23 April 2011

To celebrate or not to celebrate Saint George

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin ... one of only 14 churches in Ireland that have been dedicated to Saint George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Today [23 April] is normally marked in the Church Calendar as Saint George’s Day (photograph right, Saint George in a stained glass window in the Baptistery in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin).

However,Saint George’s Day is not being marked in the Church of England today because it falls on Holy Saturday. Instead, his feast day has been transferred to 2 May.

However, the Church of England may be fighting an uphill battle in its efforts to persuade English people not to celebrate Saint George’s Day today. Churches in Ireland faced the same problem a few years ago when Saint Patrick’s Day fell close to Holy Week.

I know that there are plans for a variety of free events and market stalls on Market Square and Market Street in Lichfield, for example, to celebrate Saint George’s Day today. There will be opportunities to watch English folk dancing, to help Saint George hunt for his lost dragon around the market stalls, and to meet “Welephant,” the mascot for Lichfield Fire Service.

In addition, there will be story-telling, face-painting and live music from various performers, and “Shakespeare in the Park,” is also part of the programme.

The historic Saint George’s Court, an Ancient Manorial Court dating back to 1548, will be held in the Lichfield Guildhall from 12 noon to 1 p.m. The court is held in a light-hearted and entertaining manner with the Mayor of Lichfield, as Lord of the Manor, presiding, assisted by the Town Clerk as Steward of the Manor.

The Court Baron and View of Frankpledge, commonly known as Saint George’s Court, is an ancient manorial court. The manorial rights of the Barony of Lichfield were transferred by Charter of Edward VI in 1548 to the Bailiffs, Burgesses and Commonalty of the City, which in today’s terms mean the Mayor, councillors and citizens.

The Court is now held in a light-hearted manner but still appoints the ancient officers of the manor: two High Constables, seven Dozeners (or petty constables), two Pinners and two Ale Tasters.

The High Constables report on their work during the previous year, and a jury is empanelled and then imposes fines on those who have rejected the summons to attend, after first hearing their amusing excuses.

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... began as a coaching inn hundreds of years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The George Hotel in Bird Street is one of the oldest hotels in Lichfield. In the 19th century, the hotel’s sign depicted Saint George and the Dragon, and – despite changes over the years – the name George has been retained in the hotel name.

The George and Dragon on Beacon Street ... this corner of Lichfield feels like a rural village

Just outside the city centre, the George and Dragon on Beacon Street is a friendly local pub with stunning views of Lichfield Cathedral from the historic garden behind, including the site of Prince Rupert’s Mound, an important battle location from the Siege of Lichfield during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Today, this quiet corner of Lichfield has a quaint, semi-rural atmosphere about it.

All this entertainment and fun in Lichfield today is being organised in celebration of “England’s most noble patron saint.” Only the most pedantic critic would point out that Saint George is not English at all – after all, the English might then end up laying claim to Saint Patrick.

Archbishop John Sentamu of York has renewed his campaign for a bank holiday in England on Saint George’s Day: “As someone who is inspired by Saint George’s refusal to renounce his discipleship of Jesus Christ, I have long campaigned for us to have a special holiday where we can celebrate our patron saint and all that is great about our wonderful nation.”

I wonder: is it the way Saint George and Saint George’s Day have been hijacked by some far-right elements in England that prevents more English people from enjoying Saint George’s Day in ways similar to the celebrations marking Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland?

And is it due to lingering Irish antagonism towards England – unspoken but for all that no less distasteful – that Saint George’s Day is never marked in Ireland, not even in churches that bear his name?

We have North Great George’s Street, and South Great George’s Street in Dublin; there is a George’s Street in Wexford; and I imagine there are similarly named streets in most Irish cities and large towns. When did George stop being a popular name to give to children in Ireland?

In his new book, Churches of the Church of Ireland Dedicated to Saint George, Duncan Scarlett records how the cult of Saint George was popular in the Pale until the Reformation. He points out that that there has never been a liturgical provision for the Feast of Saint George – not even in the period when the Church of Ireland the Church of England were united, from the Act of Union in 1801 to disestablishment in 1871.

