Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - April/May 2003
Patron Saints

Reprinted with permission from Burke’s Peerage and Gentry

By Charles Mosley, Editor in Chief - Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage

To the hackneyed products of spring - daffodils, Easter eggs and lambs (the last two also with Christian associations) - we should add British Isles patriotic symbolism. It is in this season that fall the days of three of the four patron saints of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The topics associated with those saints - their cults, their place in history, their flags and the sense of national identity they foster - make them apt for discussion in a periodical such as Atavus that is broadly devoted to family history and 'heritage'.

Three of the Saints' days occur within a six-and-a-half-week period: St David's Day for the Welsh on March 1st, St Patrick's Day for the Irish on March 17th and St George's Day for the English on April 23rd. This is apt, for the season is one of hope. Even the Scots' St Andrew, with his lonely eminence in late autumn, November 30th, prefigures the Christmas holidays, so that his feast is in practice less gloomy than its position in the calendar suggests. At Eton, the nobleman's traditional place of education, St Andrew's Day is even a school holiday, whereas the other three saints' days are not.

None of the patron saints of the four nations has wholly satisfactory qualifications for representing his bit of turf. St David, who is thought to have flourished in the 6th century, is the least bogus in that he seems not only to have existed but to have done so as a Welshman. Indeed he was said to have been of royal blood, being the son of Non (herself a Saint in Welsh tradition) by Sandde, who was himself of the line of Cunedda. The legend that Cunedda came with eight sons from southwest Scotland to expel the Irish from Gwynedd, or roughly speaking North Wales, around AD 400 has been effectively demolished in scholarly circles but retains a grip on popular thinking.

Cunedda was traditionally said to have been great-grandson of one Tacitus, obviously a Roman, though not the historian of that name. It is probable that this implicitly Roman and royal origin was grafted onto St David's ancestry five hundred years after he existed. That is when the first known biography of him was written, that by Bishop Rhygyvarch of St David's, who died in 1099. The aim was to make David 'of good family', for it is a curious fact that saints' lives then were presented for prestige purposes in as aristocratic a light as possible.

But David seems never to have operated in the deep north of Wales, 'deep' here being figurative since the area is the Principality's most mountainous. And he has never had his own flag. (The leek, though nutritious, even delicious when, say, made into vichyssoise, is a poor substitute as national symbol.) Nor does he have his own chivalric order. On the other hand one of the most distinguished lineages in the peerage is that of Viscount Saint Davids (qv BP&B).

St Patrick is a more shadowy figure. The traditional account of his career, which may be a complete invention, suggests he was Welsh-born too. He supposedly lived during the last days of Roman rule in Britain, his father being called by the Roman name Calpurnius and his grandfather being one Potitus, both of them Christian and Calpurnius a landowner of middling rank. Not as grand ultimately as St David, then, but of good yeoman or minor squirearchical stock. Patrick was not initially even a voluntary settler in Ireland but was taken there under duress, as a captive by sea raiders. It's rather as if Alex Haley's ancestor in Roots, the slave taken to America from his native West Africa, had become the patron saint of the United States.

Moreover, St Patrick spent much of his working life in what is now France. His flag, as the Burke's Peerage & Baronetage article 'Flags' (qv) points out, is not really Irish either, but an English imposition. It may have become identified with St Patrick and Ireland as far back as the 12th century, which is when the Norman incursion into Ireland from Wales began (see for example BP&B LEINSTER, D, and LANSDOWNE, M).

St Patrick's Day is undoubtedly the biggest of the four saints' feasts, especially in America, where huge numbers of the country's 240,000,000 or so citizens manage to grub up some bit of Irish ancestry and drape themselves in green, no matter how cruel green is to their complexions. St Patrick is also top of the four saints when it comes to having his very own chivalric order. St Andrew has (or had) one too, to be sure, but it was a Tsarist Russian construct. (The order of St Andrew thought to have been planned for Scotland by James V (reigned 1513-42) was never instituted.)

