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The Enigma of Saint George

Updated on April 16, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

Icon of Saint George by Orlovic
Icon of Saint George by Orlovic | Source

The 23rd April marks the feast day of England's Patron Saint, George. Falling on the day of his alleged martyrdom, the day has become a festival day where English culture is celebrated, despite not being an official holiday.

Saint George has not always been the Patron Saint of England, nor has his story always been consistent.

Edward the Confessor
Edward the Confessor

St. Edward gets the sack

Up to 1349, England's Patron Saint was Saint Edward.

Saint Edward was in fact Edward the Confessor, one of England's last Anglo-Saxon kings, who died in 1066. Pope Alexander III canonised Edward in 1161, naming him "Confessor" as he did not die as a martyr. His title which denotes that he lived a pious life, but did not die for the Christian cause. His feast day takes place on 13th October and he is considered the Patron Saint of difficult marriages

When King Edward III came to the throne in 1327 aged fourteen, he had some ideas and ambitions for England. He was obsessed with chivalry and the importance of national identity. He had a round table of his own built, and chose twenty-five brave knights to sit with him around it when set up the Order of the Garter. But who could inspire the nation to acts of courage and good Christian conduct?

King Edward III chose Saint George as patron for the Order of the Garter, and he earned the reputation as being the Protector of the English.

We have Henry V to thank for promoting him to the chief Patron Saint of England. During the Battle of Agincourt, the King invoked Saint George, describing him as England's Patron Saint. Many soldiers described how they saw the Saint fighting with them on the battlefield, and in 1415 Archbishop Chicele promoted the feast of Saint George to principal status.

The feast day of Saint Edward became a lesser event in the Christian calendar.

Saint George and the Dragon, by Gustave Moreau (1890)
Saint George and the Dragon, by Gustave Moreau (1890)

The St. George we know and love

Legend tells us that Saint George slew a fierce dragon to rescue an innocent maiden. He is associated with the English national identity, and it is the Saint George's Cross that appears on the flag of England; a red cross on a white background.

This dramatic story is medieval in origin. The account of dragon-slaying first appeared in "The Golden Legend" in 1483, which was a translated text first written by a French Bishop named Jacobus de Voragine:

"S. George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. On a time he came in to the province of Libya, to a city which is said Silene. And by this city was a stagne or a pond like a sea, wherein was a dragon which envenomed all the country." [1]

Brave knights, damsels in distress, and monstrous dragons were and still are popular themes to any story, and added to the heroic figure that Saint George was portrayed to be.

There have been many accounts over the years about this Christian martyr and national hero, and I hope in this article to introduce some of them to you to help you understand more about the man behind the saint, and the history that led to him being celebrated.

15th Century illustration of Saint George slaying a rather tiny dragon.
15th Century illustration of Saint George slaying a rather tiny dragon.

St. George the Marytr

What little information that we have about Saint George is that he was most likely to have been born into a noble Christian family some time in the late 3rd Century in an area of Cappadocia that these days is found in Turkey.

He chose his profession as a soldier, fighting for the Croatian born Emperor Diocletian. The Emperor was famed for his military prowess, and he spent much of his rule conquering his neighbours. Any that did not conform were dealt with severely, and this is when he ordered the systematic persecution of Christians. George wanted nothing to do with this bloodshed, and was made an example of in Palestine where he was tortured horribly before being executed by beheading on April 23rd. It would appear that his wife also was killed for opposing this genocide.

This act made him one of the early Christian martyrs. The earliest account of Saint George in British texts comes from a 7th Century account by Saint Adamnan, an Abbot from Iona, and he is also mentioned by the Venerable Bede.

The remains of Caludon Castle in Coventry, said to be the birthplace of Saint George.
The remains of Caludon Castle in Coventry, said to be the birthplace of Saint George. | Source

St. George of Coventry

Surprisingly, the town of Coventry in Warwickshire also lays a claim to the legend of England's Patron Saint. In the 1500s, Richard Johnson, placed Coventry as being the birthplace of Saint George in his book "The Famous Historie of the Seven Champions of Christendom";

"For the Famous City of Coventry was the place wherein the first Christian of England was born, and the first that ever sought for Fo'reign Adventures, whose name to this day all Europe highly hath in regard: and for his Bold and Magnanimous Deeds at Arms, gave him this Title, The Valiant Knight St George of England, whose Golden Garter is not only worn by Nobles, but by Kings, and in Memory of his Uictories the Kings of England Fight under his Banner." [2]

This "history" reads more like a book of legends, and reminds me a lot of what we read about King Arthur from this period. There are references to Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th Century text, "Historia Regum Britanniae" which describes the (not entirely accurate) early history of Britain.

Johnson's book mentions how George's mother was plagued by dreams that her unborn child would be the cause of hers and her husband's death, and that she must give her life up if the infant was to survive childbirth. George was born by Caesarean section, and his mother and father fell into a death-like slumber. When the child was born, he was marked for greatness;

"Upon his Breast Nature had Pic'tured the lively form of a Dragon, upon his right hand a blood-red Cross, and on his left Leg a Golden Garter: they named him George." [2]

Johnson describes how most of the action took place in Egypt, but unlike our historically accurate George, this saint actively does battle with those Persians that worshipped Apollo and Mahomet, with the chief villain being King Souldan. I assume this was Saladin, who died in 1193, and was considered a mighty military commander who famously recaptured Palestine from the Crusaders.

Saint George saving the maiden from the dragon, from Coventry's Saint George's Day festival.
Saint George saving the maiden from the dragon, from Coventry's Saint George's Day festival. | Source

So which one is accurate?

It seems that the story of dragon-slaying and damsel rescuing is nothing more than a myth. Whether George was born in Coventry or in Capadocia, he certainly did go to the Middle-East.

The accounts of George being an early Christian martyr, opposing genocide, vary greatly from the later legends that place him as being a heroic figure to inspire Crusading knights.

I can understand why many would not wish to celebrate such a figure in this day and age, but I prefer the earlier account of George's martyrdom by the Romans. We can then consider him to be a man of peace who stood up to the ruling forces and said no to taking part in the persecution of other human beings.

No matter which George you prefer, Saint George's Day is a wonderful opportunity for everyone that lives in the country to celebrate English culture and the national identity. Just watch out if you're heading to Coventry... there may be dragons!

Sources

[1] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints - ISBN - 978-0691154077

[2] Richard Johnson, The famous history of the seven champions of Christendom. St. George of England, St. Denis of France, St. James of Spain, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. David of Wales. Shewing their honourable battels by sea and land: their tilts, justs, turnaments, for ladies: their combats with gyants, monsters and dragons: their adventures in foreign nations: their enchantments in the Holy Land: their knighthoods, prowess, and chivalry, in Europe, Africa, and Asia; with their victories against the enemies of Christ. Also the true manner and places of their deaths, being seven tragedies: and how they came to be called, the seven saints of Christendom. The first part. - ISBN - 978-0754601982

© 2015 Pollyanna Jones

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    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks all for your comments!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      Interesting hub here. He doesn't resonate as a figure at all here so I found this interesting and educational.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks for sharing this interesting information on St George, Pollyanna. There is even a bank and a football team named after him here in Australia so he is a very popular and heroic dragon slaying saint. I didn't really know any of his history so I enjoyed reading this hub. Voted up.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Fascinating hub Pollyanna. The St George we celebrate was the typical medieval vision of chivalry and warrior, whereas a man of peace who stood up for others would be a better role model for the modern world

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Lee!

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      Lee Cloak 2 years ago

      A very interesting hub, full of great detail, a figure i have always wondered about and now i know, Voted up, thanks, Lee