England, St. George, and the flag

The mayor of Genoa wrote to the queen recently, demanding the back rent on England’s flag, the St. George cross.

I’ll come back to that, but first let’s talk about the flag itself. It’s a red cross on a white field and if you’re not British you may be thinking of the wrong flag. This isn’t the red, white and blue one with crosses and Xs running every which way. That’s Britain’s flag. We’re talking about England’s.

Here’s how it works. England is a nation. Britain, however, is the country that the English nation’s part of. Think of England as a ping-pong ball. Now think of Britain as the fish tank someone threw the ball into at a fair. Someone who had good aim and won a stuffed goldfish and walked away happy, leaving England inside the British fish tank.

Irrelevant photo: Yeah, any serious blogger would show you a picture of the English flag. This isn’t a flag. It isn’t even England. It’s a stone circle in Scotland.

A week later, the someone looked at the goldfish, wondered why they thought it was worth winning, and dropped it off at a second-hand store (or since this is about Britain, a charity shop).

But the ping-pong ball stayed inside the fish tank. And it brought a flag with it. Also (the metaphor’s breaking down quickly) some of its own laws. The fish tank has a different flag, which incorporates the ping-pong ball’s flag, along with the flags of some of the other ping-pong balls that were thrown in. So the English ping-pong ball has two flags, its own and the fish tank’s.

Like the English ping-pong ball, the tank has a set laws, and they apply to all the ping-pong balls.

The point is not to confuse the ping-pong balls with the fish tank.

Did that clarify things?

I didn’t think it would, but I had to try because–and I have no excuse for this–I often read questions on Quora, and I’ve come to understand that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a ping-pong ball and a fish tank. Or between England and Britain. Or between a hole in the ground and a part of their anatomy that you’d think they’d have familiarized themselves with by the time they’re old enough to leave questions on a public website.

I used to not just read questions on Quora but answer them. I’ve pretty much stopped now because it was bringing out the worst in me. That’s not hard, but I don’t much like myself when I make fun of people publicly. At least, not after the first rush of damn-that-was-fun.

I’m not being snotty about people not knowing Britain from England, by the way. That’s just a lack of information. It’s the deeper ignorance that I’m talking about. But I am, as usual, off topic.

So, briefly, repetitiously, and more sensibly: Britain has a flag. That’s not the one we’re talking about. England also has a flag. So do Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall (which isn’t recognized as a ping-pong ball but has its own flag anyway; take that, England). Northern Ireland’s also part of Britain and it’s recognized as a nation but it doesn’t have its own flag because all hell would break loose if it tried to choose one. This symbolism stuff can turn ugly pretty easily.

To read a Greek immigrant’s explanation of the Northern Ireland flag situation, follow the link.

With that out of the way, let’s move on:

Genoa adoped St. George as its patron saint in 1190, during the Crusades, and with the saint came his flag. Why was that particular design his flag? Haven’t a clue and by now I doubt anyone else does either, although I expect it was clear at the time. Milan uses the same design but calls it St. Ambrose’s cross. If there really are saints, they’re probably up there arm wrestling over who owns the design.

Or laughing their immaterial asses off.

In the thirteenth century, the English (who weren’t yet British; the fish tank hadn’t been invented yet, never mind the ping-pong ball) adopted the flag from Genoa and, according to an article in the Week, agreed to pay for the privilege. It was “to be flown by its navy to deter enemies from attacking.”

The article doesn’t say why that particular design would deter enemies. Maybe because Genoa was a scarier naval power, but I’m guessing.

Wikipedia (when I last checked) called the Genoa connection a common belief in Victorian times but says it can’t be substantiated. It adds that Richard the Lionheart was supposed to be responsible for adopting the saint and his flag.

According to the Flag Institute (yes, there is such a thing–or at least a website that makes it look like there is), during the Reformation “all religious flags and other saint’s banners, except for St. George’s, were abolished. St. George’s flag had first been used as a maritime flag seven years earlier.”

It was the Flag Insitute–she said defensively–that put the apostrophe in the wrong place. It’s a quote, so I left it. Three points if you spotted the problem.

Those dates don’t match up with the quote from the Week, but let’s not agonize over it. It won’t be on the test. It argues for what Wikiwhatsia said, that it can’t be substantiated.

