Following previous blogs to mark St David’s Day and St Patrick’s Day, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-1629 Section discusses the near-disappearance of the celebration of St George’s Day in the aftermath of Reformation legislation. For peers who belonged to the Order of the Garter, however, it was still the occasion for feasting, and as such it impacted on the timetable of parliamentary business…
St George’s Day is probably the least well-observed of all the UK’s national patronal festivals, though this is perhaps less surprising when one considers its chequered history. Although 23 April was adopted as the saint’s feast day in England in 1222, George became the country’s patron only in 1348 (when Edward III felt the need for a more martial figure than Edward the Confessor). Formal recognition of St George’s Day as a national holiday followed in 1415, and local celebrations gradually sprang up, usually featuring processions in which models of George and the dragon were paraded through town centres. However, many places had still not embraced such observances when, barely a century later, the cult of St George fell victim to the English Reformation. By the mid-1500s, the local festivals had all but died out, with the saint’s effigies destroyed. In 1552 Parliament formally banned the commemoration of all minor saints, and George was removed from the new Anglican church calendar. Edward VI’s religious legislation was repealed by his sister Mary I, but the ban on celebrating lesser saints’ days was reinstated by the Calvinist-leaning James I in 1604.
Nevertheless, there was one significant loophole in the 1552 Act which ensured the survival of St George’s Day as an annual event. Because of the longstanding link between the saint and the Order of the Garter, the Edwardian legislation included a proviso permitting the Garter knights to hold their traditional St George’s feast on 23 April, as they had done since the fourteenth century. By the Jacobean era, virtually all knights of the Garter were English peers, so the 1552 proviso had a curious impact on Parliament when sessions took place in the springtime. While the House of Commons completely ignored St George’s Day, the Lords normally suspended business for three days, from 22
to 24 April, allowing its members to participate in the Garter celebrations at court, which began on the eve of the feast day itself, and continued for 48 hours. Thus, with the pre-Reformation parades of soldier-saints and dragons discontinued, the Garter knights’ annual procession in London or Windsor became the main public expression of St George’s Day, and the national religious and patriotic commemorations were reduced to an exclusive royal event.
However, the effects of the 1552 legislation did not end there, since the proviso also empowered the monarch to hold the St George’s feast not just on 23 April but ‘at such other tyme and tymes as yerely shalbe thought convenyent’. This was not a complete innovation, since the statutes of the Order of the Garter already provided for the feast to be brought forward or delayed if it fell too close to Easter (which is itself of course a moveable festival). For example, in 1614 the celebrations were postponed to 28 April, to avoid a clash with Easter Eve. Most rescheduling reflected similar considerations. In 1624 James moved the feast to 27 April, since it would otherwise have fallen on a Friday, then regarded as a fasting day. Two years later, 23 April was a Sunday, which took precedence over the commemoration of minor saints, and Charles I again opted to delay the festivities until the 27th. When the king saw fit, however, the timing could become completely arbitrary. During the first three decades of the seventeenth century, St George’s feast was also held in May (1619), July (1603), September (1617 and 1628), and even November (1625). The 1628 postponement was apparently prompted by urgent business in Parliament which made it inconvenient for the Lords to adjourn, but the 1625 delay resulted from a plague epidemic, while in 1617 James simply visited Scotland during April.
The civil war years disrupted the Garter celebrations, and brought a further puritan clampdown on all commemoration of saints. More widespread celebrations of St George’s Day resumed after the Restoration, but repeated attempts in the centuries since to re-establish 23 April as England’s national day have met with limited success. Despite regular petitions in recent years calling for the date to be declared a bank holiday, Parliament currently shows no appetite for reviving a commemoration that it once all but extinguished.
The 1552 legislation, ‘An Acte for the keping of hollie daies and fastinge dayes’ (5 & 6 Ed. VI, c.3), is printed in Statutes of the Realm, iv. 132-3, which is reproduced in the Internet Archive –https://archive.org/stream/statutesrealm00etcgoog#page/n226/mode/2up .