A Tudor St George’s Day Surprise

Don’t you sometimes just yearn for the pomp and pageantry of yesteryear? I mean the Blackheath Morris Men dancing outside The Pelton Arms is all very nice (and splendid fellows they look too – exactly what you’d expect from Morris men – “We nearly all have beards and those that don’t either have a note from their mum or doctor, or they have a rare skin disorder.” Their website includes a vegetarian crossword.) but we just don’t get events of the kind of sober magnitude Henry VII presided over.

Take St George’s Day 1504. Much feasting and distribution of largesse had been partaken of, but the Cardinal of Rouen had sent a little extra surprise for lucky Henry. And as the Holy Legate’s ‘orator’ landed opposite the Grey Friars’ house at Greenwich, the whole court was agog.

Ooo, ooo, what could it be? It was all so exciting.

Grandly, the visiting Augustine Abbot donned his surplice and cope, and stepped forward with the precious parcel. Everyone surged forward to see. All the Kings chaplains had worn their copes and crosses round their necks. Around the chapel yeomen of the guard in coats of “beaten goldsmiths’ work” carried burning torches.

A very glorious-looking religious chap arrived.

Heavens! Who’s that? went the whisper around the court. “The Bishop of Chester,” came the awed reply, “in full pontificals.” Come all the way for a gander. As had Knights of the Order and “a great number of high functionaries and noblemen,” all crowded in around the Bishop to see the item the Holy Legate brandished before him, wondering what it could possibly be.

Any guesses?

Give up?

It was Saint George’s right leg. Garnished in silver, as though it was wearing armour, complete with a gilt spur. Bet you didn’t see that one coming…

Now, I know that a lot of people still put a lot of stock about holy relics but – well – doesn’t a holy right-leg somehow sound a bit Father Ted-ish?

Whatever I might make of it, though, back in 1504 everyone took it all very seriously indeed. The Bishop approached the holy leg and censed it, before it was paraded to the chapel (yes, the one they dug up a few years ago – then put a car park over…) where it was set on the high altar and the choir sang “Oh, George &c.” Later, the king kissed the leg and made offerings to it, while “the legate’s orator was greatly feasted in a private chamber.”

Why can’t we have ceremonies like that now? I mean – you wouldn’t need to have a real leg – it could be symbolic one – a bit like chocolate Easter eggs stand in for traditions of years ago. It could be – oh, I don’t know – a papier-mache pinata in the shape of a leg. Greenwich’s own St George’s Day Tradition. The Blackheath Morris Men could dance around it, venerating it with hankies, before hitting it with their sticks, creating a shower of sweeties for the local kiddies, as everyone swigs pints of foamy Meantime Beer,shouting

“Huzzah for England and the Holy Leg of St George!”

(And yes, Benedict, I’m sure we could a work a lucky Greenwich toad somewhere in there too…)


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