But England didn’t just buy–or rent–the rights to St. George’s flag, it got George himself as a patron saint. So let’s talk about who he was.

Legend says George was a Roman soldier, born in what’s now Turkey. According to an article in the Independent, “In 303 [the Roman emperor] Diocletian, as part of a crackdown on the growing influence of the Christian community, ordered that all Christian soldiers in the army should be expelled and all Roman soldiers be forced to make the traditional pagan sacrifice.

“St George refused and denounced the edict in front of his fellow soldiers, declaring he was a Christian.

“Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303.”

Legend has George slaying a dragon at some point–presumably before his death. It was feeding on townspeople. But freedom from dragons doesn’t come free: He’d only do it in if the entire town converted to Christianity.

Nothing in legend connects George to England, but in 1327 Edward III made him the country’s official saint anyway. The beliefs of the time didn’t demand that a patron saint have anything to do with the country that drafted him. He had to embody the country’s characteristics–or to be more accurate about it, the characteristics it wanted to think it had. Or wanted its enemies and possibly even friends to think it had.

There was no practical way for the saints to be consulted about this. They didn’t get to say, “No, I don’t like this country–its topography offends me, its language is too complicated for me to learn, and if that isn’t enough they eat fish and chips and back when I was alive I hated fish.”

They got drafted, and if people prayed to them in a language that was too complicated for them to learn, that was the people’s problem. They prayed for rain and their warts disappeared.

It explains a lot.

So St. George got landed with not just England but also Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia, and Lithuania. And, of course, Genoa. I don’t think any of the other countries thought they had to rent him from Genoa and why England started that arrangement I don’t know.

I haven’t been able to untangle what flags–if any–all those other places consider to be St. George’s, but I do know that if you google St. George, flag, and Lithuania (I chose Lithuania because it was at the end of the list, not knowing that my fingers don’t like the sequence of the letters), you come up with lots of flag images, the red cross on a white background being only one of them.

What was George expected to do if two of his countries or territories went to war with each other? Intervene on both sides? Pull the covers over his head and weep for humanity? I’m no a expert on religion. In fact, I’m not religious and my lack of religion doesn’t even from this particular religion, so I won’t try to answer. All I can do is raise awkward questions.  

But back to that agreement about the saint and the flag: For years, England paid Genoa for the use of the flag, but it stopped when Genoa was occupied by Austria in 1746. And now, after all those years, Genoa’s mayor is making a claim for unpaid rent, writing to the queen, “Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books [it] looks like you didn’t pay for the last 247 years,” He is, apparently, digging through the archives to figure out how much that comes to.

“That means we are owed over 250 years of back payments,” he wrote, before admitting he was only “half serious”.

“Instead of cash, we could ask England to restore one of our old palaces or make a donation to charity.”

Why is he claiming both 247 years’ worth of payments and over 250 years’ worth? Especially when 1746 was neither 247 or 250 years ago? I can’t answer that. Maybe he sat, dazed, though the same math classes that I did, with roughly equivalent results. I’m in no position to criticize.

What happens if England doesn’t pay up? Genoa isn’t likely to declare war, and if some court has authority over a medieval agreement that can’t be verified, I’m not sure which one it would be. Some European Union court, maybe, but Genoa had better hurry.

How do people read the symbolism of a saint’s cross in the modern world? Most people, I suspect, don’t think about saints when they see it. England’s pretty relaxed about religion.

Personally, I find it a bit weird to live surrounded by flags with religious origins. I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist. I don’t think about either of those things daily, but they set me apart in both predictable and surprising ways. Cornwall’s flag is St. Piran’s cross–white on a black background. I tend to see a symbol of Cornwall, but it is a cross and I can’t not see it as a cross. British history’s bound up with Christianity, with all its symbols and its wars and its beliefs. I accept that. What else could I do with it? It’s not as if it would change if I didn’t. But it reminds me regularly that I’m an outsider here.

The St. George flag doesn’t get much official use these days. Sports fans backing an English team use it some but, awkwardly, the English ultra-right and neo-nazis have adopted it as their emblem, so when you see it displayed you can’t tell if you’re looking at a sports fan or a nazi.

There are, mercifully, more sports fans in the country than neo-nazis and unless the context is clear, I tend to assume sports fan. Still, it’s not something you–or at least I–can put out of your (or my) mind.

The queen may well decide to skip the payment.

