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Archive for April 22nd, 2007

Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101.
Today’s episode will be a bit more brief than a usual one, but I wanted to make one for today anyway as I feel it’s important that we discuss aspects of English culture. Tomorrow, April 23, is commemorated as the day of England’s patron saint, or St. George’s Day. It is also the 18th birthday of listener Dave Redfern from the UK. Happy Birthday, Dave!
There is little historical record regarding the actual person of St. George. What we can most accurately guess about him is that he was born in the late 3rd century to a Cappadocian father who was an officer in the Roman army and a Palestinian woman. George’s father was killed in battle, and he returned to his mother’s home city of Lydda, in Palestine, where she educated him. Once he reached the appropriate age, George followed his father’s footsteps and joined the Roman army, rising through the ranks, attaining the rank of Tribunus (or Tribune) and then Comes (or Count), at which point he was stationed in Nicodemia as a member of the Emperor Diocletian’s personal guard. In 303, Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians across his empire, and George was ordered to help carry this out. However, he refused, and even professed being a Christian himself. For this, George was tortured and eventually beheaded outside the wall of Nicodemia, becoming one of the Church’s early martyrs. His remains were taken to his mother’s hometown, where they were buried and soon came to be venerated. A church was later built over the site; it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, being constructed again most recently in 1872, and still stands today.
St. George’s popularity today is mostly due to a legend known simply as St. George and the Dragon. According to the legend, the citizens of a Libyan town were unfortunate enough to live near a lake inhabited by a plague-bearing dragon, and in order to appease the dragon the city offered it a lamb and a virgin, who was determined by lottery, every day. Unfortunately, at one point the lottery decided that the town’s princess was to be the virgin given to the dragon. Try as he might to plead the people into letting him keep his daughter, the king was unable to save the princess from her almost certain doom. She was dressed as a bride and sent to the lake as a gift to the dragon. St. George heard of the matter and so rushed to the princess’ aid. Upon his arrival, the princess begged him not to get involved, but George refused. He fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross and charged the dragon on horseback, lancing it with his spear. It is thought that St. George’s spear was called Ascalon; jumping ahead in time a bit, Winston Churchill’s private aircraft during World War II was called Ascalon in memory of the tale. After wounding the dragon, he wrapped the princess’ girdle around the dragon’s neck, and after this the dragon followed the girl like a dog. The princess and St. George led the dragon back to the city, where the citizens were initially terrified. However, St. George slew the dragon on the spot, saving the city from any future menace. Rather than accepting the city’s offers of material reward, St. George requested only that the citizens be baptized. The king and the city instantly converted, and a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. George was built on the site where the dragon died. In the church, a spring flowed from the altar with waters that would cure any disease.
The tale of St. George came to England with the return of crusaders from the Holy Land during the 11th century. King Edward III, who reigned from 1327-1377 and founded the Order of the Garter, dedicated the chapel at Windsor Castle to St. George, in which the Garter ceremony takes place every year. William Shakespeare played a large part in cementing St. George in the English mind with his play Henry V in which English troops are rallied with the cry, “God for Harry, England, and St. George.”
At one time, St. George’s Day was celebrated with much enthusiasm, and within England it was even on a par with Christmas. However, its popularity has waned over the past years. Some call for the replacement of George as the patron saint of England, as he has no direct connection with the country, but at this point that’s not likely to happen any time soon. It’s quite an irony that St. George’s Day, on which it is traditional to wear a red rose on the lapel, is currently celebrated in England with much less vigour and public pronouncement than St. Patrick’s Day, the national day of Ireland! One thing that England still uses to commemorate St. George’s Day is that it is usually the day that the Queen appoints new members of the Order of the Garter. Monty Python’s Spamalot will celebrate the day this year by trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records record of largest coconut orchestra. Cast members of Spamalot will instruct the public on how to play their coconuts to the tune of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in Trafalgar Square, so if you happen to be in London this Monday, be sure to stop by the Square and help beat the world record!
Many Britons may see a reminder of St. George on a daily basis without even knowing it. The flag of Britain, known as the Union Flag or the Union Jack, is actually three flags combined into one. The flags of England, Ireland, and Scotland all come together to form the design most commonly seen. The Irish flag is a white background with a red diagonals running from corner to corner in the shape of an X; the Scottish flag features St. Andrew’s cross, which is a blue background with white diagonals running from corner to corner in the shape of an X; and finally, the English flag features – you guessed it – St. George’s cross, which is a white background with a red line running from top to bottom and another from side to side, making the more traditional shape of a cross. When all three are combined, you see the Union Flag that is Great Britain’s standard.
That’s all for this brief episode of British History 101. A transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast can be found at BritishHistory101.com. If you find time to visit the website, be sure to add yourself to the Platial map on the right hand side of the screen. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com. I can also be reached via Skype, under the name British History 101. The only region of the actual United Kingdom that I haven’t mentioned tonight is Wales, and so our music tonight is “The Welsh Ground,” performed by Cheryl Ann Fulton and available on Magnatune.com. Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit magnatune.com for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Thanks very much for listening, and have a happy St. George’s Day!

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