April 23 is, as many a good Christian will be happy to point out, St. George’s Day, although those who follow the Coptic faith will have celebrated his feast day on the 18th of April. St. George is one of the most prominent hagiographical figures whose origins are clouded by myth, legend and national pride. He is the patron saint of the following places: Athens, Bavaria, England, Ethiopia, Genoa, Georgia (the English name of this land is derived from him), Moscow and Portugal. He is also patron of armourers, Boy Scouts, butchers, cavalrymen, chivalry, farmers, the Order of the Garter, horses, saddlers, soldiers (along with Saints Michael and Sebastian) and swordmakers. As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the saint is invoked against skin diseases, particularly bubonic plague, syphilis and leprosy. In the Orthodox world, he is considered one of the ‘Megalomartyros’.
Saint George was believed to have been from Asia Minor, then a part of the Hellenistic world, and became an officer in the Roman army. However, his Christian faith earned him the wrath of the Emperor Diocletian (now more famous for his persecutions than for the magnificent baths he had constructed), who ordered his execution by decapitation in Nicomedia in the year 303. He was interred in Lydda, Palestine, and to this day is venerated by Palestinian Christians.
The legend of St. George is far better known, thanks to the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, which was translated into English and disseminated by the printing presses of William Caxton in the fifteenth century. This legend tells of a fearsome dragon that terrorised the countryside long ago. The local humans were forced to sate the monster’s appetite with a daily offering of two sheep and, when the supply of livestock was exhausted, with one of their own kind, drawn by lot. Presently, the king’s daughter was chosen to be the next victim. However, before she could be devoured, St. George rode to the rescue and wounded the dragon with his lance. He led the beast back by the princess’ girdle and promised to slay it provided the people convert to Christianity. Fifteen thousand of them did so. George duly slew the dragon but asked for no reward save that the king maintain the churches and aid the poor.
The cult of St. George became prominent in England quite early on and he is mentioned in the Martyrology of the Venerable Bede (8th century). He was also mentioned in the marrtyrology of the Irish bishop Óengus mac Óengobann in the ninth century. Visions of the saint, along with that of Demetrius, at the Siege of Antioch in 1098 were said to have inspired the Crusader victory there. During the Third Crusade, King Richard the Lionheart placed his crusading army under the saint’s protection. At the Synod of Oxford in 1222, the feast day of St. George was made a lesser holiday by the Church fathers. He was made patron of the Order of the Garter when it was formed during the reign of King Edward III. In 1415, Archbishop Henry Chichele made the 23 April on of the principal feasts of the year following the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. In the course of the fifteenth century, St. George gradually superseded Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr in importance in England. The iconoclastic ravages of the Reformation did nothing to dent his popularity and to this day, St. George remains patron of England, with over 160 churches dedicated to him. Sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser wrote of him thus:
Thou, among those saints which thou doest see
Shalt be a saint, and thine own nation’s friend
And patron; thou Saint George shalt called be
St. George of merry England, the sign of victory
Sadly, his importance diminished over the years (perhaps the Reformation had a hand, or perhaps it was the Age of Reason that eroded the cult of sainthood) and in the 20th century, his feast day was reduced to Memorial status in the Roman calendar. However, he remains a figurehead of English nationalism, with many calling for the 23 April to be made a national holiday. Business leaders and economists – bean-counters, as they are known to almost everyone else – warn against such a move, concerned that the UK economy would suffer as a result.
St. George’s Day is celebrated in many places with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. Consider the town of Montegiorgio, where they enjoy a five day holiday complete with live music every night, an agricultural show, a car show and and a grand feast from the evening of the 19th until midnight of the 25th. This, however, is not the Anglo-Saxon way. Reserved as we are, there is no lavish festival here in England to celebrate our patron, though he is no less revered on account of it. Many people will complain that political correctness and the large-scale immigration of recent years have suppressed their freedom to celebrate the feast day. Do not believe a word of this, for these claims are nothing but tabloid-inspired, hysterical nonsense. We may celebrate as we see fit, but we choose not to do so.
On the other hand, it is at this time of the year that I am forced to put many a sneering Anglophobe in his place. “St. George wasn’t English,” they scoff. “What’s he got to do with England?” I have already mentioned how he is patron saint of numerous places, yet he did not originate in any of them. What do those fools have to say about that? Saint Patrick was a Welshman and Saint Andrew never set foot in Scotland; few people quibble over this, yet the land of my birth is considered fair game. The Spideron does not forget such insults.
Hagiography is a fascinating topic. There is a patron saint for almost every profession: Genesius of Rome for comedians, Thais for prostitutes, Cassian for office workers, John the Baptist for publishers, Vincent de Paul for prisoners and Barbara for artillerymen. There is a campaign underway in the United States to make St. Gabriel Possenti patron of hand-gunners. I could go on, but alas, the hour draws late. I do hope you have found this enlightening, dear readers.
Oxford Dictionary of Saints, David Farmer, 2004
Saints of Patronage & Invocation, Michael Gibson, 1982