Martyr, Protector of the Kingdom of England
The life of Saint George is shrouded in legend, so much so that it is quite difficult to untangle fact from fiction. Much of the problem lies in the Acta Sancti Georgii (Acts of Saint George) written at a very early date and outlawed by Pope Gelasius in AD 496. Meanwhile the Greeks also had a set of Acts which were more accurate and quoted by Saint Andrew of Crete.
From early writings we can piece together that he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He was martyred at Lydda in Palestine (Nicomedia). He held an important post in the Roman army – the rank of tribune, or perhaps colonel in modern terms – during the reign of the Emperor Dioclesian (245-313). Dioclesian was a great persecutor of Christians and when the persecutions began George put aside his office and complained personally to the Emperor of the harshness of his decrees and the dreadful purges of Christians. For his trouble, though, he was thrown into prison and tortured. He would not recant his faith however, and the following day he was dragged through the streets and beheaded. It is uncertain whether he also tore down the Emperor’s decrees as they were posted in Nicomedia. He was one of the first to perish. The Emperor’s wife, Alexandria, was so impressed at the Saint’s courage that she became a Christian and so too was put to death for her trouble.
The legends surrounding Saint George are varied. One of them concerns the famous dragon, with which he is invariably portrayed. According to legend, a pagan town in Libya was being terrorised by a dragon. The locals kept throwing sheep to it to placate it, and when it still remained unsatisfied, they started sacrificing some of the citizenry. Finally the local princess was to be thrown also to the beast, but Good Saint George came along, slaughtered the dragon and rescued the fair princess. At this the townsfolk converted to Christianity.
The origin of the legend, which is very well known, came originally from the way in which the Greek Church honoured George. They venerated him as a soldier saint and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century.
It is not quite clear how Saint George came to be specially chosen as the patron saint of England. His fame had certainly traveled to the British Isles long before the Norman Conquest. William of Malmesbury states that Saints George and Demetrius “the martyr knights”, were seen assisting the Franks at the battle of Antioch in 1098, and it seems likely that the crusaders, notably King Richard I (the Lionheart), came back from the east with a great idea of the power of St. George’s intercession. At the national synod of Oxford in 1222 St. George’s day was included among the lesser holidays, and in 1415 the constitution of Archbishop Chilchele made it one of the chief feasts of the year. In the interval King Edward III had founded the Order of the Garter, of which St. George has always been the patron.