The difference between a legend and a fairy story is that a legend is a traditional account handed down from father to son, through the generations, whilst a fairy story is fictional in all senses of the word.
So which one of these was Saint George, and what do we know of the man, who rose to become a Saint.
Georgios was born in the latter part of the 3rd century, between AD275 and AD285. His father was Anastasius Gerontios Governor of Cappadocia, and his mother Theobaste Polychronia from Lydda, Palestine.
Anastasius and Theobaste were Greek descendants from the noble families of Anici, so young Georgios was raised as a Christian, and taught Christian beliefs.
His world was to fall apart, and at the age of fourteen, his father Anastasius died, and he and his mother returned to her home of Lydda, Palestine. Tragedy was to strike yet again, within a few short years, when his mother Theobaste, was taken from him; when she died.
Georgios having lost both his parents, went to Nicomedia and presented himself to Emperor Diocletian, for he knew his father well. He offered up his services, asking to be accepted for a career as a soldier in the Roman Army, and he was welcomed with open arms.
He rose to the rank of Tribune by his late twenties, and was to become part of the imperial guard of Emperor Diocletian. Possibly chosen for the post by the Emperor himself, being the son of his best official and friend; Anastasius Gerontios.
The year AD302, and Diocletian issued an order which shocked Georgios that every Christian soldier in the Roman Army was to be arrested. His beliefs in the Christian faith, he had carried with him since he was a young boy … it was a way of life to him.
The thought of turning his back on his Christian faith, and offering a sacrifice to the Roman Gods, more than likely brought out the rebel in him, he being a Christian like his parents before him, and proud of it.
Georgios refused to carry out the order, declaring that he be a Christian in the presence of his fellow soldiers and Tribunes, declaring that he worshipped the one true God … Jesus Christ.
Out of respect for Georgios, Emperor Diocletian attempted without success to convert him, but no amount of lands, money or slaves would get him to make a public sacrifice to the Roman Gods.
In the year AD303, Georgios resigned his post as a Tribune in the Roman Army. For he knew the fate that lay before him, and gave his wealth to the poor, as he prepared himself for the inevitable.
He was imprisoned and tortured to near death, but never would he deny his faith. The Emperor had him dragged through the streets. Promising him, his life would be spared, if he would offer a sacrifice to the Roman Gods, and yet again he would not deny his faith.
The people witnessed this martyr prepared to die for his faith, praying to his God, which outraged the Emperor so much that he had Georgios beheaded for his contempt before the city walls of Nicomedia, on 23rd April AD303.
Emperor Diocletian’s wife, the Empress Alexandra had witnessed such suffering dealt out to this one man, in belief of his faith. She turned her back on the Roman Gods, and accepted Christianity into her life, and was duly executed along with a pagan priest Athanasius, who had also turned.
His body was taken to Lydda in Palestine, where he was buried. Soon the site was honoured by Christians visiting the grave of this martyr who sacrificed his life for his faith.
In AD494 Pope Gelasius stated: George was numbered among those saints whose names are justly revered among men, but whose deeds are only known to God, and so it was on the 23rd April 1222 he became Saint George.
When one thinks of Saint George, the first thing that comes to mind is “George and the Dragon” it has become a distinguishing emblem we have grown up with through our childhood days.
The story refers to a dragon, demanding one human and one sheep as a sacrifice from the city. According to the story Saint George as he is now known, intervened for the fair maiden, and defeated the dragon by slicing the sign of the cross upon him. The princess then led the defeated dragon into the city, with her girdle about his neck.
George told the people, be not afraid, believe in God and Jesus Christ. The King and all his people were baptised, and George slew the dragon.
Eastern Orthodox depicts Saint George slaying the dragon, with a fair maiden watching from a distance, and that the dragon represents Satan. The young maiden is the Empress Alexandra wife of Emperor Diocletian, who had George executed.
So how did this story arise?
Jacques de Voragine, the Dominican Archbishop of Genoa, wrote Latin readings of a mythical legend entitled “Legenda Sanctorum” better known as the “Golden Legend.” However, the title gave off the wrong meaning, it had meant to describe the lives of Saints. It was aimed at the heart and soul of Christian readers, rather than their minds.
Jacques de Voragine, created a legend out of a martyr, who would become Saint George in 1222, and he was adopted by the English, mainly due to the “Golden Legend” collection of fanciful stories. It was not a historical account, for it held no accuracy in the true sense of the word.
It is believed Saint George was adopted by the English, based upon the “Golden Legend” story, which was incorporated into plays performed up and down the country.
The earliest known British reference to Saint George occurs in an account by a 7th century Abbot: St.Adamnan (628-704) born in Drumhome, Donegal, Ireland, and in 679 he became the 9th Abbot of Iona. During his life he went on to write a description of the East, an account told to him by a French Bishop: Arculf, whose ship was blown aground near Iona on his way back to Jerusalem in Palestine.
George’s reputation grew, as warriors returning home from the Crusades between 1095-1291 wars, spoke of Saint George leading them into battle, giving them confidence.
The earliest known church to be dedicated to Saint George stands in Fordington, which is part of Dorchester, in Dorset. Taking its name from the River Frome, growing up around Saint George’s Church, where a stone over the south door is dedicated to Saint George telling how he led the crusaders into battle.
For it was in 1348, during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), the “order of the Garter” was established, a premier order of Knighthood in all England, with Saint George as its patronage.
During the reign of Henry V (1413-1422) many soldiers believed they witnessed Saint George fighting at the “Battle of Agincourt” for the English in 1415, and going on to achieve victory.
In 1483, Caxton published the writings by Jacques de Voragine creator of the “Golden Legend” and it was not until the early years of the English Reformation, that this collection of stories attracted the attention of English scholars.
George rose in stature to that of “Patron Saint” of all England during the 14th century. It was not until 1552, when all saints’ banners were abolished during the English Reformation, except his, that his position in England was truly accepted, and he was regarded as a special protector of the English.
What had been one man’s book of fanciful stories had been changed into the legends of Saint George, when in 1892 William Morris published a limited edition of these works, bringing it back into the limelight.
In 1940 King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for acts of heroism and courage in times of extreme danger.
The flag of saint George is a red cross on a white background, incorporated into the Union Jack, and also the ensign of the Royal Navy.
Saint George is displayed on horseback slaying a dragon, in St.Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle, built by Edward IV and Henry VII.
How deeply the legend of St.George goes, as a Knight has entered the English consciousness. He is judged by the repeated mention of his name in the “Works of Henry V” by William Shakespeare. He has become known, as a knightly figure of our past, one recognised the world over…
On the 23rd April each year, we celebrate the anniversary of Saint George’s death when he was executed in AD303 in Nicomedia.