Tuesday, 24 April 2012

By George... a new type of dragon


 "Upon this charge, cry God for England, Harry and Saint George!"
(from Shakespeare's Henry V)

Yesterday, 23rd April, was the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth and death; also the feast of St George, patron saint of England. I wanted to post something nice and uplifting for St George's Day, but first I wanted to check the outcome of Sunday's march through Brighton by the interestingly named English Defence League. "Interesting", because of course England as part of the United Kingdom has a ready defence in her armed forces. The British Armed Forces are a professional force to be reckoned with: a combined strength of around 190,000 regular personnel and more than 35,000 volunteer reserves: the British Armed Forces constitute the second largest military body in the European Union. Charged with the defence and protection of the UK as a whole plus her "overseas territories and Crown Dependencies", they also promote her wider security interests and support international peacekeeping efforts. Nearly 10 percent of all serving members are from ethnic minorities.
Now, the English Defence League have a mission statement which I have taken the time to read: I was particularly interested to clarify the origins of their name and their obviously proud use of the cross of St George in their logos and promotions. Apparently, the EDL see themselves as "a Human Rights organisation that was founded in the wake of the shocking actions of a small group of Muslim extremists who, at a homecoming parade in Luton, openly mocked the sacrifices of our service personnel without any fear of censure".  I see.  Surely the key here is that this was a small group of extremists? I well remember the reportage of this inexcusable and pathetic behaviour, and the condemnation it drew from British Muslims. The web page does indeed appear to condemn racial prejudice and race-based violence; it acknowledges that there are personnel from ethnic minorities making an invaluable contribution to Britain's armed forces. But it also suggests that Halal restaurants and fast-food establishments should serve non-Halal dishes, out of respect. Hmm. Should pizza establishments be obliged to offer pie, mash and bread and butter pudding? Would I really go to my favourite Indian restaurant and enthusiastically demand egg, chips and a nice fried slice? Or is this simply directed at our Muslim population; and isn't that exclusively targeting? Somewhere, something in my head is still beeping "Racism". However gentle and bland the mission statement and their other formal publicity aims to be, I have read some of the forum comments on the website.
It was important to me as a Christian to be able to include St George's cross in this post, yet I was a bit apprehensive. In this week's New Statesman, George Eaton quotes from a recent poll that only six out of ten of those who describe themselves English associate their national flag with pride and patriotism, compared with eight out of ten in similar polls in both Scotland and Wales. Even more depressing, one in three of the English interviewees under the age of forty think of racism and extremism when they see St George's Cross. This sad attitude has been attributed to the reputation for appalling behaviour of some of our football supporters, but also to the toxification of the flag by the extremism and sometimes "street hooligans" membership of some semi-politicised, socially divisive groups. The red cross on a white background has been associated with St George since medieval times, adopted in the coat of arms and flags of several countries and cities of which St George is patron, notably England, Georgia, Aragon, Greece, Genoa and Barcelona. For centuries, and notably as carried by crusaders throughout Europe during the crusades, it has long been referred to as "God's Flag". This interpretation was carried to America by the early Church of England and Anglican communities. Recognised as God's Flag rather than representing any nationality, it is the only flag allowed to fly (in pennant form) higher than the United States national flag in certain restricted circumstances: specifically during church services for naval personnel when masses are conducted by a naval chaplain at sea.
During the first Crusade, the Pope decided that knights of different nationalities should be distinguished by different crosses. English crusaders originally wore a white cross on red; French crusaders a red cross on white, Italian knights a yellow cross on a white. However, at some stage, English crusaders began wearing the red cross. In the late twelfth century, Phillip II of France agreed to the English claim to the red cross on white. Subsequently, as the majority of Christian crusaders had been associated with the symbol, it became the standard flag of the crusaders. Already in widespread use, in 1277 St George's cross officially became the flag of England, with the three lions retained as the coat of arms of the monarchy. The cross may also be formally displayed by churches of the Church of England.

