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Saint George - History & Legend  

With each year that passes more and more people celebrate England's National day, however, despite the encouraging enthusiasm
of those promoting England there does still seem to be a widespread ignorance about the figure of St George himself.

Knowledge of St George, England's patron saint, often does not extend beyond the popular legend of how he slayed a dragon.

               

Learning about St George provides a way of understanding England's past and the virtues of charity, courage, kindness and self sacrifice to which English people aspire. This is therefore a good time to retell the story of St George and examine how he became
the patron saint of England.

The swirling fog of time and the coloured smoke of myth and legend have enveloped St George in a confusing cloak of mystery, but historians are in no doubt that he was a man of flesh & blood, a real historic figure. Two possible locations are usually put forward as his place of birth in around 270 AD: either Lydda (Lod) in the Vale of Sharon (Palestine) or Cappadocia in present day Turkey. The son of Christian parents, he served in the Roman Army under the Emperor Diocletian, rising through the ranks to become an officer in the Imperial Guard. Diocletian's second in command was Galerius, a supporter of the pagan religion, and when rumours spread that Christians were plotting his death an edict was issued which ordered the destruction of Christian churches, the burning of scriptures and the decree that everyone must recognise the divinity of the Emperor by throwing incense on a lamp beside his statue. St George refused and went to the city of Nicomedia where he tore down the notice of the edict, publicly denounced the persecution and gave all his property to the poor. Although arrested and tortured, he refused to denounce his faith and was beheaded on 23 April, 303.

                                                            
                                            
Emperor Diocletian              Commander Galerius 

St George was buried in Lydda, where a rose bush was planted on his grave and a church built on the site.


Remarkably, within a few years of his death, under the rule of Emperor Constantine, Christianity   had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Word of St George's courage and sacrifice spread across Christendom and the tomb of "The Great Martyr", as it was known, became a place of pilgrimage with many visitors telling stories of the miracles they had witnessed.

In 330 AD the Emperor dedicated a church to St George in the new city of Constantinople and it is known that as early as 346 AD two other churches bore his name at Shaqqa and Ezria in Syria.

Although the fame of St George is often said to have reached England's shores through stories told by returning crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the cult of St George existed long before then. In his book The Story of St George, Anthony Cooney makes the interesting observation that a Church Council was held at Lydda in 415 AD, a meeting that was sure to have been attended by clerics from Britain who would have spread the word about St George on their return. It is certainly known that there was a church dedicated to St George at Fordington in Dorset during the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899) and that Canute (who reigned 1016-1035) founded a monastery at Thetford under his patronage.

St George's tomb. Lydda.
Many of the miracles associated with St George were to do with people being healed of illnesses and injuries after offering up prayers to the soldier-saint, but it was the numerous accounts of how St George appeared at critical moments in battles that enhanced his status as a great Christian defender. He was said to have helped the Normans beat the Saracens in Sicily in 1063 and on several occasions was seen by crusaders coming to their aid. At the siege of Antioch in 1098 his figure was glimpsed in the sky leading an army of knights, and at Jerusalem King Richard I, the Lionheart (1189-99), saw a vision of St George with his red-cross banner. Richard took St George as his own personal patron, placing himself and his army under the protection of the Christian martyr. This adoption by successive monarchs was tremendously important in the gradual evolution of St George as patron saint of England.
                                                                                  

In 1222 during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) the Council of Bishops at Oxford declared 23rd April to be St George's Day, and in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham the red cross was carried as a military flag for the first time. Edward I (1272-1307) took this a step further by ordering that the Cross of St George should be carried by the monarch, joining the banners of Edmund and Edward the Confessor, two other popular saints.

It was Edward III (1327-1377) probably more than any other monarch, who promoted St George most publicly and passionately.
In 1348 he founded the Order of the Garter, a brotherhood of chivalric knights dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Edward the Confessor and St George (Queen Elizabeth II heads the current Order), and built St George's Chapel at Windsor.
Edward's allegiance to the saint, whose help he had called upon, was strengthened by his victory at the siege of Callais in 1347, and in 1351 an official document declared: " The English nation call upon St George as their special patron, particularly in war."

