Today is St. George's Day, and it is the feast day for Saint George, who is the patron saint of England – one of the four patron saints of the British (or Anglo-Celtic) Isles, with the other ones being St. David for Wales, St. Patrick for Ireland, and St. Andrew for Scotand.
He was born in the late 3rd Century to a noble family in Lydda, Syria Palestina in the Roman Empire (which is now Lod, Israel). His father Gerontios was an officer in the Roman Army and also came from noble stock, as well as did his mother Polychronia. Both were also Christians and so brought up the young man in the Christian faith while naming him “Georgios”, which is a Greek man meaning “earth worker” or “farmer”.
During his teenage years, George lost his parents and subsequently went to Nicomedia to appear before the Roman Emperor Diocletian so that he could apply for a career as a soldier like his father. The emperor had remembered his father as one of his finest soldiers and welcomed the young George with arms. By his late 20’s, George had risen to become an imperial guard of the emperor at Nicomedia with the rank of Tribunus, and seemed to have a promising and long career ahead of him.
This changed on February 24, 303 when Diocletian, who had been tolerant of Roman Christians for the first half of his reign, was persuaded by Co-Emperor Galerius to issue an edict which began the last and most repressive persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It mandated the arrest of every Christian soldier and required everyone else to convert to traditional Roman religious practices and offer a sacrifice to Roman gods. George objected and stood before Diocletian to profess and defend his Christian faith, but Diocletian did not wish to lose one of his valued tribunes and son of his finest officer, so he offered George gifts of land, money, and slaves in exchange for his conversion. Already a wealthy man from an aristocratic background, George could not be swayed by mammon and refused to convert.
For his actions, George was condemned and Diocletian ordered his execution. The young man gave up his wealth to the poor before being ruthlessly tortured, beheaded before Nicomedia’s city wall on April 23, 303, and buried in his ancestral home of Lydda.
In later years, the story would be told about George and the dragon. This emerged from the 11th Century iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church and developed in Western Christianity into a narrative in which a dragon takes up residence at the spring which provided water to a city in the Holy Land and the citizens must offer the dragon either sheep or a maiden for it to move when they the people needed water. When a princess is selected and offered for the sacrifice one day, George appears while on his travels and proceeds to slay the dragon and rescues the princess, which causes the people to renounce their paganism and convert to George’s Christian faith.
This is of course legend, but the historical George did become a martyr for standing up for his faith. Emperor Constantine I consecrated George to a “man of the highest distinction” and he was canonized as a saint by Pope Gelasius I, who – probably in acknowledgement of the blurry lines between the myth and reality of George’s life – remarked that he was among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.” In time, he would become revered, if not venerated by other faiths, including Islam and Judaism, and in Beit Jala, the Chapel of St. George is a shrine dedicated to him where people of all three faiths pray and look for a cure for insanity.
But it was George’s martyrdom for the Christian cause that him legendary and he became venerated as a warrior saint among the Crusaders. The red cross against a white field associated with one of the Christian military orders, the Knights Templar’s, also became associated with St. George, and this was further cemented when Genoa made George its patron saint and eventually adopted the flag in his name as their own. His martyrdom for the Christian cause in the 4th became legendary, and tale of Saint George was brought home to crusading countries like England by their kings who became devoted to the cult that surrounded the saint.
Richard I (the Lionheart) personally adopted the saint and his cross during the Crusades. But it was not until the reign of Edward I that the red cross of St. George became the standard issue for the clothing of English soldiers. In particular, accounts in 1277 show a purchase of cloth for the purpose of manufacturing pieces of uniform in the shape of St. George’s cross, making it a national symbol of England. Later, Edward III would establish the Order of the Garter in 1348 and make St. George its patron saint. The Garter was the highest order of English chivalry and by making Saint George the patron saint of the order, he also became firmly established as the patron saint of England. He was said to have been invoked by English armies during the Hundred Years’ War with France, and perhaps most famous telling of this was via Shakespeare’s play Henry V with the battle cry of “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
As such, St. George’s Cross was also firmly established as England’s national flag, which in turn became part of the Union Flag of the United Kingdom.
St. George’s Day was celebrated on a scale like that of Christmas as a national holiday and was the day on which Charles II was crowned as King in 1661 following the Restoration. However, its popularity waned following the union of England and Scotland into Great Britain, but in recent years there has been an effort to revive the feast day and make it a popular holiday on par with the patron saint days of the other parts of the United Kingdom, as well as to make it an official bank holiday.
Traditional customs on St George’s Day include the wearing of a red rose on one’s lapel and the use of St. George’s Cross in some fashion – flying it from homes, businesses, cars, government buildings, pubs, and churches, as well as festooning it in the form of bunting and garlands. In churches, cathedrals, chapels, and other places, it may be customary to sing Jerusalem, the song preferred by many to be England’s national anthem (alongside the one it shares as part of the United Kingdom, God Save the Queen). There may also be the consumption of traditional English food and drink.
In addition, observances also include parades, dancing, and other activities. Crowds with gather in a red and white Trafalgar Square in London for a William Shakespeare-themed St. George’s Day festival, which is appropriate not only because he is the national poet, but because he passed away on this day 400 years ago. There will be parades in several towns and cities, including West Bromwich – home of the biggest unofficial St. George’s Day party – and activities include Morris dancing, mummers plays, Punch and Judy shows, brass bands, pig roasts, falconry displays, and medieval jousting up and down the country. With today being a Saturday and coming off of the Queen’s 90th birthday, hopefully it will turn out to be a great, fun, and exciting experience to celebrate "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."
Happy St. George’s Day!