Why is St George our patron saint?

You might think that St George is an odd choice for the patron saint of England. As we all know, he was not English. He died in Palestine, his name means ‘farmer’ in Greek, and he may or may not have been a soldier. Add the fact that his most famous exploit is a myth – killing a dragon to save a king’s daughter from being devoured – and he starts to look about as suitable a candidate for the patron saint of England as Jerry Mouse (of Tom and Jerry), another determined campaigner against devouring beasts whose exploits are both fictitious and foreign in origin.

But how many countries across Europe are represented by an indigenous saint? Scotland’s St Andrew was a New Testament figure, as was Spain’s St James. St Nicholas (Russia and Greece) came from Turkey. Ireland’s St Patrick came from mainland Britain. France’s St Denis was an Italian missionary. Germany’s St Boniface, came from England. The Portuguese, Venetians, Maltese, Georgians and Lithuanians all have St George (the most cosmopolitan of all patron saints). In fact, St David (Wales) is very rare in being a saint who actually came from the region of which he now is patron.

Clearly, it does not matter where a saint came from. It is what he stands for – the message of his life – which is important. In all the cases above, St George stands out as unique in one respect. His message has absolutely nothing to do with converting people to Christianity. St George stands for the courage to face adversity in order to defend the innocent. The triumph of good over evil, through courage.

The choice of St George as England’s patron saint was predominantly that of one man, King Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377. To most people, Edward III is hardly any less enigmatic than St George himself. No survey to find the ‘Man of the Millenium’ or the ‘Greatest Briton’ has ever mentioned him. For the last two hundred years he has been portrayed in popular history books as a rapacious, adulterous war-monger. Yet it is fair to say that he did more than any other individual to create the English nation as we know it today.

When Edward III ascended the throne, at the age of fourteen, England was in a terrible state, its economy damaged through years of floods, famine and civil war, and its government in the hands of a dictator, Roger Mortimer. Then in 1330, at not quite eighteen, Edward III ousted Mortimer and set about creating a new style of kingship. In 1333 he reversed the ignominy of the English defeat of Bannockburn (1314) when he marched into Scotland, parading the banners of St Cuthbert and St George, and won a decisive victory at Halidon Hill.

What was remarkable about Edward III was his determined approach to major social and strategic issues. We can see this in his co-operation with parliament and the introduction of much social legislation in his reign (including recognition of English as ‘the tongue of the nation’). But his development of England’s military potential was of even greater importance. His increasingly regular use of St George in his war-cries, banners and religion was just one part of an integrated strategy which made England the most powerful nation in Europe by 1350. He purposefully encouraged the development of cannon and the use of rapid-shooting longbows so that he could fight wars in a totally new way: by shooting enemy troops from a distance rather than bludgeoning them in hand-to-hand combat. In 1346 he marched across northern France and, at Crécy, purposefully encountered a much larger French force in a full-scale battle and destroyed it. After that, the English army was widely considered to be invincible. The English themselves were enjoying one of the longest periods of domestic peace they had ever known; they were more prosperous than they had been for decades, and the flag of St George was flying above Windsor Castle.

In later centuries, Edward III’s kingship came to be seen as the epitome of how a medieval king should rule, and St George – the king’s patron saint – came to symbolise both his great kingship and the national pride that went with it. After the battle of Agincourt, the saint’s day (23 April) was made a major feast day – a national holiday – and it remained so until the mid-sixteenth century. That is why, throughout the Wars of the Roses, St George acted as a unifying figure, a patron saint to both Lancastrians and Yorkists. Similarly, this association with great kingship and national pride meant that St George was one of the few saints who continued to have relevance in England after the Reformation. Only in the last two centuries – when the English nation has been somewhat submerged in the larger entities of the United Kingdom and the British Empire – has St George lost this connection, with his flag now being more significant than the saint himself, as the most potent icon of English identity.

That, in a nutshell, is why this obscure figure from the ancient world is our patron saint. It is also why he has lasted so long. The king who adopted him might be almost forgotten today, but for centuries St George represented the idea of courageous leadership and, with it, the unifying popular will to be governed well and protected. That is, at the very least, understandable, perhaps even admirable. And maybe it will prove the basis for St George’s undying status as England’s patron saint. After all, it is arguable that a saint who represents courage and the triumph of good over evil has more relevance in our modern, multi-cultural world than many a Christian missionary.

Ian Mortimer
23 April 2006



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