Martyr, patron of England, suffered at or near Lydda, also known as Diospolis, in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. According to the very careful investigation of the whole question recently instituted by Father Delehaye, the Bollandist, in the light of modern sources of information, the above statement sums up all that can safely be affirmed about Saint George, despite his early cultus and pre-eminent renown both in East and West.
Earlier studies of the subject have generally been based upon an attempt to determine which of the various sets of legendary “Acts” was most likely to preserve traces of a primitive and authentic record. Delehaye rightly points out that the earliest narrative known to us, even though fragments of it may be read in a palimpsest of the fifth century, is full beyond belief of extravagances and of quite incredible marvels. Three times is George put to death—chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth and consumed by fire—but each time he is resuscitated by the power of God. Besides this we have dead men brought to life to be baptized, wholesale conversions, including that of “the Empress Alexandra”, armies and idols destroyed instantaneously, beams of timber suddenly bursting into leaf, and finally milk flowing instead of blood from the martyr’s severed head. There is, it is true, a mitigated form of the story, which the older Bollandists have in a measure taken under their protection. But even this abounds both in marvels and in historical contradictions, while modern critics, like Amelineau and Delehaye, though approaching the question from very different standpoints, are agreed in thinking that this mitigated version has been derived from the more extravagant by a process of elimination and rationalization, not vice versa. Remembering the unscrupulous freedom with which any wild story, even when pagan in origin, was appropriated by the early hagiographers to the honour of a popular saint we are fairly safe in assuming that the Acts of Saint George, though ancient in date and preserved to us (with endless variations) in many different languages, afford absolutely no indication at all for arriving at the saint’s authentic history. This, however, by no means implies that the martyr Saint George never existed. An ancient cultus, going back to a very early epoch and connected with a definite locality, in itself constitutes a strong historical argument. Such we have in the case of Saint George. The narratives of the early pilgrims, Theodosius, Antoninus, and Arculphus, from the sixth to the eighth century, all speak of Lydda or Diospolis as the seat of the veneration of Saint George, and as the resting-place of his remains. The early date of the dedications to the saint is attested by existing inscriptions of ruined churches in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and the church of Saint George at Thessalonica is also considered by some authorities to belong to the fourth century. Further the famous decree “De Libris recipiendis”, attributed to Pope Gelasius in 495, attests that certain apocryphal Acts of Saint George were already in existence, but includes him among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are only known to God”.
There seems, therefore, no ground for doubting the historical existence of Saint George, even though he is not commemorated in the Syrian, or in the primitive Hieronymian Martyrologium, but no faith can be placed in the attempts that have been made to fill up any of the details of his history. For example, it is now generally admitted that Saint George cannot safely be identified by the nameless martyr spoken of by Eusebius, who tore down Diocletian’s edict of persecution at Nicomedia. The version of the legend in which Diocletian appears as persecutor is not primitive. Diocletian is only a rationalized form of the name Dadianus. Moreover, the connection of the saint’s name with Nicomedia is inconsistent with the early cultus at Diospolis.
Still less is Saint George to be considered, as suggested by Gibbon, Vetter, and others, a legendary double of the disreputable bishop, George of Cappadocia, the Arian opponent of Saint Athanasius. “This odious stranger”, says Gibbon, in a famous passage, “disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero, and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned Saint George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter.” “But this theory, says Professor Bury, Gibbon’s latest editor, “has nothing to be said for it.” The cultus of Saint George is too ancient to allow of such an identification, though it is not improbable that the apocryphal Acts have borrowed some incidents from the story of the Arian bishop. Again, as Bury points out, “the connection of Saint George with a dragon-slaying legend does not relegate him to the region of the myth, for over against the fabulous Christian dragon-slayer Theodore of the Bithynian Heraclaea, we can set Agapetus of Synnada and Arsacius, who though celebrated as dragon-slayers, were historical persons”. This episode of the dragon is in fact a very late development, which cannot be traced further back than the twelfth or thirteenth century. It is found in the Golden Legend (Historia Lombardic of James de Voragine and to this circumstance it probably owes its wide diffusion. It may have been derived from an allegorization of the tyrant Diocletian or Dadianus, who is sometimes called a dragon (ho bythios drakon) in the older text, but despite the researches of Vetter the origin of the dragon story remains very obscure. In any case the late occurrence of this development refutes the attempts made to derive it