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April 23, 2018524Views

England and Her Saints

Jonathan Headington looks at the English national identity, St George and the history of England's saints

Across the British media, St George's Day every year is marked by a smattering of articles on the same few issues that people have decided it raises. The first is the matter of English identity, the second is whether it ought to be a bank holiday and the third is whether we (and full disclosure, by the way: I'm English) really should have a Roman soldier who supposedly slayed a dragon as our patron saint. Today I'm going to look at all of these, to save you the bother of reading three separate articles. English generosity, what what. So settle down with a nice cup of tea old chap, and have a jolly good read.

English identity is a thorny issue and one it's rare to see anyone honestly address. A major bother is the English/British dichotomy. The two terms have been used synonymously since the 1707 union with Scotland, and often when you hear Americans refer to Britain or the United Kingdom as a whole, they'll say England. This loose terminology was fine for the English during the good old days when we strode about the world colonising the place, battling Bonaparte and getting the Chinese hooked on opium; for the best part of a century meanwhile, Scotland was deeply unpopular as a concept in no small part due to the Jacobite rebellions. Traditional Highland dress was even banned for 36 years, and it took King George IV (the fat one) to visit and mess around dressed in a kilt for the place to regain some standing.

Since the decline of the Empire though, we've seen the rise of nationalism within this island. Not by the English of course – that's not allowed – but the Scottish and even the Welsh are allowed to tell you how proud they are to be from the parts of Great Britain which contribute the least, spurred on by unequal devolution (a constitutional repugnance if ever there was one). Meanwhile, everything good about English culture gets called British, and if you announce your pride in being English the way a caber-tossing Scot can, the general assumption is that you terrorise people with your dangerous dog from the cab of your white van, your life dedicated to a football team called In-gur-lund, drinking cheap lager and beating your wife. You can be a proud Scotsman, a proud Welshman, and you can just about be proud to be British (especially since the recent invention of these 'British values' we hear about, which seem to be uncritical devotion to the NHS and never saying anything bad about Islam), but a proud Englishman? You'd have to be a neanderthal racist, surely.

Why is this? It's just standard Cultural Marxism really, fed by the zero-sum mindset inherent in most whereby success must necessarily and unjustly have been at someone else's detriment. Have you seen how much of the wealthy western world speak English? Those English people must have been really awful. If you believe all cultures are essentially equal, then never mind your literature, your common law, your Christianity or your inventions and industry. The better you seem to have done, the worse you actually are. Frankfurt School 101.

No such qualms exist in me though. I'm simple enough to believe that England's success historically means that England and the English are a good thing, and I'll be proceeding for the rest of this piece as though that's the case. If you're reading this on St George's Day and prefer some guilty hand-wringing, I'm sure the Guardian have got you covered; indeed, these days you can even rely on terrestrial television to present being English as something to be ashamed of by default.

Onward then, to St George. Everyone knows that he killed the dragon, but his sainthood stems from being martyred for his Christian faith by Emperor Diocletian on April 23rd 303. His sole and uncontested patronage of England was started by King Edward III when he created the Order of the Garter. The Order of the Garter began as a conscious attempt at a revival of King Arthur's round table, and with St George remembered for his heroism (killing a dragon and all), he seemed a great fit, considering this was also during the early stages of the Hundred Years' War.

For the first few centuries after the Norman Conquest, we'd had French-speaking monarchs and French had been the language of the ruling classes, but it was during this era of the 14th and 15th centuries that the use of the English language experienced a cultural resurgence, most notably with Geoffrey Chaucer. English architecture became distinct, with the perpendicular gothic style of arches and buttresses supplanting the Norman style of large supporting columns. During the long war against the French the entirely distinct English identity was forged. Starting with King Henry IV, all our monarchs spoke English as their main language, and we gained a national warrior hero king in his son Henry V. Despite the fact that he was foreign and dead for over a millennium then, St George's patronage dates back to the time when so much about English identity emerged.

Of course, patron sainthood didn't begin with St George, and England had several patron saints before him. The most popular candidate among those who want to see a change of saint is one who was in place before George: King Edmund the Martyr. There's even a website. The supporters of this may seem like the kind of people who could get quite worked up about the Norman yoke if you provoked them to it and probably keep Campaign for Real Ale membership cards in their wallets, but they do have a point. For one thing, St Edmund was actually English (or at least, the king of a kingdom which would later form part of England), and rather than being mainly known for dubious tales of dragon slaying, he instead refused to renounce Christianity and for it was slaughtered by the Vikings (very much the ISIS of their day).

