St George’s Day: Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!’ King John Act 4 Scene 3

April 23 … St. George’s Day, which the English for many years – 300 more or less, in fact – have rarely if ever been encouraged to celebrate in the joyful way national days are marked proudly in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

From the early 15th century, St. George’s Day was a significant feast day and a national holiday in England on a par with Christmas. By the close of the 18th century, after the union of England and Scotland, it waned. It has not, however, been entirely rubbed out of the nation’s cultural heritage. Many pubs and Anglican churches raise the St. George’s Cross flag, Salisbury in Wiltshire has had (pre-Covid-19) annual St. George’s Day pageants, Morris dancers entertain on town and village squares, and Jerusalem (words  by William Blake put to music by Hubert Parry in 1916) can be heard here and there.

St. George remains the patron saint of The Scout Movement, and over the ocean, in Newfoundland and Labrador, St. George’s Day is a provincial holiday, usually observed on the Monday closest to April 23. Calls for an April 23 holiday in England – as Scotland and Ireland mark their national saint’s days – are made now and again but have fallen on deaf ears in Westminster and Whitehall.

In 2000, the National Assembly (now Parliament) for Wales voted unanimously to make St. David’s Day a public holiday. A petition to have St. David’s Day a holiday in Wales, supported by 87% of that nation’s voters, was rejected in 2007 by the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, for reasons still best known to himself; one of them, though, might possibly have been that giving Wales a day off for St. David would have made England’s case for an April 23 holiday unassailable. It’s quite likely that all this red and white flag waving nonsense, Morris dancing, and singing Jerusalem had no space in his thrusting vision of what a modern, progressive, dynamic, go-ahead etc. nation should look like.  When Mayor of London, Boris Johnson championed a celebration of St. George’s Day, urging Londoners to reclaim the flag of St George from the Extremely Far Right but now dissolved British National Party. As Prime Minister he appears to have lost interest in the cause, or perhaps he doesn’t want to be seen adding to the current discontents of the Scots.

April 23 is also – by happenstance – the April day on which William Shakespeare died in 1616 in Stratford-upon-Avon. The date of his birth isn’t known for sure, but church records show that he was baptized on April 26 in 1564. Baptisms were then customarily three days after birth, so many historians reckon his date of birth, too, was April 23.

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