The PATRON SAINTS of ENGLAND
St George was a relative late-comer to this position, only becoming popular in England in the late 14th century. Before him the Patron Saint of this country was St Edward the Confessor, or Saint Edmund, King and Martyr. St Edmund was a much better holder of the title than St George; for one thing he was a real historical figure, whereas there is some doubt as to whether St George even existed. Certainly his most famous feat is entirely mythical; killing a dragon no longer impresses the people of this country. St George’s legend records that he died a martyr, which must count in his favour, but as for his homeland it was in Asia Minor, many hundreds of leagues from England.
St Edmund was by contrast an Englishman; an East Anglian in fact. After his death at the hands of the Danish invaders his fame soon spread across the country, and there are churches dedicated to his name in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Kent and Devon among other places. St Edmund was a king and so too was Edward the Confessor, another claimant to the position of Patron Saint. St George on the other hand, if he really did live as a Christian warrior, was by reputation a mere Roman soldier, so it is slightly surprising that he was chosen to lead the principal Royal institution of knighthood, the Order of the Garter, by King Edward III. It was this important designation which led to St George taking over the role of Patron Saint. In John Lydgate’s 15th century poetry Edmund is still the pre-eminent English saint, leading the victorious soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt; but then Lydgate was an East Anglian, like King Edmund himself. It was the Crusaders who brought the cult of St George back to England from the Middle East. Although his legendary period of activity was several centuries prior to Edmund’s time, his cult had the cachet of modernity in the 14th century, through the Crusading connection.
The attempts to establish Edward the Confessor as Patron Saint of England never had the same popular appeal accorded to St Edmund or St George. Edward was no martyr, and not a great Englishman either – he had spent his early adulthood in Normandy at court, where he would have spoken French. He was an unlikely saint, being married (although childless); he loved riding out hunting, and was prone to sudden rages. Unsurprisingly, none of these qualities produced for Edward the same devotion that being shot through with arrows, or lancing a huge reptile, did for his rivals. As the last Saxon monarch he never had unequivocal support from the Norman kings either.
Although its proponents have many arguments on their side, the attempt to restore St Edmund to his former glory of Patron Saint is a doomed cause. The relevance of Patron Saints to an increasingly secular country has largely disappeared, although his flag has become increasingly popular of late, as the identity of England has been reasserted. It is the flag above all that ensures St George will remain England’s special saint. The red cross on a white background is the best national flag in the world. The Danish flag, which reverses the colours, is almost as good but in has too much red, which is a strong colour. The simple English flag looks so charming, flying from a church tower on a sunny St Georges’s day. The writing of words or letters across the flag, so popular with football fans, ruins its basic simplicity; but so do the extra crosses and colour of the Union Jack. Though I hate to have to denigrate the flag of the UK, it is a mess in comparison to the simplicity of the English flag, the cross of St George.
Also the saint’s day of St George falls in the latter part of spring, when there is at least the chance of a bright sunny day. Falling on November 20th, St Edmund’s day has no chance of good weather; St Edward the Confessor’s day is 13 October which is well into autumn, although he actually died in the depths of winter, on 5th January. It is on such trivial things as the date of his or her celebratory day that the popularity of a saint now hangs. The national day of 23rd April is also the day of William Shakespeare’s birth and death, and that encapsulates the English experience.
The origins of St Edmund, as the first national saint, go back to the very first years of the 11th century. Then the Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard, was terrorising the people of Eastern England. The locals needed a saint to support the English cause, and the Abbott of the monastery in Eynsham (Oxfordshire), Ælfric, put Edmund forward as the greatest English saint. Edmund had been killed by the Danes 130 years before, but no-one had emphasised the special place the saint had in attacking the country’s Danish enemies, until Ælfric pointed this out. This must have struck a chord among the English people. Edmund eventually became Patron Saint of the English people. He went on to defend the country against foreigners for hundreds of years. Naturally Ælfric wrote in the native tongue, (Old) English, and not in Latin which was the more usual language for religious texts. He was too much of an Englishman for that, although he could have used Latin had he wished. At first St Edmund was called on to defend the country against the Vikings. Later, after the Norman Conquest, French antagonism towards the English monarchs substituted that nation as the foremost enemy of the English, and therefore of St Edmund.
The idea of countries having patron saints evolved slowly through the middle ages, and St Edmund became the de facto patron saint of England before the term came into common use. Among the other patron saints of the British Isles, St Patrick and St David can both lay claim to intimate involvement with their countries’ conversions, in Ireland and Wales respectively. St Andrew on the other hand was one of the Apostles, and his only connection with Scotland is the supposed journey of some of his relics to Fife some hundreds of years after his crucifixion in Patras, Greece.