That of St Patrick, though set up a little late in the day (1783), was behind only the Garter and Thistle in terms of precedence and like them had only one rank, that of knight. (In other words, there were no commanders or members, as with, say, CVOs in the Royal Victorian Order or MBEs in the Order of the British Empire.) It was intended as a highly prestigious honour for Irishmen or those having close connections with Ireland, e.g., Viceroys. Knights of St Patrick were addressed in writing as 'Sir Lucius O'Trigger, KP'. The setting up of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the instituting of the Republic of Ireland have rendered it obsolescent. But although no more additions have been made since the future George VI was inducted in 1936, it still exists.

St George, who is also patron saint of Aragon and Portugal, has had the toughest time. Until recently he was much less venerated in England than his fellows in the neighbouring Celtic lands. And even now he has been appropriated by the most oafish exponents of patriotism, to wit football supporters, who smear the colours of his flag on their faces, and taxi and delivery van drivers, who fly his flag from their commercial vehicles. Inasmuch as he existed at all, which is debateable, he lived around the end of the fourth century. He is said to have been martyred at Lydda, in what was then Palestine, a victim of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. A legend also grew up that he visited Britain. His association with dragon-slaying dates from the late 6th century, but this may well be transference to a Christian context of the Perseus legend, Perseus's killing of the sea monster and release of Andromeda having according to classical myth taken place in the region where Lydda subsequently flourished.

His day became a feast celebrated on a national scale throughout England under a decree of the Council of Oxford in 1222. It was during the same century that his flag, the red cross on a white background, was adopted as a national symbol of England, though the same device was used by Germans, also specifically as the cross of St George. In both cases it derived from experience in the Crusades, when some way had become necessary of telling which part of Christendom any given crusading group came from. When Oliver Cromwell devised a new flag to represent Britain and Ireland during the Interregnum he used the crosses of St George and St Andrew as components, placing the former in the first and fourth quarters and the latter in the second quarter. The St George cross is also the sign at sea that a British Admiral is in command.

It was Edward III (reigned 1322-72) who appropriated St George as England's patron saint. His day, April 23rd, is also thought to be that on which Shakespeare was both born and died ? highly appropriate in England's national poet and dramatist. Shakespeare's mother was one of the Ardens of Warwickshire (see Burke's Landed Gentry 1972 edition). They are among a handful of families whose greatness antedated the Norman Conquest. There is a family of baronets called St George (qv BP&B). It is not an English baronetcy but an Irish one, though the family is of French origin, first being heard of in England in William the Conqueror's time. The Society of St George is a patriotic sodality but is not part of the official state apparatus.

St George does have a chivalric order named after him but he has to share it with St Michael. He is further humiliated by being listed after his fellow saint in the recitation of its full title, even though alphabetically he would come first. The 'Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George', as it is called officially, was founded in 1818. It has been enlarged many times since. Gongs in it are given mostly to British diplomats, also to people in British overseas dependencies who have devoted their lives (or at any rate some part of their lives) to public service. The top chaps are Knights or Dames Grand Cross (who put GCMG after their names), down through Knights and Dames Commander (KCMG/DCMG after their names) to Companions (CMGs, without 'Sir' or 'Dame' in front of the forename, unlike the two higher ranks).

St Andrew, one of the Apostles, is the only one of the four to have a cross named after him. It is the x-shaped sort, that being the gibbet he was crucified on at Patras, in Greece. One legend associated with him says his remains were taken to Scotland and reinterred on the site of the university town of St Andrews. He was adopted by the Picts in the 8th century, long before the unification of Scotland, and went on to become Scotland's patron saint. His flag is the white saltire (x-shaped cross) on a blue background. The other way round, a blue saltire on a white background, was from around 1712 till the 1917 Revolution the flag of the navy of Russia, of which he is also patron saint. St Andrews, the Scottish town which is named after him and which by an idiosyncrasy is spelled without an apostrophe, is currently educating Prince William, the next but one heir to the throne.

For more articles and news of the 107th Edition of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage visit

Return to April/May 2003 Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus