The Big Question: Who was St George, and why is celebrating him so contentious?

Why are we asking this now?

Today is St George's Day and, rather unusually, a mainstream politician has identified himself with making this a day for celebrating the glory. Up to now, the only politicians promoting St George's memory have been too far out on the fringes to be taken seriously, but today the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, will be travelling around the capital in a Routemaster bus – one of several initiatives he is taking to mark St George's Day. Andrew Rosindell, a Tory MP who is not so mainstream as Mr Johnson, is also hosting a St George's Day reception in the Commons, at which Laura Coleman, the current Miss England, will be guest of honour. Other parts of the country are also commemorating St George. For instance, there was a huge march in West Bromwich last weekend, and four days of events are planned in Neston, near Birkenhead.

So who was St George?

There probably was a historical figure called George, who was a prominent Christian in the reign of the pagan Roman Emperor, Diocletian, and was killed in 303. One version of his life records that he was an officer who refused to carry out the Emperor's order that all soldiers must make sacrifices to pagan gods, for which he was hideously tortured to death. A very different story is told is Edward Gibbon's Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, first published in 1787. He alleged that George was "an odious priest", a crook from Cappadocia who was chased out of Palestine for selling dodgy bacon to the army, and fled to Egypt, adopted a new and growing brand of Christianity called Arianism, used that to as a lever to get himself appointed Archbishop of Alexandria in place of the genuinely saintly Athanasius the Great, and instigated a reign of such "cruelty and avarice" that he was lynched by the outraged citizens. However, Gibbon may have confused him with a man with the same or a similar name, who also came from Cappadocia.

Where did the dragon come into it?

The story of George and the dragon is at least a thousand years old, and probably much older. It was part of an oral tradition, so its origins will probably never be known. George's image can be found on eastern churches, and he is the patron saint of, among other places, Greece, Georgia, Portugal, Genoa, Milan, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Lithuania and Palestine.

How did he become England's patron saint?

George's fame had certainly reached England by the reign of Alfred the Great, but it really took off after the Crusades, when it was reported back that he had appeared before the crusaders outside Jerusalem in 1099, spurring them on to martial valour. He was much admired by European knights, and began to appear on banners taken into battle. In 1222, the Synod of Oxford declared that St George's Day was a feast day in England. Not being English actually gave him an edge over other saints, such as Thomas à Becket, because it meant his cult was not associated with any particular part of the country, so when English knights set off to France to fight the Hundred Years War, they could do so in the name of St George without stirring up regional rivalries. As Shakespeare put it, in Henry V: "God for England, Harry and St George."

Why isn't St George's Day a national holiday?

The Scots take the day off on St Andrew's Day, the Irish have St Patrick's Day and, for three centuries or longer, St George's Day was a national holiday in England. The tradition died out in the 18th century, sometime after the union of England and Scotland. Gibbon obviously loathed the tradition and was helping to kill it off, because he associated St George with what we would now be called jingoism, or the lust for military conquest. George is unlike most Christian saints in that he was not a man of peace but an armed warrior famous for his ruthlessness in battle, albeit at the expense of a dragon who was threatening a damsel. A country which has banned fox-hunting has as its patron saint someone famous for killing a reptile which was only doing what came naturally – namely breathing fire and threatening damsels.

Is George making a comeback?

After the Scots got their Parliament and the Welsh their Assembly, the question of Englishness came naturally back on to the agenda. The English have no separate Parliament, no First Minister nor any other politicians who speaks specifically for England, and no national anthem of its own – only a flag which is seldom seen flying from public buildings. Therefore, some people argue, the very least the English could have is a day to celebrate Englishness. This idea is keenly supported by people in the drink and catering industries with a vested interest in persuading the English to adopt a new excuse for a blow-out. Around the country, you can find hotels and restaurants offering special St George's fare, little of it cheap. Asda stores are promoting something called the Bedfordshire Clanger, a traditional food they want you to sample in honour of St George. Some restaurants are offering free meals today to anyone named George or Georgina.

Why should this be controversial?

The idea of celebrating St George's Day is linked to the fringes of right-wing politics. Its supporters can be heard asking, in self-pitying tones, why is it "racist", or even political, to want to be proud of England. The answer is that it is not, in itself, but these events draw people from the political fringe. The organisers of the St George's march in West Bromwich have pleaded with participants not to link the day with right-wing extremism. Last year's march was supported by Sandwell Council, but they withdrew their support and held a rival event because of the presence of the British Ulster Alliance Flute Band, which has links with loyalist groups in Northern Ireland. This year's march, which drew a crowd of up to 20,000, was meant to be apolitical but one of the marchers was Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party.

Why not find another patron saint for England?

Various surveys have shown that people have a very hazy idea of who St George was. Young people who took part in a survey on the MySpace website liked the idea of a day off, but when they were asked who should be England's patron saint, the winner was the humorist Stephen Fry. A YouGov for the magazine This England showed that seven out of 10 young people do not know when St George's Day is, and one in eight English people of all ages reacts with distaste if they see the St George's flag being brandished. The magazine's editor, Stephen Garnett, admitted to being "incredibly disappointed" by these findings. He said: "St George stands for everything that makes this country great – freedom of expression, helping those less fortunate, tolerance of other people's beliefs, kindness and standing up for what you believe to be right – and it's a travesty that this is being forgotten. We want people to be proud, fly the flag, wear a red rose, display the cross or organise their own St George's day party, anything! Just do something to make sure that we don't let this important day go by without speaking up for England!"

Should St George's Day be a national holiday?

Yes...

* The Scots, the Irish and others celebrate their saints' days, so why should not the English?

* In times like these, we need another reason to be cheerful.

* If you don't like St George, call it Shakespeare's birthday and join in the fun.

No...

* St George is a martial figure – that's why right-wing nationalists like him.

* The record of his life is so unreliable that one Pope downgraded him from the pantheon of saints.

* If we need a symbol of Englishness, let us choose someone or something relevant to today.

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