Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George?

Dr Roger Spalding

Image of St George killing the dragon
St George’s Hall Liverpool, window detail

Until relatively recently St George’s day, 23rd April passed by relatively unnoticed except for hardcore ‘patriots’ and Morris dancers. Yet recently there have been attempts to elevate this holiday to that of St Patrick’s day on 17th March.

Historically St George rather withered as the English did not need an emblematic saintly representative. For many their superiority was self-evident, sustained by a belief in their military prowess and the growth of Empire. This sense of imperial glory lived on well after the demise of the actual empire.

The nineteenth century historian, William Stubbs argued that Britain’s constitutional government derived from our Anglo-Saxon (that is English) ancestors. This racialised view of history also incorporated the United States, Americans being seen as essentially English but with strange accents. Clearly Freeman hoped for an America that would be a transatlantic (Anglo-Saxon) England.

The title of Winston Churchill’s four volume history of Britain, published in the 1950s, The History of the English Speaking Peoples exhibited many of these tropes: marginalising the Celtic British and incorporating the Anglo-Saxon settler populations from around the world in a Greater England. The English did not need strong national emblems because they believed they were as Sellars and Yeatman put it in their 1930 satirical work, 1066 and All That: a ‘Top Nation’.

With the demise of the last generation brought up under the Empire (my parents’ generation); the growth of nationalism in the Celtic nations; and a series of crises from Suez (1956) to Brexit, this triumphalist view of English/British identity has been eroded. The English it would seem do need a new sense of national identity, should St George be a part of that? Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, would seem to think so for he has issued a video wishing people a happy St George’s day.

What most people know about St George is that he was responsible for rescuing a maiden from the clutches of a dragon. The story has nothing to do with the real George, thought to have been a Roman soldier born in what is Turkey today. George’s tussle with the Dragon is really a product of medieval chivalry, the code of conduct which supposedly governed the lives of knights; this involved defending the weak (a category that included all women) and acting with honour.

The gulf between the ideal and the reality is well illustrated by the Morte d’Arthur a collection of stories about King Arthur, another paragon of chivalry. This was alleged written by Sir Thomas Mallory, a convicted criminal, during the 15th century War of the Rose; a conflict in which inconvenient individuals were disposed of in a less than chivalrous fashion: witness the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. If the English do need a new sense of national identity, does it need to incorporate a mythical figure created by a brutal medieval nobility?

Roger Spalding is Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

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