By Arthur Kay
In the midst of this pandemic and in lock-down, we celebrate the Feast of St. George, patron saint of England and indeed of our distinguished rector.
As many of you will know, St. George was a soldier of Cappadocian Greek origins. Cappadocia was in modern day Turkey of course. He was an officer of the Praetorian Guard for Roman emperor Diocletian around 300 a.d. where he rose to the rank of tribunus militum which is roughly equivalent to full colonel in our army of today. He opposed the Great Persecution of Christians under Diocletian and was sentenced to death for refusing to recant his Christian faith. St. George was beheaded at Nicomedia in Turkey on the 23rd of April in the year 303. He became one of the most venerated saints and megalo-martyrs in Christianity. (Generally speaking, a megalo-martyr is a martyr who has undergone excruciating tortures—often performing miracles and converting unbelievers to Christianity in the process—and who has attained widespread veneration throughout the Church. These saints are often from the first centuries of the Church, before the Edict of Milan in 313 which proclaimed tolerance for the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire).
According to folklore, St. George rescued a princess who was about to be eaten by a dragon that had settled near the city of Silene in modern-day Libya. As luck would have it, St George was passing by and saved the princess by beheading the dragon. His bravery is said to have inspired people in Silene to convert to Christianity and this act has been commemorated as an example of true chivalry ever since.
The earliest documented mention of St. George in England comes from the Catholic monk the venerable Bede. The will of Alfred the Great is said to refer to the saint, in a reference to the church of Fordington in Dorset. At Fordington church a stone over the south door records the miraculous appearance of St. George to lead crusaders into battle at Antioch.
The declarations of the Province of Canterbury in 1415 and the Province of York in 1421 elevated the feast to a double major, (one of the highest ranking feasts in the English Roman Catholic church calendar at the time, this, of course, being before the Reformation and the creation of the Anglican church). As a result, work was prohibited and church attendance was mandatory.
St. George has been especially venerated as a military saint since the Crusades. Froissart observed the English invoking St. George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War. A tradition that has continued ever since.
St. George’s Day was a major feast and national holiday in England on a par with Christmas from the early 15th century. However, the tradition of celebrating St. George’s day had waned by the end of the 18th century after the union of England and Scotland. Nevertheless, the link with St. George continues today, for example Salisbury holds an annual St. George’s Day pageant, the origins of which are believed to go back to the 13th century. Some of our coins, particularly our gold sovereigns sport Petrucci’s image of St. George slaying the dragon on the reverse.
In recent years the popularity of St. George’s Day has been increasing again. Andrew Rosindell, MP, has been putting the argument forward in the House of Commons to make St. George’s Day a public holiday. Whilst Mayor of London Boris Johnson spearheaded a campaign to encourage the celebration of St. George’s Day. Recently, organisations such as English Heritage and the Royal Society of St. George have been encouraging ever greater St. George’s Day celebrations.
A traditional custom on St. George’s day is to fly the St. George’s Cross flag in some way. Pubs in particular could be seen festooned with garlands of St. George’s crosses. It is customary for the hymn “Jerusalem” to be sung in cathedrals, and churches on St. George’s Day, or on the Sunday closest to it, but sadly not today.
Today, St. George’s Day may be celebrated with anything English, and most importantly the consumption of classically English food and drink.
But what about St George the man? In truth we know very little about the life of our patron saint so what can we take from all this? He was executed for defending Christians and refusing to recant his faith. This may remind us that we should be steadfast in our faith also. The fable of St George and the dragon perhaps tells us that we should oppose evil in all its forms, be that greed, injustice, prejudice, lawlessness or whatever else. We should also help and protect the weak and vulnerable in our societies whomsoever and wherever they may be. Something particularly poignant today as the entire world continues to suffer from the Covid 19 plague. These examples of courage, honour, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak are the essence of chivalry and therefore something to which we may all aspire. They might even be distilled down to loving God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds and all our strength. And loving our neighbours as ourselves.
So let us celebrate our patron saint on this auspicious day. Even in these difficult days let us go forward to do good things together with the words that have echoed down the centuries for us and for all English people: “For God, England and Saint George!!”