People do funny things on or around St George’s Day. There is the Great English Asparagus Run in the Vale of Evesham, which begins with morris dancers on parade outside the Fleece Inn, in Bretforton, at 8am. Plymouth also jingles to the sound of morris dancers, during a celebration in the city centre where local bands perform, and children and adults compete in a fancy-dress competition to be the best-dressed knight.
Last Monday, there was a traditional Feast of St George in Trafalgar Square, with stalls laid out with hog roasts, pies, cakes, lemonade and other delights. On Saturday, Mike the Knight will reappear in Leicester, along with Sir Aurelious Jones and his friendly 5m-long fire-breathing dragon, during a day of family entertainment to mark St George’s Festival.
All this for someone whose saintliness is disputed. The legend brought back from the Middle East by crusaders told that George was passing by as a princess was about to be sacrificed to a dragon, whereupon he fought the dragon, rescued the princess, and converted all the townsfolk to Christianity. Another version of his story is that he was a Roman soldier, born to Christian parents in Turkey, who was beheaded for his faith on 23 April AD303.
Edward Gibbon, the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, took savage delight in debunking the legend. He claimed that “Saint” George was a shady character who started out by selling dodgy meat to the Roman army, tricked his way into becoming the Archbishop of Alexandria, and was then overthrown and lynched by his furious congregation. “This odious stranger… assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint and Christian hero; and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St George of England,” he wrote.
David Cameron evidently does not buy Gibbon’s version. In his special St George’s Day video, the Prime Minister proclaimed: “Up and down the country the flag of St George is flying high and celebrations from the archaic to the eccentric are taking place. In Plymouth a patriotic festival; in London a great feast in Trafalgar Square; in Leicester a medieval re-enactment; and in Worcestershire an annual asparagus run.
“St George has been England’s patron saint since 1350. But for too long, his feast day – England’s national day – has been overlooked.”
That is probably not enough to win back all the English nationalists who have drifted away from the Tory party into the arms of Ukip, which appears to have been Mr Cameron’s intention. Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, wants nothing less than having 23 April declared a bank holiday, an idea also favoured by a small number of Tory MPs, notably Andrew Rosindell, who used to go out campaigning accompanied by a bulldog named Spike that was wrapped in a Union Jack waistcoat. Today, on the ConservativeHome website, Mr Rosindell promised to continue the struggle because “the people of England deserve a day to feel proud”.
What I don’t understand is why we need someone who may or may not have died a martyr’s death somewhere in the Middle East to make us proud to be English on 23 April, when we have Shakespeare. A happy 450th to him.