It’s St George’s Day today. You may have noticed a few cars recycling last year’s England World Cup flags. More likely, you’ll have seen one of the usual articles in the papers or on the web, in which various people call for the English to make more of their saint’s day. It usually involves them saying something along the lines of “the Scots, Irish and Welsh make a big deal of theirs, so why not us?”
Don’t get me wrong. I like to think of myself as a patriotic Englishman, but I just can’t get excited about St George, mainly because he seems to have had nothing to do with this country. His cult was brought back to Britain in the later medieval period by Crusaders. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the two British patron saints whose feast days are celebrated widely (St Patrick and St David) are the two who can be shown to have played a major part in their country’s history (or adopted country, Patrick having been born in Wales, by all accounts). Also, they generally restricted themselves to all-round good acts, rather than any dragon-slaying nonsense.
With that in mind, I’d prefer England’s patron saint to be along the same lines. There’s no shortage of candidates, from Roman era martyr St Alban to Thomas a Becket (probably a bit too politically sensitive, even now). It’s those in-between I’d look at, all those Anglo-Saxon saints who seem to be forgotten nowadays. St Guthlac, who retreated to the island of Crowland in the Fens and spent years battling demons; St Swithin, whose association with weather forecasting surely qualifies him uniquely to be the patron saint of the English; St Wilfrid, champion of the Roman church (again, maybe a bit politically sensitive); St Boniface, missionary to the Germans; St Bede, no longer merely Venerable, and the first great writer in what is now a worldwide language; St Edmund, martyred by the Danes, and England’s original, pre-Conquest patron saint; and St Cuthbert, who combined immense pragmatism with an ascetic impulse that made him England’s first documented nature-lover (sea otters were always drying his feet, while equally helpful ravens brought him lumps of fat to waterproof his shoes with).
My own preference? The latter, I think, a view that would probably be shared by most in north-east-England, where ‘Cuddy’ is still widely revered. The only problem is that his feast day, March 20, is a bit too close to St Patrick and Easter, but I’m sure we could get around that. But what does everyone else think?
And to close, a great patron saint joke.
Q. What did St Patrick say when he drove the snakes out of Ireland?
A. Alright in the back there, lads?