St George's House,
With each year that passes
more and more people celebrate England's National day, however, despite
the encouraging enthusiasm
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
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 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.
St George was buried in Lydda, where a rose bush was planted on his grave and a church built on the site.
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.
It was Edward III
(1327-1377) probably more than any other monarch, who promoted St George
most publicly and passionately.
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.
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.
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.
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.