In England, 239 churches are dedicated to St George. In Kent there are churches dedicated to St George at Gravesend, Weald, Ivychurch, Deal, Benenden, Ramsgate, Sevenoaks, Folkestone, and the RAF Chapel at Biggin Hill.
They will probably all be flying the St George flag from the flagpole at the top of their tower or spire on St George’s Day, as Benenden church used to do throughout my childhood there.
Growing up, I was more aware of the red cross of the St George’s flag being associated with the church’s patronal festival than I was of it being used to support the national football team. It is only in recent decades that I have seen more of this flag being used as a symbol of English patriotism, in front gardens and front windows of Kent.
Who was St George?
Unlike the Saxon or Celtic saints (like Eanswithe, Guthlac, or Cuthbert), George never lived in the British Isles. He lived in Cappadocia, which is in modern day Turkey. He was listed among the martyrs by Pope Gelasius in the 5th century, with 23rd April for his feast day. He was probably a Roman cavalry officer who refused to sacrifice Emperor Diocletian.
The site of his martyrdom was said to be in Lod (now in Israel) which became a site of pilgrimage. This is simply according to tradition as nobody chronicled his death at that time, unlike some of his contemporaries whose stories were told by Eusebius.
George’s fame stems rather from how his story was narrated by Jacobus de Voragine who compiled (in Latin in the 13th century) a book of stories of the saints called the Golden Legend. In this, George appears as a Medieval knight, on horseback and in full armour. The story goes that a village was terrorised by a bloodthirsty dragon who demanded a human sacrifice every year. There was a beautiful damsel who was about to be the victim of such a monster when St George rode by and rescued her and saved the village.
It has been pointed out that this legend is somewhat similar to the Greek tale of Perseus who rescued the damsel Andromache from the sea-monster. St George in full armour waving his sword at a dragon is a magnificent expression of Medieval values of chivalry: the noble knight in the service of a beautiful princess.
Interpretation of biblical text: fact vs allegory
Does it matter that de Voragine was not writing history? His purpose was to assist with sermons. His book consists of the stories of the saints, in the chronological order of their festival dates, with the Bible readings set down for those days, followed by the legend. In those days, the method of explaining the meaning of any text (hermeneutics) included several levels: the literal (what happens, the plot), the moral (teaching better behaviour), the spiritual (what it teaches about matters of faith).
The last of these was especially useful to Christian theologians trying to understand how the Old Testament relates to their faith, where all the stories prefigured the life of Jesus. This spiritual exegesis was later in the Middle Ages split into two types: the allegorical (eg Noah’s Ark symbolises the Church) and the anagogical (concerned with beliefs about the mystical world). Jewish scholars interpreting the numbers in scripture make much use of anagogical exegesis.
This Medieval hermeneutics fell out of favour with Protestants like Luther and Colet, who preferred to base their sermons on the literal meaning of Bible stories. By the 19th century, as discoveries in science revealed an alternative story of the beginning of this planet, the clash between science and religion became inevitable. This resulted in cases such as Bishop Colenso of Natal, who was persecuted for his heretical views on the book of Genesis.
The flag of St George
The earlier storytellers had been more concerned with what the story meant for people’s lives, rather than literal truth. So it does not matter if the legend of St George is true or not. It is an appealing tale of how good conquers evil. The pictures of it, as on wall frescos or stained glass, became immensely popular, especially because George, in his costume of glittering armour brandishing his sword, was a role model for aspirant males of the chivalric era. The poor damsel does not appear so often in the pictures. Rather the dragon thrusts into view.
St George usually appears with the red cross, either on his vest or in a pennant flag. England first adopted this red cross flag in 1190 to put on ships entering the Mediterranean, so that they would receive the protection of the Genoese fleet.
The St George flag was also used in the battle of Agincourt, 1415, as Shakespeare affirms in his play Henry V: “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George.’”
Flags of warfare
Clear flags were essential when soldiers were battling with visors over their faces, which must have restricted vision. Visibility is key in any era of warfare, as combatants do not want to kill their own comrades by mistake. That is why most flags or military insignia are extremely simple and visual, like the two colours of the Ukrainian flag, or the Z painted on Russian tanks, or the Nazi swastika.
A more complicated visual, like the Welsh dragon, demands a different technology of reproduction.
The flags of the different nations of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales) are much in evidence in national sports. Rugby was one of the first sports to utilise these in their ‘home nations’ matches, which started in 1883. This became the five nations with the addition of France in 1910, and then six nations with the addition of Italy in 2000. Fans who use face paint to deck themselves in national colours and symbols are utilising the emotional pull of these patriotic symbols.
But nowadays, when I see the St George flag displayed at someone’s home, I do not know if this is expressing fervour for a sports team or for the nation of England along with nationalisist political views. A story that used to draw on the anagogical meaning of the battle between good and evil is now being used for current political jousting.