23 April – St George's Day
23rd April is the feast day of St George, who we know today as the patron saint of England. It is the traditional date given for his execution in 303 AD. St George was a Roman soldier who was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded for his Christian faith after he protested against the persecution of Christians.
He is famous for the St George and the Dragon legend, a tale which was brought back to England by the Crusaders and told and retold as a great chivalric tale. According to the most well-known version of the story, the Golden Legend, the people of a town known as Silene, in Libya, were feeding two sheep a day to a plague-ridden dragon which lived in the town's lake. Unfortunately, the townspeople eventually ran out of sheep and so were forced to sacrifice their children, choosing them by a lottery (a bit like the Hunger Games really!). One day, the king's daughter's name was chosen and she dutifully made her way to the lake dressed as she would be on her wedding day. The king was desperate to save her and so before she went he offered half his kingdom (yes, half!) and all his gold and silver to the townspeople if they would spare his daughter. They, of course, refused. Fortunately for this damsel in distress, St George happened to be riding by the lake that day and as the dragon emerged to eat the princess he gave the sign of the cross, charged at the beast and wounded it. He then told the princess to throw him her girdle and he put the girdle around the dragon's neck and they were able to lead the dragon back to the town as if it were a tame dog. Of course, the townspeople were terrified of this huge, diseased dragon so St George said that he would slay the beast if the townspeople converted to Christianity and were baptised. They agreed. All of the townspeople, including the very grateful king, became Christians and St George killed the dragon. The king built a church where St George had killed the beast and it is said that a spring of healing water flowed from the church's altar.
There are several versions of the legend but St George is always the Christian hero.
George was canonised as a saint in the 5th century but he did not become the patron saint of England until the 14th century, in the reign of Edward III. Before that, Edward the Confessor was England's patron saint and, in fact, George did not fully take over this role until 1552, in Edward VI's reign, when all religious flags and banners, except for the red cross of St George, were abolished in England. St George's feast day was celebrated in Tudor England because this warrior saint had been important to the crusaders. During the crusades, his emblem of a red cross on a white background was adopted by the crusaders, eventually becoming England's flag. The Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry, was established under his banner in 1348 by Edward III and an annual chapter meeting always took place on 23 April.
24 April – St Mark's Eve
St Mark's Eve was all about divining the future, although what on earth that has to do with St Mark is anyone's guess!
In Folklore of Lincolnshire, Susanna O'Neill writes of how this was the night for young women to “divine who they were to marry”. Ladies in North Kelsey would visit the Maiden Well, “walking towards it backwards and then circling it three times, still backwards, whilst wishing to see their destined husbands. After the third circling, the girl would kneel and gaze into the spring, where she would supposedly see the face of her lover.” Other ways of divining who you were going to marry, according to O'Neill and Steve Roud (The English Year), included hanging your washed chemise in front of the fire and waiting for a man (your future husband) to turn them, setting the table for supper and leaving the door open and waiting to see which man would come and join you, picking grass from a grave at midnight to put under your pillow so that you would then dream of your future beau, sitting in a barn at midnight and waiting for your future lover to walk through the door, and throwing an unbroken apple peel over your shoulder and then seeing whose name it had spelled out when it landed. A man could also divine who his future bride would be by visiting the local church at midnight and seeing whose reflection he would see in the church window at midnight. Still another tradition, according to www.mostly-medieval.com, was for a woman to “fast from sunset and then during the night make and bake a cake containing an eggshell full of salt, wheat meal, and barley meal. Then she should open the door of her home. Her future lover should come in and turn the cake.”
I bet there were lots of disappointed young people on this night!
25 April – The Feast of St Mark the Evangelist
25th April is the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist, one of the apostles and the man said to have written the Gospel of Mark. He is known as the founder of Christianity in Alexandria, where a church was founded in his name, and as the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church. As a result of his Christian work in Alexandria and his attacks on the worship of idols, at Easter 68AD he was dragged through the city by a rope around his neck before being imprisoned, where he is said to have had visions assuring him of eternal life. The next day he was dragged until his head parted from his body. Some say he was tied to a horse's tail. Copts believe that his head is in his church at Alexandria and that other parts of his relics are housed at St Mark's in Cairo and San Marco Cathedral in Venice.
St Mark's Day was the traditional day for praying for fertile land and a good harvest. According to Keith Thomas, in Religion and the Decline of Magic, people would process across fields carrying the cross, banners and bells to bless the crops and drive away evil spirits. It derived from the Roman pagan tradition of asking the gods for a good harvest.
The symbol of St Mark is a winged lion and he is often depicted as a lion or with a lion beside him. According to one legend, he survived being thrown to the lions because instead of eating him they slept at his feet.