from pagan sources. Hence it is certainly not true, as stated by Hartland, that in George’s person “the Church has converted and baptized the pagan hero Perseus”. In the East, Saint George (ho megalomartyr), has from the beginning been classed among the greatest of the martyrs. In the West also his cultus is very early. Apart from the ancient origin of Saint George in Velabro at Rome, Clovis (c.512) built a monastery at Baralle in his honour. Arculphus and Adamnan probably made him well known in Britain early in the eighth century. His Acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and English churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest, for example one at Doncaster, in 1061. The crusades no doubt added to his popularity. William of Malmesbury tells us that Saints George and Demetrius, “the martyr knights”, were seen assisting the Franks at the battle of Antioch, 1098. It is conjectured, but not proved, that the “arms of Saint George” (argent, a cross, gules) were introduced about the time of Richard Coeur de Lion. What is certain is that in 1284 in the official seal of Lyme Regis a ship is represented with a plain flag bearing a cross. The large red Saint George’s cross on a white ground remains still the “white ensign” of the British Navy and it is also one of the elements which go to make up the Union Jack. Anyway, in the fourteenth century, “Saint George’s arms” became a sort of uniform for English soldiers and sailors. We find, for example, in the wardrobe accounts of 1345-49, at the time of the battle of Crecy, that a charge is made for 86 penoncells of the arms of Saint George intended for the king’s ship, and for 800 others for the men-at-arms. A little later, in the Ordinances of Richard II to the English army invading Scotland, every man is ordered to wear “a signe of the arms of Saint George” both before and behind, while the pain of death is threatened against any of the enemy’s soldiers “who do bear the same crosse or token of Saint George, even if they be prisoners”. Somewhat earlier than this Edward III had founded (c.1347) the Order of the Garter, an order of knighthood of which Saint George was the principal patron. The chapel dedicated to Saint George in Windsor Caste was built to be the official sanctuary of the order, and a badge or jewel of Saint George slaying the dragon was adopted as part of the insignia. In this way the cross of Saint George has in a manner become identified with the idea of knighthood, and even in Elizabeth’s days, Spenser, at the beginning of his Faerie Queene, tells us of his hero, the Red Cross Knight:
But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore,
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge we wore
And dead (as living) ever he adored.
We are told also that the hero thought continually of wreaking vengeance:
Upon his foe, a dragon horrible and stern.
Ecclesiastically speaking, Saint George’s day, 23 April, was ordered to be kept as a lesser holiday as early as 1222, in the national synod of Oxford. In 1415, the Constitution of Archbishop Chichele raised Saint George’s day to the rank of one of the greatest feasts and ordered it to be observed like Christmas day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Saint George’s day remained a holiday of obligation for English Catholics. Since 1778, it has been kept, like many of these older holidays, as a simple feast of devotion, though it ranks liturgically as a double of the first class with an octave.
Saint George and the dragon
The best known form of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is that made popular by the “Legenda Aurea”, and translated into English by Caxton. According to this, a terrible dragon had ravaged all the country round a city of Libya, called Selena, making its lair in a marshy swamp. Its breath caused pestilence whenever it approached the town, so the people gave the monster two sheep every day to satisfy its hunger, but, when the sheep failed, a human victim was necessary and lots were drawn to determine the victim. On one occasion the lot fell to the king’s little daughter. The king offered all his wealth to purchase a substitute, but the people had pledged themselves that no substitutes should be allowed, and so the maiden, dressed as a bride, was led to the marsh. There Saint George chanced to ride by, and asked the maiden what she did, but she bade him leave her lest he also might perish. The good knight stayed, however, and, when the dragon appeared, Saint George, making the sign of the cross, bravely attacked it and transfixed it with his lance. Then asking the maiden for her girdle (an incident in the story which may possibly have something to do with Saint George’s selection as patron of the Order of the Garter), he bound it round the neck of the monster, and thereupon the princess was able to lead it like a lamb. They then returned to the city, where Saint George bade the people have no fear but only be baptized, after which he cut off the dragon’s head and the townsfolk were all converted. The king would have given George half his kingdom, but the saint replied that he must ride on, bidding the king meanwhile take good care of God’s churches, honour the clergy, and have pity on the poor. The earliest reference to any such episode in art is probably to be found in an old Roman tombstone at Conisborough in Yorkshire, considered to belong to the first half of the twelfth century. Here the princess is depicted as already in the dragon’s clutches, while an abbot stands by and blesses the rescuer.
- Herbert Thurston. “Saint George”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 19 June 2013. Web. 27 November 2015. <>