The image of Saint George, renowned for his defense of all in need, is among the most well-recognized of Christian martyrdom figures. Primarily famous for being the Patron Saint of England (replacing the former patron, Edward the Confessor), George is also known as "Victory Bringer" and "The Quick to Hear." Of the man himself, very little can be considered a certainty, save that he lived during the Fourth Century and was executed by decapitation in Lydda, Palestine. He was most probably born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and, upon the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she owned land and where George may have been expected to oversee the estate but instead, chose the life of a military man.
The earliest literary reference to Saint George comes from Eusebius of Caesarea who, in 322 A.D., writes of a noble-born soldier of high rank the Roman army, being thrown into prison for vehemently disagreeing with Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians and, despite being tortured, refused to recant his beliefs. The following day, April 23, 303, he was dragged through the streets of Nicomedia and beheaded. The Emperor's wife, Alexandria, was so impressed at the soldier's courage, that she converted immediately to the Christian faith and was also put to death. Although it seems likely that this "noble-born soldier" and the personage who was later to be known as "Saint George" are indeed one and the same, this telling makes no mention of the nobleman's name, country of birth or place of interment.
According to the unauthenticated Acta Sancti Georgii ("Acts of St. George"), written at a very early date and various versions of which have been embraced in the Eastern Church since the Fifth Century, George held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian for speaking out against the Emperor's persecution of Christians. Thus, he became rapidly exalted as an example of courage in defense of the poor, the helpless and the Christian faith.
Saint George was probably first made known in England by Arculpus and Adamnan some time during the early Eighth Century when the "Acts of St. George," which recounted George's visits to Caerleon and Glastonbury while on Roman service in England, were translated into Anglo-Saxon. Many churches were dedicated to Saint George, such as one in Doncaster during 1061. He was adopted as the Patron Saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the crusading armies during the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Many such similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who heard them from Byzantine troops. The tales were circulated even further by the troubadours. When Richard I (also known as "The Lionheart") was campaigning in Palestine during 1191 and 1192, he put his army under the direct protection of Saint George.
Due to his widespread following, particularly in the Near East, and the many miracles which were coming to be attributed to him, George became universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. In 1222, the Synod of Oxford declared that a special celebration in his honor would take place every April 23 and, by the end of the Fourteenth Century, Saint George had been officially acknowledged as the Patron Saint of England. In 1415, the year of Agincourt, Archbishop Chichele raised Saint George's Day to an even greater feast and ordered that it should be observed like Christmas Day. By 1778 however, the holiday had reverted to a simple day of devotion for English Catholics.
The banner of Saint George...the red cross of a martyr on a white background...was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers quite possibly during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Later, it also become the official flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. During the campaigns of Edward III in France from 1345 to 1349, pennants sporting the red cross on a white background were ordered for the monarch's ship and uniforms in the same style for the men-at-arms. When Richard II invaded Scotland in 1385, every man under his command wore the insignia of Saint George.
The fame of Saint George throughout Europe was increased greatly by the publication in 1265 of the Legenda Sanctorum ("Readings on the Saints"), known later as the Legenda Aurea ("The Golden Legend"), by James of Voragine. It was this book which popularized the legend of George and the Dragon, which was particularly well-received in England because of a similar folktale found in Anglo-Saxon lore. The actual origin of the George/Dragon fable remains somewhat obscure. It was first recorded in the late Sixth Century and may have possibly been an allegory of Emperor Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. In ancient texts, Diocletian is sometimes referred to as "the dragon." The tale may also be a christianized version of the Greek legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster at Arsuf or Jaffa, near Lydda, where the cult of Saint George first took root around the site of his supposed tomb.
However, according to "The Golden Legend," the tale unfolds as follows:
A dragon once lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. Whole armies had fought against this fierce creature and had fallen in painful defeat. The monster devoured two sheep every day in a time when mutton was scarce. In the local villages, lots were drawn and maidens substituted for the sheep. Into this country came Saint George. Hearing the story on a day when a princess was to be the sacrifice, he crossed himself, rode into battle against the serpent, and killed it with a single blow of his lance. George then held forth with a magnificent sermon and converted the local people to Christianity. Given a large reward by the king, George distributed it to the poor and then rode away.
In 1348, George was adopted by Edward III as principal Patron of the king's new order of chivalry, the Knights of the Garter. An old story tells that while the King was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury at a magnificent court ball, the lady lost her garter. As Edward III retrieved it and handed it to her, he noticed several people smiling and indulging in remarks. Becoming angry, he exclaimed in French: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" ("Evil be to him who evil thinks"). Then, he added that he would make the little blue garter "so glorious that everyone would wish to wear it." This tale may or may not be true, but it is a fact that the Order was founded by King Edward III with its emblem being a dark blue garter, edged in gold, on which are printed the French words that the King spoke.
Another belief is that the Order took its name from a pendant badge or jewel traditionally shown in depictions of Saint George. The insignia of the Order include a Collar and Badge Appendant (known as the George). The badge is fashioned from gold and portrays a richly-enameled representation of Saint George on horseback slaying a dragon. A second medal (known as the Lesser George) also depicts the same dragon-slaying scene and is worn attached to the Sash. The purpose of the Order was most probably to focus the efforts of England on further Crusades to reconquer the Holy Land. The earliest records maintained concerning the Order of the Garter were destroyed by fire, but it is believed that in either 1344 or 1348, King Edward proclaimed George the Patron Saint of England. Although the cult of Saint George was repressed in England during the Reformation, St. George's Chapel at Windsor (completed in stages from 1483 through 1528)has remained the official seat of the Order, where its Chapters hold assembly. The reigning monarch of Great Britain (known as the Grand Master) and any current Prince of Wales are always members, together with 24 others and 26 Knights or Ladies Companions. Knighthoods of the Order of the Garter are bestowed on Saint George's Day (April 23) and the day itself is associated with a red rose, although George's color, in fact, is actually blue...the shade of the original garter...and it is traditional to wear something blue to attend the ceremony. On such occasions, the garter itself is worn on the left leg just below the knee.
