Heritage Venues Help To Revive St George's Day Celebrations

By Graham Spicer | 16 April 2007
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photo of a man dressed in full plate armour with a flag of st george behind him

Heritage organisations like English Heritage are spearheading St George's Day celebrations. Photo: English Heritage

While many English people would struggle to name the date of St George’s Day, heritage organisations are helping to revive traditional celebrations for the country’s patron saint.

Once an important day in the festival calendar, the English national day (April 23) now attracts nowhere near the attention of St Patrick’s Day or St David’s Day.

“The English have largely lost their enthusiasm for celebrating St George’s Day, which is a huge shame given how important the feast day would have been to our ancestors,” said English Heritage territorial events manager Jon Hogan.

St George is thought to have been a 3rd century cavalry officer in the Roman army from Capadoccia, an early centre of Christianity in modern-day Turkey.

photo of a sign for a pub called the george with a picture of a knight on horseback spearing a dragon on it

St George is commemorated on pub signs across the country, but few know the origins of England’s patron saint. Photo: Graham Spicer/24HM

The legend says that he was ordered to persecute Christians but refused, revealing that he, himself, was a Christian, an act that led to his execution. His dragon-slaying exploits became part of the story much later, at around the time of the crusades.

George is a major saint in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and as well as England he is patron saint of places as diverse as Aragon, Barcelona, Beirut, Bavaria, Portugal, Lithuania, Hungary and Moscow.

Riders, saddlers, soldiers, archers, cavalry, farmers and field workers as well as the Scouting movement also count him as their chosen saint and he is also, bizarrely, the patron of syphilis and skin diseases.

English crusaders had heard the story of St George in the Holy Land and he replaced Edward the Confessor as patron saint of England in 1415. April 23 became a major feast day, ranking alongside Christmas.

painting of a knight on horseback spearing a dragon with a woman stood looking on

This 15th century painting by Paolo Uccello shows how St George had become portrayed as a chivalrous knight by the middle ages. Photo: The Yorck Project

“For civilians, it was a day when they could take a break from working and really let their hair down, with everyone pitching in to prepare grand feasts to share with their neighbours,” explained Jon.

“The soldiers - in remembrance of their patron saint – would show off their skills in displays of archery, swordsmanship and combat skills.”

By the end of the 18th century the celebrations were waning, however, but there are signs of a modest revival, with both heritage sites and publicans across the country keen to promote it.

There has even been an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons to call for a public holiday to be held on the day, which also happens to be Shakespeare’s birthday.

photo of a statue on the side of a building of a knight spearing a dragon

It's not just England that salutes St George - there are monuments to him in many different countries, like this one in Barcelona. Photo: Year of the Dragon

English Heritage themselves are staging several events to commemorate St George, including its annual St George’s Day Festival at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, which attracted some 10,000 visitors in 2006.

At another event at Scarborough Castle historical interpreters will be demonstrating what St George’s Day celebrations would have been like, combining dancing, the cooking of special dishes with performances of traditional ‘mumming’ plays.

The highlight of the event will be the Pageant of St George, where a re-enactor on horseback and in full armour will symbolise St George and take on a Saracen knight and the dragon itself.

Other celebrations around the country include a St George’s Day jousting competition at The Royal Armouries in Leeds and performances of the St George and the Dragon story at Blists Hill Victorian Town in the Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire.

The English Heritage website has full details of their St George’s Day events.

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