St George? Who’s That?

St George? Who’s That?

St George? Who's That?

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By Paul Heley. Taken from the June/July 2018 issue of The Vine Magazine.

Background

As many readers will know, England celebrates St George’s Day on April 23rd. But I suspect that a lot of  readers will not know that England celebrates St Georges Day on this day because nothing much happens to mark the occasion and they know nothing about it. Admittedly, Dunstable has something of a celebration at Priory House and, perhaps, other places in the area also put something on but any celebrations are, today, nothing like they used to be years ago.

So, who is St George? Answer : He’s England’s patron saint and stands with St David (Wales), St Andrew (Scotland) and St Patrick (Ireland). But whereas the celtic nations make a big fuss about their national days, England (as usual) keeps very low key.

St George? Who's That?

Unfortunately, not much is known about St George – apart from the fact that he wasn’t English and it’s highly unlikely that he ever set foot in England either. So, not much for starters! But it seems that he was originally a Roman soldier who became a devout Christian and was disgusted at the treatment of, and the killing of Christians. So much so that he refused to fight in the Roman army and for which refusal he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded on April 23rd, AD 303 thus becoming an early Christian martyr.

The Roman Emperor at the time was Dioclesian and he was both brutal and cruel and, as the story became told repeatedly (and, as usual, exaggerated) so Dioclesian became a monster – in particular, a dragon.

 

St George? Who's That?

 

There are other, mythical, stories from these times each talking about how a terrible monster terrorises a town, or a kingdom, demanding food and how, eventually, a hero figure comes to the rescue. Such stories often include a beautiful maiden who is just about to be eaten but is saved in the nick of time by the hero. For example, there’s the story of how Perseus rescues Andromeda, the daughter of the King of Ethiopia. And there’s the story of how Bellerophon (on his winged horse, Pegasus) slays the multi headed Chimaera who represents evil in the form of a fire breathing dragon. When told in Old English, this evil creature becomes a Wyrm (a huge limbless and wingless serpent). But somehow any later development of St George killing a worm doesn’t have the same heroic ring about it!

Such disparate stories gradually merged into the common theme of a hero figure rescuing a princess from the brink of death and killing an evil monster in the process. And, gradually, the Christian martyr, George, became this hero figure who represents martial valour and selflessness. Legends of this warrior-saint became increasingly common from the 6th century onwards with the story often being extended to include baptism into Christianity by the king (or whomsoever) and his subjects as suitable payment for the rescue.

The English adoption

The story of George first appeared in England in Arculf’s account of a journey which was included in the “Ecclesiastical History of England” written by The Venerable Bede in AD 680 showing that the story was known well before the Norman Conquest. It was in wide circulation by the 15th century when it was published by William Caxton in 1483.

But George was first adopted as the patron saint of Crusaders since it was reported that he was seen helping them (ie crusading Christians) at the battle of Antioch in 1098. And Richard 1st (Lionheart) claimed to have found George’s grave whilst on one of his crusades in the 12th century.

As an extension to these reports, George then became the unofficial patron saint of England but it was not until the reign of Edward 3rd in the 14th century that he became England’s official patron saint and also that of Edward’s newly formed Order of the Garter. At this time, his particular day (April 23rd) was officially raised to the same standing as that of Christmas Day and Easter Day.

Following the victory of the English over the French in 1415, Saint George’s Day was then declared a major feast day – and April 23rd has been recognised as St George’s Day ever since.

St George elsewhere

The story of St George and the dragon is not exclusive to England – similar stories are found all over Europe amongst former Germanic, Slavic and (especially) Baltic tribes. There are examples from France, Catalonia, Lithuania and Sweden whilst in Georgia the arms of the President show St George’s cross (the same as in England). There is also a picture of a saintly hero killing a dragon found on Moscow’s coat of arms.

 

St George? Who's That?
Lithuania / Marijampole Coat Of Arms, featuring St George
St George? Who's That?
St George on the Moscow Coat Of Arms

But in none of these depictions is George regarded as being English; he is usually of middle eastern or Turkish extraction. In art he is usually shown dressed in knightly armour (as on an Ethiopian Coptic church manuscript from the 17th century).

Conclusion

It seems that nobody can be absolutely certain who George was, or if he really existed at all and is nothing more than a myth. But if he existed, he most certainly wasn’t English and there is a strong lobby of opinion which suggests that England’s patron saint should, at least, be English. Also in these days of political correctness, the idea of someone on a medieval crusade doesn’t go down too well in some quarters! So if not Saint George, then who? Saint Alban? – the first English martyr. He has a lot of support (and the Saxon king Edward the Confessor has also been suggested). Take your pick.

By Paul Heley.


The Vine Dunstable - April May 2019Read the latest issue of The Vine Magazine for your area HERE

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St George? Who’s That?

St George? Who’s That?