Saints of England

St GeorgeI was recently alerted to the fact that the Reverend Philip Chester, vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Westminster, has called for St George to be replaced as the patron saint of England by St Alban, whom Rev Chester deems to be more suitable. This is a ridiculous idea for all sorts of reasons (does he expect England and the United Kingdom to change their flags?) but it is of no real consequence. People often call for St George to be replaced. He is quite an obscure figure with no real connection to England. In fact, I wouldn’t mind George being replaced, as long as it was to return Edward to the position that he held before he was replaced by George in 1348.

Edward was the last of the House of Wessex and the penultimate Saxon king of England. His successor, Harold Godwin, reigned for only nine months before he was killed at the Battle of Hastings, fighting the invading army of William of Normandy. In 1161, Edward was canonized and became the patron saint of England. There are two types of saint: martyrs, who die for their faith, and confessors, who die naturally. Thus Edward became known as Edward the Confessor.

George was a soldier in the Roman Army, as was his father. His father was from Cappadocia, which is in what is now Turkey, and his mother was from Lydda, which is now called Lod and is a city in modern Israel. When the Emperor Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians in 303 AD, George confessed to being a Christian himself and refused to participate. Diocletian considered this to be treachery and had George tortured and executed. Thus George became a martyr.

As a soldier, St George later came to be associated with chivalry and the codes of knighthood. As such, he appealed to the Crusaders and King Edward III of England. When King Edward founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, he established St George as the patron saint.

St George has also become conflated with the myth of a dragon slayer. According to the Christian version of the story, a dragon decided to make its nest by a spring that supplied a city with water. Once a year, when they needed to collect water, the townsfolk placated the dragon by offering him a human sacrifice. The sacrifice was chosen by lot. One year, the lot fell to a princess. Despite the king’s pleading, the princess was taken off to be given to the dragon. Then George appeared and slew the dragon, saving the princess. The townsfolk were so grateful that they gave up their pagan customs and converted to Christianity. However, versions of this story (without the conversion to Christianity at the end) appear throughout Indo-European mythology so it is probable that this is another example of an old myth surviving in part through a Christian adaption.

The Reverend Chester’s attack on St George seems to be motivated by political correctness and a dislike of tradition – he claims that it is absurd to have George as a patron saint and that his association with the Crusaders may offend Muslims – but I do not think he will be successful. Unless, of course, his goal was merely to publicise himself, in which case he has already achieved it.

Although St George does appear largely irrelevant to England, since his adoption by Edward III he has become relevant. It is true that there are other saints who might appear more suitable (including St Alban, who was the first English martyr) but that is not the point. This is not about picking the right tool for a job, this is about celebrating or attacking a tradition.

Published in: on September 25, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. You should stick with George for now. I think this is necessary because I don’t agree with the synthetic alteration of a nation’s symbolism for no other purpose than trying to integrate those who that imagery doesn’t involve. In a time of fragmentation such as this there could be a case for changing the patron saint of England if the reasons are conducive to English identity rather than suppressive of it. Such calls for ousting George may go further than simple political correctness. They may be more representative of the whole ‘white guilt’ meme that is continuing to spread in the West. Political Correctness is a by-product of this attitude.Like you said, the alternative reason for the Reverend’s call could be publicity. The Church is desparate to engage with society, and certain members of its clergy will hack at anything for some headlines. The intent is probably to start a discussion on religion and the church, and therefore place it in the public consciousness. Chester would then have his moment of glory or initating the whole thing.

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