Saturday, 23 April 2011

England and Saint George

23 April is St George’s day, the feast of the patron saint of England. English people might mark the day by wearing a red rose. The flag of St George might be flown.

St George was known in Anglo Saxon England. Churches were dedicated to him. He was referred to by Bede, writing in the first half of the eighth century. Versions of his legend were circulating in the eleventh century.

St George became better known in Western Europe from the time of the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century. It’s thought that the cross of St George began to be used by the English at the time of Richard I (the Lionheart), 1189-1199.

Edward III took St George as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, which he founded in 1348. The arms of St George were borne by Edward III’s ships, and by his men, fighting in the Hundred Years’ War. The red cross of St George was flown by ships of the Royal Navy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Shakespeare popularised the national connection with St George in Henry V: 'Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George'. 23 April is also celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday, although there’s no evidence that he was actually born on that day. It’s deduced from the fact that he was baptised on 26 April.

The story of St George’s fight with the dragon is believed to date from the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was printed in English by William Caxton in 1483-84 and was retold in ballads and cheap popular fiction from the sixteenth century.

St George, according to fiction ‘never failed of carrying off the Prize at Tilts and Tournaments, quell’d Monsters, overcame Gyants, and slaughtered Beasts’, including the ‘horrid Aegyptian Dragon’.

The story of St George was also being performed as a play from the early sixteenth century, if not before. Printed play books were available. Villages grouped together to bear the expenses of production.

The plays, stories and ballads about St George contributed to the evolution of the Mummers' Play, in which St George is one of the characters.

The play is still part of English folk tradition. Every region developed its own version of the play, which is traditionally performed at Christmas, on May Day and on other feast days and local celebrations.

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