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Sunday, 21 April, 2002, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
St George comes under fire
George Cross make-up
English football fans have adopted St George's cross
The dragon-slayer's red cross was the symbol of the Crusades against Islam and has been adopted by causes ranging from football fans to the Royal Navy. But, as BBC News Online's Simon Pipe reports, some critics say St George's Day is best ignored.

Lord Baden-Powell told his boy scouts they should always be prepared to slay dragons - or words to that effect.

Scouting, like England, has moved on since then, but both still look to St George as their patron saint.

George and the Dragon
The dragon was about to eat a princess
On 23 April, the boys remember the Scout Promise, and nearly everyone else in England quietly forgets all about St George's Day.

In a survey this month, young people said they thought St George was a pub.

The truth is that the old dragon-slayer was not English - he may have been a Turk - and he certainly never supped ale in an English tavern.

And England has to share its patron saint with Moscow, Georgia, Aragon, Barcelona, Bavaria, Beirut, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Lithuania and Hungary.

Bold charger

Shockingly, the story of him conquering a dragon with only a spear may not be entirely accurate.

But it was because of that mythical chivalry that a foreign soldier was adopted by England, inspiring leaders from the early kings to the founder of the Boy Scouts.

The cross is offensive to Arabs and muslims, including many from non-Arab countries

Chris Doyle, Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding
"He charged in, did his best, and finally succeeded," wrote Baden-Powell.

"This is exactly the way in which a Scout should face a difficulty or danger, no matter how great or terrifying it may appear."

Over the centuries, George and his red cross have become associated with many causes - some admirable, others not.

In legend, he was the figurehead of King Arthur's knights.

Edward III chose him as patron when he founded the Knights of the Garter in 1348.

Red Ensign

St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle was built as the order's spiritual home.

The red cross has been used on the flags of The Royal Navy and the Church of England - and on the official seal of Lyme Regis.

St George was probably martyred in Palestine
Richard II ordered every man in his army to wear the cross when he invaded Scotland.

Now the Scots have to fly their invaders' mark on the Union Flag.

Crucially, it was also the emblem of the Crusades against the Islam.

Richard the Lionheart wore it, and legend tells how St George appeared to his knights during the siege of Antioch, inspiring them to victory.

Centuries have passed since, but the Crusades are still a cause of resentment among some muslims.

Holy war

Chris Doyle, of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, says the red cross is an insensitive reminder of the Crusades.

He said: "It is offensive to Arabs and muslims, including many from non-Arab countries.

What I enjoy and value is that we don't bother to honour his day

Professor Ronald Hutton, Bristol University
"They see the Crusades as Christendom launching a brutal holy war against Islam.

"Because of what has happened in the 20th Century, when most of the Arab world was colonised, the memory of the Crusades has resurfaced."

On the other hand, the saint - if not his sign - is revered in Palestine for his courageous martyrdom.

In England, festivities have come and gone.

Snap dragon

In the Middle Ages, St George's feast was celebrated with grand processions at Leicester, Reading, Chester and King's Lynn.

Norwich had giant mock dragons that survive today - all called Snap.

Skip, Tewkesbury dragon
A dragon named Skip still fights St George
But it was all too Roman Catholic for Henry VIII, who suppressed the festivities.

"Protestantism reacted against everything the medieval church did," says Professor Ronald Hutton, historian at Bristol University.

"He came back with King Arthur and the Round Table in the 19th Century, when the Victorians revived interest in the age of chivalry."

Today, a number of British Army regiments mark 23 April.

It is celebrated outside Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire with a re-enactment of the dragon slaying.

Tewkesbury's 16-feet-high smoke-breathing dragon is called Skip, because most of its components were found in one.

St George's Day celebrations are held at

  • Bewdley, Worcestershire
  • Penrith, Cumbria
  • Hatfield, Hertfordshire
  • Lichfield, Staffordshire.

But Professor Hutton, who devotes a chapter to St George in The Stations of the Sun, his book on traditional customs, is no champion of the cause.

"What I enjoy and value is that we don't bother to honour his day," he says.

"It would be a sure sign of a loss of nerve if we did.

"The English don't need to affirm their identity within the British Isles, the way the Scots and Welsh and Irish do."

St George's Day
How should the saint's day be remembered?
See also:

23 Apr 99 | UK
How English are you?
23 Apr 98 | UK
The great St George revival
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