Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito

Saturday, 23 April 2011

England and Saint George

With grateful acknowledgement of Donald Attwater's work "The Penguin Dictionary of Saints".

GEORGE, martyr. Third - fourth century; feast day 23 April. St George, patron saint of the Kingdom of England, of soldiers, of boy-scouts, and titular saint of numerous churches throughout the world, was one of the most famous of the early martyrs, and his reputation is still alive particularly in the East. But no historically reliable particulars of his life have survived; and such are the vagaries of his legend that earnest endeavours have been made to prove that he did not exist, or that he was someone else, or that he represents a Christianized version of  one or another of the pagan myths. These endeavours have been more remarkable for their ingenuity than for their cogency. Veneration for St George as a soldier saint was widespread from early times, and its centre was in Palestine, at Diospolis, now Lydda. St George was probably martyred there at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. That is all that may be reasonably surmised about him. As early as the beginning of the sixth century he was referred to as a good man "whose deeds are known only to God".

Legends of St George exist in a large variety of forms, in which scholars have not been able to detect a single reliable detail. The story popularized by the book "The Golden Legend" in the later middle ages represents him as a knight from Cappadocia, who at Silene in Libya, rescued a maiden from a dragon, which led to the baptism of thousands of persons. Then after a number of crude miraculous happenings, George fell a victim to Diocletian's persecution, being tortured and beheaded at Nicomedia for his Christian faith. The thing everybody knows about St George, the slaying of the dragon, has been used a great deal in efforts to prove that the saint was no more than a myth. Consequently it is of significance that this episode of the killing of a dragon does not feature in the earliest versions of the St George legend: it was a late mediaeval addition.

How St George came to be adopted as the protector of England is not altogether clear. His name was known in both England and Ireland long before the Norman conquest, and it seems likely that returning crusaders did a great deal to establish his popularity. He may have been nominated as the national patron when King Edward III founded the order of the Garter under his patronage, c 1348. In 1415 his day was made a festival of the highest rank in England. In 1960 the annual feast of the saint in Roman Catholic churches was reduced to a simple mention of his name in prayers at mass and lauds. But in England and other places where St George is specially honoured his feast retains its old solemnity. The badge embodied in St George's flag: a red cross on a white ground was known in the thirteenth century, and probably much earlier. It was the coat of arms of the Norman Earl of Ulster, de Burgh, when he came into the earldom in 1243.

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