Another previous patron saint of England was Pope Gregory the Great, whose Gregorian Mission Christianised the Anglo-Saxons. The story goes that after he saw some English slave children, upon learning their identity he remarked 'Angles? Nay, angels! Boom boom!' (or words to that effect) and resolved to convert their people. The Celtic Britons had long been Christian, but the Anglo-Saxons who turned up and took over much of the territory of present day England were pagan. It may be a bit too Romish for an officially Anglican country to have a Pope for its patron saint, but the man he sent, St Augustine of Canterbury, would be a fine candidate. As St Patrick converted the Irish, so did Augustine convert the English and he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. What finer candidate for an English patron saint?

With St George having got all of the attention, it's easily forgotten that England has a long history of saints. The earliest is St Alban, reputedly martyred while modern day England was still Roman, and since honoured by having quite a nice town named after him. Canonised in 1161, King Edward the Confessor had a strong cult in England, and despite being an Anglo-Saxon king, he was strongly popular with the early Plantagenets, to the point Richard II changed the Royal Arms of England to be impaled with the Confessor's 'attributed' (ie made up because he didn't actually have any) arms. St Augustine's see provided further memorable saints in St Anselm of Canterbury (who devised the ontological argument for God's existence) and Thomas Becket (who was famously murdered on the mistaken word of King Henry II).

If we are to have a King of England for a saint though, I have one more suggestion, and it may be a controversial one: King Charles the Martyr. It's not as well known as it ought to be, but King Charles I is a saint, the only one created by the Anglican church and so he ought to be a surefire candidate. Leaving aside the wider political situation of the English Civil War in which he was of course in the right (yes he was, I'm telling you), one thing Charles refused to yield on which would have spared his crown and his life was the Church of England. During the republican Interregnum which followed, the episcopal hierarchy, the 39 Articles and the Common Book of Prayer were all abolished in the national church in favour of a Presbyterian structure. These essential elements of the Church of England were restored with the Restoration of Charles II, and Charles I was canonised by the Convocation in 1660. As sainthood is ultimately religious, why not have as a patron saint the King of England who was executed in part for refusing to give up the theological basis, structure and character of the church which went on to provide the spiritual sustenance of the nation throughout its subsequent peak?

We are then spoilt for choice when it comes to worthy candidates for alternative patron saints of England. But what of St George? I, for one, certainly wouldn't revoke his patronage. For one thing, we've been using his flag for all this time, and while he may be patron saint of many other places (everyone wants to be associated with the coolness of slaying a dragon it seems), people now are as likely to recognise it as being the 'England flag' as being the cross of St George. As we've seen, he's been our saint since that time when the modern English identity emerged, and has served us well for the nearly 700 years since. When a German-speaking no mark was elevated to the throne of Great Britain in 1714, it surely helped that he shared a name with our patron saint. King Sigismund of Great Britain would have been harder to accept than King George. And what more stirring and patriotic rallying cry is there than 'Cry God for Harry, England and St George!' from Shakespeare's Henry V? To abandon the history and heritage of St George as our patron saint would be unthinkable.

That doesn't mean though that we can't add more patron saints. Many countries have multiple patron saints, as did England herself before Edward III opted for St George. The question is how many, and who? In my view, St Augustine of Canterbury, King Edmund the Martyr and King Charles the Martyr ought to be the official additions to St George. In elevating the Apostle to the English, the old patron saint and the Anglican saint, so much of England's history is represented. It should also have the positive effect of encouraging more interest in England's history, both cultural and political as well as ecclesiastical. That might just help out the English identity issue too.

Another positive effect would be the possibilities which this offers for bank holidays. Currently, England and Wales have 8 bank holidays per year, Scotland has 9 (including St Andrews Day) and Northern Ireland has 10 (including St Patrick's Day and Orangemen's Day). The trouble with St George's Day as an additional bank holiday (aside from encouraging English national pride) is that it falls at a time of the year already saturated with bank holidays. The two Easter bank holidays come near the beginning of April, then after two in May there's only one in August until Christmas. Rounding England's up to a nice even 10 like Northern Ireland could give us January 30th (St Charles) and November 20th (St Edmund). Nice times to have them I think. It would also remove the persistent worry that the halfwitted heritage-haters who want Eid and Diwali as official UK bank holidays might one day get their way; if we go from 8 days to 10, we can rule out adding any more for a long time.

That's our saints problem solved then, and maybe a little pride in our Englishness can be restored with it. Now we just need to resolve that pesky national anthem situation. For now though, I'll wish you a happy St George's Day and leave you with some words which some English bloke once wrote:

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Jonathan Headington

Co-founder and Editor of Excvbitor

 

Twitter: @IonathanRex

 

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