One of my most unrelenting (and occasionally nutty) eurosceptic visitors popped up the other day reckoning that I must hate St George’s Day because I’m pro-EU (yes, he’s one of those who rarely reads/understands what I write, so has me down as a slavering, unthinking, traitorous Europhile, rather than someone who’s, you know, thought about it quite a lot and can see all the problems).
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. St George is, after all, one of the ultimate symbols of Britain’s pan-European ties.
He was a Roman soldier (much like St Alban, in fact, the chap some have suggested would be more appropriate as England’s patron saint), so part of that vast organisation which united Europe from the Forth to the Nile, Portugal to the Caspian Sea – and which has helped shape the look and feel of Europe’s geography and culture for so much of the last 2000 years.
He was born in Anatolia, modern Turkey (although probably more like present day Armenia – with his mother having been born in what is now Israel/Palestine), showing how the links between Turkey and Europe have stretched back for millennia – and is the patron saint of Istanbul as well as of England.
He is venerated as an Islamic martyr as well as a Christian one, showing once again the links between the two faiths that so many on both sides seem to have forgotten in recent years (but hey, if you believe in a great big bearded fairy living up in the clouds, don’t expect too much rationality, eh?)
He remains the most venerated saint in the Orthodox Church, so popular on Europe’s eastern fringes – the dominant religion in, for example, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Georgia and Russia.
No doubt due to this Orthodox connection, he is also the patron saint of Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Moscow (Istanbul, of course, was formerly Constantinople / Byzantium, the seat of the Orthodox Church after the great schism, hence George’s patronage there – Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople / Istanbul, having been crowned Roman Emperor in the pleasingly English city of York in July 306 AD).
George is also patron saint of Catalonia – a land originally colonised by the ancient Greeks, then taken over by the Carthaginians, then the Romans, then the Visigoths, then the Moors, then the Franks and, after a period under the rule of Aragon (of English king Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon fame), Spain. A near perfect encapsulation of the various waves of European civilisations.
Then there’s Portugal, another country with George as Patron (I won’t bother going into detail about Canada and Ethiopia, don’t worry) – and one of the few European countries with whom England has never (officially) gone to war. Portugal’s history is similar to that of Catalonia – only with the added excitement of trade with the Phoenicians (much like pre-Roman Devon and Cornwall) and a sizeable Celtic community – just like the Celtic fringe of the British isles. They may have been conquered by the Moors while England was being conquered by the Vikings, but otherwise the two nations’ histories are remarkably similar – invasions, consolidation, exploration, innovation, empire and decline.
Saint George certainly never killed a dragon, and there is little historical evidence to show that he actually existed.
He is, however, a perfect symbol for both England and Europe – an amalgamation of numerous other myths that epitomise an appeal to civility, chivalry and toleration, yet with a militaristic edge in the dragon legend that is not only perfect for a continent which has seen as many wars as Europe has done, but also warns “if you attack us, we will fight”. His historical nature is pretty doubtful, yet – much like England has King Arthur, the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Norman Yoke, Robin Hood and that nonsensical “1000 years of history” – the lack of historicity merely makes him that much more powerful as a symbol, as he can become anything we want him to be. He is revered across Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, yet – like so much European culture – originated from the Middle East, demonstrating once again that the diversity of this continent is never so great as people may think.
In other words, as the European Union hunts around for a new direction and a new unifying ideal, it could really look to no better a symbol than Saint George, a truly pan-European figure – and one well worthy of a drink or two in the pub tonight, whether he existed or not.
Update: Forgot to mention, today is also William Shakespeare’s reputed birthday, and likewise the date recorded for his death. This most influential, most English of poets – as we all know – drew heavily on continental European subjects and history for his many plays, from Romeo and Juliet to Othello, The Merchant of Venice to Macbeth. But he also died on the very same day – 23rd April 1616 – as that other great 16th/17th century writer, Miguel Cervantes, the author of the wonderful Don Quixote – one of the founding texts of modern western civilisation, and another fine example of something typically European: the futile search for something better.
Shakespeare, Cervantes and Saint George – all united by 23rd April, all quite gloriously European.