Today is St George’s Day, which usually passes with a re-heated article in at least one newspaper lamenting on why the English don’t celebrate being English much, and with another (equally reheated) one about the fact that St George was not, in fact, English.
Both are, in their own way, onto something. Celebrations of English identity have not really been the done thing, which might explain why some people to this day confuse being English with being British (there is a big difference!), and I think we all know by now that St George existed before England did, and he wasn’t even widely known about in England until several centuries after he’d died.
He was a Roman soldier, born in the province of Syria Palaestina (the city of his birth, Lydda, is now called Lod and is located about nine miles south-east of Tel Aviv), who was born a Christian and refused to renounce his faith when the Emperor Diocletian embarked on the Roman Empire’s last and most severe persecution of Christians in the year 303 AD; he was beheaded on 23rd April 303 in Nicodemia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey).
He was venerated as a saint in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his reputation spread to England as a result of the Crusades (the English soldiers who went to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land being inspired by stories about an old Christian soldier). Although use of his emblem – a red cross on a white background – has been attributed to Richard the Lionheart, the first properly documented use of this particular heraldic device by an English ruler is usually credited to Edward I. St George’s Day was declared to be a feast day in England in 1222, and in 1348 Edward III put the (then new) Order of the Garter under George’s banner.
It’s been theorised that his rise to prominence in England was helped by the fact that, unlike this country’s home-grown saints (Alban, Cuthbert, etc), he wasn’t closely identified with a single location or region within England – that and the fact that St George’s Day somehow survived the curtailment of saints’ days that came with the Reformation. In any case, his symbol was so identified with England that when a combined Anglo-Scottish flag was created in 1606, three years after James VI of Scotland became James I of England (but still just over a century before the Act of Union), the Cross of St George formed the English part of the original Union Jack.
Looking further afield, St George is perhaps the most international of saints; as well as England, he is also the patron saint of Ethiopia (jointly, with local man St Frumentius), Georgia (obviously), Greece, Malta (jointly, with St Paul), Moldova, Palestine and Portugal (one of several, admittedly) – as well as the cities of Beirut, Genoa, Ljubljana, Moscow, Reggio di Calabria and at least two major international organisation (the Scouts and the Girl Guides), alongside agricultural workers, archers, butchers, saddlers, shepherds and just about anyone who rides horses.