Our very own Saint George….

I have always assumed a country’s patron saint would be native to that land – or at the very least would have spent part of their life living there…. However, this is not necessarily true; indeed our very own Saint George never even set foot on English soil…. In fact, I say ‘our own’ – but to be correct it has to be pointed out that we actually share him with many other countries, cities and organisations…. George is also patron saint of lands and places such as Beirut, Malta, Portugal, Ethiopia, Georgia, Catalonia, Serbia, Lithuania, Venice, Palestine and the City of Moscow. He is the patron saint of soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry….farmers, riders and more recently scouts. He is believed to help those suffering from plague, leprosy and syphilis….

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Carlo Crivelli : Saint George – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is thought George was born in Cappadocia – (now part of modern-day Turkey) – around 280 AD, in to a wealthy Christian family. His father was a soldier and it was after his death that George’s mother moved the family back to her native Palestine…. George grew up and followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a soldier, serving as an officer in the Guard of Roman Emperor Diocletian….

In 303 AD Diocletian ordered the systematic persecution of Christians; George refused to take part and also refused to renounce his own Christianity…. Some believe that initially Diocletian tried to persuade George to convert by offering him land and wealth – when this method failed he gave orders for George to be tortured. It is said he was forced to swallow poison, was crushed between spiked wheels and boiled in molten lead…. each time his wounds healed overnight – the work of God…. George was told if he offered a sacrifice to the Roman gods his life would be spared. A crowd gathered to witness him doing so – but in front of all the onlookers he prayed to the Lord instead…. A great flash of fire came from Heaven, an earthquake shook the ground, buildings and temples collapsed…. The sign was taken that God wished George to die for his faith….and so he was beheaded at Lydda, Palestine on 23rd April 303 AD; he died the death of a Christian martyr. Some say Diocletian’s own wife was so impressed by the resolve of George that she converted to Christianity….only to be beheaded herself….

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Saint George of Lydda Image credit: Roman Zacharij via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain CC BY-SA 3.0.

Upon canonising St. George in 494 AD Pope Gelasius I apparently remarked of him…. “Whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are only known to God”….

The earliest known reference to St. George was the account by St. Adamnan, Abbott of Iona in the 7th Century. He had heard the story from a French bishop who had travelled to Jerusalem. It was during the Crusades of the 10th and 11th Centuries that returning soldiers brought back with them stories they had learned from the Eastern Orthodox Church – and so St. George’s reputation grew…. But it wasn’t until 1483 that the tale became really well-known, when Caxton printed it in a book called The Golden Legend – a translation of French bishop Jacques de Voragine’s work, telling of the lives of saints….

Stories during the Middle Ages centred very much around the beliefs of the time – tales were embroidered with myth – such as the legend of Saint George and the Dragon….

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Saint George Slaying the Dragon. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France. Public domain CC-BY-2.0.

A city in Libya, possibly Silene, had on its outskirts a small lake, inhabited by a plague infected dragon…. The creature was terrorising the city, killing many of the people…. To try to keep the dragon appeased the city dwellers began to feed it with two sheep a day….but it wasn’t long before the supply of livestock ran dry. The King devised a lottery scheme so that local children were chosen and fed to the dragon…..then one day his own daughter’s name was drawn…. At first the King tried to bargain for her life – but the people were having none of it as so many of their own children had already been sacrificed…. It was as she was being led to the lake that George rode by and encountered the fair maiden and he enquired as to what was happening. The maiden begged him to carry on his way as the dragon would surely kill him too…. As they talked the creature suddenly came charging towards them; George leapt upon his horse and drew his sword and smote a cross into the dragon’s flesh – he then speared the beast and threw it to the ground…. He told the maiden to take her garter and fasten it around the creature’s neck and when she had done so it became meek and followed her back to the city…. At first the people panicked but George told them not to be afraid; he promised that if they were to believe in God and become baptised he would slay the dragon. The King was first to do so, followed by all his people….George killed the dragon; it was then dragged from the city to the fields, needing four ox carts in order to do so…. The King built a church at the site where the creature was slain and a fountain sprang up – giving healing water for those who were sick….

