“The English are not lacking in saints of God,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric of Eynsham, with emphatic understatement, at the end of the 10th century. To prove his point he cites the many saints who had arisen in the first centuries of Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Edmund of East Anglia, Cuthbert, Etheldreda of Ely, and more; countless holy men and women – kings and queens, abbesses and archbishops, martyrs and hermits – whose memory was venerated by the English church.
So how did England end up with St George as its patron saint, instead of any of these? Of course St George, as everybody knows, never came anywhere near England. Though the precise historical basis of his legend is disputed, the roots of his story lie in the eastern Mediterranean, with the earliest sources for his life dating from the fifth and sixth centuries. Even here there’s some disagreement about the details of his life, but he’s said to have served as a soldier and suffered martyrdom when he refused to renounce his faith.
For the first 1000 years or so of his history, St George was much more popular in Eastern Christianity than in the West. His name was known in early medieval England, but only as one among many other saints (even Ælfric tells his story – minus the dragon, which was a later addition to the legend). His popularity in this country is mostly a product of the later Middle Ages, boosted first by the Crusades, which brought an increasing interest in military saints, and later by a story that St George had miraculously aided the English army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
As a soldier-saint George became associated with all the aristocratic parade of Christian chivalry, beloved of medieval knights and kings. Edward III founded the Order of the Garter under the saint’s patronage in the 14th century, helping to encourage a link between George and the English monarchy. St George’s popularity was also growing elsewhere in Europe in the later Middle Ages; he was included as one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers”, a group of widely-venerated saints whose aid was sought against all kinds of disasters. In medieval legend, George was sometimes known as “Our Lady’s knight”, because one version of his story told how the Virgin Mary brought him back from the dead to fight the dragon.
By the 15th century lavish celebrations were taking place in various parts of England in honour of St George’s feast day. There are records of civic parades with model dragons carried in procession and people dressed up in colourful costumes as George (and sometimes also his fellow dragon-killer, St Margaret). He was certainly popular by this time, but it’s not at all clear that he was universally thought of as a national patron of England. The saintly landscape of the late medieval church was very broad and varied, and there was room for many different forms of holy patronage. Before St George, the English royal family had had other patrons – most notably St Edmund and Edward the Confessor – and they continued to be important, while by the later Middle Ages most towns and trades also had their own patron saints to celebrate. St George was only one among many.
After the Reformation, when all this diversity was suppressed, St George’s romantic story and his association with royalty meant that he was not as easily forgotten as some of his medieval rivals. In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in the idea of a national patron saint for England, and St George’s popularity took off again. He was easier to romanticise than other saints, and could be conveniently almost secularised – not so much a holy martyr as a glamorous and exotic knight, dragon-slayer and defender of ladies, the folk-tale hero of mummers’ plays.
It probably helped that saints whose feasts fall in spring and summer always have an advantage in popularity, since it’s easy to celebrate outdoors at that time of year, and St George, in late April, is particularly lucky. His feast falls at bluebell-time, and in England bluebells have sometimes been known as “St George’s bells”. In some places in the early 20th century children used to wear bluebells to school on St George’s Day – a surprisingly gentle way of remembering this warlike saint.
Eleanor Parker is a lecturer in medieval English literature at Brasenose College, Oxford
Photo: The St George’s Day Parade in Manchester, 2017 (Getty)