86 thoughts on “England, St. George, and the flag

  1. Genoa was a big naval power in the Middle Ages. The Genoese were also mercenaries. The French hired their war galleys and their crossbowmen during the Hundred Years War. England was not a naval power at all, but still managed to win a decisive battle at sea.

    I’m surprised the mayor of Genoa is even half-serious.

    I missed the apostrophe until you pointed it out. I’m ashamed.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The same guy does wonderful explanations of inexplicable things like the relationships of all the parts of the former British Empire or the American Electoral College. Even simple things like the UK. (I once sent something to someone who wrote her address as being in England, reasonably enough, since she lives in the south of England. The clerk at the post office told me it could be mailed because there is no England! I protested, saying the person the package was going to would beg to differ as she sent it from her town in England. Finally, we settled on Great Britain, which the postal computer recognized as “real”. Geez! There is a general poor understanding of geography in this country. Any idiot would know if the computer didn’t recognize England, try Great Britain or United Kingdom, nit the same, of course, but inclusive of England.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Having multiple and overlapping names for a country / nation / whatever does complicate things. I spent quite a bit of time when I first moved here scrolling through drop-down menus and trying to figure out where I lived. The post office, though, I’d expect to know.


          • That particular clerk always gives me attitude. I’m surprised, though, that the postal computer doesn’t allow the patron to use England as a destination. Presumably, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, possibly Isle of Man, Guernsey, (though their relationship to UK is more complicated) etc. are nonexistent to the postal computer, too.

            Liked by 1 person

              • Unfortunately. All I can say is I’m lucky to be retired so I can work out issues in one sitting. Spreading it over two or more, it would involve too much memorizing as to what had been done for this old guy!


              • I’m still working on this one. I got it to the point the posts are transferring to Facebook, which is good, but the process isn’t consistent or predictable like it should be.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Didn’t WP just send out an email about posts no longer transferring to FB automatically? I think mine still are–I should check but will probably forget.

                Oh, hell, have a cup of tea / coffee (beer if necessary or advisable) and worry about something else.


              • Yes it did, and I went through some hoops to get the miserable thing to work again. Facebook forced me to make a new page, for example, so the posts go to “Andy and Dougy the Persian Kitty Boys”. I’ve been intending to create a cat-exclusive place, and now I have it. Other stuff will go on “Doug G. Thomas”, where my posts used to go. I hate computers and social media! What time wasters!

                Liked by 1 person

  2. I for the most part use the English flag as a signal of who to avoid talking to during the world cup / other major sportball event, also for avoiding Nazis which is preferable to unknowingly talking to one about a sport thing (or anything else).

    I have not met anyone else who has even heard of Quora… I mostly read on there, I have answered a couple of questions but generally I decide they are not looking for sarcasm so I don’t…

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a damn shame they’re not looking for sarcasm, because so many of the questions just scream out for it. Sad world we live in.

      I recently had my ankle taped up by a physiotherapist with union jack tape–I assume in response to the World Cup. It looked–um. Well, it was eye catching. Then it got wet and all fell off and I retaped it using that white stuff, which is also eye catching but needs less explanation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t think the Queen is given to uttering expletives but I can imagine Philip telling them where they can stuff their request. We would be in major difficulties ( as if we aren’t in enough trouble as it is) if we had to give back everything we’ve taken over the centuries. Considering the amount of money we pour in to some of these places I think we’ve more than paid back for past demeanours and should be given amnesty. Now back off people and cut us some slack!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pretty sure, on the basis of no research (it’s 8 a.m. and I’m not in research mode–hell, I’m still in my bathrobe) that we (a) haven’t given that much (foreign aid, if that’s what we’re talking about, is a surprisingly small portion of the US budget) and (b) have given back far less than we’ve taken. But never mind. Maybe England should give back something symbolic. Like one of the twenty thigh bones of some multi-legged saint. I’m sure it’d be appreciated. I just read that one of the Italy’s governing parties wants the crucifix displayed in public spaces. (Is that all public spaces? Where does it stop?) That might make a spare thigh bone timely.


  4. I never did like apostrophes. The rules were complicated. Especially with the word it. The rules if it violated the rules of the other words. Some folks believe apostrophe use with eventually disappear and I say none to soon. So I give up. I don’t see what is misplaced with the use of the apostrophe. And don’t tell me. I just don’t want to know. I didn’t want to know I’m the ninth grade when I was supposed to learn the proper usage I am not interested now.

