How Did Saint George Become the English Patron Saint?
“Cry, God for Harry, England and Saint George!” Shakespeare’s rousing speech from Henry V, Act III where he challenges the noblest English to prove the ‘worth of [their] breeding’ is among English history’s most celebrated rallying calls. Yet just how English was Saint George?
Similar to Saint Patrick who was Welsh (not Irish) and Saint Andrew who was far from being Scottish, Saint George was not very English at all. An ethnic Greek born into Roman Palestine, George never stepped foot on the British isles, which makes him seem an odd choice for a Patron Saint. All the more so since England already had a perfectly good one, poor old Edmund the Martyr who met his grisly end at the hands of pagan Vikings. Both Edmund and George do have at least two things in common, in that we know almost nothing of their lives and that they are subject to more than a few myths! So how did George come to usurp Edmund's title?
George seems to have had a gradual integration into the English consciousness. It was generally believed that he was synonymous with the Crusade of Richard the Lionheart but this has since been debunked as Tudor propaganda. In fact, it was in the 1500's that St George's cult really became widespread, again helped in no small part by Shakespeare's romantic musings. In Medieval times, the cult of George the Christian warrior sat far better with English Kings intent on battlefield glory, codes of chivalry and crusade. In this regard, Edmund simply couldn't compete.
Edward I is the first King credited with the Red Cross on a white background (the cross of St George), wearing these colours in battle against rebel Barons and again during his invasion of Wales. (The myth of George slaying the Dragon no doubt helped here!) Edward III also grew the legend, making St George the patron of his chivalrous Order of the Garter. The political winds of the Middle Ages clearly blew towards George.
So this St George's day, spare a thought for Edmund the Martyr; a man without battlefield glory or the privilege of God's divine intervention, but an English King who led the defense of his people from the chaos of a pagan army intent on destruction. It may not have ended well for him but it should more than qualify him for the title of Sainthood.
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