Ring out the bells for St George

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by Heather Elvidge

Today is St George’s Day. Remember him? England’s patron saint? Perhaps you’re feeling distinctly underwhelmed. It’s not surprising – he’s been ignored by the state for over 400 years.

Yet it does seem odd that we can’t get excited about a knight who fought a dragon, given the current huge appetite for faux-medieval fantasy. Perhaps it would help if April 23 were a bank holiday.

Reversals of fortune are nothing new in George’s story. It began with his death in Palestine, in the year 303. A soldier in the Roman army, he was martyred for his Christian faith. By the sixth century churches had been dedicated to him in Jerusalem and Antioch, and icons were portraying him as a powerful defender against evil.

St George was known in England before the crusades, but that’s when he really caught on. At the siege of Antioch in 1089, Richard I declared his army to be under George’s protection. Returning knights brought the cult of St George to England, and in 1222 the saint’s feast day was declared a holiday.

As a glamorous, chivalric figure with a dramatic dragon-slaying legend, St George won the affection of rich and poor alike. In the early Tudor period the feasts and colourful processions reached their peak so that by 1530, St George’s Day was looking like a truly national celebration.

Then came the Reformation, when the veneration of saints was condemned. England’s patron wasn’t spared – statues of St George were destroyed, the lavish costumes used in the annual processions were sold off, and the guilds that had organised them were disbanded. Nobody was supposed to celebrate St George, although his career carried on unofficially with appearances in folk plays.

As George’s star waned, the dragon’s rose. People missed the dragon belching smoke, so towns revived their pageants by leaving out the saint and keeping his old adversary.

And that’s how England became a country without a patriotic holiday. Attempts to revive St George’s Day began in the late nineteenth century, and by the 1930s the revival was at its height. Then the celebrations became unfashionable again in the aftermath of the Second World War. We know who we are, the reasoning went, so we don’t need to parade our identity in the way that other, less confident, countries do.

That might have been true in the past, but things are changing. The United Kingdom is starting to look a bit less united, and English is no longer interchangeable with British in the way it used to be.

The most recent upsurge of interest in St George’s Day was in the 1990s, when there were fears about devolution and being drawn into a federal Europe. Sounds familiar? Perhaps George and his dragon are ripe for a comeback, re-packaged for a different age.

Today, church bells will be “Ringing for England”. From parish churches to cathedrals, bellringers all over the country will be making their joyful noise at 6pm on St George’s Day. This could be the start of another revival for George. But hold on, didn’t he kill a dragon? We’ve always been rather keen on dragons . . .