Today is St George’s Day, the national day of England. It has always seemed to be a bit of a poor relation: it doesn’t tend to be celebrated in the way that St Andrews’ Day, St David’s Day, or especially St Patrick’s Day do, even though there have been some efforts to revive it in recent years. Many English people – myself included, I must confess – don’t even know what date it is without being reminded.
There are various reasons why this may be the case. One that seems very pertinent to me is this: who the hell is St George anyway and what has he got to do with England? I was at the Marsden Write Out Loud poetry evening on Wednesday, where someone read an amusing poem about him which – I have established after a bit of research – appears to be largely true.
Turns out that St George is just about the most promiscuous patron saint there is, being associated with several other countries as well as many other places and organisations. He was a Roman Soldier who was executed in 303 AD under the orders of the emperor Diocletian for refusing to give up his Christian faith. We don’t know very much about his life. He seems to have been from the middle east – possibly what is now Syria or Turkey. There is no evidence that he ever visited England, which of course was not yet a country or cultural entity at that time. He seems to have been celebrated as a Christian martyr before and after the Norman conquest, and to have been adopted by English soldiers in the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War (‘Cry God for Harry, England and St George’, as it says in Shakespeare’s Henry V).
The days when the belief that a powerful saint was on your side could help you win a battle are long gone. The inescapable fact underneath all that tradition is that the historical person who was St George had nothing to do with England at all. This has caused some people to urge the reinstatement of St Edmund the Martyr (an Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia, killed by the Danes in 869) as our patron saint. But in this day and age, does the idea of a patron saint have the pull it used to anyway? Many people in England – myself included – have no religious faith, while others follow other religions which might not wish to celebrate an icon of the Crusades. St Edmund was, at least, English, but he was not (unlike his contemporary, King Alfred) an important figure in the history of the nation. I can’t say that a celebration of St Edmund’s Day would get me out waving flags either. If we are to have a national day at all, let it celebrate someone who has made a real contribution to our history and culture.
Which brings me to the author of that quote from Henry V mentioned above. Our greatest writer, and a man who played a huge role shaping the language and culture of the English speaking world. It so happens that today, 23 April, is also the date when Shakespeare died and possibly the date when he was born (we don’t know the exact date, but he was baptised on 26 April). And unlike St George, he was not a soldier. His achievements were artistic, not military: they can be celebrated without the risk of their acquiring undesirable overtones of martial nationalism. 23 April is already widely celebrated, not just in England, by admirers of Shakespeare. The Scots have turned Burns Night into a great celebration of Scottish culture: why not forget about St George and rename our own national day of celebration as Shakespeare Day?