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The earliest church known in England to be dedicated to St. George is in Fordington, Dorset….and in 1222 the Council of Oxford named April 23rd as St. George’s Day…. But it was King Edward III who really set the ball rolling on the path to him becoming our patron saint….

When in 1327 Edward III came to the throne, after the disastrous reign of his father, he needed to make England strong and powerful once again; with his bravery, honour and gallantry St. George was an ideal image to portray this…. Around 1348 Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, our system of knighthoods and honours; he made it under the patronage of St. George…. Since the 14th Century St. George has been seen as a ‘Protector of the English’; he became adopted by us as one of our own…. Soldiers once wore white tunics with the Red Cross of St. George on the front and back….the flag became incorporated in the Union Jack….

 

 

In 1415 Henry V gave a speech at the Battle of Agincourt, citing St. George as England’s patron saint. As a result Archbishop Chicele raised the importance of the saint’s feast day – thus making April 23rd officially St. George’s Day….

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor (the venue of a certain soon upcoming Royal wedding) built by Edward IV and Henry VII as Chapel of the Order has its official badge showing St. George slaying the dragon…. The George Cross inaugurated by King George VI in 1940 and given for acts of heroism and courage in circumstances of extreme danger (mainly to civilians) also has a dragon slaying George depicted upon it….

 

 

Although not a national holiday there will be those in England who will be flying the flag of St. George this coming April the 23rd…. As a nation we don’t go overboard with the celebrations on our patron saint’s day….some may choose to wear blue as this was rumoured to be St. George’s favourite colour – or maybe a red rose, which is associated with his death…. Some towns and cities, such as Manchester, have a St. George’s Day festival – but for the rest of us, if we are so inclined, we may enjoy a spot of Shakespeare, sing Jerusalem, partake in a little Morris dancing or eat a hearty traditional English meal, such as a roast dinner, bangers & mash or fish & chips….

 

 

Whatever you get up to on Saint George’s Day….have fun….

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Saint Patrick : Apostle of Ireland….

Up until the age of 16 Patrick had led a reasonably ordinary life…. Yes, he was the son of a Roman-British army officer/deacon and the grandson of a Catholic priest – but despite this he was not particularly religious…. Not an awful lot is known about his early life….just that he was born in the latter part of the 4th Century, in Roman occupied Britain; nobody is sure exactly where, possibly Scotland but most likely Wales…. It is thought he was raised in the village of Banna Venta Burniae…. Even his real name is uncertain but there are indications it could have been Maewyn Succat….

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Saint Patrick Lawrence OP via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/16657109748/

At 16 years old Patrick (along with many others) was kidnapped by Irish pirates….he was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. The young Patrick found himself on Mount Slemish in Co. Antrim, where for six years he herded sheep and pigs for his master. Long periods of time alone meant he began to question whether this was his punishment for his earlier lack of faith…. He turned to religion….

It was during a dream that a vision came to him….telling him he would soon go home and that his ship was waiting. Believing this was a message from God, Patrick managed to escape from his master and travelled some 200 miles to a faraway port – where with some difficulty he managed to persuade a reluctant captain to allow him aboard his ship…. Patrick returned home to Britain and his family….

By all rights this should perhaps have been the end of an ordeal that had dominated so much of his life as a young man – but it appears this was just the beginning….

Patrick had another dream – this time he was being called back to Ireland….the people wanted him to tell them about God….

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day National Library of Ireland on The Commons via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/16766126215/

Patrick was to return to Ireland but not straight away. First he went to France, where he studied for the priesthood at a monastery – possibly under Saint German, the then Bishop of Auxerre…. It was 12 years later, as a Bishop himself and with the blessing of the Pope he landed back on Irish soil, at Strangford Loch, Co. Down….

For the next 20 years Patrick travelled around Ireland, establishing churches and monasteries, baptising people and founding schools. As Ireland was a Pagan stronghold very often he would anger local Chieftains and Druids with his teachings, many a time he found himself imprisoned…. He was not above using a little bribery – presenting his captors with gifts in order to regain his freedom….

