St George, celebrated every year on April 23 as the patron saint of England, was not English, never set foot on English soil, and fought for the supranational project called the Roman Empire. Born in Cappadocia (in today’s central Turkey), he advocated a particular Oriental death-cult belief at the time, called Christianity.
A multicultural figure, part Palestinian and Greek Christian, who fought for a multiethnic Mediterranean superpower, became co-opted into a symbol of English ultranationalism. Military saint, George of Lydda (modern-day Lod) from Roman Palestine, a venerated figure of English nationalist consciousness and Christian sacrifice, acquired popularity in a time of rising religio-nationalism in Western Christendom.
The child of mixed Greek parentage, George was born around 270 CE in Cappadocia, and went on to become a soldier in the praetorian guard of the Emperor Diocletian. He was raised by Christian parents. Serving in the Roman army, he was a globetrotting officer – the Roman Empire was a multicultural and supranational institution, with officers from different parts of the empire serving in regions outside of their homelands. In Rome itself, it was not unusual to find Britons, Greeks and Gauls mixing together.
In fact, as a Christian, George’s life was in constant peril – the Roman authorities regarded these advocates of a foreign Eastern religion with suspicion. The closest modern parallel is the degree of hostility visited upon today’s Islamic communities, bringing their ‘Eastern death cult’ into the ranks of Western European societies. George was very much the foreign fighter, taking his new ‘radical‘ religious ideology into numerous lands.
Falling foul of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians and attempts to revive traditional Roman paganism, George was tortured to get him to renounce his faith. Sentenced to death for refusing to abandon his Christian beliefs, he was executed in 303 AD. St George was put to death by authorities suspicious of his foreign religion.
How did a Roman soldier, venerated as a saint in Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Greece, Palestine, Italy and Malta – to name a few places – become transformed into a dragon-slaying medieval knight of English nationalist folklore? English authorities have assiduously cultivated a hagiographic picture around the life, myth and mayhem of St George.
For a start, George never slayed a fire-breathing dragon – that myth was added centuries after his death. Canonised by Pope Gelasius in 494 CE, the story of George and his exploits began to acquire the stuff of legend, particularly in Byzantine-controlled territories. George is still regarded as a hero in historically Palestinian cities. However, it was through the Crusades that George entered the consciousness of Western Christendom.
Richard I, the crusading English king, adopted the Red Cross on a white background as the Cross of St George – attempting to unify his forces around a single Christian symbol. That symbol was used on military uniforms, and later included in what became the Union Jack flag. King Edward III declared St George the patron saint of England in the 14th century, when he created the Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry.
Associated with crusading and the promotion of Western Christendom, George became transformed into a standard-bearer of English nationalism, martial courage and integrity. Books about him embellished his legend, and contributed to making George an emblem of inward-looking Britishness as opposed to his real-life status as a multicultural soldier for a multiethnic empire.
Immortalised in the play Henry V by William Shakespeare, St George’s reputation as a venerable militant saint was solidified. Adopted as a patriotic symbol by English conservatives, far right fascistic groups and football hooligans, his status as a symbol of English nationalism has been consolidated, but yet retained flexibility to be adaptable to a wide spectrum of nationalist groups.
In the current political climate of Tory Brexit and imperial nostalgia for the long-lost British empire, it is imperative to remind ourselves about the multicultural roots of much of English society. The goal is not to induce feelings of guilt or shame about being English, but rather to question the tribalist evolution of Little Englander nationalism.
English nationalism is not going to solve the serious problems of the pandemic, economic inequalities and post-Brexit frictions. It is high time to stop the flag-waving and added the socioeconomic problems afflicting England today. Venerating military saints had its time, but that tradition, however well-intentioned, does nothing to contribute to practical and contemporary solutions.