St George, Martyr c303

Throughout Europe in the later Middle Ages the story of St George was best known in the form in which it was presented in the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) of James de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa. William Caxton translated the work and printed it. Therein we are told that St George was a Christian knight and that he was born in Cappadocia. It chanced, however, that he was riding one day in the province of Lybia, and there he came upon a city called Sylene, near which was a sort of marshy swamp. In this lived a dragon “which envenomed all the country.” The people had mustered together to attack and kill it, but its breath was so terrible that all had fled. To prevent its coming nearer they supplied it every day with two sheep, but when the sheep grew scarce, a human victim had to be substituted. This victim was selected by lot, and the lot just then had fallen on the King’s own daughter. No one was willing to take her place, and the maiden very bravely had gone forth dressed as a bride to meet her doom. Then St George, coming upon the scene, attacked the dragon and transfixed it with his lance. Further he borrowed the maiden’s girdle, fastened it round the dragon’s neck, and with this aid she led the monster captive into the city. “It followed her as if it had been a meek beast and debonnaire.” The people in mortal terror were about to take to flight, but St George told them to have no fear. If only they would believe in Jesus Christ and be baptised, he would slay the dragon. The King and all his subjects gladly assented. The dragon was killed and four ox-carts were needed to carry the carcass to a safe distance. “Then were there well XV thousand men baptised without women and children.” The King offered St George great treasures, but he bade them be given to the poor instead. Before taking his leave the good knight left behind four behests, viz. that the King should maintain the churches, that he should honour the priests, that he should himself diligently attend their religious services, and that he should show compassion to the poor.

At this period under the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian a great persecution began against the Christians. George, seeing that some were terrified into apostasy, in order to set a good example went boldly into a public place and cried out : “All the gods of the paynims and gentiles are devils. My God made the heavens and is very God.” Datianus (more correctly Dadianus) the “Provost” arrested him and failing to move him by cajolery had him strung up and beaten with clubs and then tortured with red-hot irons. Our Saviour, however, came in the night to console him and to restore him to health. Next a magician was brought to prepare a potion for George with deadly poison, but the draught took no effect and the magician, being converted, himself died a martyr. Then followed an attempt to crush the saint between two spiked wheels, and after that to boil him to death in a caldron of molten lead ; but without any result. So Datianus once more had recourse to promises and soft words, and George pretending to be shaken let them think that he was willing to offer sacrifice. All the people of the city assembled in the temple to witness the surrender of this obstinate blasphemer of the gods, but George prayed, and fire coming down from heaven destroyed the building, the idols, and the pagan priests, while the earth opened at the same time to swallow them up. Datianus’s wife witnessing these things was converted, but her husband remaining obdurate ordered the saint to be decapitated; which took place without difficulty, though Datianus himself returning from the scene was consumed by fire from heaven.

This is a comparatively mild version of the Acts of St George which existed from an early date in a great variety of forms. It should be noted, however, that the story of the dragon, though given so much prominence, was a later accretion, of which we have no sure traces before the twelfth century. This puts out of court the attempts made by many folklorists to present St George as no more than a Christianised survival of pagan mythology, of Theseus, for example, or Hercules, the former of whom vanquished the Minotaur, the latter the hydra of Lerna. There is every reason to believe that St George was a real martyr who suffered at Diospolis (i.e. Lydda) in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. Beyond this there seems to be nothing which can be affirmed with any confidence. The cult is certainly early ; though the martyr is not mentioned in the Syriac Breviaritim. But his name (on April 25) is entered in the Hicronymianum and assigned to Diospolis, and such pilgrims as Theodosius, the so-called Antoninus and Arculphus, from the sixth to the eighth century, all speak of Lydda or Diospolis as the seat of the veneration of St George and as the resting-place of his remains. It is not quite clear how St George came to be specially chosen as the patron saint of England. His fame had certainly travelled to the British Isles long before the Norman Conquest. The Felire of Oengus, under April 24, speaks of “George, a son of victories with thirty great thousands,” while Abbot Aelfric tells the whole extravagant story in a metrical homily. William of Malmesbury states that Saints George and Demetrius, “the martyr knights,” were seen assisting the Franks at the battle of Antioch in 1098, and it seems likely that the crusaders, notably King Richard I, came back from the cast with a great idea of the power of St George’s intercession. At the national synod of Oxford in 1222. St George’s day was included among the lesser holidays, and in 1415 the constitution of Archbishop Chichele made it one of the chief feasts of the year. In the interval King Edward Ill had founded the Order of the Garter, of which St George has always been the patron.