St George, Bradfield St George, Suffolk
Good old St. George: the quintessential symbol of England. This dragon-slaying knight of yore makes an apt figurehead for a nation that has enjoyed (and still does enjoy) an influential reach far out of proportion to its itty-bitty size.
However, contrary to popular assumption, St. George wasn’t an Englishman in any sense. Neither is his veneration exclusive to the English: Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Portugal, Cyprus, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and the cities of Moscow, Genoa, Ljubljana and Beirut revere St. George above all others.
Who St. George was, or how he became canonised, are tales unfamiliar to most English men and women, and I’m sure that many would be surprised to learn that he was in fact a Turkish soldier in the Roman Army—a man who never set foot in England.
A Nicomedian by birth (in modern-day Turkey), George was born some time between 275 and 285 AD. His father had been a Roman army official and so, once old enough, he too sought a martial career. He presented himself to the Emperor Diocletian (who had known and respected George’s father) and promptly joined the Roman Army, where he quickly rose to the rank of tribune.
A Bulgarian Sveti Georgi
In 302 AD, the emperor ruled that the Roman gods were angry at the integration of Christians into various imperial positions and, by Jove, something should be done about it. Christian soldiers were to be arrested and an increase in pagan sacrifices to be made in an attempt to please the gods. George, himself a devotee of the Christian faith, approached Diocletian and strongly protested against the persecutory edict, proudly announcing his faith and spurning all of the emperor’s attempts to convert him (which included the offer of slaves, money and land). George swiftly left Diocletian’s court and gave away his wealth to the city’s poor, knowing that he was soon to be arrested, tortured and executed. Sadly, George’s prediction came true and he was indeed put to death.
One aspect that you might have noticed is missing from George’s life story above is that of a massive, fire-breathing dragon. You see, his heroic battle with said wyrm is merely a romantic, crusader myth, probably misinterpreted from art by Christian soldiers in foreign lands and, despite the ubiquitous depiction of George gallantly lancing the fearsome dragon from atop his sturdy steed, it bears no relation whatsoever to his historical acta. You will find the tale below, quoted directly from Wikipedia:
“A dragon makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of “Silene” (perhaps modern Cyrene) in Libya or the city of Lydda, depending on the source. Consequently, the citizens have to dislodge the dragon from its nest for a time, in order to collect water. To do so, each day they offer the dragon at first a sheep, and if no sheep can be found, then a maiden must go instead of the sheep. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this happens to be the princess. The monarch begs for her life to be spared, but to no avail. She is offered to the dragon, but there appears Saint George on his travels. He faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the cross, slays it and rescues the princess. The grateful citizens abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity.”
I think the English have a great deal to be proud of. Their modern denizens stand on the shoulders of a great national history which should most definitely be celebrated (most of it). The British Empire may be long gone, but for a nation of such small size (geographically) it still plays an important role on the world stage. Past English efforts—not to mention lives—were vital in defeating the likes of Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini and a myriad other naughty fellows. Their citizens have discovered vaccines, gravity, D.N.A., the electron, the neutron and proton. They have invented the World Wide Web, police, plastic, fingerprinting, Harrier Jump-Jets and Sinclair ZX Spectrums!
Shakespeare, Dickens, Brunel, Darwin, Newton, Faraday, Hawking. The list is almost endless.
The Empire’s legacy resounds around the world, not least in the form of the English language, a dialect that will perhaps dominate to an even greater degree due to propagation by the internet.
While St. George’s Day has been celebrated in England for over five hundred years, it has lost much of its popularity in the last two centuries. But in recent years, there has a growing pressure from certain sections of the English population to venerate the day properly, with some people even lobbying for it to be made into a public holiday. But, England doesn’t really do flag-waving (except on special occasions) and would rather leave that to other countries. The reasons for such reserve are unclear. Perhaps it is the conservative nature of the English character, perhaps it is due to the nation’s history.
The British Empire was the largest ever seen on Earth and brought industry, law and administration to far-flung corners of the world, but the sun has long since set upon the Empire. Many colonies have been happily returned to independence and the commonwealth has shrunk to a mere fraction of its former size. So maybe it is because the Empire ended with measures that sought to restore many of the colonies to self-government rather than the traditional incendiary end of empire which often involves counter-invasion and violent rebellion that there is an unacknowledged feeling that England (and Britain) has ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to international power (an apathy and perhaps maturity that the younger North American superpower does not appear to have).
After all, no true Englishman wants a fuss, do they? Now, how about a nice sit-down? Pot of tea, anyone?