Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
Henry V, Act Three, Scene One
England and religion share a long and chequered history. From Paganism to the many and varied gods of invaders, including the Romans, to Catholisism, Protestanism and later Anglicanism. (how many ism’s can one use in a sentence?) Who and what to pray to was very often a very hit-and-miss affair. Imprisonment, torture or death for one’s beliefs was not uncommon. Be that as it may. The flag of Saint George, a red cross on a white background, is incorporated into the Union Flag and duplicated in the ensign of the Royal Navy.
(point of order : The Union Flag is only a Union Jack if it flies from the mast of a ship)
The story of Saint George is enigmatic. There is speculation that he’s merely a Christianised version of an older pagan myth. Born in Cappadocia, an area which is now in Turkey, in the 3rd century; it is believed that his parents were Christians.
When his father died, George’s mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her. He became a soldier in the Roman army and rose to the rank of Tribune. The Emperor of the day, Diocletian (245-313 AD), began a campaign against Christians at the start of the 4th century but George is said to have contested this persecution and resigned in protest. In tearing up the Emperor’s order against Christians George infuriated Diocletian.
He was imprisoned and tortured (there you go you see) but he refused to deny his faith. He was told his life would be spared if he would but offer sacrifice to the Roman gods but instead he prayed to the Christian God. Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis and publicly beheaded. It’s said that Diocletian’s wife was so impressed by George’s resilience that she became a Christian too and that she was also executed for her faith! (The Romans were not a very forgiving race)
It’s believed that Saint George was adopted in England because of the story in the Golden Legend where he is supposed to have dispensed with a recalcitrant Dragon to save a fair maid.
George’s popularity lost ground as gunpowder became the primary weapon of war. The lance and the sword diminished in significance and had he not been martyred he would have faced a lengthy redundancy.
In 1778 Saint George’s Day was demoted to a simple day of devotion for Catholics in England.
A point worthy of note : In 1940 King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’. The George Cross is generally awarded to civilians who perform acts of bravery above and beyond the boundaries of normal citizenship.