Who was St George? Rescuer, martyr, spectral leader


How much do we actually know about St George? Not very much it would seem, since a 2013 poll by the Think Tank British Future found that only 40 per cent of Britons knew that the 23rd of April was St George's day, compared to 71 per cent who knew when American Independence Day was.

That same poll also suggested the dragon-slaying saint is not that important to most English people, since only 19 per cent of those asked said they planned to be doing anything to celebrate.

To help the majority who seem to be very unsure about the who, what, and why of St George, here are some answers to some frequently asked questions

Who was St George?

Modern historians believe that the man who would become St George was born to Christian parents in the Roman province of Cappadocia, which is now Eastern Turkey, in 270 AD.

The earliest sources that historians believe to be about St George come from 322 AD, the writings of the Christian Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius speaks of a soldier from a noble family who was executed by the pagan Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303 AD. However Eusebius makes no mention of this soldier's name, nationality, or where he was buried.

Later writings from the fifth century shared among the Eastern Church say that the man who would become St George held the rank of Tribune in the Roman Army, above the Centurions but below the Generals.

Military Tribunes were those who served in the army as part of their route to join the senate where they could wield political power, but St George gave this career path up when he protested against Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians.

Diocletian issued an order in 302 AD that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested, and that all worshippers of the Roman Gods should offer sacrifices. St George refused, giving Diocletian pause.

Diocletian did not want to lose one of his best Tribunes, so he tried to bribe St George to convert away from Christianity with offers of slaves, money and land. But St George refused and loudly declared among his fellow soldiers that he worshipped Jesus Christ.

As punishment for this, Diocletian had St George imprisoned, tortured, dragged through the streets, and ultimately beheaded.

Before his execution, St George gave all the wealth he had to the poor of the city of Nicomedia, where he was stationed. The Emperor's wife, Alexandra, upon witnessing St George's execution, was moved to convert to Christianity herself. This would later see her martyred also.

By the year 900, several accounts of miracles and apparitions of St George appearing long after his death meant that his status as a martyr was further elevated, and he was accepted as a saint.

Why is St George Patron Saint of England?

The first connection that St George has with England came when the Eastern Church's writings about him, 'The Acts of St George' was translated into the Anglo Saxon language.

They speak of his visits to Glastonbury and the Roman fort of Caerleon in south eastern Wales as part of his military career.

Clearly this kind of visit by someone who was later venerated as a martyr must have been important because in 1061 a church in what is now Doncaster was dedicated to St George.

In 1098 accounts tell of a spectral apparition of St George which appeared to the English Crusader armies at the battle of Antioch, leading them a victory where they were able to capture the strategically important town.

Several similar stories of this kind emerged during the Crusades, and in 1191 when the 'Lionheart' Richard I was crusading in Palestine, he made the first direct connection between England and St George, declaring that his armies were under the protection of St George.

Historians aren't certain, but they believe that the banner of St George, the red cross on a white background, became part of the English crusader's uniform during Richard I's crusade.

It was definitely in use in the Navy by the thirteenth century, as a seal of the coastal town of Lyme Regis dated 1284 depicts an English warship flying the St George's cross. It was also worn by the army during the conquests of Wales in 1276 to 1283.

But the biggest link between England and St George came in 1348 when Edward III established the Most Noble Order of the Garter, an ultra-elite chivalry honour based at Windsor Castle that is still in existence to this day.

The members all had to be knights, and Edward chose St George as its patron. In letters sent between the members, Edward would later describe St George as "the most invincible athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English nation invoke as that of their patron, especially in war".

While this was a very important connection, it was still one that only really permeated the elite of English society. It wasn't until the fifteenth century, with Henry V's victories in France, that St George began to take on a national following in England.

This was later sold to the masses by William Shakespeare. In his depiction of the battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare has Henry V shout: "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and St George!'"

In modern times, Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, chose St George as the patron of the Scouts. He would often tell of how the mythical Knights of the Round Table chose St George as their patron, saying on one occasion: "[The Knights] had as their patron saint St George because he was the only one of all the saints who was a horseman. He is the patron saint of cavalry, from which the word chivalry is derived."

Why do we remember St George as having killed a dragon?

The story of St George and the dragon comes from a book written by James of Voragine in 1265.

The Readings on the Saints, later known as The Golden Legend, was a collection of stories about many different saints from across Europe. It is unclear as to whether the author believed in a literal dragon, or whether it was intended to be a metaphor for sin.

The story goes that the people of a town called Selene in modern day Libya were sacrificing virgins to appease a local dragon to stop it from destroying the village.

The next sacrifice was due to be the princess Cleolinda, so George first tamed the dragon in battle, killed it, and saved the princess. In gratitude, the people of Selene agreed to convert to Christianity.

The story is believed to have taken hold in England because of its similarity to many Anglo Saxon stories of a similar theme.

During the Counter Reformation, the legend of the dragon took on new importance, as with more discoveries of lands in Africa, as well as the Americas, all parts of the map previously marked with the index "here be Dragons", the mantle of St George was taken up by many missionaries.

Why is St George's Day celebrated on 23 April?

The 23 April was the day of choice for celebrating St George's day because according to the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, that was the day that St George was martyred for his defence of his fellow Roman Christians from persecution.