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Tuesday, 23 April 2013

St George for England

Was the signal flown to launch the attack on Zeebrugge on this day in 1916 and it resulted in the single largest number of awards of the Victoria Cross in history. Today is St George's Day, the English 'National Day' and sadly, probably not being marked by that many in England. The Monk's flagstaff, to the amusement of his German neighbours, is currently proudly flying the St George's Cross.

But, as a friend asked him yesterday, how did the English end up with a Turkish patron saint?

For starters he wasn't Turkish. George, also known as 'The Great Martyr' was from Lydda, now called Lod, and was a soldier in the Roman Army of occupation, though he may well have been a native of Roman 'Palestina,' an area that included part of Southern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, part of the Sinai and part of the land East of the Gulf of Aqaba. Some sources say he was born in Cappadocia of a Greek father, and his mother was from Lydda in present day Israel. He was martyred in Lydda in about 304 AD and was one of the first martyrs in the anti-Christian purge of Diocletian. There were a number of churches dedicated to his memory and martyrdom in England from a quite early date, certainly long before the Norman Conquest and the oldest Coptic cathedral in Alexandria is also dedicated to him. In fact, there are many churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition with this dedication and even a country - Georgia - which takes his name.

His popularity increased among the English with the soldiers who went from there to the Crusades, bringing back exotic tales of miracles and attributions of their safe return to his patronage. Many adopted his red cross on a field of white as their 'uniform' on surcoats and shields, and those who returned home brought it with them. The story of his dragon slaying has two sources, the first is an allegorical use of the 'great serpent' to describe his fight for his faith against the Emperor, a fight he 'lost' in physical terms, but won, in spiritual terms' in the view of Christians of his time. The second is a confusion in iconography between images of George and images of the Archangel Michael who is almost invariably depicted with the slain 'dragon/serpent/beast' of Revelations at his feet. Often St Michael is shown holding a lance with a pennant adorned with a red cross on a white field and this may have given rise to the story as it was brought to the west.

The patron saint of England, until the reign of Edward III was the last Saxon King, Edward the Confessor, whose 'banner' or flag is shown below.

Sometime around Edward III's reinstatement of John Balliol as 'King' of the Scots, he also adopted St George as Patron of the Kingdom of England - and since then the English Flag has been the St George's Cross. So that is how we got a Byzantine-Roman Greek as our patron saint ...

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