(C) St. George’s Day is on April the 23rd. This also happens to be the day associated with Shakespeare’s death and birth. It is a day when the Cross of St. George flies from parish churches throughout the country. But who was St. George? And what does the day and the flag mean to people?
St. George, is, of course, shrouded in myth and mystery – but we do know that he was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in AD 303. This Emperor hated Christianity and this soldier, George, became the soldier-saint of the Christian Church in Greece. He didn’t become a name in this country for another 8 or 900 years or so. It was said that he appeared in a vision to King Richard the Lionheart (remember him?) during the Crusades against the Muslim Saracens in 1199. The red cross of a Christian martyr, against an innocent white background, was adopted by Richard and 80 or so years later it became just one of the national symbols of England. But it only became important as a national flag in the 16th century – a time, incidentally, that saw Henry the 8th’s reign trying to stamp out some of the St. George festivals. The festivals were seen as too Roman Catholic.
St. George replaced Edward the Confessor (remember him) as England’s patron saint in the 14th century, however. The stories about the dragon (symbolising the devil) also spread in the 14th century. There is still a dragon-slaying ceremony at Tewkesbury on April the 23rd each year. The conflict between George and the dragon can appear in some Morris dances too!
But George is not just England’s patron saint – he also does the job for Moscow, Georgia, Aragon, Catalonia, Barcelona, Bavaria, Beirut, Serbia, Lithuania, Hungary and Portugal among others. He is also patron saint of the boy scouts, soldiers, farmers, butchers, sufferers from leprosy – and many others.
Until the last few years, almost the only place you would see a St. George’s Cross would be on a parish church. But since Euro 96, World Cup 98 and 2002, there has been an absolute explosion of Crosses in cars, streets, windows, shirts, faces and so on. What is the significance of this? Does it mean anything? Is it just fashion? Could it frighten some people? We have to remember that we live in a pluralist and diverse society where people, just like in the USA, can have more than one national identity, eg Black British, English Asian, English/Irish etc, etc, etc. Ethnic background can affect one’s perceptions of the flag, as can one’s generation and religious/ cultural background etc. There are lots of factors that condition how people view their identity. Thus, many English Muslims support the England football team, but can feel intimidated by the sight of the Cross (remember how it is associated with the anti-Muslim Crusades). Equally, in a survey, many young people when asked their views about George and the dragon, thought it was a pub. Equally, many people are worried that the red cross is a symbol of White Van Man. People give different meanings to things.
The following paragraphs give 2 broadly different perspectives on the meanings of the St. George’s Cross in today’s England.
1) Jonathan Glancey, in the Guardian during the 2002 World Cup, wondered if the rise in the visibility of the Cross was something to do with a rise in English nationalism reacting against Celtic devolution – PS – what is Celtic devolution?
So, he argued, that was one reason for the Cross replacing the Union Jack – so different, he said, from World Cup 66, when the Union Jack was waved everywhere and was also a Mod fashion statement. He want on to say “This red cross of In-ger-land, has by happy accident, been saved from being tarred with a nationalist brush…because almost unimaginably, it has become an emblem that embraces football fans of every class, creed and colour. It flaps from the nation’s Indian take-aways…Aggy Akhtar…has sold £6 million worth of them since going into business two months ago…it has been embraced by everyone”. He also says another reason for its popularity is that it is such a brilliant logo – it would be difficult for a top designer to come up with anything so clear, simple and obvious.
He goes on to say that the Cross of St. George “has become an unlikely partner in the creation of an In-ger-land where Pakistanis and Afghans, Ghanaians and Ukrainians and the descendants of the Iceni can live cheek by painted jowl. Perhaps.”
He has chosen just a few of the different peoples who make up England/Britain today – these are representative of all of them. Equally, he has chosen the Iceni as that was the British tribe that took London from the Romans. The Iceni represent all those peoples who have been in these islands for a long time. He goes on to say that “A peek into the lives of the Saints, however, shows that St. George is not such an unlikely patron of multiculturalism after all. He is, in fact, a perfect saint for our times and for a national team managed by a quietly spoken Swede and made up of black and white players...His bloody cross and the bloodier crusades it signalled were rightly feared and justly despised by Muslims. Today, though, World Cup football might just have redeemed this ancient symbol.”
2) Chris Doyle of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding sees things differently, however. He says the red cross “...is offensive to Arabs and Muslims including many from non-Arab countries. They see the Crusades as Christendom launching a brutal holy war against Islam.” Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University has said “What I enjoy and value is that we don’t bother to honour the day” and “The English don’t need to affirm their identity within the British Isles the way the Scots and Welsh and Irish do”.
iRespect is an education resource for the development of positive tolerance - find out more...
© Gloucestershire County Council - this page may be reproduced for educational purposes only.