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LEGENDARY & MYTHICAL FIGURES

 

Travel is people. You may go abroad to see the famous sites, but what you remember best are the people you meet. Among them, like unexpected treasure, are a few memorable contacts that will make your travels unique, special, and delightful. "People" is devoted to some of those you may come in contact with during your Home At First travels.

ST. GEORGE — PATRON SAINT OF ENGLAND

The Patron Saint of England Was
A Christian Martyr in Palestine.

Should This Man’s Life & Death Be
Celebrated as England’s National Day?

A

PRIL 23 is the feast day of

England’s patron, Saint George,

he of the dragon slaying

prowess and chivalrous behavior to women and others. For the last few years there has been a movement in England to officially recognize St. George’s Day as the national holiday of England — to become the equivalent of Independence Day in the United States.

SAINT FIRST CLASS
          In 2000 Pope John Paul II upgraded St. George to national saint status, a rank already held by
St. Andrew in Scotland, St. David in Wales and St. Patrick in Ireland. Thus was England, like the other countries of the British Isles, able to associate itself with a recognized major Christian hero.
          Unlike Ireland’s patron, St. Patrick, who was born to Celtic — or possibly Roman — parents in the 4th century in Wales or Scotland, and Wales’s patron, the 6th century Welshman St. David, St. George hailed from nowhere near Britain. St. George is the patron saint of England despite never having been there — except in legend.

PALESTINIAN SAINT
          Early (and questionable) histories claim that George was born in the late 3rd century in Cappadocia, then a region of the Roman Empire — and now of central Turkey — that was home to an early Christian community founded by St. Paul. His parents are said to have been a Cappadocian nobleman and his Palestinian wife, both Christians. When his father died, George and his mother moved back to her home in Palestine where George would oversee the family lands.
          The Holy Land was at that time part of the Roman Empire, and the ruling emperor of the time, Diocletian, was known for his severe persecution of Christians. Somehow, George became an important officer in the local forces of the Roman army. When George decried the harsh Roman treatment of Christians, he was imprisoned and tortured. Then, when he would not give up his Christianity, he was beheaded at the town of Lydda. Reportedly, Diocletian's empress, Alexandria, was so moved by the story of George’s martyrdom that she converted to Christianity, and then was also executed. His tomb — still in Lydda, near modern day Tel Aviv, Israel — became an object of pilgrimage for Christians, many of whom claimed miraculous healing of afflictions to health and hearth after their visits.
          George became a saint in Palestine as a cult grew up around his memory as the martyred soldier of Christianity. The image of St George on a white charger as a Christian soldier was perhaps especially important when Middle Eastern Christian communities found themselves under attack by the Saracen armies of the new religion of Islam starting 350 years later. At the beginning of the second millennium, the story of St. George became familiar to European armies in the Holy Land during the Crusades who adopted him as their patron saint.

ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIER —
OR WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND

          But why is St. George patron saint of England? Despite legends claiming his visits to Glastonbury and Caerleon (sites of King Arthur’s Camelot?), there is no indication that George ever traveled even as far as Mediterranean Europe, and got no closer to England than his native Turkey. It may be simply that George’s Christian soldier symbolism so closely resembles the romanticized chivalric code of Arthurian legend that St. George has become a naturalized saint in England. But today — especially in the light of current events in the Middle East — there are a new set of associations connecting St. George with England.
          Lydda, Palestine, was already home to a Christian community when Saint Peter was alive. Roman Emperor Septimus Severus made Lydda a Roman city in 200AD, although it continued to have a significant Jewish population until a failed Jewish revolt in 351AD brought it the wrath of Emperor Gallus. When the Byzantine Empire replaced Rome at the start of the European Dark Ages, Lydda was predominantly Christian and was called Georgiopolis after St. George, its most famous son.
          In 636AD the town was conquered by the 2nd Caliph of Islam only four years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, when the Islamic Empire was in its infancy. Caliph Omar was Mohammed’s successor whose conquests significantly enlarged the Islamic Empire. His goal was the creation of a "pure Islamic state", and his time is now considered the Golden age of the Islamic religion. (Omar was assassinated in 644AD in a mosque in the holy city of Medina by a Persian — called "Iranian" today.)
          European Crusaders took Lydda in 1099 and lost it to the great Saladin in 1187. Saladin was born in Takrit, in what is now Iraq, hometown of Saddam Hussein, who ruthlessly pursued his dream to become the second coming of Saladin and create a greater Arab Islamic state free of Western influence. (Ironically, Saladin was Kurdish, not Arab, and Saddam Hussein vigorously oppressed the Kurdish minority of Iraq.)
          Few Jews lived in Lydda during the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire until a small Jewish community started in the 19th century, but this group was dispersed by Arab riots in 1921. When Israel gained statehood in 1948 and occupied Lydda, its Arab population — 80% Islamic and 20% Christian — abandoned the town. Today the town sits on the edge of Israel’s David Ben-Gurion Airport, home of the national airline, El Al. In 1936 the British, built the airport on the Lydda site during its occupation of Palestine.

