What's in a Saint?
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
Shakespeare — Henry V
Last Friday was St Georges day. The now Patron Saint of England. My Reflection this week is that he wasn’t always such. That honour once held by Edmund. King of East Anglia in the ninth century AD. A devout Christian (believed born on Christmas Day 841), he fought alongside Alfred the Great against the ‘Great Heathen Army’.
However, unlike Alfred, sadly, the Danes captured Edmund. Unwilling to renounce his Christian faith, the Danes executed Edmund in the style of St Sebastian. For good measure, they also decapitated him after death. His remains, eventually reunited, ended up near modern-day, Bury St Edmunds (the clue is in the name). However, we should not take the name of the town, literally. In its early days, it was St Edmunds Bury. Bury coming from the old English borough and Germanic burg.
Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, the first true King of England, raised Edmund to lofty heights. Founding a religious community to care for Edmund’s burial place. Over time that grew to become a shrine of national pilgrimage.
Edmund’s saintly position continued even when the Danes finally did conquer England under King Canute (he of stopping the tide fame). Canute built a stone abbey to house Edmund’s shrine. Successive Kings of England continued to patronise Edmund, establishing his position as England’s Patron Saint.
Edmund then ‘survived’ the Norman invasion in retaining his patron status. Going on to play a bit part in the signing of the Magna Carta. It was on St Edmund’s Day, 20 November, in 1214 that the ‘rebel’ English barons held a meeting at Edmund’s shrine before heading off to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties (the forerunner to Magna Carta)
Many believe it was Richard the Lionheart who we must thank for the beginning of Edmund’s demise. Despite Richard’s popularity with the English down the centuries, he was very much an absentee from the country. Of the twenty-four years of his adult life, Richard spent about four in England. The story goes on one of his foreign forays, Richard visited the tomb of St. George in Lydda (now Israel). It was the eve of battle. The next day Richard won a great victory and so adopted St. George as his personal Patron.
George was not English. While legends differ, they agree he was born in the third century in what is now Turkey. Born of Christian parents he followed his father’s career and became a Roman soldier. Unlike lots of other Roman soldiers, George was not a ‘visitor’ to England.
A later Emperor then commanded that every Roman soldier must declare allegiance to the old Roman Gods. George’s martyrdom came when he refused to give up his Christian faith.
It does appear that George was a fashionable Saint to follow. He’s still in the top fifty favourite Saints. The Patron Saint of many countries, states, and cities as well as of Soldiers. Interestingly and despite his Crusader connections, George is one of few Christian saints that is also seen as a revered martyr by those who follow Islam.
The English King who really did for Edmund was Edward III (he of the tumultuous victory over the French at Crécy). Edward’s ambition was to boost the morale of the English people and institute in them a sense of new national pride. He saw Edmund as too ‘old-school’ and felt adopting a new saint, with a reputation of showing courage in adversity, would help in this ambition. Edward had no care that George was not born of England. He just wanted a Patron Saint that symbolised a warrior. After all, George did start the ‘The Hundred year's war’.
Along with a new Patron Saint came a new English flag. The flag of St Edmund is a white dragon on a red background. Up until good old Richard the Lionheart, the English went to battle under that flag. Even after the rise of the Crusader red cross of St. George, the English army continued to carry the dragon flag. After Edward, the First (with whom William Wallace had a bit of a tussle), increasingly the St George’s flag replaced the Dragon.
So, there you have it. Today we English celebrate our nationality with someone who was most likely Turkish (born of an Italian father and probably Turkish mother) and who never set foot in England.
In these post-Brexit days, is it not time to bring St Edmund back? Oh, hang on, he was Anglo-Saxon. They were German and Danish. In some ways when the Vikings fought the Anglo-Saxons for control of England at the time of Alfred the Great and beyond, it was really a Danish ‘family argument’.
We mustn’t forget that the Anglo-Saxons were the lot who invaded Britain around the fifth century and suggested that the indigenous Britons move out. So, we really need to go back a bit further and find someone from that era as the English Patron Saint.
Saint Boudicca, anyone …….?
My music this week is a challenge, as England doesn’t have its own national anthem. Some say that should change and the English adopt ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘Jerusalem’. I could, of course, go for the Turkish national anthem in recognition of George but instead, I’ll offer a national anthem that doesn’t have words. I’ve always enjoyed this jaunty tune …