Page 5, 18th April 1997

18th April 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 18th April 1997 — The killing of St George

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Locations: Dublin, Canterbury, Antioch


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The killing of St George

g Cry God for Harry, England and St George /

Why do the English fail to honour their patron saint? WILLIAM ODDIE offers an explanation NEXT WEDNESDAY the English people will celebrate the feast of St George, patron of England: at any rate some of them will, but not very much.

Why is this? In Ireland, St Patrick's day is a Solemnity of the Church and a public holiday; I remember, from my years in Dublin, a wonderfully patchy St Patrick's day parade, with glamorous floats and marching bands from America alternating with more down to earth local stuff; a small ancient lorry, perhaps, containing a large pile of potatoes and a farmer's daughter holding a placard reading "boost for Ballydoran" .

Is it because Ireland is a Catholic nation that so much attention is paid to the festival of the patron saint? That must have something to do with it: but Scotland and Wales take St Andrew's day and St David's day seriously too, with much Celtic festivity involving leeks and haggis and whisky; so why will St George's day go virtually unmarked by almost every one in England?

Perhaps it is because of the kind of Saint he is? Most other patron saints have some kind of direct connection with the national soil St Andrews remains, it was believed, were brought by angels for internment in Scotland. That has become, perhaps, a slightly shaky reason, since some illconditioned and sceptical persons in this age of disbelief (though certainly not me) might tend to doubt that such a thing ever happened.

The best reason for choosing as national saint, undoubtedly, is that it was he or she who brought the faith to the nation concerned: thus, St Patrick and St David for Ireland and Wales.

France appears to have two patron saints. The first, St Denis, has everything a patron ought to have. He was a missionary and a martyr; he was also a bishop. He was beheaded at Montmartre, so he has an actual site you can visit (though I fear the reason most people visit this one has little to do with St Denis). France's other patron is St Martin of Tours, also a missionary bishop. Like the first English martyr, St Alban, he was a convert Roman soldier.

Sr George (if he existed at all) was a soldier though not a bishop. He had no direct connection of any kind with England, and is also patron saint of Portugal and of Aragon. He used to be patron saint of Greece as well, and is revered in Russia and in Sicily, where you can buy fierce little Moorish-looking stuffed dolls of him brandishing a scimitar. He has been revered in England since the eighth century, and his cult took off in the aftermath of the crusades. He finally became patron of England (and of the knightly Order of the Garter) when he was recognised as such by Edward III, very much a warrior King. He was clearly a saint to invoke on goinginto battle (he was said to have been seen, for instance, helping the Franks at the battle of Antioch in 1098) so when Shakespeare shows Henry V giving his troops an inspirational pep talk which comes to a climax with the words "Cry God for Harry, England and St George", he is almost certainly drawing on ancient tradition.

George represented the knightly virtues of courage, modesty and courtesy. The story of his fight with the dragon obviously shows that he was on the side of good against evil: but we know nothing of any specifically Christian activity, missionary work, say, or evidence of saintly virtue not involving deadly weaponry. As the patron saint of England, his cult has been vulnerable on several counts. First, his martial function was bound to wither when English nationhood was subsumed into a wider British identity. The Welsh, Irish and Scots, being under the heel of the English, needed to hang on to every symbol of national culture they could, including their own saints; but English nationalism was transformed into a British imperial afflatus in which too much reference too specifically English, rather than British, military virtues was seen as tactless. It is interesting that the world of football the only remaining locus for belliger ent English nationalism has seen something of a revival of interest in St George: one sports writer last season even suggested that "if only England hounded their patron saint like they do their managers they might get some results of a more encouraging nature".

In the end, though, St George's great weakness as patron saint of England must surely be his complete latk of connection with English life and history.

Once his military function had gone, there was unlike so many other saints dear to the English nothing to root him in English affections.

I wonder jut is time to start thinking once more about whether or not we should appoint someone else.

This would not necessarily mean displacing St George, at least at first: the new patron could be rather like a bishop coadjutor with rights of succession. Or we could have two patron saints, like the French: one could be for competitive situations like football (and warfare if ever we get our independence from the Scots and Welsh), the other for religious purposes.

Here, there are several candidates. St Alban, the first English martyr; St Augustine of Canterbury, who brought us the faith. But surely, one towers above the rest in the affection of the English people: Thomas of Canter bury. It has always seemed to

me significant that Chaucer's great masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, shows the

representatives from every stratum of English society on pilgrimage to Thomas's shrine in Canterbury: truly, here was a saint for the whole English people, "a man for all seasons" one might appositely say if the phrase did not evoke the memory of another English saint.

He represents the primacy of the things of God and the corruptibility of all earthly powers and affections. His was a shrine Henry VIII had to destroy if he was to seize power over the Church (as Henry II had attempted to do from Becket).

The Establishment of the Church of England remains as a relic of that unholy act.

But there is a movement among Anglicans to dises tablish their Church: if ever that were to happen, would not a great act of celebration be that we Catholic and Protestant together should all celebrate this liberation from secularity by declaring Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr, patron of England too?

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