slew?!) the dragon? His statue is on top of Brussels town hall.
Every year, the fight is reanacted in the Walloon town of Mons; if the dragon is successfully clain, then it means a good year for the Montois

Anonymous said...

and Free Brussel Sprout rations for all?