Brits – or more properly the English here stoutly and – it seems – somewhat forlornly celebrate St George’s Day, now yesterday, which is ironic, rather like ageing groupies follow a long-forgotten pop idol. There probably was a historical figure called George, who was a prominent Christian in the reign of the pagan Roman Emperor, Diocletian, and was killed in 303. One version of his life records that he was an officer who refused to carry out the Emperor’s order that all soldiers must make sacrifices to pagan gods, for which he was hideously tortured to death. A very different story is told in Gibbon’s “Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire”. He alleged that George was “an odious priest”, a Cappadocian wiesguy who was chased out of Palestine for selling dodgy bacon to the army. He fled to Egypt, adopted a new and growing brand of Christianity called Arianism. With this as leverage, he got himself appointed Archbishop of Alexandria in place of the genuinely saintly Athanasius the Great, whose authorship of the Creed is now widely disputed, whereupon he instigated a reign of such “cruelty and avarice” that he was lynched by the outraged citizens. Ah. No dragon-slaying myth here, then…
Shakespeare was, a fan, of course. Before Harfleur, where it took eight thousand English, armed to the teeth with bows and arrows nearly a month to overcome 400 determined Frenchmen in late summer 1415. Henry V’s stirring speech roused English blood – you know, the one beginning “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…” or “Come on and get slaughtered for the Motherland, lads..” I recall learning it at school. This is how it ends…
“And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”
Henry V Act 3 Scene 1
Makes you proud to be English. Yeah, right. I wonder if it would work at the Six Nations in Stade de France? Probably not. The French haven’t forgotten Agincourt, either.