Thursday, 24 April 2008

Why St. George's Day Remains a Problem

Today, 23rd April, is St. George's Day in England. St. George is the patron saint of many countries, not only England but also including Georgia, Malta, China, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Portugal, Canada, Aragon and Catalonia (now parts of eastern Spain), Lithuania, Ethiopia and Palestine (and through connection, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation - people forget that there many Christan Arabs). Generally these countries have different days for St. George, but in 1415 today was designated the day he would have in England. St. George was born in Cappodacia in what is now eastern Turkey in 270 CE (AD) and probably spoke Greek as he lived in what was becoming the Eastern Roman Empire (later the Byzantine Empire). George was a centurion and worked as an ambassador for Roman Emperor Diocletian and visited England in that role. When he heard Diocletian had begun executing Christians, George returned to Rome where he refused to denounce his Christianity and was beheaded on 23rd April, 303 CE at Lydda in what was then Palestine. He only became England's patron saint in 1222 when he replaced St. Edward the Confessor (King of England 1042-66).

The English like St. George because he seems to sum up the militaristic attitude that the average English person relishes. He was a soldier and supposedly killed a dragon, probably even better in terms of imagery than St. Michael fighting the Devil. The cross of St. George, invented in 1099 at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade is the flag of England just as the cross of St. Andrew is of Scotland and the cross of St. Olaf appears in various colours in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. It is even absorbed into the Union Flag for the United Kingdom.

The fact that England ended up with such an aggressive saint probably does not help matters. St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland but seemingly celebrated across the world now, was renowned for banishing snakes from Ireland not for violence. He came from northern England or southern Scotland during the Roman occupation and was taken as a slave to Ireland. He travelled round Europe and was made a bishop before returning to Ireland as a missionary. He died in Ireland in 461 CE at the age of 76. St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was one of the Apostles and after Jesus's death effectively became a missionary working in what is now Turkey and Greece and crucified by the Romans presumably sometime in the mid-1st century CE. St. David patron saint of Wales, actually lived in Wales in the 6th century CE and became archbishop of Wales and was a missionary among the Celtic tribes of western Wales.

The aggressive nature of St. George has just been added to by right-wing, jingoistic people in England. The flag of St. George has often seemed an oppressor's flag to the Scots, Welsh and Irish that the English conquered. Its appearance in the form of the ensign flag on British naval ships spread that sense far across the world. Whereas other federated countries like Germany and India put up single teams at world events, the English and the other countries of the UK have generally put up individual teams, notably in football, rugby and cricket and so it is the English flag rather than the British one which became associated in particular with football-related violence in the 1970s and 1980s. As in all countries, national symbols have been subverted by right-wing extremists and the National Front in the 1970s was often associated with football violence so drew on the Cross of St. George rather than the Union Flag in its imagery, further discrediting the saint and his day.

Part of the problem is that England has a difficulty establishing an identity which is distinct from that of the UK. England has 49 million of the 61 million people living in the UK and 57% of the area of Britain (i.e. the UK excluding Northern Ireland), so it is difficult to tease out what is English as opposed to British. The fact that leading people in England's history and in the formation of its empire often came from Wales, Scotland or Ireland or from other parts of the British Empire, further complicates an appeal to heritage, so whereas the other states of the UK can look to various glorious periods in their history, such as the Scottish Enlightenment, the English simply fall back on medieval imagery and consequently a further association with violence. This was given an extra boost in the Victorian period with a lot of the invention of English 'traditions' based on false or faked assumptions about the medieval era. In addition, despite being the dominant state in the UK, England has not been ruled by anyone English since 1066 instead a sequence of French, Welsh, Scottish and German dynasties have run the country. What might be more productive is to fragment the celebration of patron saints, for example have St. Piran's Day for Cornwall, St. Aldhelm (patron saint of Wessex) for South-West England; St. Chade (patron saint of Mercia) for the Midlands, St. Robert for Yorkshire; St. Helen for Lancashire; St. Cuthbert (patron saint of Northumbria) for the North of England; St. Edmund for East Anglia; possibly St. Richard (patron saint of Sussex as a Saxon kingdom rather than the smaller county) could be for South-East England, possibly St. Thomas a Becket for London. Anyway, by having regional patron saints days it would break away from the negative connotations associated with St. George and because, as with the Irish, Welsh and Scots, a smaller group of the population would be identifying with the saint it would feel far less generic and regional customs and traditions could be invoked.

Those supporting a greater celebration of St. George's Day (which they admit, is partly due to jealousy of the fun the Irish have on St. Patrick's Day) have naturally distanced themselves from the violent connotations which have been long associated with St. George. However, it is notable that the leader of the campaign in the UK to get today (or in fact the nearest Monday) to be a bank holiday said he hoped it would replace the 1st May bank holiday which he felt was too much of a 'Red' holiday and so out-of-date. The 1st May bank holiday is seen as international workers' day but it was a holiday even before then and certainly celebrated at the time of Edward the Confessor. Yet, for these pro-St. George's Day crowd it seems to have political connotations that they despise, hardly strengthening their case in de-politicising the celebration of St. George. Anyway, why can we not have 23rd April and 1st May as bank holidays. Britain has 5 bank holidays fewer than the next nearest number had by member states of the EU, so even if we had one for St. George, St. David, St. Andrew and St. Patrick, we would still be one bank holiday short of even the baseline of the norm.

Why should we not return to St. Edward the Confessor, he died on 5th January (we do not know his birthdate), and even if that seems too close to New Year, you could have 8th June when he ascended the throne or 3rd April when he was crowned. The day he was allocated for commemoration when canonised in 1161 was 13th October so that would suit those who feel we have two many bank holidays in the Spring. Given that he was the patron saint of
kings, difficult marriages, separated spouses and the British Royal Family he would seem ideal for the UK at the moment and for many of the families of those who are pro-St. George activists. I think the issue for these St. George activists, is whatever they may protest, they could not stomach having a homosexual commissioner of cathedrals as their patron saint as he does not appeal to the macho attitudes that so many of these campaigners espouse. Yet, until we can end the association between the patron saint of England, violence and suppression of workers' rights then it is always going to be difficult for the English really to celebrate St. George's Day without a real sense of unease.

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