We're a bit squeamish when it comes to flying the flag, unless it's to support our cricket, rugby or footie team. So on St George's Day most people will go about their work uninterupted by riotous celebrations or even the jingle of a morris dancers bell! According to this morning's news the English are more likely to celebrate Bonfire Night (fireworks, jacket potatoes, toffee) or St Patrick's Day (Irish Stew and Colcannon on the specials board and pint of Guiness at the local) than to celebrate St George's Day.
So I went in search of St George and found him, a short stroll from my studio, on a carved bench end in the village church. This 15th century St George is dressed in his best jousting gear and has overturned a large fat dragon who writhes with its tail tied in a knot – it was probably once painted in vivid colours with the jousting shield displaying the red cross of St George and the dragon a lizardy green.
When it was carved the battle of Agincourt, after which St George became England's patron saint, was within living memory. Over a hundred year's later Shakespeare (Happy Birthday, Will!) wrote Henry V's battle cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'. On January 6th 1643 this St George witnessed William Dowsing, the 'Commissioner for the Destruction of Monuments of Idolatry and Superstition', and his men enter the building and smash statues and stained glass windows. What else has it witnessed? weddings; funerals; countless long sermons; harvest festivals; Christmas carols; village gossip; quiet thoughts . . .
I wonder who carved this St George? I hope they enjoyed carving the details on the armour and that wonderful dragon.
This year, to honour St George's Day, English Heritage commissioned a new poem from Brian Patten who is proudly from Liverpool – European Capital of Culture 2008. (Probably best imagined read in Brian's Merseyside accent.)
The True Dragon
St George was out walking
He met a dragon on a hill,
It was wise and wonderful
Too glorious to kill
It slept amongst the wild thyme
Where the oxlips and violets grow
Its skin was a luminous fire
That made the English landscape glow
Its tears were England’s crystal rivers
Its breath the mist on England’s moors
Its larder was England’s orchards,
Its house was without doors
St George was in awe of it
It was a thing apart
He hid the sleeping dragon
Inside every English heart
So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight
Let’s celebrate St George’s Day,
The dragon in repose;
The brilliant lark ascending,
The yew, the oak, the rose