‘St George’, by Aloysius Atkinson

A unique depiction of our patron one could say…

From the Editor: Albeit a day late when transferred, here is a very informative post on St George from our resident expert on Medieval Britain and President of the Newman, Aloysius

Surely England could have a better patron than St George? He wasn’t from here, he never came here. England didn’t exist in his day. Our patron used to be Edward the Confessor, who has to be more relevant. He may have grown up in Normandy but he was English and ruled England for twenty-four years. The monarch still wears his crown. Medieval Christendom revered Thomas Becket above all the English saints. He stood up for the Church’s freedom, over a near-technicality of law, but was martyred in his own cathedral. Dozens of Englishmen and women followed him to martyrdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; surely relevant patrons? Or, as other nations have a great missionary, like Patrick for the Irish or Francis for India, why not Augustine of Canterbury? Or, indeed,  Gregory the Great, the so-called apostle to the English, who sent Augustine here? Pope at the end of the sixth century, Gregory supposedly saw English slave-boys and exclaimed, ‘Non Angli, sed angeli!’; not Angles, but angels! (It seems he actually said, less quotably, on hearing they were Angli, ‘Bene, nam et angelicam habent faciem, et tales angelorum in caelis decet esse coheredes’; right, for they have an angel’s face, and it is right that such be co-heirs of the angels in heaven). 

Instead, we have a Roman soldier-martyr, who died in the persecution initiated by Emperor Diocletian, around 300 AD. He became popular during the Crusades. In 1098, three years into their mission to defend the Eastern Roman Empire, which morphed into an armed pilgrimage to seize Jerusalem back from the Muslims, the crusaders were besieged at Antioch, by the atabeg of Mosul. They stormed out of the city and joined battle, inspired by the supposed finding of the lance which pierced Christ’s side on the Cross. As they fought the larger Turkish force, three soldier-saints led the crusaders to victory: Demetrius, Mercurius and George. George’s fame spread through the Christian west. When Edward III of England – who believed he was also rightful king of France – triumphed at Crécy in 1348, he founded an order of knights, with George as its patron, the Order of the Garter. From there, he became patron of England. George also subverted competition between devotion to the confessor-king, promoted by the government, and to the martyred archbishop, favoured by the king’s opponents. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury was a dissenters’ icon, until Henry VIII desecrated it in 1538. 

But there is more to it. We call Gregory the Great apostle to the English but, as his words show, the English did not yet exist in the 590s. Three Germanic peoples, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, inhabited a mosaic of territories, which emerged as seven kingdoms: Wessex, Sussex and Kent in the south; Essex and East Anglia in the east; Mercia in the Midlands; Northumbria in the north. Although Gregory thought he was sending a mission to the Angles, Augustine actually came to the Jutes, in Kent. England, a single nation uniting all three peoples and greater than all the various kingdoms, was invented by Bede, almost a century and a half later, in 731. Bede lived almost his whole life in a Northumbrian monastery at Jarrow, County Durham. He became the greatest western scripture scholar of his day. But, late in life, he turned to the history of his nation. He researched thoroughly, interviewing witnesses and copying primary sources from archives. Bede pieced together the story of Christianity in his land, and realised that Gregory’s mission had transformed disparate barbarian peoples into a single gens Anglorum, English nation. His great Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum tells this story, which began with Gregory’s meeting the Anglian slaves. 

But Gregory did not invent Catholicism and certainly did not found the Church which he implanted in this country. As pope he knew he followed in the footsteps of saints and martyrs, especially the martyrs of the great Roman persecutions, such as George. When Augustine discovered a shrine of doubtful authenticity somewhere in Britain, Gregory sent the relics of Pope Sixtus to replace it. This shows how Gregory built his mission on the foundation of the ancient Roman saints and martyrs. George and his brothers and sisters, fellow-martyrs, were with us from the very start. He stands out as a particular precursor. As a soldier-martyr, sworn to fight for the empire but dying for Christ, George could have said, with Thomas More, ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first’. Our English martyrs walked the path laid by Gregory, with George as its foundation. This path not only guided the English nation, but created it. 

Sancte Georgi, ora pro nobis.

Aloysius Atkinson, DPhil Medieval History, St John’s