ST GEORGE FOR ENGLAND
From 'Royal Windsor' by Hepworth Dixon, 1879
At regular intervals someone in the media suggests that England should 'change its Patron-Saint'. Various alternative candidates are put forward, for instance St Alban, St Augustine, St Cuthbert, St Hilda, St Swithin, St Dunstan and many others. There are two problems with all of these candidates. Although they are all obviously Saints of God, either they are venerated only regionally, or else, although they have a national reputation, they have never been venerated popularly.
Incredibly, there are some who also attack St George because of 'the dragon'. If there is a dragon in the story, it cannot be true and St George never existed! These people fail to understand that all the dragon/princess symbols were inserted in later medieval times into the Life of St George as an edifying allegory. Narrow-minded literalists seem unable to get their heads around the symbolism: the dragon is the devil and the passions (and also the the pagan Roman Empire and its Emperors); St George and the white horse are the grace of God; the princess is the captive soul; the king is the human mind; the city is mankind; the princess' girdle is moderation and virtue. An allegory does not mean that the factual events never occurred.
Yet others, many of them Anglicans, claim that 'the Pope' has stopped veneration of St George! Apart from the fact that this is untrue, it is of course completely irrelevant to Non-Catholics. For instance, veneration of the Saint continues in the Orthodox Church regardless of any faithless fashion anywhere.
However, the usual reasoning for wishing to change our national Patron is xenophobic, i.e. that since St George was not English, therefore he cannot be the Patron-Saint of England! This sort of reasoning is so unChristian that it hardly bears thinking about. After all, if we are consistent, we would certainly have to take a Hitlerite stand and reject Christ Himself, since He too was a 'Non-Aryan'.
The fact is that it is no coincidence that today some wish to abandon St George. Whatever the excuse, the real reason is simply that we live in non-Christian and anti-Christian times.
As we have said elsewhere in Orthodox England (See Vol 4, No 3, P.15), St George was venerated in England from early times and the early English dedicated monasteries and churches to him. Later, at the end of the late tenth century, a Life of St George was written in Old English by Abbot Aelfric (no mention of a dragon here).
On the other hand, it is also true that by the tenth century St Edmund the Martyr was considered to be England's Patron-Saint. Then in medieval times, once he had been canonized in the late twelfth century, Edward the Confessor was also considered to be a Patron. And it was only returning Norman Crusaders (hardly very Orthodox, since they spent a fair part of their time massacring Orthodox) who really made popular the veneration of St George. And it was only between the late thirteenth and early fifteenth centuries that St George was finally adopted as a national Patron.
I emphasis the word 'a' national Patron (not 'the'), because countries may well have more than one Patron, as is the case of England. It must be said that there is no law or institution that decides who is a Patron-Saint and who is not. If an overwhelming majority of English people wanted to adopt, say, St Cuthbert as their national patron, then it would simply happen. Here popular recognition and veneration are what count. No governmental power can decide whom we venerate as our national Patron. Let us look a little more closely at this whole question.
Perhaps we should first take the case of St Edmund (+869), England's first Patron-Saint. He was adopted because he was a symbol of national English Christian resistance to the heathen Danish invader. As Patron of the English, his national role as Patron-Saint was unique for some 300 years until the end of the twelfth century.
Next came the half-Norman Edward the Confessor (+1066). Although he enjoyed a reputation for personal piety, there was little popular veneration until the twelfth century, Then in 1161, by supporting the Anti-Pope Alexander III, the French King of England Henry II, obtained his canonization. From this point on he began to be venerated alongside St Edmund as a second patron. However, the reasons for his canonization were largely political and ethnic.
They were all to do with the fact that the Norman Henry II himself was actually related by blood to the Anglo-Norman Edward. His canonization was seen by the Anglo-Norman establishment as a self-justifying method of reconciling the English with the establishment. In this it was only partially successful. Firstly, there was little popular veneration for Edward. Even with the backing of the royal court and the promotion of Edward as a second Patron-Saint, veneration for St Edmund continued to be more important than that for Edward. (Needless to say, from an Orthodox viewpoint, despite his relatively early date and personal piety, as a de facto Catholic, Edward the Confessor is not venerated among us).
Thus we see that by the late twelfth-century England had two Patron-Saints: St Edmund for the English and Edward the Confessor for the Anglo-Norman establishment; each played a different role. But the role of both of them began to be partially eclipsed by events taking place barely a generation after Edward's papal canonization.
In 1192 the Crusader Richard I, who had just defeated the Muslim conqueror Saladin on St George's feast-day, 23 April, placed himself and the English army under St George's patronage. Consequently, by the thirteenth century the military establishment adopted St George as its Patron-Saint. It is true that this veneration was spread as a result of the anti-Orthodox Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. However, during the fourteenth century St George came to be venerated among the common people also.
It is our belief that this was the result of English people asserting their spirit against the Anglo-Normans after their oppression between 1066 and the fourteenth century, the century of Chaucer and Langland and the revival of English. Legends even developed that St George had been posted to the Roman Army in York, Caerleon and Glastonbury at the end of the third century and he had therefore actually lived in England. The name 'St George's Channel' was even given to that part of the Irish Sea by which, in the legends, George had sailed to England. Although mere legends, they illustrate popular acceptance of the Saint. After all, St George had become a holy martyr by defying the establishment. That is what English people were doing under the Norman elite, which is why he became a Patron alongside the others. In St George there is indeed something of the finest part of the English national spirit, the spirit of David that stands up against Goliath, of the little island that stands up against the Continent.
By the fifteenth century this veneration for St George had truly become nationwide. St George had become a symbol of English aspiration for all those living in England who looked upwards, the inspiration for the dauntless and the bold, the courteous and the kind, the noble and the self-sacrificing. After all, the flag of St George which was also adopted is the flag of Jerusalem, the blood-red cross of sacrifice on the white background of nobility and purity. And the 'English' rose, also adopted, is in fact the red rose which was brought back by the Crusaders from the Plain of Sharon, where is situated the town of Lydda, where St George was martyred
It must be understood that, although St George largely replaced Edward the Confessor and even St Edmund in national esteem, at no time was there a thought of abandoning altogether St Edmund or Edward as Patron-Saints. The fact is that right up till the Reformation in the sixteenth century, all three still played national roles. And even since the Reformation, no informed person has actually dared say that any of these is no longer a national Patron. Those who venerate them as Patron-Saints continue to do so. No law or ruling or media campaign can change that. All that can happen is that popular veneration waxes or wanes (as it has waned since the Protestant anti-Saint Reformation), or, possibly, a fourth Patron is added.
In conclusion, we can say that:
St Edmund was and is the Patron-Saint of all English people, wherever they live.
Edward the Confessor was, and perhaps still is, the Patron-Saint of the Anglo-Norman Establishment. (Hence his position in Westminster Abbey, the original of which he had built by his Norman friends).
St George was and is the Patron-Saint of all who live in England.
In the multinational days in which we live, perhaps then St George has a new and more Orthodox role to play. The old connotations of a saint for the military establishment, still existing among the older generation, are dying out. The St George that we venerate is the Patron-Saint of all Orthodox (and all other Christians who wish to revere him) who live in England, whatever their origins. For England expects us all not necessarily to win or be first, but simply in humble obedience, like St George, 'to do our duty'.
It is no mere coincidence that the cry 'St George of Merry England' ('merry' in the original sense of 'pleasant', as in 'England's green and pleasant land') is now archaic. The powers before whom people bow down in this neo-heathen England are neither 'merry', nor English, and certainly not those of St George.
Holy Great-Martyr George, pray to God for us!