The text of Sir John Major’s speech held at St George’s Windsor, in Toronto, on Thursday 4th February 2010.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
Warmest thanks to Hilary and Galen [Weston]. It is because of their kindness and generosity that we’re all here tonight.
We live in a world of complex – and often daunting – problems, yet tonight our focus is a venerable building that is an important piece of history. “If we forget the past”, said a wise man, “we will be condemned to relive it”. That is certainly true. But it is equally true that if we ignore the past, we lose part of our heritage and a sense of who we are.
To many, Windsor Castle, the Chapel of St George, the Military Knights and the Knights of the Garter must seem very remote – almost the stuff of fairy tales – but they are not.
Windsor Castle, said the diarist Samuel Pepys 350 years ago, is the “most romantic castle in the world”. Even to Pepys, it was already ancient, and had a charm which was hard to describe.
Originally, the Castle formed one of a ring of garrisons, built to command the area around London. Windsor was a site of particular strategic importance, not only because it dominated the Thames – then the principal freight route – but also because the Castle was only one day’s march from the Tower of London.
St George’s Chapel is far closer: just a short walk down the hill from the Castle. The Chapel was founded by King Edward III in 1348 and dedicated to St George, Patron Saint of England: the same George, you may recall, who is said to have slayed the Dragon.
It was a very odd choice – of name, and of Patron Saint. St George did not slay a dragon. He was not English (so far as we know, he was born in Turkey). And he never visited England.
Nonetheless, Edward III admired his legend, which is based in the town of Silene, Libya – in about 200 AD. The town had a very large lake, in which lived a dragon – presumably an amphibian dragon. Certainly fierce – in order to appease the dragon, the people of Silene fed it sheep. When the supply of sheep ran out, they started to feed it children, drawn by lottery.
One day, the lot fell on the King’s daughter, and she was despatched to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
By chance, George rode past the lake. The Princess urged him to stay away – but he vowed to remain. At this point – enter the dragon. Up he reared from the lake.
George fortified himself with a Sign of the Cross, charged the dragon, and inflicted a grievous wound. He called to the Princess to throw him her girdle, which he tied around the dragon’s neck. They then led the dragon back into the town, like a meek beast on a leash.
The people were terrified at the dragon’s approach, but George promised them that – if they consented to become Christians – he would slay the dragon before them.
The King, and the people of Silene, duly converted to Christianity. George slew the dragon. And on the site where the dragon died, the King built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George.
At Windsor, myth became reality: St George’s Chapel, Windsor is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St George, and has been a working Chapel for 660 years.
Established to be independent of the State, it has remained so ever since. Each day, it holds three Services – one of which is sung by the choir.
The Chapel is the centre of life of the College, and attracts a million visitors each year. The Chapel – and the medieval cloisters that surround it – are breathtakingly beautiful. And it is they that are at the heart of this Appeal.
For centuries, the Chapel has been a focus for pilgrims, and a resting place for Monarchs. Many are buried there: Edward IV, Henry VI, Henry VIII – and Jane Seymour, his third wife and one of the Queens he didn’t kill. Charles I – a King who was killed – by Oliver Cromwell.
More recently, HM The Queen’s parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and her sister, Princess Margaret have been laid to rest there. This is no ordinary Chapel.
When Edward III founded St George’s Chapel, he also founded the Poor Knights (now Military Knights) to care for it, and the Order of the Garter.
Like St George, The Order of the Garter is a very British oddity. It consists of The Monarch, the Prince of Wales, and a further 24 Knight Companions – some from the Royal Family, and all personally chosen by the Monarch.
There is no specific reason for appointment, which led a former Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to state that he loved the Garter as – and I quote – “there was no damn merit in it”. A remark that existing Knights of the Garter such as Dukes, Prime Ministers, Field Marshals, Cabinet Secretaries and Governors of the Bank of England might prefer not to recall.
The origin of the Order of the Garter – a blue garter with the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense – will probably never be known. The myth is that, during a Ball to celebrate the surrender of Calais in 1347, The Countess of Salisbury dropped her garter and King Edward – seeing her embarrassment – retrieved it swiftly, and bound it about his own leg. As the Countess was attractive – and the King attracted – the Court muttered the medieval of Oh-ho! The King turned on them, saying: “Shame be to he who evil thinks”.
Is it true? We’ll never know – but I hope it is.
The origin of the Knights of the Garter is again the stuff of romantic history. It is thought that, in 1344, King Edward III – inspired by the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – held a massive jousting tournament at Windsor Castle.
He also promised to renew King Arthur’s fraternity of Knights and instructed that work should begin on a gigantic circular building within the Upper Ward of the Castle, in which this new Order of the Round Table – the Garter Knights – would be housed.
To this day, each June, the procession taken by the Garter Knights from the Upper Ward to the Royal Chapel is a public witness to the long tradition of the Monarch and leading figures of the nation, giving their allegiance and thanksgiving to God for creating, renewing and sustaining the World.
So let me return to St George’s, for it is a place not just for the Monarch, or the “Great and the Good”.
In 1943, on the eve of his departure for battle in World War II, a young Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards attended Evensong. This is the extract from his diary:
To St George’s Chapel in the evening, for one of the finest pieces of singing I have yet heard there; and the last for a bit. I shall never mind going to war if I know that I am fighting that such institutions as St George’s may live, for they are England and epitomise the spirit of tradition and worship – the laying before God of the most perfect and beautiful singing that man can produce.
Just as much work and practice goes into each service, even when no-one is there but God. There is nothing slip-shod or cheap there, and the result is inspiring and uplifting.
Soon afterwards, this soldier was killed in action – in Italy – aged just 21. He died defending the way of life that St George’s so beautifully, so magnificently, encapsulates in its ancient walls and traditions.
For many centuries, St George’s Chapel has offered a sense of constancy in an otherwise turbulent world. Our purpose is to preserve it for the centuries yet to come.