St George's Day, celebrating a mythical martyr?

A painting of George killing a dragon by Vittore Carpaccio St George slaying the dragon is not the only fanciful part of his legend

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April 23rd is St. George's Day, a celebration of England's patron saint. He inspired Shakespeare's Henry V, his standard became the English flag, and the story of his battle with a dragon is, literally, iconic.

But who was St. George and how much do we actually know about him?

According to the influential medieval author Jacob de Voraigne's The Golden Legend (1275), George was a soldier, born in Cappadocia (central Turkey) in the mid-3rd Century AD and martyred in the early 4th Century in Diospolis, Palestine.

Enter the dragon

By chance he travelled to the city of Silene in Libya, which, at the time, was being terrorised by a ferocious sea-dragon. The inhabitants of the city had, under the king's command, given their children to be consumed by the dragon until finally the time came for the king's own daughter to be sacrificed.

312AD and the acceptance of Christianity

cross
  • Historians believe Emperor Constantine and the Roman Empire were converted to Christianity in AD312 The faith increased in numbers gradually over the next two centuries
  • At the time of Constantine's conversion Christianity was popular among slaves and soldiers, but historically emperors had been hostile or indifferent to the faith
  • Constantine's conversion was the result of either a vision or a dream in which Christ directed him to fight under Christian standards, and his victory apparently assured him his faith in a new God
  • Although Constantine converted to Christianity, he may have had little understanding of his new faith. He named the city of Constantinople after himself and erected pagan temples.

George, however, intervened, promising the king that if they were all baptised he would slay the dragon. The king did as he was told, George killed the dragon and everyone was saved.

Shortly thereafter, de Voraigne tells us, the emperors Diocletian and Maximian initiated a great persecution of Christians.

George responded by abandoning his military position, giving his possessions to the poor, and vocally and publicly protesting the actions of the emperors.

George was arrested and tortured by a local official named Dacian. The nature of the protracted tortures varies in each version of the story. In some accounts he is forced to wear iron-spiked shoes, scourged, forced to drink poison, and his skull is bludgeoned.

In others, like Voraigne's story, he is forced into elaborate decapitation machines and thrown into a cauldron full of molten lead. In every instance, however he emerges miraculously unscathed.

Finally, after destroying a pagan temple and inspiring many others to convert to Christianity, he is successfully beheaded.

Dacian did not escape events unscathed. On his journey from the place of execution to his palace, fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his servants.

The problem with this story is that it is difficult to know what, if anything, is true.

Getting to the truth

The earliest version of the story (from which others appear to be derived) dates from the early 5th Century. This Passio Georgii, which give an account of his tortures and death, was acknowledged as a complete fiction of no historical value.

In AD496 Pope Gelasius I condemned the story of George's death as the sort of thing composed by "heretics and ignoramuses" and prohibited its reading altogether.

The flag of St George The flag of St George - a red cross on a white background - is incorporated into the Union Jack and recalled in the ensign of the Royal Navy

He described St. George as one of those "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God."

Eusebius, a fourth-century bishop who wrote both a Church history and a history of martyrs up to the year AD313, makes no mention of George.

Celebrate St George's Day with a traditional English dish

Bunting cake

Celebrate St George's day with a beautiful Bunting Cake

Make a traditional English dish, Bread and Butter pudding

Do you have a sweet tooth? Try Antony Worrall Thompson's recipe for Eton Mess

Many elements of the elaborate story have been borrowed from other ancient saint's lives, like that of St. Christopher. The most famous element of the story - George's battle with the dragon - is even more fanciful.

The idea of a dragon-slayer has mythological origins in stories of good facing off against evil. Serpents, dragons, and evil were closely aligned in ancient religion. God battled the sea monster and Perseus slew the dragon.

Early Christian art depicts George on horseback battling a serpent or accompanied by another soldier-martyr, Theodore, defeating a dragon.

But the current, almost romantic, version of George and the Dragon was developed separately and crept into the legend in the medieval period.

The association with England is later still.

Making of a legend

In the medieval period, legends developed that George had travelled to England as a military delegate of the Emperor Dicoletian.

Local stories claimed that he visited Glastonbury and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the Roman garrison town of Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales, or was stationed at York.

comet

Did Emperor Constantine witness a divine sign or a meteor?

As time passed, the English claims to St. George grew loftier. Some claimed that George killed the dragon at Brinsop or that that they duelled near the White Horse of Uffington Hill in Wiltshire. None of these stories had any basis in fact, but they attracted pilgrims and entertained and inspired parishioners.

What, then, can we say about George himself?

Almost nothing. Some scholars have hypothesised that St. George was originally the heretical bishop George of Alexandria who was lynched by a Christian mob in AD361.

But it is difficult to imagine how a bishop became a dragon-slaying soldier. All there is, as Pope Gelasius I remarked in the fifth century, is his name.

Everything else is the stuff of legend.

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