The resurrection of St. George in England

Behind the resurgence of festivals and flags is a story of cultural change—and resistance to it.

The most critically acclaimed new work for the English stage in the present century has to be Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009), and the forthcoming revival is creating fevered expectations. Any viewer who can stop laughing long enough will be immersed in an astonishing and moving exploration of English roots and identity, set during a village celebration of St. George’s Day, April 23. Few serious historians accept the notion of a real St. George or the stories that have gathered around him through the centuries. But as Jerusalem reminds us, George has always been a potent figure of identity for Christian societies, and so, especially, has been his special day. That remains true even as many nations enter a post-Christian era.

According to most versions of the tale, the original George was a Roman soldier martyred under the emperor Diocletian around the year 300 and venerated at Lydda, in Palestine. As a popular military saint, his fame grew through the Middle Ages, and above all when he supposedly intervened to aid the beleaguered Crusader armies in 1098. Around this time, the George legend expanded to include his defeat of a fearsome dragon, a common tale in the pre-Christian world, and most often associated with the Greek hero Perseus. George often appears as an armed horseman slaying an evil beast.

In this enhanced form, it is difficult to exaggerate George’s popularity as a Christian symbol and a centerpiece of iconography. He was the patron saint of Ethiopia and Aragon as well as England and features in many church dedications across Portugal and the Mediterranean world, as well as the Kingdom of Georgia. He served as a source of national pride and patriotism along with Christian devotion and military valor. Just how widely that popularity extends is even more apparent when we realize how commonly he is commemorated in personal names, in slightly camouflaged form. Among the numerous Christians of southern India, the very common name Varghese derives from the Syriac form of George.