Cry 'God for Harry, England, and, eh, Saint who, exactly?'

On the feast of England's patron saint, <b>Peter Stanford </b>finds his legend elusive
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The Independent Online

Everyone knows that St George is England's official saint, but the list of his other patronages is as diverse as anything the late Diana, Princess of Wales ever lent her good name to.

Everyone knows that St George is England's official saint, but the list of his other patronages is as diverse as anything the late Diana, Princess of Wales ever lent her good name to: agricultural workers, archers, Beirut, Boy Scouts, butchers, crusaders, field hands, Gozo, herpes, lepers, plague, skin diseases, syphilis.

You don't need to be on the Booker shortlist to fashion a passable life story to cover all these bases - a Lebanese boy, who worked on a farm, tilling the crops and slaughtering the cattle before he set sail around the Mediterranean and caught a few nasty diseases in the back streets when his ship docked in Gozo. Then he saw the light, converted to Christianity and resolved to fight the good fight for Jerusalem at the head of a group of Boy Scouts, armed only with bows and arrows before retiring as warden of a leper colony.

OK, it's a bit of a stretch in places and all of it is, of course, utterly without foundation, but there is no evidence of anything else to do with George, whose feast day is celebrated today. As the Dictionary of Saints puts it: no historical particulars of his life have survived.

All that is known of St George is that at the end of the third century - or possibly the start of the fourth - he was martyred for his faith. Tradition suggests that this happened at Lydda in Palestine, which was in medieval times a place of pilgrimage, but no one can be sure. As early as the sixth century, the church fathers were as good as admitting they hadn't a clue who this saint was. George, they said, was a good man, whose deeds are known only to God. It was a neat sidestep and he remained popular with people in the pews. Why?

There was always a faintly military air around him - someone who fought for his faith rather than doing the holy but hard thing of turning the other cheek. And some scholars have laboured to show that it was another person altogether that was being venerated as George, possibly even a pagan deity.

But where does the dragon come in? It first appeared in the 13th century in Jacob de Voraigne's book, The Golden Legend , high romance dressed as fact that was popular by the standards of its time and influential in much of the folklore that has come down to later generations of Christians. Rather as I did, De Voraigne constructed a story about George that fitted the outline that existed in people's minds. "George," he wrote, "was a native of Cappadocia and a tribune in the Roman army. One day he came to Silena, a city in the province of Libya. Close by this city was a vast lake where a pestilential dragon had its lair. The citizens were compelled to feed it [and] in due course nearly all the young folk were eaten and the lot fell upon the daughter of the king." George happened to be passing, saved the girl, killed the dragon and the king and all his people were baptised.

As with all things about George, no one quite knows how a Roman soldier who apparently never visited Britain ended up as patron saint of England. One theory is that his military prowess, chivalry and faith were much celebrated in the Holy Land and the crusaders, returning to Blighty, told his tale to Edward III who founded the Order of the Garter around 1348 under his patronage. By 1415 his was the officially the highest-ranking feast day in all of England.

Saints were integral to medieval Christianity. In many ways it was more a religion about saints than about God. Every town and village had its patron saint, every trade, every church and every country. By taking a saint's name at baptism, every Christian had his or her own advocate in heaven. Saints cured disease and warded off calamities, evil spirits and the Devil. They even punished sinners. As this culture of saints took hold, the feasts in their honour multiplied, as did their shrines and the veneration of their relics.

As befits such an enigmatic international figure as George, bits of him turned up everywhere - on Malta, in Venice, in Palestine and even in the shrine dedicated to St Thomas á Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. There, 14th-century pilgrims could finger what was presented as the miraculously preserved arm of St George. The multiplication in the number of saints, popular obsession with them, and the derision their veneration prompted in Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther caused Rome to order a restructuring of the company of saints. Henceforth no one could get a halo without papal scrutiny. Two proven miracles were required.

As the rush became a trickle, the back catalogue was picked over and those names who were more show than substance were quietly sidelined. In 1970, the Catholic Church declared George's feast day optional. Under Pope John Paul II, he has joined other popular but shadowy figures as Valentine and Christopher in a sort of saintly House of Lords - all the trappings of bygone authority but no real mandate.

As has happened with other religious icons, a new audience has taken up some saints in a secular context. Just as film makers, ad-men and apocalyptic politicians court the Devil while mainstream Christianity has pensioned him off, so St George has become in his ecclesiastical twilight something of a rallying point. Echoes of Henry V's appeal at Agincourt - "Cry 'God for Harry! England and St George!'" are heard anywhere from football terraces through Eurosceptic political gatherings to BNP rallies. Since George's legend is at core so insubstantial, he is easily exploited. You can weave fairy stories around him for your kids, moral fables to placate the faithful or racist jibes.

His lack of an authentic story is his best and his worst point.

CELEBRATING GEORGE'S DAY Bernard Manning

It doesn't really mean anything to me. He was Welsh, this George, wasn't he? I'm in full agreement of the celebrations in England though. We will be having a show at the Embassy Club. The pub pays for floats in the vicinity, and the money goes to charity. Some people are very strong about St George's Day. It's just a celebration for very staunch English people. This is the greatest country in the world; it's so good, they all want to come here. I don't call myself British, I call myself English. Just enjoy the day.

Margaret Drabble

What is St George's Day? I think that it is Shakespeare's birthday. He was a real person, a credit to himself, his country and to literature. I really don't know who St George was, I suspect some sort of legend, I know there was a dragon ... or a maiden ... but I don't embrace the narrow patriotism which he represents. St George's Day has never been an event in my life. In childhood, my school didn't celebrate it. As Dr Johnson said: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel'. I believe in internationalism rather than patriotism.

Lord Taylor of Warwick

St George was born in Cappadocia in Turkey at the start of the 4th century. The legend of St George grew with dragons, but the reality of St George is that he was not an English man. The legend was brought to this country, as my ancestors were brought to this country. The BNP have captured the flag of St George, but they do not seem to know the history.

I hope that tomorrow the schools will celebrate with poetry and plays. People should have pride in their country, as long as it is not racist.

Joan Bakewell

I never bothered as a child, and was almost unaware of it. I don't think we were so self-conscious in those days. There were no roses or anything of that kind. Then again, these were war times, austere times, when 'Englishness' was synonomous with 'survival'. It was maybe mentioned in school assembly but I really do not remember it featuring much. I only became aware of it when it became a part of the 'tourist diary'. The nicest place I have ever spent St George's Day was in Stratford-upon-Avon, celebrating William Shakespeare's birthday.

Garry Bushell

It's great that it's being celebrated on EastEnders this year. I feel vindicated. Last year, they did St Paddy's day, US Independence Day, even a muted Diwali festival in the Queen Vic. There is not too much about English culture we should be ashamed about - we're not as xenophobic as the French. Our influence as an empire was more benign than a lot of other countries. Patriotism is not a right-wing achievement. English history is as much about Tolpuddle and Shelley as the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. In the last 25 years we have Ricky Gervais, Jonny Wilkinson, Peter Kay.

Shami Chakrabati

(Director of Liberty)

Is it St George's day today? I wouldn't have realised until my son came back with a splodge representing St George from his nursery. I'll write it in my diary and make sure that I celebrate it next year.

I don't tend to celebrate, but it would be valuable if St George's Day were to be reclaimed by those who represent true English values of justice, democracy and pluralism. Just because we have seen racists appropriating the flag, we should not let the symbols go without a fight.

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