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Home-grown holy man: Cry God for Harry, Britain and... St Aidan

As England celebrates its saint's day, a leading theologian urges the adoption of a new spiritual figurehead to unite us in Britishness. Step forward, the Apostle of Northumbria. By Cahal Milmo

When it came to horses, St George and St Aidan had wildly differing attitudes. While one rode his handsome steed to slay the legendary dragon, the other had so little use for a beast of burden that when he was given one, he complained it would stop him talking to ordinary people and promptly gave it to a passing beggar.

On the day when the English celebrate St George's Day with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the humility and populism of St Aidan, a seventh-century Irish monk who helped convert the north of England to Christianity, is being touted as just one reason why he should supersede the bellicose (and Turkish) dragon-slayer as a new patron saint for entire United Kingdom.

From Downing Street to church spires the length of Albion, the flag of St George will fly today as part of what the present incumbent of No 10 insists is a celebration of Britishness that does not – and should not – preclude taking pride in "Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness".

But a leading theologian and academic is highlighting the need for a spiritual figurehead to unite the domains of St George of England, St Andrew of Scotland, St David of Wales and St Patrick of Ireland. Step forward St Aidan of Lindisfarne, the Apostle of Northumbria.

Dr Ian Bradley, reader in practical theology and Church history at the University of St Andrews and a respected commentator on religious issues, argues in a new book that the early medieval bishop, who was born in Ireland, possibly Connacht, educated in Scotland and lived for much of his life in Northumbria has the potential to represent Britishness in a way that none of the existing patron saints do.

Indeed, the academic is questioning whether St George, a Greek-speaking soldier of the Roman Empire from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey who had no direct connection with the British Isles until his "legend" was brought to England by returning Crusaders and claimed for our own, and his fellow patron saints are still the right symbols for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

He said: "St George had nothing to do with Britain and his legend was brought back here with the Crusades. St Andrew similarly had no links with Scotland and St Patrick was born in Scotland or England and put into slavery by the Irish. On the other hand, St Aidan unites three of the countries by having lived there and is, I believe, a better symbol for Britishness.

"It's like Billy Bragg says in his song 'Take Down the Union Jack' about Britain; 'It's not a proper country, it doesn't have a patron saint'. Aidan was the sort of hybrid Briton that sums up the overlapping spiritual identities of Britain.

"He also makes a good patron saint of Britain because of his character. He was particularly humble and believed in talking directly to people. When he was given a horse by King Oswald of Northumbria, he immediately gave it away because he was worried that he would not be able to communicate properly.

"He was also not shy of reprimanding the mighty and powerful about their failings. He saw it as part of his job to remind secular rulers not to get above themselves. At a time when we are thinking about what makes Britishness, he had a sense of openness and diversity for his time that I think makes him a good candidate as the patron saint of Britain."

Although St Aidan was certainly revered by those with whom he came into contact, he was conducting his saintly activities at a time when the idea of a unified England – let alone Great Britain or United Kingdom – was an alien concept.

The evangelising Christian monarch King Oswald of Northumbria spent much of the early decades of the seventh century reclaiming his throne from the pagan Germanic tribes who had filled the power vacuum left by the collapsing Roman Empire.

After establishing himself in the fortress of Bamburgh, he invited monks from Iona, one of the pre-eminent Celtic monasteries, to begin the process of converting his subjects back to Christianity.

After the initial clergyman's robust tactics failed (a bishop called Corman exhorted the Northumbrian heathens to repent and convert on the spot), Aidan was despatched with a more softly-softly approach.

Along with a group of a dozen Gaelic-speaking monks, Aidan installed himself on the windswept island of Lindisfarne, building a simple wooden church and outbuildings as a base for his mission in 635AD. But where Corman had sought to bully his targets back into church, Aidan became renowned for his tact and diplomacy, walking from one village to another to converse with villagers and slowly regain their interest in Christianity.

The feat was not achieved without difficulty. Initially, Aidan and his confreres were reliant on King Oswald, a fluent Gaelic speaker after being exiled in Scotland, to translate their ministrations. But the saintly proselytiser insisted on learning the native tongue and set about recruiting a dozen Northumbrian youths to form the basis for new English Christian Church, and ensure tales of his holy acts lived on after him. As well as giving away the horse presented to him by King Oswald, his saintly deeds were said to include rendering a deer pursued by hunters invisible and putting out a fire through prayer. The Venerable Bede, the scholar and historian as well as another seventh-century Northumbrian monk, wrote of Aidan: "He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity.

"Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works."

Supporters of St Aidan's candidacy argue that his great success was in marrying three emerging national identities (Ireland, Scotland and England) into what would become the sense of inclusiveness and diverse belief that define a key strand of Britishness.

Dr Bradley, who suggests the saint's feast day on 31 August as a suitable date for a "Patron Saint of Britain" day in his new book, Believing in Britain, said: "Of course, a medieval saint cannot represent the full diversity of modern Britain. Our spiritual identity consists of many overlapping strands that goes beyond white Christianity into the black and Asian communities.

"But St Aidan certainly resonates with the contemporary world more than the other patron saints. We should be looking at how there are many different overlapping strands to British identity and how they can be summed up by different figureheads than the ones we have the moment."

The academic points out that his search for an embodiment of national identity within the hagiographies of the nation's saints chimes with Gordon Brown's own personal crusade to forge a sense of Britishness from the present debate on national identity. Downing Street yesterday made a point of announcing that the red cross of St George wouldfly beside the Union Flag today to mark St George's Day, and that all government buildings with two flagpoles would be expected to follow suit.

The announcement follows a review of flag-flying practices across the UK which will ensure that the Scottish Saltire and the Welsh dragon are similarly displayed on their respective national saint's days. The peculiarity that Northern Ireland does not have an official national flag means that it will not be flown on St Patrick's Day.

A spokesman for No 10 said: "The Prime Minister's view is that of course we should celebrate our Britishness, but celebrating our Britishness does not mean we cannot also celebrate our Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness."

All of which could lead to a further movement to replace St George, whose heroic deeds are beyond question but whose historical accuracy and Anglo-Saxon lineage certainly are, with a more authentically English prelate. Before the arrival of the St George legend in the latter stages of 14th century Crusades, the English looked towards Edward the Confessor, the canonised monarch, and Edmund the Martyr, the ninth-century East Anglian monarch, as their patron saints.

Dr Bradley said: "I think St George is now too deeply ingrained in the national culture but we should think again about what would make an English patron saint. It would be a more accurate reflection of English history to have one for the north, say St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and one for the south, such as St Augustine of Canterbury. Or we could be more contemporary. At least we should have the debate."

The saints of the British Isles

St George

Born in what is now Turkey, St George was a soldier of the Roman Empire. He is patron saint of 12 other countries, including Palestine. He is best known for the legendary slaying of a dragon which lived in Libya and devoured children.

St Andrew

The only patron saint of the British Isles to have been one of Jesus's apostles, his death inspired the national flag of Scotland, the Saltire. He felt unworthy of being crucified in the same manner as Jesus and so asked for a diagonal cross.

St Patrick

Ireland boasts St Patrick as its patron saint and legend credits him with driving the snakes out of the country. He is also credited with Ireland's affiliation with the shamrock, which he used to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity.

St David

According to legend, he lived for more than 100 years and died on 1 March – the date that is now St David's Day. His last words were "Do the little things in life" – a phrase which is now well known and often used in Welsh.