There were about 150 marchers from the EDL at Brighton station on Sunday, rather fewer than the official defence forces of these islands. Several were wearing the cross of St George in their insignias, although some had their faces covered. They were met by more than 400 anti-fascism protesters: as one of my neighbours said, we may be a bunch of latter-day, seaside hippies in Brighton, but we don't take kindly to this kind of thing. Of course, the long-suffering police and their poor beleaguered horses were in the midst of it all. There isn't a chapter of the EDL in Brighton, but they've marched here before and I sense they will do again. Brighton doesn't have a history of racial tension and it's not what we want for the future of the city. The most recent census shows that nearly ninety five percent of the population is white with less than five percent of mixed race backgrounds or from ethnic minorities. Around sixty percent of the population call themselves Christian: less than two percent are Muslim. The EDL gathering on their mission in Brighton reminds me of the invasive presence of the despicable National Front when I was growing up in south London. They were times that grounded me and bonded me to my beliefs, but they're still unpleasant memories.
I wonder just how much these staunch self-appointed defenders and crusaders know about the man beyond the flag. George wasn't England's first patron saint. His veneration spread to the Roman empire from the Middle East during the fourth century. He was canonised in 494AD by Pope Gelasius, but his popularity as a militant Christian martyr and a medieval man's man really developed from Richard the Lionheart's devotion to him. Richard believed that the saint appeared to him to encourage him and his despondent crusaders. In 1222, the Council of Oxford declared 23rd April to be St George’s Day and he eventually replaced St Edmund the Martyr as England’s patron saint in the 14th century. In 1415, 23rd April became a national feast day.
St George is now probably globally known as the patron saint of England and legendary slayer of the dragon. He's also the patron protector of soldiers, archers, knights, saddlers, sword-cutlers, scouts, of horses, of those suffering from fevers and plagues... He's regarded as one of the most prominent of the military saints and is venerated in the Anglican and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches as well as Catholicism. Something of an exception amongst Christian saints, St George is also known and respected in the Muslim faith: his standing in the Middle East derives from a composite character pieced together from Biblical and Qu'ranic sources as well as folklore. Most Muslims revere Saint George, identifying him with the Prophet Elijah, and have long allowed Christians to celebrate an annual mass at his supposed tomb in Palestine, in what is now a consecrated mosque. The first church in the Middle East to be dedicated to St. George, in 514AD, was also sited in an existing mosque. In fact, the first recorded "George and the dragon" legend tells that he killed the beast at the seashore in Beirut; a popular shrine grew up there in the early 20th century.
Traditionally, George lived between  275 - 303AD, a Roman soldier in the guard of the emperor Diocletian. Disappointingly for the EDL, it seems very unlikely his feet walked upon England's green and pleasant land. There seems to be strong historical evidence that he was born to a noble Christian family, either in Syria or Turkey, and that he died in Nicodemia, about sixty miles east of the modern city of Istanbul. His father was a famed Roman officer named Gerontius and his mother Polychronia was from Palestine. The Latin name "Georgius" means "worker of the land". By the time he was in his late teens, both his parents had died; at this point he decided to travel to Nicodemia to present himself to the emperor for military service. Within ten years, George was promoted to the rank of tribunus, an imperial guard. However, Diocletian's favours were fickle: in 302AD, he issued an edict that all Christian soldiers in his army should be arrested and that his soldiers must make sacrifice to the Roman gods. The strength of George's faith came to the fore: he publicly renounced the edict and proclaimed himself a Christian. Nor willing to lose his best tribune and the son of a legendary warrior, the emperor offered George money, land and slaves if he would bow to the Roman gods and make sacrifice to them. George resolutely refused all his offers and bribes. Exasperated, Diocletian ordered his execution. Before his death, legend tells that George gave away everything he owned to the poor. He was tortured horribly at length, including laceration on a wheel of swords. He was resuscitated three times before he was finally beheaded, on 23rd April in 303AD. Apparently, witness reports of his torture and death led to the conversion to Christianity of the empress, Alexandra, and a pagan priest named Athanasius. The latter would become St Athanasius the Great and one of the acknowledged pillars of Christianity. George's body was taken to Palestine, where a cult of veneration quickly grew up around his story.

Eastern Orthodox depictions of St George slaying a dragon often include a young maiden, looking on from a distance. Traditional iconographic interpretation of the tale is that the dragon represents Satan or evil itself; therefore in this instance the Roman Empire. The maiden is presumed to be Alexandria, the emperor's wife. The legend of St George and the dragon originated during the Crusades. The western version evolved as the thirteenth century poem "The Golden Legend", originally an epic in Latin with a distinctly courtly romantic flavour that tinctures the holy narrative. This widely popular poem was recited in many versions, resulting in the localising of the adventure in very different places. Where and how this poem originated remains a part of The Golden Legend itself. Essentially, a dragon or perhaps a crocodile nests at the site of the water-spring at the city, possibly in Libya or the Holy Land. The people cannot collect their water because of the terrifying reptile; to pass to the spring, they have to offer it a sacrifice of a sheep, or failing that a maiden. Having drawn lots, one day the king's own daughter is the elected unfortunate. Enter St George, who faces the dragon, slays him and rescues the princess. The king and his people are so grateful that they immediately convert to Christianity. There are obvious parallels with ancient tales pre-dating Christianity, of Perseus' rescue of Andromeda from the sea-monster and even with Zeus' defeat of Typhon the Titan: yet George's dragon may often represent pagan cults. There have been various suggestions that George's tale is a Christianised version of that of older deities in indo-european culture. From the time of Hercules, wherever there has been a dragon, there has been a George.
St. George and his dragon sometimes surface around rural England in "Mummers plays" at Easter and Christmas: traditional folk dramas based on tales championing Christendom. On 23rd April, English scouts and guides groups often organise local parades and attend mass in honour of their patron. Traditionally, St George's Day is the day to wear the red rose of England in your button-hole. However, England does not celebrate it as Americans celebrate 4th July. In fact, you're more likely to see a St Patrick's Day parade in England than you would a St George's Day celebration. Personally and as a Christian, I would welcome the revival of his feast day as one of national festivities. I'm not so sure of St George's pleasure as a figurehead of groups like the EDL. St George was traditionally unafraid and intolerant of bullies and oppressors;  a defender of those unwilling to compromise their right to practise their faith. I wonder where he would have seen the dragon on Sunday outside Brighton station? As a peaceable vegetarian and Catholic, I do hope the EDL members managed to grab a tasty kebab before they caught their trains back home.

"Now order the ranks, and fling wide the banners, for our souls are God's and our bodies the king's, and our swords are for St George and for England"
(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

"Jerusalem"  sung by Paul Robeson

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