England’s lost patron saint

The world of patron saints is a murky one. Job descriptions are hazy, the hiring process is opaque, job security’s nonexistent, and conflicts of interest are so much a part of the system that it’ll take a revolution to get rid of them. Take England’s patron saint, George–or St. George as he prefers to be known. As well as being the patron saint of England, he’s also the patron saint of  Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia (which is named after him), Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia. And Genoa. England more or less rented him from Genoa.

You can read about St. George, rent, and Genoa here

But as happens so often on this cloudy island, the story isn’t that simple, because England had an earlier patron saint, Edmund.

Edmund started his career as the king of East Anglia at a time when England didn’t exist yet. The space it now fills was occupied by a collection of small and usually warring kingdoms. If you’re used to kingdoms being the size of–oh, let’s randomly choose England as an example, then you can think of him as a kinglet, but he wouldn’t have appreciated the description. He was a king, thanks, and we can all just take that seriously.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion (or possibly one of a few thousand flowers in Britain that look like dandelions but aren’t), doing its bit to help its species take over the world.

Edmund was born in 841 C.E. (in old-school reckoning, that’s 841 A.D.) and became king in 856 when he would’ve been–oh, good lord–all of fifteen. He was a Christian and fought with King Alfred of Wessex against the non-Christian Vikings and Norse–or as the Historic UK website puts it, “against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army).”

Thanks, guys. I appreciate an even-handed approach to history.

What am I complaining about? They were invaders–I can’t argue that, although the Angles themselves had invaded Celtic land not long before. It’s the “pagan” and “heathen” that make me want to tip the sentence into the recycling bin. Both are Christian words meaning, give or take a shred of exaggeration on my part, ignorant savages who don’t share our religion and who we don’t have to think of as fully human.

Even my description of them as non-Christian uses Christian as the default setting, which is both biased and historically inaccurate, but I’m not sure what else to call them and I’ve already spent two paragraphs on it, so let’s leave the word where it is. I’m not sure what else would work.

Before we turn to another source for balance, I just have to quote the interfering pop-up box that appears on Historic UK’s website, inviting the world at large to “get to know us a little better by following our occasionally entertaining musings on Facebook.”

Thanks, guys, but I’ll pass. Back when I worked as an editor, I read enough letters introducing unsolicited articles to know that when someone tells you their writing is amusing, it isn’t. If anyone had said it was occasionally amusing, I’d have slit my wrists. The people whose work is genuinely funny? They write something funny. Then they get out of the way.

But back to our search for balance: A Wikipedia entry says that very little is known about Edmund’s life, because the Vikings devastated his kingdom and few records survived. His date of birth is guesswork, and so is the identity of his father, who may have been an East Anglian king and may have been a Germanic one.

So take your pick on any of the detail, because chroniclers of his life wrote with a free hand and a fair bit of imagination. Some have him born on December 25. Others have him crowned on December 25. Both were happy coincidences, no doubt. He was, of course, a model king in all possible ways, except for the minor problem of him having been defeated by the Vikings. 

His ally King Alfred was, presumably, also defeated, but the focus is on Ed, who was captured and told he’d have to renounce his religion and share power with the Vikings. When he refused, he was killed. Which is why he’s also called Edmund the Martyr.

As the story was told some hundred years later, he was beaten and tied to a tree and shot full of arrows and then (just to make sure) beheaded, but his head was reunited with his body with the help of a talking wolf, who called out to Edmund’s followers, saying, “Hic, hic, hic,” which is Latin for here, here, here.

Why did the wolf speak Latin, not whatever the Angles called their language? (A brief interruption: We call their language Old English, but they wouldn’t have called it that any more than the Vikings would’ve called themselves heathens and pagans. It’s not loaded, like heathen and pagan, just a bit later-day hindsighted. End of interruption and back to our question, which was why the wolf spoke Latin.)

Because Latin was the language of the church and this was a Christian wolf.

Or else it was a wolf with hiccups.

I can’t confirm this, but I seem to remember that being buried whole was important in the Christian belief system of the time: On Judgment Day, Christians would rise from their graves and be physically resurrected. Being resurrected headless could be awkward.