    I am familiar with England’s flag. I never knew it used a religious symbol. I just thought back in the Middle Ages they liked to draw pictures of dragons.

    Seems to me this is another example of European countries not paying their bills. As President Trump has pointed out. I think the queen should negotiate a final settlement and and the agreement cancelled with all accounts agreed paid in full. That would be a symbol of good will. Don’t tell me that is a religious symbol. The payment should be symbolic as suggested by the mayor. Another symbol. They are everywhere. Restoring a castle seems like a good worthwhile project. Or maybe constructing s monument to St. George, as a symbol of . . . Well, never mind.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Apostrophes? They’re all that stand between us and chaos. And you want to take them away and send them off to Italy as a gesture of goodwill or religioius symbolism or another attempt by the English language to take over the world? C’mon. Italy would immediately feel obliged to respond in kind and send a bunch of accent marks that we’d be so baffled by that we’d just stuff them into the language randomly. Please, don’t open that door.

      And not only won’t I tell you where the misplaced apostrophe is, I don’t remember. And don’t have whatever it takes to go back and look. It’s early morning. I’m tired. And it won’t help either of us. I’m just sure of that.

      On those same grounds (and because there isn’t enough time in the world) I’ll skip fact-checking the Trump reference. I know you’ll understand.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That St. George sure was a popular guy! I did not know that Cornwall had its own flag but that Northern Ireland did not… will have to go read that linked post now. :)

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I followed your link to the Northern Ireland article. The Ulster flag, pictured there, has a Star of David in the middle of it. How did that get there ?

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’ve got a better eye than I do, because I missed that. I just googled the flag and you are (as you already know) right: It does. That also means it’s not that she pulled up an image of some other flag. That does really seem to be the right one.

      The official answer is I don’t know. I do know, from my years of trying to draw stars in elementary school, that six-pointed stars are a hell of a lot easier to draw than five-pointed ones, but I expect that when they designed the thing they had access to better artists than I am, and especially than I was at about ten. So we can rule that out as a reason. Maybe it had some other associations at the time it was designed. It’s an intriguing question that I’ll keep on my messy and disorganized list of topics to research. A lot of them end up going nowhere–either I can’t find enough information or I find some and can’t be even mildly amusing about it. But I’ll give it a try. Thanks for asking.


      • Apparently the six pointed star represents the six counties. I guess there are a limited number of geometric shapes. I hadn’t really thought about crises as being Christian (doh!) before I read this article. Totally desensitised to it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • My answer starts with the assumption that “crises” is predictive-text-speak for “crosses.” (Isn’t predictive text wonderful?) Assumng that’s right, yes, I think that happens a lot around here: people live so surrounded by the symbols of a religion that’s lost much of its power and intensity that they’ve stopped seeing them. As an outsider–and not a Christian one–I can’t help seeing them, and a part of me is still, in a very small way, shocked. That the history of a country’s religion is visible isn’t what throws me. That the religion is wound so deeply into public and political life probably always will.

          The star representing the six counties makes sense. Thanks for that.


  7. Pingback: England, St. George, and the flag ~ Ellen Hawley | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  8. If Her Majesty agrees to pony up a few Pounds, have her send some my way, St. George was the patron saint of my grandmother’s church. Everything in life that was good, including her family’s survival in the “old country” was attributed to him. If she’d rather support a project, we’re working hard on the garage this year…just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We should just ban flags. All they do is make trouble. We should also get rid of pledges of allegiance and as a matter of fact, all those national lines on maps that don’t mean anything anyway. But since that’s not happening, I prefer baseball. Three strikes and you are OUT.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have a serious sports allergy, but in spite of that I can see your point. For a while here, though, bunches of guys were using football (for which read soccer) matches as an excuse to get into brawls with supporters of the opposing team. So we’ll need to ban sports matches too. This is going to be tough. Where do we stop?

      Interestingly enough, I don’t think Britain has any equivalent for the pledge of allegiance. It does have a perfectly dismal national anthem, but that’s another story.


  10. This all gets too bizarre for me. Meanwhile I’m living in an area where they drive their pickups with a “don’t tread on me” flag. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but things here have gotten a tad weird since the 2016 election.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: England’s lost patron saint | Notes from the U.K.

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