SAINT GEORGE -
PATRON SAINT OF ENGLAND
The Patron Saint of England Was
A Christian Martyr in Palestine.
Should This Mans Life & Death Be
Celebrated as Englands National Day?
23 is the feast day of Englands patron, Saint George, he of the
prowess and chivalrous behavior to women and others. For the last few years there has
been a movement in England to officially recognize St.
Georges 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
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 Irelands patron, St. Patrick, who
was born to Celtic or possibly Roman parents in the 4th century in
Wales or Scotland, and Waless 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.
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, Dioclesian, 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, Dioclesians empress, Alexandria, was so moved by
the story of Georges 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 SOLDIEROR WHAT GOES AROUND,
But why is St. George patron saint of England?
Despite legends claiming his visits to Glastonbury and Caerleon (sites of King
Arthurs 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 Georges 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 Mohammeds 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 until last week 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 Israels 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 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 kings daughters 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 Georges
saintly behavior, the kingdom converted to Christianity.
The Legend: St. George, medieval
knight on a white charger, slays
the Dragon and saves the princess.
For Crusaders, Georges chivalry became
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 Georges
death, April 23. At this same time King Edward III replaced Edward the Confessor with St.
George as patron saint of England. St. Georges 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 Rangercome with the chivalry of
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. Georges 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
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 couldnt have known that he would die on St. Georges 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. Georges 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 nationalistshave urged the formal establishment of
St. Georges Day as a day when the English can proudly look to their history, their
culture, and their achievements with unembarrassed pride and patriotism.
But is St. George the best symbol of English
England's Flag: the
Cross of St. George.
pride and patriotism? Its
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. Georges 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. Georges 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?
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