Time to stand up and fight for St George

CHARLES ROBERTS How come that the English chose a patron saint who probably never existed? And even if he did, almost certainly never knew that the sceptred isle existed.


How come that the English chose a patron saint who probably never existed? And even if he did, almost certainly never knew that the sceptred isle existed.

It's a fact which the English now repay by most of them not knowing even the date of England's Patronal Day - and not much bothering about it anyway.

What real Scotsman would ignore St Andrew's Day, what Welshman St David's, what Irishman St Patrick's? But St George in England? Rare indeed.

How and why did George, through many centuries, gain a huge, devotional following - which suddenly declined? I waited expectantly last week, within ear-shot of the television, ready to be surprised if we saw anything of the plain red cross on a white background.

I was wasting my time, save for picking up one brief reference from the BBC's normally excellent Breakfast programme. The same night a couple of letters were read out, on the same theme as my approach now. That was all.

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But back to George. He was born in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey, and died under torture around AD 303, for refusing to renounce his Christianity. He left behind him enough stories which were sufficiently repeated that they entered legend.

It was a thousand years later that Edward III made him England's national saint. For a while his name was actually invoked by the English in battle, as in Henry V's, “God for Harry, England and St George” (Note the batting order!). Henry, one can be sure, took his style from the saint, the romantic armour, the glittering sword and lance.

It became a living image of Christian spirituality, not only in England but across Europe and beyond. While, for example, George was Patron Saint of England, he was also patron of Ethiopia. Meanwhile George's feast day - April 23 - was raised in rank to that of one of the principal feasts of the year.

Time moved on. So did style and weapons of war. The shining knight lost his allure. Except in England, where he remained a potent symbol. Come modern times, there was change in the air. In 1969, in the reform of the Roman calendar, Saint George's feast was reduced merely to a local one.

Before that, George had already become something of an embarrassment to the English - and they to him, one wouldn't wonder. After all, most of them don't even know what their national flag looks like.

Instead, rather half-heartedly, they wave the Union Jack, which of course represents all four countries of the United Kingdom. Poor England, for a time, had to tolerate the imposition of a particularly silly political correctness on the land. Among the Thought Police inspirations was that these national flags and their public display “might offend” racial minorities.

One day the police were alerted to the presence of a display of (English) red roses, and worse, George's own flags fluttering in the breeze. The location was a handsome country house hotel, which had been hired for the day, in the North of England.

What followed was sweet irony. The hotel and its immaculate grounds were owned by an Asian family. Their guests were Asians too. Family and guests had other things in common. Like earning their wealth through hard work and acknowledging the debt of gratitude they owed to England.

Not that all this detail matters a jot in our age of violence and contempt, and where decent and intimidated folk, largely in urban areas, hesitate to go out in the evenings. Just in case there should be any doubt, I do not speak specifically of the UK, though its track record is hardly praiseworthy.

My own adopted country showed two years ago how horrific homemade conflicts can be.

The leading figure in promising to stamp out this anti-social behaviour in France was Nicolas Sarkozy, at that time the Interior Minister. Tomorrow evening, he stands on the knife-edge of gaining the greatest prize in the hexagon: the presidency and the grandeur of the Elysée Palace.

Before that there comes a major battle of words, when Sarkozy and the socialist candidate, Mme Royal, meet on television. Both are clearly exhausted, but often that situation can bring out the best in a speaker. At his best, Sarko (as his supporters call him) can be brilliant. At reading just-written texts, his hooded eyes disappear - and so does his contact with his audience. Mme Royal has a different problem: No matter what she's saying, the words are smoothed out into dangerously cocky territory which rapidly becomes boring. May the best contender win!