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52: St George's Day

St. George and his dragon are woven into the very fabric of London. You’ll find references to him all over town and so I thought that I would share with you some of the best St. George’s Day themed places in London which you can visit yourselves .

We discuss:

  • Who was St. George?
  • When is St. George’s Day?
  • Why is St. George’s Day on 23rd April?
  • How did St. George die?
  • Why is St. George the patron saint of England?
  • Why is St. George’s Day not a public holiday in England?
  • Did St. George ever come to England?
  • St. George churches in London

 

 

 

Related Blog Post:

 

Heraldry:

 

St George’s Day

Show Notes:

 

Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).

 

 

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

 

The 23rd April is St George’s Day, the patron saint of England.

In 2019 I was invited to talk about St George at the Feast of St George celebrations organised by the Mayor of London in Trafalgar Square but a dragon hunt for families but alas, for the second year in a row we aren’t able to celebrate together.

St George and his dragon are woven into the very fabric of London. You’ll find references to him all over town and so I thought that I would share with you some of the best St George’s Day themed places in London which you can visit yourselves and if you’re overseas, don’t worry, I have photos for you in the show notes.

First up: a little about the man himself, St George:

St George's Statue. Credit: Hazel Baker

St George’s Statue. Credit: Hazel Baker

Who was St. George?

George had followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a tribune and later a count. He became a member of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s personal guard.

 

When is St. George’s Day?

Today! 23 April has been dedicated to St George for the last 799 years, since the year 1222.

 

Why is St. George’s Day on 23rd April?

This is the day of his martyrdom, i.e. when he was killed for his beliefs.

 

How did St. George die?

In 303, Emperor Diocletian ordered the systematic persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire. Saint George was ordered to take part in the persecution, but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision. As news spread of his rebellion against the persecutions St. George realised that, as both Diocletian and Galerius were in the city, it would not be long before he was arrested. He prepared for the event by disposing of his property to the poor and he freed his slaves. Enraged, Diocletian ordered the torture and beheading of Saint George. He was beheaded in Nicomedia (an ancient city in what is now Turkey) on April 23, 303 A.D.

Christians soon honoured St. George as a martyr. A number of churches have been built in his honour in Lydda (a small Palestinian city, now known as Lod, which lies east of Tel Aviv), the home of his mother. His veneration spread throughout Palestine and the Roman Empire.

 

Why is St. George the patron saint of England?

Devotion to Saint George became popular in Europe in the c. 10th. He was a popular early Christian martyr elsewhere in Christendom and was the patron saint of soldiers. However, Saint George became the patron saint of England in the 15th century when in 1415 AD when Henry V won the battle of Agincourt  “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ said King Henry in Henry V by Shakespeare.

 

Why is St. George’s Day not a public holiday in England?

Good question! It used to be. St George’s Day was once celebrated in England as widely as Christmas. But it seems to have waned after England had united with Scotland on 1 May 1707. In recent times, there has been a push, involving campaigns and petitions, to make the day a public holiday in England as St David’s Day is in Scotland.

 

Did St. George ever come to England?

Short answer: no. He was the personal guard to Emperor Diocletian who never came to England.

Having a little dig around I think this question comes from is a song, originally a poem that now know as Jerusalem but actually called “And did those feet in ancient time” which was written by the Londoner poet, painter and printmaker William Blake (born in Soho and buried in Bunhill Fields) c.1808.

It wasn’t until 1916 when musician Hubert Parry, (born in Bournemouth, lived in Kensington) set the words to music. It was Sir Edward Elgar (born in Worcestershire, lived in Kensington) who did the orchestration. It’s often considered the unofficial national anthem for England.

If I sang it, you’d know it. It was played at the Royal Wedding in 2011 and is often sang at the last night of The Proms. I have added both YouTube clips to the show notes.

And if you want to know more about the history of The Proms and the Royal Albert Hall you can listen to Episode 17.

St. George is also patron saint of soldiers, archers, riders and saddlers, farmers and field workers and also helps those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis.

You may be surprised that there’s only one statue of St George in London and it’s not even that accessible as it’s on a traffic island in front of the neo classical Georgian St John’s Wood Church (where in 1969 Paul and Linda McCartney had their marriage blessings) and just across the way from Lord’s Cricket Ground.

It’s a familiar scene; a bronze mounted St George astride his rearing horse striking a dragon which seems to be desperately clinging to the base of the bronze.

It’s not a new statue, having been unveiled in 1930. By the sculptor C L Hartnell.

If you do wish to go and see it in person, the nearest stations are St John’s Wood and Marylebone

St George has associations with fortitude, courage and patriotism, based on the memorable story of him slaying a dragon. So it’s understandable why so many London pubs had been named in his honour. It seems though that St George has become unfashionable as many of the pubs have been renamed such as the Victorian pub and Dining Rooms of The George and the Dragon pub on St John’s Street, Clerkenwell, now named The Peasant, supposedly after the Peasants’ Revolt. The pub may be renamed but the beautiful white stone relief decorations with roundel bearing the figure of St George are still prominent on the outside. Inside it has some original internal pub fittings. There’s a decorative mosaic floor throughout, with the original pub name in the former lobby area. There’s a gorgeous coloured tiled panel on the left of the entrance showing St George slaying the dragon which was restored after WWII bomb damage.