In 1818, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) created the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in order to recognize exemplary service in the diplomatic field. This Order was founded in commemoration of the British protectorate of the Ionion Island and Malta, which had begun in 1814. Originally, membership was limited to inhabitants of the islands and to Britons who had served locally. In 1879, however, participation was opened to include foreigners who had performed distinguished service in the Commonwealth countries. The Order was reorganized by William IV into three classes: Knight Grand Cross (GCMG); Knight Commander (KCMG); and Companion (CMG). Today, there are women members of each class with the title of "Dame." The medal of the Order depicts Saint George and the Dragon on one side and Saint Michael in a confrontation with the Devil on the other, with the inscription: "auspicium melioris aevi" ("augury of a better age"). The Chapel of the Order is St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Saint George is a major character in Spencer's "Faerie Queen," considered to be one of the finest poems of the English language. He appears in Book I as the "Redcrosse Knight of Holiness," protector of the Virgin. It is in this guise that Saint George may also be perceived as the Anglican Church upholding the Tudor monarchy of Elizabeth I.
During the Counter Reformation, the legend of Saint George and the Dragon took on a new lease of life. Discoveries in Africa, India and the Americas, in areas which maps had previously shown to be populated by dragons, presented vast new fields for the undertakings of Church missionaries. Once again, Saint George invoked a shining example of danger faced and overcome for the good of the Church. Meanwhile, the Protestant author, John Bunyan, recalled the tale of George and the Dragon in his account of the fight between Christian and Apollyon in "Pilgrim's Progress."
Around 1511, the cult of Saint George was somewhat ridiculed by Erasmus after his visit to the saint's shrine at Canterbury, where the alleged arm of George attracted a vast number of pilgrims. Edmund Gibbon claimed that Saint George was originally George of Cappadocia, the Arian opponent of Saint Anthanasius, but there is no substantial proof that such was the case. Research which establishes what little is actually known about the historical George was conducted sometime at the end of the 1800s by the Bollandists, a scholarly society within the Jesuits. Upon evidence of Fourth Century inscriptions found in Syria (one dating from around 346 A.D.) and the testimony of a pilgrim named Theodosius, who visited Lydda in 530, and is the first to mention the tomb of Saint George, the Bollandists concluded that George was an individual of substance and had indeed actually existed.
In modern times, Saint George was chosen by Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting Movement, to be the association's patron. On Saint George's Day, scouts are instructed to remember their Promise and the Scout Law. In the handbook "Scouting for Boys," Baden-Powell recounted that the Knights of the Round Table had adopted Saint George as their patron because he was the only one of all the saints who had been a horseman. Thus, he is also the patron saint of cavalry...from which the word "chivalry" is derived.
When the population of Britain was subjected to mass bombing by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, King George VI instituted the George Cross for "acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger." This award, second only to the Victoria Cross (Great Britain's highest military decoration), is usually given to civilians and may be bestowed posthumously. It consists of a silver cross, with one side portraying Saint George slaying the Dragon and the inscription: "For Gallantry;" and on the other side, the name of the holder and the date of the award. For lesser but still outstanding acts of bravery, King George VI created the George Medal. This is also a silver cross with the likeness of the reigning monarch on one side and Saint George slaying the dragon on the other. The Island of Malta was awarded the George Cross during World War II for displaying heroism in resisting hostile attacks.
The revision of its "Calendar of Saints" by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 created some confusion regarding the degree of solemnity by which each individual saint would be honored. In the process, Saint George was downgraded to the lowest category and his commemoration an optional memorial, mostly for local observance only. Nevertheless, this by no means heralded Saint George's abolishment...or even abandonment...by the Church and it maintains a fine Cathedral named for him opposite the Imperial War Museum in London.
The reason for the Church now simply "commemorating" Saint George is because, although he most certainly existed, so little is definitely known about him. Most of the legends of George are unverified and somewhat incredible in nature. The Church has never officially held that these legends are true in the literal sense, but made use of them to illustrate some of its teachings during times when the general populace may have been more comfortable with such personifications. As early as 496, Pope Gelasius includes George among the saints whose names are rightly revered but whose actions may be known only to God. The virtues associated with Saint George...courage, honor and fortitude in defense of the Christian faith, for example...remain as important as ever. Of course, Saint George is also venerated by the Church of England, the Orthodox Churches and by the Churches of the Near East and Ethiopia. The alleged tomb of Saint George can still be seen at Lod, south-east of Tel-Aviv, and a convent in Cairo preserves personal objects which are believed to have belonged to the saint.
In addition to being the Patron Saint of England, George is the Patron Saint of Aragon, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece. He is the Patron Saint of Catalonia, where legend has it that, after killing the dragon, he gave the princess a red rose and, as a result, on April 23 (especially in the City of Barcelona), it is traditional for men to give their sweethearts or wives a red rose and the lady in question reciprocates the gesture with the gift of a book. He is also the Patron Saint of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (where he is second only to Saint Mark), as well as being the Patron Saint of the State of Georgia. He is the patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry; of farmers and field workers; of Boy Scouts and of butchers; of horses, riders and saddlers; and of sufferers from leprosy, plague and syphilis. He is particularly the Patron Saint of archers, which gives a special meaning to these famous lines from William Shakespeare's "Henry V," Act 3, Scene 1:
I see you Stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the Start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry "God for Harry, England and St. George!"