Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer St. Giles*?

I spotted this yesterday, while out shopping, in one of the Sunday tabloids that had been left open on the news stand is Asda (didn’t notice which one, sorry).

St Alban is holier than St George

THE Church of England will debate making St Alban an alternative patron saint because critics claim St George is too militaristic, potentially offensive to Muslims — and foreign.

Supporters of the change, to be unveiled in a General Synod motion this week, claim Alban may be more appropriate not only because he was real while George may be mythical, but because of his self-sacrifice.

St Alban? Somehow I think the CofE would have more luck persuading people to accept Dr. Alban as a replacement for St George.

The Times, always being quick on the uptake, have noticed one obvious wrinkle in this particular plan…

The proposal may dismay many England fans, who have been flying George’s banner in support of their football team. The flag of St Alban would be a diagonal yellow cross on a blue background.

Yes, quite… and it would rather fuck up the Union Flag at the same time, amongst other things, not that this seems to have deters St Alban’s supporters…

Philip Chester, vicar of St Matthew’s, Westminster, who is gathering support for his private member’s motion, called the choice of George, who according to legend was a Roman cavalryman from what is now Turkey, “dotty”.

He added: “We are not at all sure George even existed . . . but we are sure St Alban is a real figure. What’s more, he lived in this country.”

So, St Alban is, apparently, a real figure who lived in this country, where St George may be entirely legendary… and the evidence for this is?

Well, actually, not that much better than the evidence for the existance of St George.

Timewise, it’s not entirely clear when, exactly, St Alban is supposed to have lived (and been martyred) – the best guess seems to be somewhere around 303 to 313 AD, based on ‘evidence’ supplied by the Venerable Bede, who stated that he was executed ‘when the cruel Emperors first published their edicts against the Christians’, which is presumed to place St Alban within the reign of the Diocletian. This makes St Alban a contemporary of St George, who is also supposed to have been executed at around the same time, for refusing to take part in the persecution of Christians ordered by Diocletian.

However, things get a bit more problematic from here onwards – while St George was supposedly honoured within two or three years after his death, with the building of church in his name in the Eastern city of Lydda and his cult developed rapidly in the centiry following his death in the Eastern Orthodox church, St Alban seems to disappear entirely until he gets his first mention in The Life of St Germanus of Auxerre which was written around 480 AD – 170-180 years after St Alban’s death. The book mentions St Alban only the context of Germanus having visited his shrine while on a trip of Britain.

After that, St Alban next turns up in Gildas’s 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae before being written up more fully by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was not complete until 731 AD.

On that basis alone, it would seem that the evidence for the existence of the real St George is neither better nor worse than that for St Alban, which rather shoots down one of Phillip Chester’s main lines of argument.

St George was certainly foreign, yes, but then St Alban’s origins are also matter of assumption and guesswork – he could well have been Romano-British, but then as a pagan he could easily have been a Roman or from any other part of the Roman Empire, which was far from being ethnically homogeneous.

Is St George too militaristic? Well that’s a matter of opinion, given that the story St George and the Dragon is quite obviously a myth in which a Christian saint has been translated into a much older pagan legend. As far as the arrival of the Cult of St George in England, this is thought to date to the return of English knights from the Crusades of the 12th Century, with St George being adopted as the patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III, who was notably big on the whole business of medieval codes of knighthood and instituted the Order of the Garter – and, of course, St George crops up most notably, in English literature, in Shakespeare’s Henry V with the rallying cry Follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George’.

Whether they like it or not, it seems the church had little or nothing to do with the adoption of St George as parton saint of England and, real or not, he is firmly embedded in English culture to the extent that its doubtful that most people would accept anyone other figure as patron saint of England.

What bothers me most in all this, however, is the apparent contention that St George should dropped, or at least downgraded, on the basis that he’s potentially offensive to Muslims.

Well hang on a second there – for one thing (and here’s something that’s likely to be new a lot of people) it appears that having been born in Lydda, which is the Palestine, there’s rather more to the ‘cult of St George’ than his adoption as patron saint of England, his mythical battle with a dragon or even the crusades.

In doing a bit of background reading I came across a rather interesting reference to an Islamic figure, Al-Khidr, whose status is rather disputed but who, nevertheless, appears to be venerated by Sufis, in particular.

What makes Al-Khidr particularly interesting in this case is that amongst the Maronite church of the Lebanon and other Christian groups in and around Jerusalem and even in Egypt, the figure of Al-Khidr has come to be associated with St George, who ministers to Christian and Muslim alike:

But in the Middle East, St. George is very much alive, dragon or no dragon.

In a hot office in downtown Beirut, a white-haired Greek Orthodox gentleman will tell you confidently that St. George is working scores of miracles today, for Muslims and Christians alike. He will recall his own experience, when St. George came one night with the lance and pierced his abscessed leg. Next morning the abscess was gone.

Another 70-year old Maronite lights a mammoth white candle every April 23 in the Maronite Cathedral of Beirut. He maintains the saint appeared in a cloud of dust, mounted on a white charger, when a group of Bedouin tried to kill him in the Syrian desert. St. George told the attackers he was al-Khidr, and the Bedouin released the Christian.

But what of St George’s association with the Crusades? Does this really cause such offence to Muslims that we consider choosing an altogether more benign patron saint.

Well, okay, yes, the Muslim world did get an apology from the Pope a few years back, which does suggest its a bit of issue for some – but then when it comes to my Muslim friends and people in the Muslim community that I’ve over the years, not once can I recall ever having a conversation with any of them on the subject of the Crusades, let alone been given the impression that this period, and anything associated with it, is a bit of problem for them, even today.

And more to the point, if one comes to look at what passes for public knowledge and the public’s impression of this era of history, what one invariably finds in that most people in England, and in Britain in general, know very little about the Crusades, and what they do know doesn’t tend to show up Muslims in a particularly negative light.

Given the systematic dumbing down of the teaching of history over a significant number of years, probably the main source of public perceptions of the Crusades is likely to come down to one historical figure – Richard I – whose public image is hopelessly rose-tinted and historically inaccurate- and two main sources – the legend of Robin Hood and Sir Walter Scott historical novel, Ivanhoe. In fact, I’d take matters even further and suggest that for the most part, public perceptions have been shaped much more by film adaptations of these stories than by having read either as a work of literature.

What this means is that the public image of Islam during the period of the Crusades is largely bound up in the profile of one historical figure, Salah Al Din (usually Anglicised in the form ‘Saladin’) who doesn’t really come out too badly as his reputation as a superb military commander and worthy adversary on the battlefield gained him recognition during the later medieval period as a distinctly chivalric figure such that, by the 14th century, there was an epic poem dedicated to his exploits, while Dante virtuous pagan souls in limbo, which turns out to be much the most attractive and benign circle of hell in the Divine Comedy, it being pretty much a medieval version of the Greek Elysium.

If anything, through Salah Al Din, the Saracens who fought against European Crusaders, acquired a public image that was, by medieval standards, pretty noble and civilised – and image that carried thorugh, certainly, into Hollywood’s treatment of that era.

Of course the ‘popular’ view of both Salah Al Din, of Richard I, is a hopeless romanticised one – courtesy, in the main, of Sir Walter Scott – and therefore some considerable way from being historical truth – although the irony in this is that a more accurate historical account of the Crusades, while noting that both men were responsible for their share of atrocities, would probably hoid that the Salah Al Din was the better, and certainly more civilised, of the two.

If there’s a contemporary problem with the figure of St George, and the cross of St George in particular, then it has very little, to my mind, to do with the historical figure of St George having foreign origins, or being too militaristic and too closely associated with the Crusades – such problems as may exist are altogether more modern in origin and lie primarily in the efforts of the far-right, over the last 40 or so years, to appropriate the image, and the flag, of St George to their own racist, white-supremacist agenda.

And the problem that arises whenever anyone, like Phillip Chester, goes off into a quasi-liberal angst meltdown and starts suggesting that we drop whatever it is that’s assumed to be causing offence to particular minority group, is that such suggestions invariably play into the hands of the very people who are causing the problem in the first place, which mean you end up with articles like the one below, on the BNP website…

CoE appeasement

The leaders of the Church of England have recently displayed their contempt for the English people by considering a move to relegate St. George to a lower league and promote St. Alban as the national champ. St. George is a fiery and powerful symbol of opposition to Islam and the Church Synod in a bid to appease those who are already turning former churches into mosques, will consider the proposal which could see the red and white being replaced by a yellow saltire on a blue background – the flag of St. Alban, martyred in Hertfordshire in the early 4th century.

So raise the red cross of our national saint and show your defiance for those who seek to eradicate England and the English nation. St. George is for life, not just for football!

And that’s what really pisses me off about half-arsed ideas like that of downgrading St George, the fact the only people who benefit from such suggestions are those, like the BNP, for whom such ideas provide a ready supply of ammunition in support of their prurient views.

Frankly, people like Phillip Chester and any other supporters of idea of ditching St George in favour of St Alban really do need to learn to shut the fuck up and stop feeding fascist groups, like the BNP, a steady stream of readily usable propaganda to support the false contention that Britain is somehow being ‘overrun’ by Islam.

* St Giles, BTW, is one of several saints whose areas of patronage includes insanity, as is, therefore, the ideal patron for that we downgrade St George, in the absence of an easily identifiable patron saint of guilt-ridden pseudo-liberal fuckwits.

  • Excellent post — that must have taken a lot of research effort. I replied to an enquirer on my site about the suggestion for St Alban and dismissed it as politically correct molly-coddling. If only I had read your article before…

  • david orchard

    St George (and his flag – same as ours) are both totemic and highly emblematic in the Republic of Georgia (capital Tfilisi – not the US state.) We really should ask their view before making any decision.