St George, Shakespeare and England

The solemnity of St George is shot through with ironies that only a very English sense of humour can appreciate. He is now our patron saint, as he is the patron saint of many other countries, but, despite our English love of tradition stretching back into the mists of history, has been our patron only since the mid-fourteenth century, following Edward III’s establishment of the Order of the Garter. Before that we celebrated St Edmund, King and Martyr (although the Normans were less enthusiastic as he reminded them of our Saxon kings).

According to legend, St George was Syrian on his mother’s side, Cappadocian on his father’s, and probably met his end in Syria itself; so as an emblem of Englishness, he is . . . not an obvious choice. As a saint of the Universal Church, a sign of that heavenly unity to which we aspire, he is a reminder of the larger world to which we belong. It is ironic, then, that some campaigning for Brexit have chosen to use the flag of St George as one of their key emblems.

Shakespeare, whose four hundredth anniversary of death we also celebrate today, has some fine phrases for St George, as he has fine phrases for almost everything, but his own protean character slips from English to universal and back again with maddening ease. He really is no help at all.

It seems we cannot distil the essence of Englishness from St George, Shakespeare, nor even the land itself — a land subject to wave after wave of immigration, change and alteration. It is a vain task and asks the wrong question, I think. It is not what ‘makes’ us English that matters but what we are and what we do that counts. There is an exquisite Responsory for St George’s Day Vespers in the Worcester Antiphoner which we sing every year. It is plainchant of the most lyrical expressiveness, born from the synagogue music of Our Lord’s time, shaped and pointed in the monasteries and court chapels of the Holy Roman Empire, composed here in England and sung to the glory of God and in gratitude for the witness of one of his martyrs, that unlikely soldier saint from Syria, in an obscure Herefordshire monastery. Something to ponder there, I suggest, as we think today about Syrian refugees, our place in Europe and what it means to be English.