 

St George the Martyr, SE1. Credit_Glenn Pearson, Getty Images

St George’s Square, London. Credit_ffolas, Getty Images

 

St. George churches in London

There are a handful of London churches dedicated to St George. One certainly worth a trip is St George-in-the-East. It’s a wonderful Grade I listed building in Limehouse built between 1714 and 1729 and is one of Hawksmoor’s six London churches. (Nicholas Hawksmoor was a leading English Baroque architect). It’s in a neo-classical  style with Palladian and Byzantine elements.

Hawksmoor’s original interior was destroyed by fire during the Blitz, but the walls and distinctive “pepper-pot” towers remain. In 1964 a modern church interior was constructed inside the existing walls, and a new flat built under each corner tower.

The architectural critic Ian Nairn wrote of St George-in-the-East

“A ruin among ruins, in the lost part of Stepney [after the Blitz, and before being blitzed by the Borough Council?] … The old life has gone … the new has not yet come … It makes no difference to Hawksmoor’s bizarre poetry. This is probably the hardest building to describe in London … This is a stage somewhere beyond fantasy … it is the more-than-real world of the drug addict’s dream.”

Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London (Harmondsworth, Middlesex.: Penguin, 1966), pp.161-2

The other St George London church is St George’s in Bloomsbury, one of the twelve new churches designed and paid for under the 1711 Act of Parliament for building Fifty New Churches, and the sixth and final London church designed by, none other than our friend Hawksmoor.

The church was surrounded by one of London’s most notorious slums of St Giles. William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751), clearly shows the easily identified spire of St George’s Bloomsbury, highlighting the evident squalor and despair that characterised the area.

In 1913, St George’s church was the setting for the funeral for Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse Anmer in the 1913 Epsom Derby.

The funeral was organised by the WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union  founded by Emmeline Pankhurst) with  6,000 women marchers, then brass bands played Chopin’s Funeral March. There was also a banner showing Joan of Arc, and three laurel wreaths placed on her coffin with the words “She died for Women”. One protester threw a brick at the coffin. The cortege moved on to King’s Cross Station and then to Morpeth for burial in the family grave.

 

 

The third and final London church I’d like to mention is St George’s in Hanover Square, Mayfair, another one of the 1711 Act of Parliament for building Fifty New Churches. This time, the architect chosen for the project was John James, one of Sir Christopher Wren’s assistants.

The most famous parishioner at St George’s Hanover Square was the composer George Frederick Handel in the early 1700s. I have attended many wonderful Handel-themed concerts here over the years thanks to Handel and Hendrix in London, soon to reopen I may add.

Many notable weddings have taken place here, including that of poet Shelley to Harriet Westbrook (1814), the politicians Benjamin Disraeli (1839) and future US president Theodore Roosevelt (1886).

Happily this church survived the Blitz and still has its original interior. You could argue that if Handel walked back in the church now most of it he would be familiar with.

Dragons are all over London, the obvious candidate is the City of London, but there are dragons across London including in the coats of arms of London boroughs of Brent, Bromley and Wandsworth.

The London Borough of Brent was formed by the amalgamation of the Borough of Wembley and the Borough of Willesden. Brent’s coat of arms shows a golden lion holding the shield as well as a blue dragon with rather funky red nails.

Bromley’s coat of arms was created in the 1960s when five councils merged. The coat of arms shows a white unicorn holding a shield with a white dragon.

Two dragons are featured in the coat of arms of Wandsworth. The first is a black dragon with outstretched wings with four red crosses on its underwing. It stands holding the shield with a blue dover, wings outstretched with 5 gold mullets on its underwing (mullet is heraldic terminology for stars) and a sprig of lavender in its mouth. The second dragon is less obvious as it’s a lot smaller and is the prow of the sailing ship.

But today we will be focussing on the dragons within the City of London, also known as the square mile.

The shield combines the cross of St George with the emblem of the City’s patron, St Paul, who, according to tradition, was martyred by being beheaded with that weapon.

It is therefore most likely that the City of London’s shield, from its combination of the Cross of St. George with the Sword of St. Paul, was intended to symbolise England and London, its capital; the first cathedral having been dedicated to St. Paul in 605AD. There is no record of any grant of arms ever having been made to the City. The shield was in use a hundred years before the incorporation of the College of Arms in 1483. It is, however, recognised as authentic by the College of Arms.

I have been told before there’s a story that the short Roman sword on the City’s shield represents the dagger with which Sir William Walworth, the Mayor, stabbed the rebel, Wat Tyler, in Smithfield, on June 15th, 1381. This is inconsistent with the fact that the arms were in use before Tyler’s death.

The origin of the crest and supporters is to be found in the sixteenth century, when in 1539, they first appeared on the new reverse of the Common Seal. At first the Crest consisted of a fanlike object, charged with the Cross of St. George, but by 1677, the fan had come to be mistaken for a dragon’s wing, and early in the seventeenth century the Corporation invented a pair of dragon supporters to match it.

The introduction of the Dragons, may also have been influenced by the legend of St. George, the City shield and that of St. George of England being the same, though the former has the Sword of St. Paul in addition to the Cross.

If you love the quirkiness of London then you’ll love my FREE guide to the Top 10 dragons in the City of London for you to to explore in your own time: Downloadable your Top 10 Dragons in the City of London here

Top 10 London Dragons
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