With over 10,000 saints recognised by the Catholic church to date, you might be forgiven for forgetting a few of their names. Many of the stories of these men and women and why they were canonised have been lost to time. However, when it comes to patron saints, you might want to pay a bit closer attention. After all, you never know which of them you want to keep on your side.
A patron saint is a saint who (in catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christian faiths) is a guiding and protective force for people of a particular vocation or occupation. From academics to zookeepers, there’s a patron saint to protect everyone - even clowns.
In the UK, four patron saints represent each of the nations: St George in England, St Patrick in Northern Ireland, St Andrew in Scotland, and St David in Wales.
If your first thought when you imagine St George is an Arthurian knight in a suit of armour battling a giant dragon, you wouldn’t be alone. Often depicted as the courtly knight atop a white horse in the English countryside, the truth of St George is a far cry from the legend.
So, the legend goes, townsfolk held hostage by a dragon had been making sacrifices in the hopes that it would keep the dragon from destroying the whole town. As the town ran out of livestock to offer, they moved on to the townspeople. One day the town’s princess was chosen to be sacrificed, and it was on her way to her doom that St George happened upon the town. In slaying the dragon, he saved both the town and its princess, and everyone lived happily ever after. Of course, we know that this story is a legend because dragons aren’t real.
The real St George was born in Turkey sometime in the third century and was a Christian soldier in the Roman army. When he refused to persecute his fellow Christians and denounce his faith in AD 303, St George was martyred. This valiant defence of his faith in the face of adversity was what led to his sainthood. He wouldn’t become the patron saint of England, however, for another thousand years.
St George was chosen as the patron saint of England by King Edward III when he formed the Order of the Garter in 1348. Inspired by the tales of St George’s heroic legend, King Edward chose him to be the patron saint of England because of the virtues he represented: bravery in the face of adversity, and the noble defence of the innocent.
As well as England, St George is also the patron saint of soldiers, archers, chivalry, cavalry, riders and saddlers, and farmers and field hands.
The legend of St Patrick says that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea, but the reality is that the climate in Ireland made it very difficult for snakes and other small reptiles to survive there. So, what did St Patrick really do?
The truth is that St Patrick's was sainted for bringing the Christian faith to Ireland in the 5th century. As the first bishop in Irish history, St Patrick is believed to be the founder of Christianity in Ireland. Much of the Irish population believed in ancient Celtic polytheistic practices considered heresy by the Catholic church.
Utilising the deeply ingrained traditions of the Celtic faiths around Ireland, St Patrick made the conversion to Christianity more accessible to the Irish people. The myth of Patrick driving out snakes was likely symbolism for his driving out of the heathens and druids that still observed heretical practices.
St Patrick is also the patron saint of engineers and, rather fittingly, Ophidiophobes (people who are afraid of snakes.)
While St Andrew has been celebrated in Scotland for over 1,000 years, he wasn’t officially made the patron saint until 1320. Loved for his virtues of kindness, caring, responsibility, and trustworthiness, feasts and parties celebrated the saint for centuries before Scotland declared him their patron saint.
The legend of St Andrew relates that when sentenced to death by crucifixion by the Roman governor Aegeas in Patras, Greece, St Andrew requested that his cross be x shaped as he didn’t believe himself worthy of being executed in the same manner as Jesus. This style of crucifixion is reflected in the Scottish flag - the Saltire, which features a white diagonal cross on a blue background.
Long celebrated in Scotland for his virtues and refusal to denounce his faith even in the face of death, St Andrew officially became the patron saint of the country in 1320 at the signing of Arbroath. He is also the patron saint of a whole host of other countries, as well as ropemakers, pregnant women, singers, miners, textile workers, and fishermen.
Unlike the other patron saints of the UK, St David is unique in that he is the only saint to have been born in his patron country. Born sometime between 462 and 515, St David was a monk and leading figure in the early Welsh church during the 6th century. Often depicted on a hillock with a dove on his shoulder, much of what we know about David has been kept alive through the centuries by word-of-mouth and traditions.
Known for his life of pious austerity, St David travelled southwest of the UK, creating monasteries and churches, and spreading the word of God. He was known for many miraculous acts of healing and even the blessing of bees. One legend tells of how, when preaching, the ground rose below him so that he was standing on a hill, allowing him to reach more people.
David was supposedly over 100 years old when he died, but it would still be a few centuries before he would become the patron saint of Wales. Despite his miracles and teachings continuing to spread across Britain in the years following his death, St David wasn’t canonised until 1120 by Pope Pope Callixtus II.