Last month, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts hit the headlines by requesting that England fans heading to Russia for the World Cup leave their English flags at home.  As the national lead of football policing, DCC Roberts is understandably keen to avoid a potential confrontation between patriotic flag waving England supporters and equally patriotic flag waving Russia supporters.  But his suggestion that waving the English flag could be perceived as “almost imperialistic” sparked a furious reaction, with some commentators asking why the cross of Saint George is such an embarrassment to some people. 

One of the most surprising things about Saint George is that we know so little about him.  The only thing we can say with any confidence about the patron saint of England is that he wasn’t English, and is unlikely to have ever visited this country.  He’s not just England’s patron saint either.  Somewhat ironically, given the concerns expressed by DCC Roberts, he is also the patron saint of Russia! 

There have been so many miraculous stories attached to Saint George over the centuries that it is now impossible to sift the fact from the fiction.  However, the number of churches in the Middle East that bear his name from the fourth century onwards show that he was once an inspirational man of faith in that region.  In 494AD Pope Gelasius I included him among the list of those “whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God”.  This effectively sets the pattern for the way George has been revered through the centuries.  Everyone agrees that he is worthy of great honour but no one remembers why.

Early historical records suggest that George may have been a soldier in the Roman army under the Emperor Diocletian.  When he refused an order to persecute Christians and swear his allegiance to Roman gods he was executed, and his courageous defiance became an inspiration to persecuted Christians around the world.  Sadly, the encounter with a dragon which made him a legend wasn’t reported until more than seven hundred years after his death.  This means that his epic struggle to defend a beautiful princess from being sacrificed to a fire-breathing creature has been dismissed by serious historians as a work of fiction.   This is why you should never invite serious historians to parties. 

So, how did such an elusive figure end up becoming the patron saint of England?  In 1099 a group of English soldiers reported that Saint George had miraculously appeared to them outside Jerusalem and spurred them on to fight valiantly.  When they got home, they carved an account of their supernatural meeting onto a wall at Fordington church in Dorset, which became the earliest known church in Britain to be dedicated to the saint.  A century later, King Richard I (1189-99) called upon Saint George to protect his army in battle and he adopted the white flag with the red cross of the Christian martyr as his emblem.  

In 1348, King Edward III (1327-77) decided that the man who combined the saintly characteristics of kindness, selflessness and virtue with the soldierly qualities of courage, daring and adventure would make a perfect choice to fill the vacant position of patron Saint.  He also made the dragon slayer the emblem of the Knights of the Garter, the highest honour that he could bestow on subjects who exemplified the noble qualities of the soldier Saint. 

In 1526, the gold Noble issued during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-47) became the first English coin to depict Saint George with his scaly adversary.  But it was the masterwork created by Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci in 1817 for the modern sovereign that has become an enduring classic.  Last year, to honour the 200th anniversary of this iconic design, the London Mint Office invited renowned Canadian artist Angela Pistrucci to create a fitting tribute to her great-great-great-great uncle’s triumph.  The result, which appeared on the 2017 Gibraltar sovereign was so successful that Angela has been inspired to tell the full story of the legend of Saint George in coins for the first time ever. 

The first coin to be issued in the series depicts our national hero on a rearing horse as he prepares to charge into battle.  In his outstretched arm he proudly holds his shield aloft, emblazoned with a red cross on a white background that identifies him as a courageous man of faith and a bold champion of good over evil. 

As we prepare to cheer on the only British team to make it to the 2018 World Cup we should take a moment to remember the real meaning of the red cross on a white background.  For many centuries, the Cross of Saint George has inspired our countrymen to imitate his many noble qualities, three of which are inscribed on the coin around Angela Pistrucci’s magnificent design - honour, courage and kindness. 

The proof quality coin is available for just £5.00 (plus £2.95 p&p) and with no obligation to order any more coins simply by clicking this link.  For a small additional premium, you can even purchase a special limited edition version in which the flag has been specially coloured red and white. 

Just don’t wave it in front of any Deputy Chief Constables!