England’s Patron Saint has always struck me as a little strange. A roman soldier, who apparently killed a dragon, George only became Patron Saint of England in the 1400s. Far from being unique to England, he is also patron saint of Georgia, Lithuania, Egypt, Romania and Portugal.
In reality, St. George only became popular in England after Richard the Lionheart prayed to him on Crusade and won his famous victories.
Previously, another saint had held this particular honour.
Edmund, King of East Anglia from 855 to 869 AD, was martyred by Danish invaders. After refusing to share power with these plundering heathens, it is said he was tied to a tree, shot with arrows and finally beheaded.
The date was 20th November. The story goes that his decapitated head was protected by an unusual talking wolf who called out to Edmund’s followers so the head could be reunited with his body.
In 902 his remains were moved to modern Bury St. Edmunds where King Athelstan founded a religious community to care for his shrine as a place of national pilgrimage.
In 1020, King Canute built an abbey on the site to house the shrine. For centuries Edmund’s shire was patronised by the great and good of England (as well as everyone else).
During the Crusade, he fell out of favour, replaced by the even more fantastical George and his dragon.
Yet St. Edmund is not forgotten.
In 2006, a petition was submitted to parliament to reinstate him as patron saint of England. The campaign declared that Anglo-Saxon martyr-king-saint Edmund would make a better Patron Saint than a dragon-slayer who never set foot in England. It was unsuccessful but it showed an appetite for justice for Edmund.
We celebrate St George’s Day on April 23rd but perhaps we should also commemorate the November 20th and the martyrdom of steadfast Edmund?