Saint George, patron saint of England, is also patron saint of a few other places: Georgia; Malta; Gozo; Portugal and Romania. One of the most venerated Saints in the Catholic Church, ‘Georgios’ died on 23 April 303, the day named in his honour. He was born between 275-281 AD, almost certainly born in Lydda, Palestine; or Cappadocia, Turkey; or Silene, a fictional town in Libya…or fictional Beirut.
Georgios’s parents were Christians; wealthy and noble Greeks. His father Geronitus was a well-regarded official in the army of Emperor Diocletian. Georgios was in his teens when his parents died, and so he sought employment with Diocletian. Within ten years he ascended to the rank of Tribunus within the Imperial Guard in the metropolis of Nicomedia. Georgios was well regarded as a man and warrior.
Diocletian’s priest (some accounts say) heard Christians bad-mouthing his church. Certainly Diocletian was significantly angry and called for sacrifices to Apollo and arrests of Christians. He didn’t want to lose one of his best, and spoke with Georgios over many weeks to ask if he could pay tribute, convert. He offered land, money and slaves; presumably he was rescinding the arrest order too. Georgios refused, and publicly declared his worship of Jesus in front of a mass of peers. Diocletian reluctantly ordered his execution, and torture, it seems. He was given time to put his affairs in order and gave away much of his wealth to the poor. Then, Georgios was lacerated on the Wheel of Swords, and decapitated on the city wall, along with an Empress and a pagan priest who were moved by his example.
There’s a phrase much associated with George:
“Soldier. Martyr. That’s all we know for sure.”
He died three years before Constantine’s rule. Shortly after, a church “to a man of the highest order”, was built in Lydda, funded by an unknown patron. Talk of Georgios spread by family and friends accross the Black Sea to Lebanon, Palestine and through the Roman Empire. In 494 he was canonised by Pope Gelasius I, and in the 6th century, the Kings of Iberia adopted his insignia. His currency as a warrior saint and martyr grew with Christian-Catholicism, and war. In death, the places called Georgia were named after him. By the 8th century, churches, art and stained glass windows across Europe were constructed in his name. In England, there were no tributes to George, and the flood-gates opened: he was venerated as a saint, churches shot up and St.George’s cross (red over white) was chosen for the English flag.
A meme is an idea that quickly sticks in the brain and leaps to another just as quick. There’s no doubt George was a meme for the times. He appeared in apparitions in the middle East, at the end of the 11th century. Georgios, upon horseback, with a sword, wearing a white stole with red cross.
In 1260, Archbishop of Genoa Jacobus De Voragine wrote The Golden Legend a.k.a the cooler story with the dragon in it. This Middle Ages best-seller concerns the sacrifice of sheep, then children, and a distressed town and princess in appeasement of a dragon. De Voragine’s marked fiction grew with each re-telling. The princess was Diocletian’s wife, the dragon, of St. John’s Book of Revelation. George was not just a warrior saint, but an ideal knight. A symbol of sacrifice, a brave interceder for the oppressed. In the 15th century, Russia became deeply smitten with this courageous and virtuous hero, an example to noble young men.
There must have been millions of different stories of George in the millennium before DeVoragine’s sword and sorcery yarn. Soon they wanted to know if the threat to the made-up town of Silene, was…
a) A dinosaur?
b) A crocodile?
c) The Dragon of Pride?
d) The beast of St. John’s Book of Revelation?
e) Or a simple revisiting of the battles between Setekh and Horus?
Was Diocletian’s wife the Princess, or was she unrelated? Did the statues of Appollo wail of their falsehoood, before collapsing the world over? The centuries have been filled with George-Mania, not all of it healthy.
Then, some of it is very healthy. George has since been drawn by a roster of classical artists from Ucello to Raphael, Tintoretto to Rubens, from Salvador Dali to Al Williamson. His tales have been re-told by many including Shakespeare, Kenneth Grahame, Margaret Hodges and notably, Ted Hughes with “The Iron Man”.
In life, George never travelled far from home, but the chief themes associated with him, suitable in culture and politics assures his name is global. We know a lot more about him than ever existed historically. Perhaps it’s time he stopped being a soldier and a martyr.