THE LEGEND
           The story about St. George and the dragon — one of several stories comprising the "Golden Legends" written around the time of the Crusades — is much more familiar, and less disquieting, than the history of St. George and the Middle East. In the legend, a dragon lived in a lake near Silena, Libya, and extorted two sheep daily from the local populace until they had no more sheep and were forced to send maidens that we selected by lot. It happened that George rode into Silena just as the king’s daughter’s name had been drawn as the sacrifice-to-be. On his white charger, and with the king and queen watching, George battled the dragon, killing it with with his lance. Out of gratitude and wonder the people of Silena presented George with a great sum of gold, which he immediately presented to the poor citizens of the land before departing for other adventures. Amazed at George’s saintly behavior, the kingdom converted to

The Legend: St. George, medieval knight on a white charger, slays the Dragon and saves the princess.
The Legend: St. George, medieval
 knight on a white charger, slays
the Dragon and saves the princess.

Christianity.

 

          For Crusaders, George’s chivalry became model behavior, and likely returned to England with the stories they first heard about him in the Holy Land. The Cross of St. George — the red cross of the flag of England — may be a representation of his bloody Christian martyrdom. English churches were dedicated in his name as early at 1061. His legend as dragon slayer appeared in England not later than the 12th century. English knighthoods of the Order of the Garter were first awarded in 1348AD — traditionally on the date of George’s death, April 23. At this same time King Edward III replaced Edward the Confessor with St. George as patron saint of England. St. George’s influence as the knightly ideal continues to this day in cultures throughout the West. Even modern heroes of fact and legend — including astronauts, Superman, the Lone Ranger — come with the chivalry of St. George.

NOT JUST ENGLAND; NOT JUST THE CHIVALROUS
          Since George was martyred in Lydda, Palestine, about 303 AD, Christianity has adopted him as one of its favorite sons. St George is venerated by Roman Catholics, the Church of England, by various Orthodox churches, and by the Christian churches of the Near East and Ethiopia. George’s reputed tomb can still be visited southeast of Tel-Aviv. An Egyptian nunnery claims to have a collection of his affects. St. George is the patron saint of Germany, the former Soviet republic of Georgia (yes, the country is named for him), Palestine, Portugal, Greece, and Lithuania, and he is a saint of especial importance in Estonia and Latvia. He is also the patron saint of the Spanish regions of Aragon and Catalonia, the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, and of the cities of Genoa, Moscow and Istanbul. It is no surprise St. George is the patron of soldiers and cavalry, and of horses, their riders and their saddlers. But he somehow is also the patron of lepers, syphilitics, and victims of the Black Death, of Boy Scouts, farmers, archers, butchers, and field workers.

AS ENGLISH AS SHAKESPEARE
          England has long claimed St. George as its own. Shakespeare tied St. George for all time to the most patriotic association with the Crown and Country when he had King Henry V call for brave inspiration at Agincourt,

The game's afoot: Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!"

HENRY V, Act III, Scene 1

          Perhaps William Shakespeare had a warm spot for St. George — he is believed to have been born on April 23, 1564. Of course, Shakespeare couldn’t have known that he would die on St. George’s Day in 1616.
          The Bard of Stratford was neither the first nor the last Englishman to adopt the symbolism of St. George to his nationalism. For centuries St. George has appeared in Mummers’ Plays during holiday celebrations. Many English towns and villages mark St. George’s Day with traditional English festivities including medieval beef and ale fairs.

THE RIGHT SYMBOL
     OF ENGLAND

          With the loss of the Empire and the embarrassments of the Royal Family there is some real concern in England that patriotism has diminished significantly. And for the last few years a number of voices — including right wing and ultra-right wing nationalists—have urged the formal establishment of St. George’s Day as a day when the English can proudly look to their history, their culture, and their achievements with unembarrassed pride and patriotism.

England's Flag: the Cross of St. George.
England's Flag:
the Cross of St. George

          But is St. George the best symbol of English pride and patriotism? It’s ironic that many English are calling for the establishment of a national day to center around the figure of St. George when his real story lends itself better allegorically to the tragic and convoluted history of the Middle East than the chivalric spirit of England.
        Polls suggest that less than half of the English are aware of St. George’s Day, even though the vast majority think of themselves as patriotic citizens who are proud to be English. Despite not knowing the date of St. George’s death, few of those polled would object to the creation of an English national day, and an extra day off from work and school.
        But with so many potential symbols of English pride, legendary or factual — Boadicea, King Arthur, King Harold, Robin Hood, Elizabeth I, Guy Fawkes, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill come quickly to mind — why do the English remain so taken with their adopted legendary son who never heard of England?

HOME AT FIRST has travel programs to six regions of ENGLAND.
In all six regions visitors can experience the history, traditions,
and unique scenery of one of the world's great destinations.

For more information, see:

DEVON/CORNWALL • THE COTSWOLDS • LONDON • SHROPSHIRE/CHESHIRE

NORTH YORKSHIRE & THE YORKSHIRE DALES • THE LAKE DISTRICT

YOUR DREAM TRIP TO ENGLAND BEGINS BY CONTACTING 

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