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.