GALLANT SOLDIER: St George of Lyddah depicted slaying a dragon
EVERY YEAR on April 23, Englishmen and women come together to celebrate England’s patron saint.
Across the country, communities will gather to wave or raise the red and white flag of St George.
Since the 14th Century, when George replaced Edward the Confessor as England’s patron saint, he has symbolised national ideals of honour and bravery.
But a poll from think tank British Future found that just 61 per cent of people feel pride in the St George’s Flag, with a quarter thinking it holds ‘racist’ connotations.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, once called for St George’s Day to become a public holiday, advocating it has the potential to promote unity in England.
Perhaps he was on to something, as not only was St George not English, but a growing number of scholars say they have reason to believe that this great Christian soldier was, in fact, black.
But little is said about his connections to Africa, in particular Ethiopia – the oldest Christian country in the world – where St George is one of the most important saints.
Mark Simpson, co-founder of Black History Studies, told The Voice: “The figure, the bravery and the flag of St George has been claimed by certain right wing English groups as the foundation of what it means to be English but, contrary to popular belief, St George was not English.
“At the time when St George lived the ‘English’ identity did not exist. It was in the 5th Century AD that Anglo Saxons crossed over to England and at the time were speaking German, which later evolved into the ‘English’ language. So why is this important? The story of St George is important because it shows how history can be distorted and will continue to be distorted unless it is challenged.”
The small town of Lalibela, Ethiopia, is home to one of the world’s most sacred Christian sites – 11 rock-hewn churches, each carved entirely out of a single block of granite with its roof at ground level.
The most spectacular is Bet Giorgis (St George’s). Cut 40 feet down and a roof that forms the shape of a cross, Bet Giorgis is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, and is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.
St George was born in the 3rd Century to Palestinian Christian parents, in Cappadocia, an area now in Turkey. After his father died, George’s mother returned to Palestine, taking him with her.
Once settled, George followed the path of young noblemen and enlisted as a cavalry soldier in the Roman army of Emperor Diocletian.
Despite only being 17, he became a high-ranking officer due to his skills as a soldier and horseman. However, while serving in the army, the reigning pagan emperor Diocletian (245-313 AD) began a hate campaign against Christians.
Staying true to his Christian faith, George resigned from the military in protest. He tore up the Emperor’s order against Christians, which resulted in him being imprisoned and tortured but he refused to change his perceptions or his faith.
Eventually, he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis, now Lydda in Palestine, and beheaded.
Since then, George’s bravery and dedication has touched the hearts of millions of Christians around the world. As well as England, he is the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia (Spain), Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice.
George is also regarded as a patron saint for soldiers, archers, cavalry, farmers, field workers, riders, saddlers, and in recent years, scouts.
Due to St George’s bravery, paintings of him were taken into numerous battles ahead of the Ethiopian army, with the belief it would give them victory which it did.
In 1896, a cathedral was built as a token of thanks to the saint, whose relic was carried to the Battle of Adwa, a conflict fought against invading Italians. The Ethiopians won the battle which is the only time an African army defeated Europeans in a major encounter.
In 1930, this holy place was the site of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, who is the focus of Rastafarian devotion.
The church is a place of pilgrimage for Rastafarians all over the world to this day.
The Imperial flag of Ethiopia has green, yellow, and red horizontal stripes of equal size with a gold lion marching east, carrying a cross and wearing the Imperial Ethiopian crown. On the Imperial Standard flag there is an image of St George slaying the dragon on one side.
This flag is only shown at royal occasions, such as the funeral of Emperor Selassie, or for military purposes.
Simpson added: “St George is as important to Ethiopians as he is to English people, because they both regard him as an important saint. And not just Ethiopia and England, but many countries around the world have St George as their number one saint.
“The question is, if the St George story has been distorted, how many other parts of history that are important to black people have been distorted? Knowledge is power, people.”
So having learned the truth about our patron saint, perhaps black Britons no longer need to feel disconnected from St George’s Day and its traditions, but approach it with a new sense of pride and understanding.