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Saint Patrick baptising. Lawrence OP via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/16657121598/

As is so often the case with saints of long ago, many myths and legends surround Patrick…. One such story is the tale of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: Patrick and a companion were travelling to the Hill of Tara in the Boyne Valley to preach to the people; a place sacred to the Druids, once the ancient Capital of Ireland it was where the gods lived…. The Druid priests were keeping a watch out for Patrick, waiting to ambush him…. But all was quiet in the fields surrounding the Hill – just a deer and her fawn meandering along…. Unbeknownst to them Patrick had used his special powers (feth fiada) to turn himself and his companion into deer – and so using this disguise they were able to reach the Hill unstopped….inspiring the hymn written by Patrick – ‘The Deer’s Cry’ – which begins….

“I arise today, Through the strength of heaven, Light of the sun, Swiftness of the wind, Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth, Firmness of the rock”….

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Hill of Tara – St. Patrick’s Statue & Pillar Stone. Diego Sideburns via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND. Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/diego_sideburns/7115927727/

One of the main Celtic Druid celebrations is Beltane….a fire festival, marking the beginning of Summer. A fire would be lit at the top of the Hill of Tara by the Druid High King – from which fires all across the land would be lit…. Legend says Patrick defied this tradition by a lighting a fire of his own before the main event…. The Druid King sent his men to investigate – and they reported back that Patrick’s fire had magical powers and it could not be extinguished….they warned the King this fire could burn for all eternity…. Realising he was unable to put out Patrick’s fire – the King had to concede that the powers Patrick possessed were greater than his own…. Although he refused to convert to Christianity himself he allowed the Irish people to follow the Christian faith….

Patrick was not unsympathetic to the Druid beliefs…. It was whilst preaching one day next to a Pagan standing stone that he created the Irish Celtic Cross…. The stone was carved with a circle – a sacred Pagan symbol for the sun and moon gods. Patrick drew a Christian Cross through the circle, blessing the stone as he did so – thus uniting Pagan beliefs with Christianity….

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Celtic Cross .and+ via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/raiadiff/2776934527/

Being aware that the number 3 held special significance in Celtic tradition, Patrick utilised this as a method of teaching Christianity to the people…. By using shamrock, the three leaved clover plant, he showed how each segment represented God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – three elements of one entity…. The humble shamrock was to become the symbol of Ireland….

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For any missionary there must have been times of despair – struggling to deliver a message that must have often appeared to be falling of deaf ears…. One such time of despair for Patrick may have been the time he spent in County Mayo, upon a mountain…. He had gone there for the 40 day period of Lent – perhaps to reflect and meditate – but instead was besieged by demons…. Demons in the form of black birds, so many of them the sky turned dark…. But still he continued to pray, refusing to be defeated…. Suddenly an angel appeared – a messenger from God…. The angel told him his work was being recognised – the Irish people were listening to him and they would remain Christian until Judgement Day…. The mountain is known as Croagh Patrick….

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The holy mountain Croagh Patrick, County Mayo. EamonnPKeane English Wikipedia Public domain

Perhaps one of the legends we associate the most with St. Patrick is the banishing of all snakes from the land, by driving them into the sea…. It is doubtful there ever were any actual snakes in Ireland. The snake is a sacred creature to the Druids….this legend most likely gives the message that Patrick had succeeded in driving Paganism from Ireland….

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Although Patrick can be attributed to converting Ireland to Christianity others had preached there before him – Palladius being one such – and becoming the first Bishop of Ireland. Patrick succeeded him as Bishop some time soon after 431AD and made Armagh, in Northern Ireland his base…. It was towards the end of his life that he wrote his memoirs, called his ‘Confession’….

“My name is Patrick, I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers”….

In his writings Patrick makes no reference to details such as the Hill of Tara, driving snakes into the sea, shamrock or indeed any of the myths and legends that surround him…. He talks of his spiritualism, his relationship with God, his time in slavery…. It is a direct insight into the man…. It has to be deemed incredible that these documents have survived all this time….

