Eadmund of Angland
The Once and Future Saint
Every year, on the 23rd of April - St George’s Day - an ancient ritual takes place across England. After a few flags have been raised on a few churches, and a few small towns have put on some desultory displays of dragon-baiting, featuring men in plastic helmets and polyester dragon suits, the real business begins. No, not going down the pub, though that will begin at some point in the day. The real business is the ritual of Arguing About Saint George.
This ritual, which has been turbocharged by the culture war, can be kicked off by either the right or the left of the spectrum, depending on who is up earliest. Perhaps someone on the right will begin the dance by complaining that the government/local authorities/churches/the media/the BBC etc do not properly celebrate the national day, though they’re happy enough to celebrate Diwali and Eid. Instantly will come the traditional riposte from the left: an assertion that St George was ‘Turkish’ anyway, which proves that [a] England has always been multicultural/diverse/a nation of immigrants etc, or that [b] England never really existed at all, or ideally [c] both. The right then exclaim that this proves their point about wokeness destroying the culture, to which the left yells that a diverse, modern etc nation shouldn’t have a Christian patron saint anyway.
Sometimes at this point a neutral voice will intervene and suggest that, since 23rd April is also Shakespeare’s birthday, perhaps we could all come together by celebrating him instead? Our progressive friends will respond that a diverse, modern etc nation should not be celebrating a Dead White Man, and that we should decolonise Shakespeare in favour of Linton Kwesi Johnson. After this, battle really commences.
Speaking as someone who can make time for both the Bard of Avon and the Bard of Brixton, my response to this annual charade is to stand up on this dark November day and issue a radical declaration: England needs a new patron saint. Or rather, it needs the return of a very old one.
St George rose to prominence as England’s sole patron relatively recently, during the late middle ages, at least partly as a result of the Crusades, during which English knights came across his popular middle eastern cult. Not only did George never visit England, he died long before the nation even existed. Call me a terrible old reactionary, but I think that a nation’s patron saint ought to actually come from the nation in question - or at least, like Patrick of Ireland, ought to have lived in and done his work there.
So: out with St George, I say, and in with one of the nation’s original native patrons (in early medieval England there were several at once), the saint whose feast is celebrated today: Edmund the Martyr. Edmund’s story is simple and stark. Wistful too, I think. He didn’t slay a dragon: instead, he slew himself. There is a message for us there, if we can hear it.
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