The irony of St George's Day

The irony of St George's Day
"Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George'": Laurence Olivier plays Henry …

Today (23 April) marks St George’s Day – a day to celebrate the Christian martyr who became the patron saint of England.

He is, perhaps, best known through the English – aka St George’s – flag whose white background and red cross have become an emblem for the country’s far right.

When most of us see the banner pinned to the roof of a house or stuck as a bumper sticker on a car, we assume one thing: the owner is a xenophobic skinhead.

And yet, the fact is, the real St George was a symbol of multinationalism and diversity. And no, he wasn’t even British.

He was born in the 3rd century AD, some 2,000 miles from England, in Cappadocia (what is modern-day Turkey) and is thought to have died in Lydda (modern-day Israel) in the Roman province of Palestine.

Whilst most primary school children learn of him as a bold knight who slayed a fierce dragon, the truth is, he wasn’t a knight at all.

Instead, he was more likely an officer in the Roman army, according to English Heritage.

St George has been depicted as a brave knight since the 9th century(J. Paul Getty Museum/Bowes Museum)

Furthermore, the story that St George rode to Silene (modern-day Libya) to free the city from a murderous dragon post-dates the real George by several centuries.

The story was developed and popularised in the Middle Ages – hundreds of years after his death – in a collection of stories about saints' lives called The Golden Legend.

In reality, the tale was probably just an allegory for the battle between good and evil.

St George is understood to have died a martyr for his Christian faith – executed by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century for refusing to honour the pagan gods.

His bravery and heroism ensured his canonisation and led to his idolisation in countries across the world.

Indeed, England isn’t the only country to claim him as their own. Georgia, Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Ethiopia and Catalonia all have him as their patron saint, and many of them hold their own celebrations in his honour.

A man sports a face mask bearing the St George's flag at an English Defence League protest in London, 2017(Getty Images)

And in a further blow to any flag-welding chauvinists, St George never even visited England.

His reputation for virtue and valour spread across Europe and his feast day – 23 April – was celebrated in England from the 9th century onwards.

But St George wasn’t used to represent the country until the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century.

In other words, he was a truly international man.

Happy St George’s Day, everyone.

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