Patrick died on March the 17th – the year is a little hazy…. He is buried either in Armagh or Downpatrick…. We do know he was made a saint soon after his death and St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated on March the 17th ever since….

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Saint Patrick. DonkeyHotey via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/13222409233/

There was a wobble in the late 17th Century…. in 1695 Parliament replaced many Catholic feast days with Protestant holidays – after William (of Orange) and Mary were placed on the throne….effectively St. Patrick’s Day became outlawed – but nobody took much notice. Eventually the Patron Saint’s Day was reinstated….

Nowadays modern celebrations usually include a procession to a holy place, a chapel or perhaps a holy well…. Mass and prayers are said…. Then there are the festivities; food, music, dancing and of course a good drink. Falling during Lent a very welcome interlude….

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A party going on right here Sniggie via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sniegowski/33388080245/

St. Patrick’s Day parades did not actually originate in Ireland. It was in 1762 that Irish soldiers serving with the British Army marched through New York to music on March the 17th – an idea that caught on and became tradition, especially in communities in England with a large Irish population – such as Liverpool…. During the mid 19th Century, at the time of the Great Famine, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were obviously low-key; but – one thing that came from this was the globalisation of St. Patrick’s Day…. Mass emigration – Irish people looking for new lives across the World taking the celebration with them….

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day…. Have a Guinness for me….

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Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus….

March the 1st is the National Day of Wales – Saint David’s Day – and has been celebrated since the 12th Century….

Although not a public holiday many events take place across Wales; festivals and parades, usually with a dragon theme – the biggest being the National St. David’s Parade in Cardiff…. Many people attend special church services and recitals of Welsh literature (Eisteddfod)…. National costume is often worn, especially by school children….and traditional songs are sung. Many heritage sites offer free admission on this day….

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A woman in “Welsh national” dress with a spinning wheel LIGC ~ NLW via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/llgc/5552906473/

Leeks and daffodils are to be seen everywhere being the National symbols, along with the yellow and black flag of St. David….

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St. David’s Flag Bruce Stokes via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bruciestokes/14344677406/

The traditional meal of the feast day is Cawl, a soup made with meat, root vegetables and of course, leeks…. Other foods enjoyed are Bara Brith (Welsh fruit bread), Tiesen Bach (Welsh cakes) and Welsh Rarebit….

 

So…. Who was David, Patron Saint of Wales? It’s hard to know for sure, so many stories and theories have emerged over the years…. In Medieval times it was believed he was the nephew of King Arthur; it does appear he may have been born to Royal parentage….

It is said David was born on a cliff top one night during a raging storm – some time around 500 AD in Pembrokeshire, on the South West coast of Wales. Some say he was the son of Sandde – Prince of Powys – and ‘Non’ – the daughter of a Chieftain…. Others say his parents were Sanctus, King of Ceredigion and a nun (Nonnita). St. Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland, is reputed to have been born in the same region some years before and he is said to have had a ‘vision’ of the birth of David…. At the site of David’s birth there stands an 18th Century chapel, dedicated to Non….also the ruins of a tiny ancient chapel and a holy well….

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St. Nons Bay dachalan via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/54945394@N00/6201523513/

The young David was brought up by his mother at Llanon, a village in Ceredigion…. He was then possibly educated at Hen Fynwy – a monastery – and tutored by St. Paulinus. It seems he was always destined to be a priest….

David became a missionary – spreading the Christian word throughout the British Isles – he even made a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made a Bishop…. During his life he is supposed to have performed several miracles: he restored the sight to his tutor, St. Paulinus….he brought a child back to life with his tears…. But perhaps his most famous miracle is from the time he was preaching to a crowd out in the open air – some cried out from the back that they were unable to hear him…. Suddenly a white dove landed on his shoulder and the ground beneath his feet rose to form a small hill….and then everybody could hear what he had to say…. The white dove became the emblem of St. David; he is often depicted in pictures and stained glass windows with one on his shoulder….

