Saint George’s Day coincides with the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. The Bard enjoys invoking the name of the patron saint of England. “Cry God for England, Harry and Saint George!” he wrote in Henry V. Of course, God must have been on the side of the English, didn’t they win?
One wonders how seriously William Shakespeare took such lines, did he really think God was an Englishman? Probably not, this is the same writer who introduces humour into the tragedy of Hamlet with the dialogue of the between the clown-gravedigger and Hamlet, whom the gravedigger thinks has gone to England.
Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?
Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits
there; or, if he do not, it’s no great matter there.
‘Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men
are as mad as he.
Shakespeare could take his patriotism with a dose of realism. The men in the army of Henry V probably did believe God was fighting for them, but anyone who thought about things in times when the whole of Europe was part of Christendom would have realized that God couldn’t be on all sides simultaneously.
Yet the belief persisted down through the centuries that God must be on one’s own side and because the English tended to win more often than lost, they became convinced that there must be divine intervention.
The belief that God and England went hand reached its peak in the 19th Century with the British Empire extending around the world. The Bible was seen as the secret of England’s greatness – it was convenient for politicians who could claim divine sanction for almost anything they did and it was convenient for churchmen who were influential because of their associations with a powerful British Establishment.
Did people really believe that God sanctioned English power? How did the Scots feel about God supporting the massacre of highlanders at Culloden Moor in 1746? How did the Irish feel about an English government that presided over the Great Famine of 1745-1752? How many of them would have cried “God for England, Harry and Saint George?”
Of course, Edward the Confessor was patron of England until tales of George were brought from Turkey. George was as un-English as the Normans who adopted him as saint. However, “Cry God for England, Harry and Saint Edward the Confessor,” wouldn’t have had as dramatic an appeal.