Tradition holds that Edmund was killed by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba (or Ubbe; you can take your pick here too; this was long before anyone fussed over spelling).

No, I did not invent Ivar the Boneless. I wish I had the kind of mind that could. Ivar the Boneless was a real person, a Viking (or Norse, or Danish–I’m not sure how different those were at the time) warrior who led the invading army that Christian chroniclers called the Great Heathen Army. He was reported to be tall enough to dwarf his contemporaries and to be both powerful and ruthless.

Why was he called the boneless? There’s lots of speculation about this and no agreement. Contemporary theories run the spectrum from great flexibility to impotence.

In the 1980s, Martin and Birthe Biddle discovered the skeleton of a Viking warrior who they believe was Ivar the Boneless. This was in Repton and the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok does say that Ivar was buried in England, so it’s not out of the question. If the Biddles are right, it would lead us to believe that Ivar the Boneless did have bones.

A seventeenth-century excavation of the same site claims to have discovered the body of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. Or, depending on which source you like, the Biddles found the skeleton of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. I’m a little skeptical that nine-foot-tall humans ever lumbered across the earth, but at five foot not very much, what do I know about being very tall? I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole big enough to bury him in.

Are you getting the sense yet that some of the sources we’re working with here are less than entirely reliable?

Let’s leave Ivar’s body in peace and talk about Edmund’s, which was not left in peace. What was left of it after a few hundred years (and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they got the right set of bones) was moved in 902 and reburied in, handily, Bury St. Edmunds, which was then known as Bedricsworth. King Athelstan founded a religious community on the site, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. English kings patronized the abbey, the cult of St. Edmund grew, and everyone involved became wealthy.

Or some did, anyway, the abbey among them.

Bury St. Edmunds is named after Edmund but, to my disappointment, the bury part of the name doesn’t come from him having been buried there. It comes from the same root word as burg, by way of the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe before they became a British one, and who brought their language with them, as people do. It means city, fortress, castle, that kind of thing.

I haven’t found a date for when Ed became England’s patron saint. In fact, I can’t find an exact date for when England became England, so let’s dance away from that and hope no one notices. What I can tell you is that his cult continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066, adding a bit of weight to my belief that when you conquer a place, in one way or another it also conquers you. As that reputable site Historic UK tells the tale, “Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St. Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law.’ ”

When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, Edmund’s remains–and by then there couldn’t have been much left–were moved to France.

Or possibly not. The BBC says simply that they disappeared. It also says that one version of Edmund’s death has him hiding under a bridge when the Vikings found him. Which sort of lacks glory. The other sites don’t mention it.

Then in 1199, Richard I got bored with Edmund. He visited a shrine to St. George during the Third Crusade, went on to win a battle, and adopted George as his patron saint, renting his banner from Genoa.

Genoa got consulted about this. George and Edmund did not. Saints don’t get any say about who adopts them. They just get stuck with these annoying little beings, always wheedling: Can I have a victory, or rain, or sun, or a trip to the movies? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. And just when it looks like the saints have gotten their humans settled down to watch the show, they start whining for candy, popcorn, ice cream, fizzy drinks. It’s endless.

And after all that, the humans abandon their original saint and dedicate themselves to some new one who just happens to sashay past at the right time, loaded down with goodies. What ungrateful wretches humans are.

And what does the ex-patron saint do? I’m no religious scholar, but If I believed in saints, patron or otherwise, I’d think long and hard before I worked up the nerve to abandon one. 

In 2006, a petition asked the government to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint. (England’s government and the Anglican Church are still intertwined, so that would be a governmental decision.) The campaign failed and in 2013 another campaign asked for the same thing. You’ll understand how deeply religious the impulse was when I tell you that the second campaign was backed by a brewery based in Bury St. Edmund.

It also failed, but Edmund did become the patron saint of the Suffolk County Council.

How are the mighty fallen. I’m not sure who I’m quoting–or misquoting–there, but it’s somebody famous. When in doubt, claim it was Shakespeare.

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.