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St. David Lawrence OP via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/3319037420/

David was made Archbishop of Wales in 550 and founded 12 monasteries altogether, including Glastonbury – but the one he chose to make his base was the one close to his birth place, which he founded around 560 and is now the location of St. David’s Cathedral and St. David’s Bishops Palace – having been built by the Normans on the site of the original monastery…. In fact there is a stone which sits within an altar in the Cathedral which is believed to have been carried back by David himself on his return journey from his Pilgrimage to Jerusalem….

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St. David’s Cathedral in St. David’s John D. Fielding via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_fielding/10335587213/

David’s monastery and church was built at Rose Vale (Glyn Rhosyn) on the banks of the River Alun. A settlement grew around the monastery and became known as David’s House – (Tyddewi)…. Life was tough in a monastery and David ran a particularly strict Order…. All were expected to work hard; ploughing the land by hand without the use of animals, to provide food with which to feed themselves and the travellers they gave shelter to…. They undertook many crafts, including beekeeping….but one of their main tasks was to look after the poor and needy by clothing and feeding them…. Their diet was vegetarian – David himself reputedly ate just bread and herbs and he was known as Dewi Ddyfrwr (the Water Drinker) because this was all he ever drank…. He was also very harsh on himself and was not beyond self-imposing penances such as standing up to his neck in freezing cold water – reciting the Scriptures….

David died on the 1st March 589 AD, rumoured to having been over 100 years old…. He was buried in a shrine in the 6th Century cathedral he had founded…. During the 11th Century the Vikings plundered the site repeatedly, murdering two Bishops in the process – in 1087 it was finally burned to the ground….

 

After his death David’s influence spread throughout Great Britain, eventually crossing the channel to Brittany, France…. In 1120 Pope Callistus II made him a Saint – (St. David is the only Welsh Saint to be canonised by the Catholic Church) – it was the Pope who declared two Pilgrimages to the shrine of St. David were worth one to Rome, three Pilgrimages would equate to one to Jerusalem….

St. David’s (as the settlement that had grown from David’s House became known) was given city status because of its cathedral in the 16th Century – but this status was lost in 1888…. In 1994, at the request of Queen Elizabeth II, it was granted the status again, making it Britain’s smallest city…. In 2011 it had a population of just 1,841 – compared to the capital Cardiff with 358,000…. In 1996 bones were found in St. Davids Cathedral which are said to be those of St. David…. Some 50 churches in South Wales are named for him…. The affectionate (if somewhat cheeky) nickname we often give to somebody of Welsh descent – ‘Taffy’ – originates to the 17th Century and comes from the Welsh for David – ‘Dafydd’….

But what of the emblems for Wales – the leek and the daffodil? The leek is the original emblem; there are various stories to how this came to be…. One being that David advised Welsh troops to wear a leek in their hats whilst in battle with the Saxons, so they could be distinguished from the enemy…. This is doubtful, as apart from this story not being recorded before the 17th Century, David lived a peaceful life and was unlikely to have been involved with warfare….

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Photo via Pixabay

Another more plausible theory comes from 1346, when the Prince of Wales, ‘Edward the Black Prince’, defeated the French at the Battle of Crécy. The long and bloody battle was fought in a field of leeks….to remember the bravery and loyalty of the Welsh archers, people began to wear leeks in their hats every St. David’s Day. This is the legend reflected in Shakespeare’s play Henry V….Act V Scene I : Fluellen insists Pistol eats a leek after insulting the vegetable on St. David’s Day…. “If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek”….

The Welsh for leek is ‘cenhinen’, whereas the Welsh for daffodil is ‘cenhinen pedr’ – so it is possible over the years the two have become confused…. The wearing of a daffodil is a fairly recent custom….probably really coming about in 1911 after being encouraged by David George Lloyd at the investiture of the Prince of Wales…. You’ve got to admit a daffodil does smell sweeter than a leek when you are wearing it….

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Photo via Pixabay

In the words of Dewi Sant (Saint David)…. “Gwnewch y pethau bychain mean bywyd” ~ “do the little things in life”….