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Saint George for England.

On the twenty-third of April some Englishmen will wear a red rose and others will toast the memory of England's patron saint. Why the English chose St George as their patron saint has long been a puzzle. There is no evidence that St George ever left the Orient, much less travelled as far west as the British Isles, yet his fervent adoption by the English rivalled even that of the Greeks who were the first to call him megalomartyr. His popularity was spread in the west by returning crusaders. Innumerable institutions and communities large and small made him their patron saint. Under his flag, Venetians and Genoese built commercial empires, Portugal fought for independence, the Catalans freed Barcelona from the Moors and Aragon clinched the victory that led to the reconquest of Valencia after the saint appeared at a critical juncture in the battle of Puig. Where no such spectacular triumph accrued to his name, he was associated with important local myths (the Bulgarians identified him with their fabled Thracian Rider) or with traditional rituals, particularly spring festivals. In England's case, however, historians have searched in vain for a comparable connection. He did not appear at a time of great national endeavour but, on the contrary, was adopted after the ignominious defeat of 1066 that cost the English their country. The traditional answer to 'What did St George mean to the English?' has been a list of Christian virtues that is generally considered inadequate, since pious exhortation without concrete expectations has seldom spurred men to action. In recent centuries, industrial and imperial ascendancy has given England's St George world-wide exposure, but his adoption in the first place has remained a mystery.

The maturing of St George into England's patron saint was a slow process spanning several centuries after the Norman Conquest. Before that time he was hardly known outside monastic circles, a fact confirmed by Aelfric, Archbishop of York and author of the first English life of the saint who, writing less than fifty years before the Normans' arrival, differentiated between saints 'honoured by the English nation' and saints like St George whom monks 'honoured among themselves.' The earliest recorded popular recognition of St George was as a battle-cry in the third crusade (1189). A generation later, his feast day was declared a national festival and a century later Edward III made him patron of the prestigious Order of the Garter. In the fifteenth century, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered his festival to be celebrated with the same solemnity as Christmas, and in the sixteenth, St George's superior standing was marked by Henry VIII's ban on the celebration of any other saint's day except his. By Shakespeare's time he might be described as a fully incorporated patron saint of England: he was provided with an English birthplace (Coventry) and an English lord for a father, in the way people popularly authenticate their heroes, no matter what their provenance. His establishment thus appears to have been a gradual recognition of increasing public attachment to a widely popular figure who was not anchored in any way to England.

A greater puzzle, and one that has a close bearing on the case, is that the English did not connect anybody with the most memorable event in their history: the conquest and settlement of Britain. Unlike other people on similar historic missions, the invaders of Britain left behind no memories of their triumph. There are no songs of the deeds of the Angles and Saxons. Old English poems about foreign heroes like Beowulf have survived, but there are no legends of AElle and Cerdic and Ida, telling of heroic days when Angles and Saxons fought battle after bloody battle, as we now know they did from the excavated sites along the Thames and other inlets. The Celts' side of that story is enshrined in the world-renowned legends of the Romano-British King Arthur. It is inconceivable that such a life-and-death struggle should not have left behind similar, deeply-etched folk memories on the English side, stories that ought to have become the cherished beginnings of a patriotic literature. Instead, this gap in the historical record has meant that for many people English history begins with the Normans. Worse, it has been exploited to cast aspersions on the English, the most recent example (Speculum, April 1996) describing them as 'not so graced' as the Irish and Welsh who enjoyed 'enduring traditions of native historiography'. Was it really their fault?

The Normans played a key role in this drama. Their subjugation of England was savagely ruthless from the start. Impatient to secure wholesale submissions after the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror ravaged Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Hertfordshire, burning villages and slaying the inhabitants. To consolidate his hold, he built a network of castles (there was one in every county town) manned by Norman knights; houses were razed and property confiscated as needed. Negotiated pacts were frequently ignored while pillaging continued. The crushing burden of taxes, doubled in some places like Oxford where destruction had already been excessive, continued throughout the reign, a 'great and heavy tax all over England' being levied in 1084. Despite William's precaution of taking English earls as hostages abroad with him, rebellion was rife and it was viciously suppressed. The three years' ravaging north of the Humber, where 'all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind (were) brought together and burned to ashes', caused a famine so severe that men 'were driven to feed on the flesh of horses, dogs, cats and even human beings.' Wherever garrisons were attacked or rioting broke out, the king 'ravaged all that he overran' and imposed heavy fines on the 'wretched people'.

Whether they were guilty or not of resisting the Conqueror, Englishmen continued to lose out after the conquest. 'Becoming hateful to their lords, they were everywhere driven from their possessions.' In return, 'the English secretly laid ambushes for the Normans whom they distrusted and hated, and far and wide, in woods and remote places, when opportunity presented itself, they slew them in secret.' The Normans reacted violently 'with various refinements of torture' and finally had recourse to that standby of brutal law everywhere, the punishment of whole neighbourhoods: for the unsolved murders of Frenchmen, they inflicted a particularly punitive version of the long-lasting murdrum fine, its size depending on circumstances but described by one who should know, the Treasurer of the Exchequer, as an 'enormous penalty' enormis iactura. Although a compromise of sorts appears to have been worked out to prevent large scale exodus abroad, pre-conquest hereditary rights were not restored and growing numbers of Englishmen were reduced to villeinage. Summing up the twenty-odd years of William's reign, an acute observer, Ordericus Vitalis, described the Conqueror as a 'barbarous murderer' who had 'persecuted the native inhabitants beyond all reason' and caused 'innumerable multitudes to perish by famine or the sword.'

