But of the man himself, nothing is certainly known. Our earliest source, Eusebius of Caesarea, writing c. 322, tells of a soldier of noble birth who was put to death under the orders of the Emperor Diocletian at Nicomedia (an ancient city of North West Asia Minor near the Bosphorus in present day Turkey) on 23 April, 303, but makes no mention of his name, his country or his place of burial. According to the apocryphal Acts of St George current in various versions in the Eastern Church from the fifth century, George held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor's persecution of Christians. George rapidly became venerated throughout Christendom as an example of bravery in defense of the poor and the defenseless and of the Christian faith.
A holiday in honour of St George, to be kept on 23 April, was declared by the Synod of Oxford in 1222. The fame of St George throughout Europe was greatly increased by the publication of the Legenda Sanctorum (Readings on the Saints), later known as the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) by James of Voragine in 1265. The name "golden legend" does not refer to St George but to the whole collection of stories, which were said to be worth their weight in gold. It was this book which popularized the legend of George and the Dragon. The legend may have been particularly well received in England because of a similar legend in Anglo-Saxon literature. St George became a stock figure in the secular miracle plays derived from pagan sources which continued to be performed at the beginning of spring. The origin of the legend remains obscure. It is first recorded in the late sixth century and may have been an allegory of the persecution of Diocletian, who was sometimes referred to as "the dragon" in ancient texts. The story may also be a Christianised 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 (Diospolis), where the cult of St George grew up around the site of his supposed tomb.
|Painting by Gustave Moreau (6 April 1826 – 18 April 1898) depicting Saint George slaying the dragon|
Saint George is a leading character in one of the greatest poems in the English language, Spencer's Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596). St George appears in Book 1 as the Redcrosse Knight of Holiness, protector of the Virgin. In this guise he may also be seen as the Anglican church upholding the monarchy of Elizabeth I:
But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge we wore
And dead (as living) ever he adored.
The legend of St George and the dragon took on a new lease of life during the Counter Reformation. The discoveries in Africa, India and the Americas, in areas which maps had previously shown as populated by dragons, presented vast new fields for Church missionary endeavour, and St George was once again invoked as an example of danger faced and overcome for the good of the Church. Meanwhile, the Protestant author, John Bunyan (1628-88), recalled the story of George and the Dragon in the account of the fight between Christian and Apollyon in Pilgrim's Progress (1679 and 1684).
In more modern times, St George was chosen by Baden-Powell, its founder, to be patron of the Scouting Movement, and on St George's Day, scouts are bidden to remember their Promise and the Scout Law. Baden-Powell recounted in Scouting for Boys that the Knights of the Round Table '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 chevalier is derived'.
As early as 496, Pope Gelasius in De libris recipiendis includes George among those saints 'whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God'. The virtues associated with St George, such as courage, honour and fortitude in defense of the Christian faith, indeed remain as important as ever. St George is also, of course, venerated in the Church of England, by the Orthodox churches and by the Churches of the Near East and Ethiopia. The supposed tomb of St 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 George.
|An illumination of a medieval battle found in the Bibliothéque Nationale de France|
St George is still venerated in a large number of places, by followers of particular occupations and sufferers from certain diseases. George is the patron saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany and Greece; and of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice (second to St Mark). He is patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry; of farmers and field workers, Boy Scouts and butchers; of horses, riders and saddlers; and of sufferers from leprosy, plague and syphilis. He is particularly the patron saint of archers, which gives special point to these famous lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1, l. 31:
St. Crispin’s Day
'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!'.
H.Delehaye, Les legendes grecques des saints militaires, Paris 1909
I.H.Elder, George of Lydda, 1949
E. Hoode, Guide to the Holy Land, Jerusalem 1962
G.J.Marcus, Saint George of England, 1939
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend : Readings on the Saints, Tr. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)