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By George, it is a special day!

April 2012  


By George, it is a special day!St George’s Day falls on the 23rd of this month - but who was the Patron Saint of England?

This year St George’s Day falls on April 23rd. With all the talk of the separate identities of countries within the United Kingdom, it is interesting to find out more about the Patron Saint of England.

The ideal of St George is indeed impressive - he signifies honour, gallantry and bravery; St George and the Dragon resonates well in the image of a heroic leader.

The first disappointment is that there is a great deal of vagueness about the man, we know very little about him as a man or how he spent much of his life. However, from a variety of historical documents and other sources, the general outline of his life has become clear.

The first thing is that Saint George wasn’t English. He didn’t even come from Europe! It is now believed he was born in Cappdocia, central Turkey around AD 270. His parents were Christians and his mother was from Palestine; when George’s father died, the family returned to live there. Palestine was under Roman rule at that time and when George grew up, he joined the Roman army and rose to the rank of Tribune.

A man called Diocletian was the Emperor at the time and started a campaign against Christians. In around 303 AD George resigned from the army in protest and also tore up the Emperor’s order against Christians. This of course brought trouble and George was imprisoned, tortured, and finally, after still refusing to deny his faith, was beheaded.

The truth of this legend is of course unproven, but there were stories of other martyrs for Christianity at this time and so it could very well be true. In fact, legends of the bravery of men during this era were numerous and often grew in popularity as they were told and retold down the generations. The story about St George was no exception, and it seems later accounts included aspects of fire coming down from heaven and an earthquake destroying temple buildings just before George was beheaded.

The story of St George was passed on down the generations and by the 7th century, Arcuif, a French bishop, visited Palestine and heard the story. he is said to have told St Adamnan, an abbot on the island of Iona, and mentions of St George were also included in the writings of the Venerable Bede.

A stone over the door of a church at Fordington, Dorset, records the fact that in a miraculous appearance, St George once led the Crusaders into a battle. Certainly it seems that when the Crusaders returned from the Holy Land, they brought back the story of St George as a hero and so the reputation of the Patron Saint of England continued to develop. It was also during the Crusades that the English flag of a red cross on white evolved. During the first Crusade, the Pope had suggested that the knights of different nationalities should wear different coloured crosses to differentiate them. Initially English Crusaders were given the colours of a white cross on red, but for some reason this was changed and a red cross on white became their colour. This quickly became associated with St George.

By the 13th century, in 1222, the Council of Oxford recognised the glory that surrounded the legend of St George and named 23rd April St George’s Day.

However, it took a long time before St George achieved true legendary status and this was in part due to the fact that his story was included in an early book called the Golden Legend printed in 1483 by Caxton. This book was based on the translation of an even earlier book on the lives of various saints by Jacques de Voragine, a French bishop. His version was no doubt based on an earlier story but may have included some embellishment of his own. Either way, the Golden Legend was dramatic, featuring St George travelling to Libya and rescuing the King’s daughter from a dragon.

Today of course St George, as the Patron Saint of England, is as famous as he has ever been, but what the actual man behind the name was like remains much of a mystery.

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