St George and The Bard

April 23rd marks an important date in the calendar for England, namely St George’s Day and the considered birth date of William Shakespeare. It is coincidence that they fall on the same date but somewhat significant too.

St George was an early Christian martyr who died on April 23 in 303 AD. Stories depict him as a Roman soldier who slew a dragon while rescuing a Libyan king's daughter. He was however tortured and ultimately killed in what was then known as Palestine during the Diocletianic Persecution — the most severe purge of Christians in the Roman Empire — when he refused to renounce his faith. The story goes that St George rode into Silene (modern day Libya) to free the city from a dragon who had a taste for humans, but it is a story which post-dates the real George by several centuries. The story was developed and popularised in the Middle Ages in a compendium of stories about the lives of saints called The Golden Legend.

Although George is often depicted in popular culture as a knight in shining armour, the truth is less whimsical. Whilst St George was depicted from the 11th century as a chivalric knight or a warrior on horseback, it is more likely that he was an officer in the Roman army. Legends about him started circulating in the 6th century and were likely boosted by returning knights during the Crusades. He is believed to have been recognised as England's patron saint by King Edward III in the 14th century - despite George never setting foot in the country. St George is also the patron saint of other nations and regions, such as in Portugal and Spain. Countries including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, and Serbia also celebrate him.

The Order of the Garter (founded by Edward III in 1348) is the highest order of chivalry in the country and Queen Elizabeth II is at the helm as Sovereign of the Garter. To this day St George’s cross still appears on the Garter badge and his image is the pendant of the Garter chain. In 1940 King George VI created a new award for acts of the greatest heroism or courage in circumstance of extreme danger. The George Cross, named after the king, bears the image of St George vanquishing the dragon. The image of St George also adorns many of the memorials built to honour those killed during World War One.

St George's death also coincides with the birth and death of William Shakespeare, who is regarded by some as one of the greatest Britons to have ever lived. Shakespeare's actual birth date is not known for certain, but he is recorded as having been baptised on April 26, 1564. At the time, baptisms were usually performed three days after birth.

If the date did not tie them together enough, the playwright also mentioned St George in 'Henry V'. Shakespeare has the monarch rallying his troops ahead of the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War by saying:

"I see you standing like greyhounds in the slip,

Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

Shakespeare is widely believed to have used the revised edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles as the source for most of his history plays and the plot for Macbeth. The Chronicles is a piece of collaborative work published in several volumes, a large, comprehensive description of British history. Shakespeare was hugely impressed with the valour attributed to characters in history.

So on this day, drenched in history and with a strong focus on courage in the face of danger, we reflect on the valour demonstrated by so many people in the fight against Coronavirus; people who encapsulate the commitment and selflessness with which St George is portrayed and Shakespeare was so impressed. From King Richard III, we read:

“Advance our standards, set upon our foes;

Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,

Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!”

 

And from his Henry VI, we read:

“Be brave, then, for your captain is brave, and vows reformation!”

 

But perhaps one of his most apt references to bravery and valour in these current times is the quote from Cymbeline:

“Boldness be my friend