In 1415, on the eve of Henry V's departure to Normandy to campaign in the Hundred Years War, all English people were ordered to attend church and to pray to St George to watch over the King. Following Henry's magnificent victory at Agincourt, a spectacular pageant was held in London which included a statue of St George; St George's Day was elevated to "a greater double" feast day, and a new declaration restated the position that the saint was to be regarded as "the special patron and protector of the English nation". Subsequent rulers remained devoted to St George and during Henry VIII's reign (1509-1547) the Cross of St George was officially adopted as England's flag.

St George would certainly have become familiar to ordinary people through wall paintings, altarpieces and sculptures in many churches throughout England. One of the earliest of these was a carving above the door of the church at Fordington which shows the saint on horseback doing battle with enemy soldiers.

                                                             
Notice attached to the door of the church:- The Typanum over this door is of great antiquity and may have been given to the church by William Belet who was rewarded with the Manor of Fordington by William the Conqueror. It is recorded that St George came to the assistance of Crusaders on both the 1st and 3rd Crusades. If Belet went on the 1st Crusade it would seem that he was being hard pressed by Saracens at the battle of Doryloeum in 1097 when St George came to his aid. He and his squire have fallen on their knees in thankfulness.  

It is interesting to see that it is dated 1097, around the same time as the reported sightings of St George at Antioch. No dragon is depicted in the carving, nor in the "Lewes Group" of wall paintings (see below).

 

The paintings belong to the ‘Lewes Group’.  They are painted on the original plaster, which in view of the likely date of the church suggests that they were finished by the early 1100's, and fewer pigments are used. A strong blue-green derived from verdigris has faded less than the others, thus distorting the balance of colours.

Of the two tiers on the side walls, the upper one shows the story of the Nativity. The lower one is fragmentary, but the rider to the north with a lance has been seen as St George. How far the siege of Antioch (1098) led to a popularisation of his cult has been disputed, but this is nevertheless considered the earliest depiction in England - according to 12th century charter, the dedication of the church was to him.

 

The Lewes Group of paintings, St Botolph's Church,West Sussex.

The origin of this mythical addition to the historical account of St George's life is now almost impossible to discover amongst the tangle of facts, fables and superstitions. One scholarly historian, Samantha Riches, reveals how stories of fire breathing dragons and heroes doing battle with monsters were common to all cultures, and that in the Middle Ages belief in dragons as real fearsome creatures was widespread.
She has managed to find the first English image of St George and the dragon - a 12th century carved representation on a tombstone at Conisborough parish church in Yorkshire - but places this in its wider context by pointing out that a seal of St George and the Dragon was adopted as the arms of Moscow as early as the 9th century.

                                          
                                           St Peter's Parish Church, Conisbrough, Yorkshire.

Many authorities cite the Golden Legend, a collection published in 1260 which recounted the "real lives" of over 100 saints, as the work that popularised the story of St George rescuing the princess, converting the King and townsfolk to Christianity and slaying the dragon.
Increasingly, whether in books, paintings or stained glass, St George was depicted fighting the dragon. The story was also re-enacted every year during processions by the Guilds of St George, which exerted considerable power in many English towns and cities during the Middle Ages.
Jacobus de Voragine, the Italian cleric who wrote the Golden Legend, set the story in Silene in Libya, but as English admiration and affection for St George grew, tales were told linking him with England. One legend said that he was born in Coventry, another that he was posted to York, an intriguing theory researched at length by historian Anthony Cooney.

In the centuries since the Middle Ages the flame of St George, enduring symbol of courage, sacrifice and unquenchable Christian faith, has sometimes burned brightly and sometimes merely flickered, but it has never gone out. As well as England, he is the patron saint of Aragon, Barcelona, Bavaria, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal to name but a few. He is also the patron saint of farmers and Scouting.

Across England in towns, cities, castles and stately homes, the guilds of St George will be holding pageants on 23rd April, re-enacting the St George legend depicting the symbolic triumph of good over evil, just as they do every St George's day.

                                                                           

In 2012, the year of Her Majesty The Queen's Diamond Jubilee: Cry "God for Elizabeth! England and St George!"

Reproduced by kind permission of This England magazine.
This England Publishing Ltd
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