G is for St George, the Patron Saint of England … and Canada, Georgia, Greece Malta and Palestine to name a few.
The status of St George (c275-c303) in England (only one of the countries which has him as patron – others include Canada, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and Palestine, as well as many cities!) has grown and grown, if only through the recent popularity of St George’s Cross flags during football tournaments.
But what do we know of England’s patron, and are there any meaningful connections that gave him this role?
The simple answers are ‘little’ and ‘no’! The earliest account of his life dates from the 4th century, and tells us that his father was an army officer from Cappadocia (now part of Turkey) and his mother was from Palestine, where she brought him up.
George himself apparently became a soldier and rose through the ranks until he refused to assist the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians – he was already a Christian himself and was apparently tortured for his perfidy and executed on 23 April – more specifically, the stories tell that he was decapitated at Nicomedia as an example to others (though this example may have the opposite effect from that intended, as the Empress Alexandria and a pagan priest watching were apparently prompted to become Christians themselves).
Twentieth century scholarship suggests that all we can safely say about George is that he lived and suffered in the area around Lydda in Palestine – and that’s it.
However, his veneration began early, in the reign of Constantine (emperor from 324), with a church built at Lydda. The one there today, built in 1872, is the third on the site.
George was canonised in 494 by Pope Gelasius I, despite the belief at the time that his ‘acts are known only to God’. The earliest text about miracles associated with George dates from this period, so clearly people were not unwilling to imagine his acts anyway.
He has been depicted as a soldier since at least the 7th century, and the legends about the dragon begin in the 12th.
The primary telling of this latter tale comes from the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine, a 13th century bestseller recording legends about many of the popular saints. The story entered popular English culture after it was printed by Caxton.
Briefly, the tale runs that a dragon had ravaged a city in Libya, and was only appeased by a daily sacrifice of two sheep. When the ovine supply ran dry, humans had to be considered as substitutes, and the king’s daughter was selected to be first by drawing lots.
St George was passing by and rescued her from the dragon, transfixing it with his lance and binding it with the princess’ girdle so that she could then lead it like a lamb. George then used this victory as leverage to convert the locals to Christianity and he distributed their rewards to the poor.
There are many interpretations of this story, and some even suggest that the dragon was an allegorisation of Diocletian. At the very least it is a powerful symbol of Christianity fighting and defeating the forces of evil.
George’s presence in England dates at least back to 1061, when a church was dedicated to him in Doncaster. The St George’s cross was certainly used in the 13th century, and he seems to have been something of a mascot for the crusaders.
The Order of the Garter, founded around 1347, is named after George, and he has held a grip on the English imagination ever since – perhaps if only because of his military prowess.
Given that he is also the patron of farmers, butchers, knights, lepers, saddlers, sheep and syphilis, it does seem that his lack of recorded ‘acts’ has only ever been a stimulus for him to become whatever people need.
Some other notable ‘G’ saints
- Saint Gabriel is not just a saint, but an archangel – one of the three named in the official Bible canon. His patronage ranges from Argentinian ambassadors to telecommunications workers, and his feast day is 29 September.
- Saint Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was a nun in Saxony, and now a patron of nuns, as well as the West Indies. Unusually for the period she died of natural causes. Her memorial day is 16 November.