Comment

The cult of St George has spun out of control

St George – big in England

This article appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald on April 16, 2004

The passing of St George’s Day will no doubt once again provoke a chorus of lamentation about the way we English do not celebrate our patron saint’s day.

Already we have the mandatory loony Left story, this time from Norfolk, where local officials have refused to grant a late license to publican Tony Bennett on account that April 23 is not a special day, despite the same officials having granted similar extensions on Chinese New Year and the Fourth of July last summer.

And Ken Livingstone will be criticised for laying on a party for his Irish constituents on St Patrick’s Day, but not for his English equivalent.

And yet many of us have never been too keen on St George representing this country, and for three good reasons. Firstly, he was not English. Secondly, he never actually existed.

And lastly, he is the most promiscuous of saints, representing not only this country but also Portugal, Aragon, Lithuania, Milan, and of course Georgia, where last December’s revolution gave many a rough idea of what a properly celebrated April 23 might look like over here, with its flagwaving and drunken punch-ups.

There was, of course, a man by this name who was executed in Lydda, Palestine in 303AD, but as Pope Gelasius commented as far back as 496, he was one of those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God”. In short, God alone knows why we celebrate him.

And thereafter he may have remained a relatively minor figure roughly equivalent to a St Abo or St Mercury, were it not for the 13th century Italian storyteller B I James De Voragine. De Voragine’s work The Golden Legend recounted George’s mission to Sylene in modern day Libya, where he apparently cut a dragon into four pieces and was even decent enough to turn down the handsome reward offered by the city’s king.

In this manner, George’s rise to fame mirrors that of King Arthur, whose chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth took a smidgen of truth and got hugely carried away with himself. And yet, even by then, George’s public relations machine was getting out of control, largely because the Crusaders claimed he inspired them to win Antioch in 1098, causing the warrior saint to be adopted as a popular military icon. George’s dubious connections to England grew when in 1222 the Council of Oxford declared April 23 a holiday, and then in 1415 the Church in England promoted it to a feast day, having already made him a patron saint in either 1344 or 1348.

Not bad for a poor boy from Palestine. If indeed he even existed, for George is also the patron saint of farming (and in one of these strange cases of spiritual multi-tasking, also the patron of boy scouts) which leads many theologians to suggest that the farming cult of St George dates back to a pre-Christian harvest god — georgios being Greek for “farmer”. Despite all this, it was not until the 1980s that the Vatican finally took the pagan god-turned-Christian saint off the list of days to be observed.

Only for April 23 to then become a rallying point for an English nationalism stung by Celtic revival and continental encroachment, with a huge upsurge in festive cards and lapel roses.

At this point, I must confess a vested interest in knocking down this saint from his lofty position, and instead promoting the cause of St Edward, after whom I was named. St Edward was a real King of England, who built Westminster Abbey but never claimed to fight any fire-breathing reptiles. His 24-year rule was a peaceful and prosperous respite between years of Viking and Norman oppression, and this chaste half-Scandinavian was celebrated for helping the poor, and healing bloody tension between English man and Dane: a perfect talisman against our present woes, and in his capacity as patron saint of troubled marriages, hugely relevant to today. Though Edward was canonised in 1161, since then he has made little progress on the hagiological front, while his Levantine rival has gone on to sow up half of Europe, as well as holding the farming job on the side.

But my deep personal grudge originates from the custom in Ireland and among the Diaspora Irish of giving presents to children on their saint’s day, which meant my brother Patrick effectively had a second birthday every March 17, receiving cash here and vouchers there. Very few people care that October 13 is the day of Edward the Confessor, and today it remains an unknown date sandwiched between the start of Ramadan and Canadian Thanksgiving Day. So ignore the 23rd this month, and save your festivities for a truly English saint in the autumn, and while you are at it, feel free to send me any book tokens you have going spare.