St. George's Day
By Robert Newland.
St. George's Day - The 23rd April is the day when England celebrates its gallant Patron Saint, - Saint George.
George was a forth century Christian soldier from the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. He is most famous for rescuing Princess Sabra from the clutches of a blood thirsty dragon which was terrorising the city of Silene in Libya. George killed the dragon and in doing so converted all the heathens of Silene to the Christian faith.
George’s adventures eventually led him to Lydda in Palestine where he destroyed the shrine of the Roman god Bacchus. For this George was cast into prison and tortured, but because he would not renounce the Christian faith he was martyred by decapitation.
His body was later buried near Joppa in the Holy Land, and when the First Crusade took Jerusalem from the Saracens a chapel to St. George was built over the tomb, which had been preserved through the years as a holy spot by the Christian Greeks who lived there. In the tomb rested the body of St George. But not his heart. This was brought to England by the Emperor Sigismond of Germany and given to King Henry V.
In England, the Order of the Knights of St George was founded at Windsor Castle, and St George became the Patron Saint of England. The Knights of St George have the garter as their emblem. This dates from a party on this day in 1348. The host, Edward III, intervened when he found that the guests were giggling at Joan, Duchess of Salisbury, whose blue ribbon garter had dropped off. He picked it up, tied it round his own knee and cried the now famous 'Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense' - which, roughly translated, implies shame on anyone who thought ill of the garter-dropping incident -a phrase so eternally resonant that it now adorns many coins, court-rooms and family crests.
Edward III instantly abandoned his plans to form a new Round Table, and instigated instead the Order of the Garter. The blue ribbon became its badge of honour, first awarded one year later on St. George's Day. The order still exists, and Knight of the Garter is among the highest honours doled out by the monarch each year.
Joan's blue garter is explained by the fact that blue was said to be the saint's colour, and it remains customary to wear something blue on St George's Day. This justifies the wearing of bluebells today, as opposed to the otherwise-to-be-expected roses - England's national flower - which are not yet in bloom.
It is claimed that St. George miraclous apperance lead crusaders into battle in the Holy Lands, is recorded in the stone tympanum (left) over the south door of St. George's Church at Fordington near Dorchester. This still exists, and is often thought to be one of the earliest images to depict the saint.
Saint George survives today as the central hero character of the traditional mummers play. Death and resurrection are the main themes of Mummers Plays which are traditionally performed at Christmas, New Year and Saint George’s Day. Mumming Plays usually begin with an introductory prologue by the character, Old Father Christmas.
Following Father Christmas comes the entrance of Saint George who proceeds to slay his enemies, which might include a Dragon, Turkish Knight or even a currently unpopular person like the Prime Minster. Following this a Doctor is called to restore the fallen to life. This is the major scene of the play with its rich symbolism of death and resurrection. The play usually draws to a close with a seasonal song.
Every year since 1978 the ‘Frome Valley Morris Mummers’ have performed an action-packed mummers play, which up until 1936 was originally performed by the ‘Thomas Hardy Players’ at Broadwey near Weymouth. Their bright costumes with colourful streamers hanging down over the faces for disguise are based on the actual costumes worn at the time. Thomas Hardy was well aware of the romance of mummers plays and describes one in his novel; 'The Return of the Native'.
(ABOVE) In 2006 on the Winter Solstice, the Frome Valley Morris Mummers toured the Weymouth venues including The Boot Inn, The Kings Arms, The Red Lion, The Chapelhay Tavern and the Sailors Return