The pediment of Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Duncan Scarlett notes 14 churches in the Church of Ireland with this dedication – not counting Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Cathal Brugha Street, off O’Connell Street. These are in Ardclare, near Tulsk, Co Roscommon; Balbriggan, Co Dublin; Ballygarth, near Julianstown, Co Meath; High Street, Belfast; Brigown, Mitchelstown, Co Cork; Crilly, near Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone; Hill Street, Dublin; Hardwicke Place, Dublin; Goresbridge, Co Kilkenny; Kilcommick, Kenagh, Co Longford; Kiltoghert, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim; Pery Square, Limerick; Richardstown, near Ardee, Co Louth; and Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Discovery Choir in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin

Many of these are Georgian churches, and he surmises they may have been named not in memory of Saint George but in honour of one the Hanoverian monarchs, usually King George III or King George IV.

The bells of Saint George’s in Hardwicke Place were rung throughout the afternoon of 23 April at one stage in the 19th century. But it appears Saint George’s in Belfast is the only one of these churches to celebrate this feast day liturgically – and then only since 23 April 1928.

He mentions the icon and stained glass window in Saint George’s, Belfats, and the stained glass windows depicting Saint George in Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath, and Saint Brigid’s Church, Castleknock, Co Dublin. However, he misses two stained glass windows depicting Saint George in Christ Church Cathedral – one in the apse and the other in the baptistery.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in a quiet corner of Salamanca in Madrid (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, then, who was Saint George? Was there ever such a person? Can we separate an historical George from the mythical George of the stories of George and the Dragon? And why is he so popular universally – part from Ireland?

The name Γεώργιος (Greek, Geōrgios (Greek), Latin, Georgius) means “worker of the land.” It is likely that Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in Lod, south-east of present-day Tel Aviv, in the late third century, sometime between about 275 AD and 285 AD, and that he died in Nicomedia, present-day Izmit, about 100 km east of Istanbul in modern Turkey.

It is said his father Anastasios, according to Eastern account, or Gerontius, in Western accounts, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, and his mother, Theobaste or Polychronia, was from Palestine. They were both Christians and from noble families of Anici, and the child was raised a Christian.

At the age of 14, George’s father died, and his mother died a few years later. George then decided to go to the imperial city of Nicomedia, that time, to ask the Emperor Diocletian to accept him for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, and by his late 20s George was promoted to the rank of tribunus, attached to the imperial guard in Nicomedia.

In the year 302, Diocletian issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. But George objected and with the courage of his faith approached the Emperor.

Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of his best official. George loudly denounced the emperor's edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes declared himself a Christian and proclaimed his worship of Christ.

Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering him gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods. But George declined all the offers from the emperor.

Accepting the futility of his efforts, Diocletian ordered his execution. Before the execution, George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After being tortured, George was beheaded before the city walls of Nicomedia on 23 April 23 303. A witness of his suffering convinced the Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians, and they too were martyred.

Saint George’s body was returned to Lydda or Lod for burial, and Christians soon began to honour him as a martyr. He is honoured by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which refers to him as a “Great Martyr,” and in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, with his feast day on 23 April (6 May). The Coptic Orthodox Church describes him as the “Prince of Martyrs.”

San Giorgio dei Greci (Saint George of the Greeks) in Venice

Saint Edward the Confessor, who died on 5 January 1066, was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 116. For some reason, he is commemorated on 13 October by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, and he was regarded as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses. From the reign of Henry II until 1348, he was revered as the patron saint of England. However, during the reign of Edward III he was replaced as patron by Saint George, although Edward has remained the patron saint of the British royal family.

Saint George was mentioned among the martyrs by Bede. His feast day soon gained widespread popularity throughout England, especially with the Crusades. Saint George’s flag, a red cross on a white background, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet during the Crusades.

In 1222, the Synod of Oxford, declared Saint George’s Day a feast day throughout England. The English were heard invoking Saint George as a battle cry on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church in Comberford, Staffordshire

When the English Reformation severely curtailed the saints’ days in the calendar, Saint George’s Day was one that managed to survive. Nevertheless, it is still surprising that England’s patron saint was never selected from a list of English saints that includes Saint Alban (died 209, 251, or 304, feast day 22 June), Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (died 687, feast day 20 March), Saint Edmund the Martyr (870, 20 November), Saint Edward the Confessor (1066, 30 November) or Saint Thomas a Becket of Canterbury (1170, 29 December).

But then April is a far better time for a celebration than November or December – the weather is usually better at this time of the year.

No comments: