St George was a proper English hero, or was he?
‘Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”’ So implores Henry V at Harfleur, the line that ends Shakespeare’s famous ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ speech. This St George fellow has long served as a talisman for the English, from the battlefield to the football terraces. Yet the national saint was not of the nation.
The historical George – if he existed at all, for the sources verge on the mythical – never so much as heard of England. He couldn’t have done. He was martyred around 303CE, when the country that would one day venerate him was still known as Britannia. It would be more than a century before the Angles, after whom England is named, bothered these shores.
Nor did he visit. According to the legends, George was a Roman soldier of Greek or Turkish (to use the modern term) descent, who was tortured and executed after refusing to give up the Christian faith. Very few particulars of his life are known, but no hint suggests that he ever travelled west of Greece. The dragon-slaying story, it hardly needs stating, is entirely made up. The earliest sources about his life (4th or 5th century) don’t feel the need to describe George’s run-in with a fire-breathing monster, and this is only recorded from the 11th century. By one tradition, the encounter took place on a hill at Uffington, a little east of Swindon.
How, then, did this east European of sketchy biography become the patron saint of England?
The answer is, gradually. For much of the later medieval period, Edward the Confessor was regarded as the country’s most important saint. George’s star began to rise when crusading knights brought home tales of his exploits from the Byzantine Empire. A century later, Edward III chose the dragon-slayer as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious mark of chivalry a knight could attain. George’s story was spread far and wide by the coming of the printing press, and he soon gained veneration as the national protector.
The English are not the only ones to march behind his shield. As its name hints, the nation of Georgia also counts our man as its patron saint. The national flag is a St George Cross with four miniature red crosses in the quadrants. You’ll also see the familiar red and white on the flag of Barcelona. George is also venerated throughout other parts of the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, he pops up everywhere – from the flag of Moscow to the Brazilian football team Corinthians, who formerly played at the Estádio Parque São Jorge, and sometimes wear an emblem of St George on their kits.
St George’s Day in England, 23 April, is a muted affair compared with the revelry that surrounds the Irish celebration of St Patrick, but that perhaps is changing. The date has resonance throughout English history. The reign of England’s greatest king, Alfred, began on 23 April 871. It is the traditional birthday of William Shakespeare and the date of his death. Namesake George V also pulled a biggy on 23 April. On this date in 1924, the monarch made the first royal broadcast, while opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. And, no, he didn’t say ‘Bugger Bognor’.
Extracted from Everything You Know About England is Wrong by Matt Brown, out now. Illustration by Sara Mulvanny.