St George's Day: why won't England celebrate?

Apr 23, 2015

We have mixed feelings about St George, a third-century Roman soldier who came from modern-day Turkey

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Despite efforts to whip England into a state of patriotic pride on St George's Day, celebrations for the country’s patron saint have never really taken off.

On Saturday, London mayor Boris Johnson will host a cultural event in Trafalgar Square which will celebrate "all the great things about England" but, unlike St Patrick's Day in Ireland, St George's Day rarely prompts spontaneous celebration.

As it approaches once again, we examine what is known of England's patron saint, and why the commemoration of his death is so subdued.

When is St George's Day? 

St George's Day is on 23 April, but it is not a national holiday in England – unlike St Patrick's Day in Ireland. The date was set by the Council of Oxford in 1222.

Who was St George?

Not much is known about St George, except that he wasn't an Englishman. Historians believe he was born in Cappadocia, a part of modern Turkey, into a noble Christian family in the third century, and followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Roman army, the BBC says. Tradition suggests that when Emperor Diocletian ordered the systematic persecution of Christians, George refused to take part and was tortured and ultimately executed in Palestine. His method of torture "apparently included laceration of wheel of swords before he was eventually decapitated", The Independent says, but before he was killed he donated all of his wealth to the poor. George was later recognised as an early Christian martyr. The legend of St George, clad in armour, slaying a dragon and rescuing a maiden, was a medieval invention.

Why is he associated with England?

According to historian Michael Collins, one of the earliest known British references to St George appears in an account by St Adamnan, the seventh-century Abbot of Iona who heard about St George from a French bishop named Arcuif. But his reputation began to grow only when returning crusaders said the saint had made a miraculous appearance and led them into battle at the siege of Antioch in 1098. They also passed on the legend of St George's dragon slaying to the royal court.

When King Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in around 1348, he placed it under St George's patronage, and at about the same time English soldiers were required to wear "a signe of Saint George" on their uniforms. St George appears in Shakespeare's version of King Henry V's rousing address to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt: "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George'."

Other countries celebrating St George include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.

Why are celebrations in England so muted? 

Historian Diarmaid Macculloch tells the Huffington Post that English apathy towards St George's Day may be a consequence of the reformation. "The English, being Protestants for nearly five centuries, have never had much time for saints' days – same with the Scots," Macculloch said. "Neither really need their patron saints to celebrate nationhood."

But others draw a distinction between St George and other patron saints of the British Isles. "St Andrew's and St Patrick's Day celebrations reflect the assertion of an identity distinct from the dominant English identity," says Robert Ford, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. "It is not clear whom the English define themselves against, or in comparison to."

Research carried out in 2013 by the think tank British Future suggested that many English people are "nervous" about celebrating St George's Day. The poll, published by the Daily Telegraph, found that many English people are concerned that national symbols like the St George's Cross flag may be interpreted as racist.

Why is St George's Day not a bank holiday?

Many people ask why every country except England gets a bank holiday on their Saint's Day. According to The Independent, the tradition of St George's Day has been in decline since the union of Scotland and England at the end of the 18th century. But support for reinstating the day as a bank holiday has been growing in recent years and has been brought up in the House of Commons every year since 2006.

Still, introducing another public holiday to the calendar would come with a financial cost for the UK. The Centre for Economic and Business Research reported in 2012 that each bank holiday costs Britain £2.4bn in lost work.

Despite not being a bank holiday, celebrations will be held this weekend around the country, including the first St George's festival in St George's Quarter, Liverpool, which will run from Friday to Sunday. Manchester celebrates with a parade, which this year will take place on Sunday. Birmingham will hold its annual St George's Day concert on Saturday.

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