Given their record of ruthless efficiency, it is a fair assumption that the Normans would have overlooked nothing in their efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the English. In particular, one cannot imagine them courting danger by allowing Englishmen to gather in any numbers for the celebration of their national festivals; and since, in a pre-literate age, it is patriotic commemorations that sustain the oral traditions by which a nation's history is transmitted, much must have been lost. Likewise with patriotic writings: if anyone had been discovered writing or even reading them, the manuscripts would surely have been destroyed. The fact of the matter is that nothing substantial in that category remains. It could be argued that this loss is purely fortuitous, yet a surprising amount of other writing did survive: one priceless historical document, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (without this collection of annals we would not have the names of the English military commanders), a variety of religious writings, a collection of informative, instructive and often crudely humorous riddles, a wide-ranging book of medicine and, last but not least, some of the most appealing lyrical and elegiac poetry to be found in any language. Apart from the Chronicle's skeletal outline, however, none of it deals with the epic events of the English conquest of Britain.

That the founders of the English nation should have dropped into near oblivion can surely only be explained by a traumatic dislocation of that nation's memory. The Welsh who suffered less at William's hands, were able to preserve their literature whereas the English saw the repositories of their culture systematically looted. Abbeys were prime targets of William's wrath: several had offered him resistance and in 1072 he had them all plundered. Since anything written would have been in ecclesiastical keeping, and since there were only thirty-five monasteries and perhaps half that number of bishoprics in England (the whole population numbered less than a million and a half), it would have been a simple matter constantly to scour the scriptoria for any writings considered subversive. Norman bishops and abbots were known to be ruthless. They contemptuously threw out sacred relics of their English predecessors whom they described as 'uneducated simpletons' and 'English boors'; and one of Archbishop Lanfranc's more intriguing suggestions, that such relics be put to ordeal by fire, was implemented in at least one case, at Evesham. They would have had no compunction in burning manuscripts they did not like either. From people who were relatively recent converts to Christianity (the Norsemen had agreed to become Christian when they secured Normandy in 911) and whose territory could not boast a single monastery of any note before the year 1000, such arrogance must have been hard to take. The English had successfully settled their new land and developed a rich Christian culture long before the Normans arrived. Now, they saw their nobility ruined, their intellectual leaders silenced and the vast bulk of their people degraded and brutalised.

Years of Norman tyranny could not be simply expunged. Serious damage had been done to the nation's leadership and therefore to its sense of identity. 'Destroy its books, its culture, its history . . . before long a nation will forget what it is and what it was.' (Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting). The loss of a significant part of the public memory through the destruction of patriotic literature and the throttling of oral traditions would surely explain why the founding fathers of England have been forgotten. We cannot lay a nation on its back and reconstruct the traumas of nearly a thousand years ago to prove this hypothesis, but it is not far fetched. What other circumstances better explain the gap in England's historical record? The past could never be fully restored, but the well of memory runs deep, and wherever there were Englishmen in Norman England there must have been a reservoir of patriotic pride that sought a new focus: at some point it became personified in the figure of St George. Certainly by the time the English had absorbed their conquerors and re-established their language, they had managed to forge the sort of emotional ties to St George that marked the bonding of other nations to their patron saints.

How it came about that the English picked on St George was suggested by a military man, Major P. T. Godsal, early in this century. He was impressed by the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain and argued that amateur tactics simply could not have prevailed against a nation organised as the Britons were (after centuries of Roman rule) and possessing a system of fortress towns connected by roads. (Godsal, The Storming of London and the Thames Valley Campaign). He suggested that after the bitter humiliation of the Norman Conquest the English, bewailing the loss of their former glory, would have comforted themselves with memories of 'bygone days', in Old English, geogeara, and that the name of St George (Georg) could have been confused with this echo of past glory. People everywhere have a propensity to mix up words and make faulty attributions: hagiography is full of such cases. 'More than one legend owes its existence to names incorrectly understood or to resemblances of sound. At times, something little better than a pun decides the choice of patron.' (Delehaye, Legends of the Saints). Something similar could have happened here. What is more, English affinity with St George could well have received added impetus from the story of the dragon which first became popular in the late 13th century. Despite the confusion caused by subsequent appropriations of the dragon emblem, the dragon symbols associated with Arthur's campaigns against the English appear to be a genuine memory of ancient British practice: Celts, like other conquered peoples, were enrolled in Roman legions and Roman cohorts everywhere carried dragon banners. The red dragon of Wales had been England's deadly enemy. The popular mind, seeking 'what soothes its imagination' and ignoring 'the insufficiency or improbability of what it invents' (Delehaye) could well have seized upon the fable of St George and the dragon as highly appropriate to the patron saint of England.

It may be objected that in so important a matter as the patron saint of a powerful nation, the popular mind, so ill-informed, confused and filled with fantasy, could not have played the decisive role suggested here. The answer to this hierarchical view of history is that indeed it could have, and almost certainly did; for who else but ordinary folk were left after the Norman tyranny to preserve the memory of past greatness? Ideas percolate up as well as down. Many a leader has found it expedient to exploit the fervently held beliefs of his followers, as did Constantine the Great with his army, and as the Norman king Richard evidently did when he rallied his English soldiers with the cry of 'St George'. Myth, not reason, moves the crowd. That the historical St George happened to be a native of Cappadocia is as irrelevant to England as it is to other countries that adopted him. That fact, moreover, should not be allowed to undermine a nation's hallowed traditions. Pun or no pun, St George, whose name echoed happily in Anglo-Saxon ears, should be seen as the new repository for the patriotic memories of heroes the Normans had forced the English to forget. He personified their resurgent pride and fills an important gap in England's history.

[Rebecca V. Colman is Professor Emerita of History. in the University of Toronto.]
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Title Annotation:choice of patron saint is based on myth
Author:Colman, Rebecca
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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