"Saint George"

– The Pork Salesman who became England’s Patron Saint

Jesus Never Existed – Christianity's Fabrication Factory

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Kenneth Humphreys



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When dragons stalked the Earth...

St George's Day was first named in England by the Oxford Synod of 1222.

A century or so later, Edward III raised George to the status of a national patron saint, competing with earlier heroes, Edward the Confessor and Edmund of East Anglia. The phantom dragon slayer rapidly supplanted his less dynamic rivals.

But George's triumph (at least in England) lasted barely two hundred years. The Reformation began his downfall, and the Enlightenment finished him off.

History exposed George as a fake.




In print, must be true

One of Caxton's earliest publications was an English edition of the medieval book of sacred nonsense, "The Golden Legend". The author was Jacobus de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa (1230-98).

Jacobus concocted a story of George which involved a dragon and a damsel in distress. Doubtless, his inspiration was the Greek legend of Perseus, a son of Zeus, who rescued the princess Andromeda from a sea-monster.

Why waste a good yarn?






Have head, will worship

8th century Pope Zacharias found a head of St George in the Lateran Palace in Rome. Fancy that!

Zacharias was a smart operator. He reached agreement with the Lombards and was decisive in replacing the Merovigian dynasty of the Franks with the Carolingian. Ever after, the papacy retained unchallenged control of the Frankish church.

On the home front Zacharias introduced the domus cultae system, a form of agricultural slavery.





Poor Georgie – Sawn in Half!

Fictional 'saints' were given the vicious deaths actually experienced by heretics and unbelievers.

'Valencia altarpiece'
(V & A Museum, London)



The First George

"The Arian George seems to be the first person recorded bearing the Greek name 'Georgios'... The dubious Archbishop George of Cappadocia did at least have the advantage of definitely having existed, something that cannot be claimed with any veracity of the 'actual' St George."

– Samantha Riches ( St George, p7)


George in Genoa

The state flag of the city republic of Genoa until the first half of the 13th century featured George killing his dragon (Annales Januenses – Genoa Yearbook).

A simpler, alternative insignia, cruxata comunis Janue, came into more generally use.

English ships, first entering the Mediterranean towards the end of the 12th century, began flying the Genoese flag in order to secure the protection of the Genoese fleet.

Subsequently, the red cross on a white field was adopted by the City of London and England itself.

The English king paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for the privilege.










"God for Harry! England and Saint George!"

Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.


St George's links with England are decidedly tenuous. Needless to say, there is no evidence at all to link him to the killing of a dragon. Is there any evidence that George himself even existed?


Evidence for George?

Working backwards through the centuries of self-serving pious fable (the ‘knightly’ George was brought back to England by the crusaders in the twelfth/thirteenth centuries and was subsequently popularised by Caxton) we find that in the eighth century it was believed that George had visited Caerleon and Glastonbury while serving as a member of Emperor Constantine's staff! Yet when we reach the fifth century we find that neither the Syrian list of saints nor the so-called Hieronymian Martyrologium commemorate a St George at all. About this time, however, Pope Gelasius records that St. George was among those saints ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men but whose actions are only known to God’.

Not that a shortage of fact would have held back imaginative Christian scribes. Indeed, in keeping with the spirit of the times, a great many ‘apocryphal acts’ of Saint George were in circulation which presented at great length not a dragon-slayer but an early Christian martyr. The supposed passion of St George involved an endless variety of tortures which the saint had endured and had miraculously survived. These legendary ‘acts’ point back to an earlier mishmash of Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic tradition, all derived from an unknown Greek original. The 4th or 5th century Coptic texts managed at one and the same time to relate George to the Governor of Cappadocia, to the Count of Lydda in Palestine and to Joseph of Arimathea! These utterly fantastic tales were condemned by the Catholic church not for their fantasy but because they were the work of heretics. All these early churches had been under the sway of Arians. Hence, the Acta Sancti Georgii were outlawed by Pope Gelasius in AD 496.

Subsequent Catholic attitude softened, and an approved legend rescued George from the heretics and placed him in the reign of Diocletian, a favourite villain of the Christians. George was given a noble birth, Christian parents, and a tenacious commitment to the faith. He is made a Roman cavalry officer, who bravely complains to the nasty Emperor of the harshness of his decrees. George refuses to carry out orders to persecute the Church and for his defiance is thrown into prison and tortured.

A brief episode recorded in the early 4th century history of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and propagandist for Emperor Constantine, may have seeded this yarn of George. Eusebius wrote of "numerous martyrdoms" from shortly before his own time. Conveniently for later fraudsters, he left most of these heroes of the faith unnamed. One in particular, a martyr of "greatest distinction", may have influenced the later "history" of George:

"Immediately on the publication of the decree against the churches in Nicomedia, a certain man, not obscure but very highly honored with distinguished temporal dignities, moved with zeal toward God, and incited with ardent faith, seized the edict as it was posted openly and publicly, and tore it to pieces as a profane and impious thing; and this was done while two of the sovereigns were in the same city – the oldest of all, and the one who held the fourth place in the government after him.

But this man, first in that place, after distinguishing himself in such a manner suffered those things which are likely to follow such daring, and kept his spirit cheerful and undisturbed till death."

– Eusebius, History of the Church, 8.5.


Eusebius avoided naming this (fictitious!) "high placed martyr" but he identified the two sovereigns: Diocletian and Galerius. Thus, when the legend of St George began to take shape, sometime in the late 4th or early 5th century, the most consistent refrain in a story otherwise notable for its variations, was that George had "stood up to" the dastardly Diocletian. The earliest extant evidence we have for the legend (not George himself!) are fragments from a reused parchment (or "palimpsest") dated to the 5th century (the so-called Decretum Gelasianum).

It is worth noting that in the late 4th century, in Milan, bishop Ambrose, gray eminence and spiritual director of the imperial family, had pioneered the political value of "saints' bones" in his power struggle with the Empress Justina. His triumph was not unnoticed by the clergy in the east. Thereafter, saints (or at least their corpses and reputed "powers") would play an active role in political conflicts for the next thousand years.


A Glorious Death

Much of passion ascribed to George was actually modelled on that of Christ himself, and it was for that reason that the Feast of St George was celebrated near to Easter (18 and 23 April). In the legend, George does not go quietly to meet his maker. In fact, he is brutally tortured to death, yet is raised to life again three times. Only with the fourth execution does the durable saint finally die. According to one of the innumerable tales, St George endured no less than seven years of torture:

"And they pounded him on a stone slab until the whole of his body and his bones were crushed to pulp ... they beat his head with a hammer and with a rod of iron until his brains protruded through his nose ... then the wicked king commanded them to bring a great iron saw and to saw him down the middle of his head and his belly and his feet ... "

– Theodotus, 5th century Bishop of Ancyra, lets his imagination run wild.

Perhaps we have here an explanation of how it was that by the 8th century at least five heads of St George were in existence! One such trophy was produced by
Pope Zacharias (741-52), last of the Greek popes. Zacharias amazed and delighted the credulous denizens of Rome by "finding" a head of St George in the decaying Lateran palace! The head was carried ceremoniously through what was left of the city and placed in triumph in the suitably renamed San Sebastiano, San Giorgio in Velabro.

It perhaps is more than coincidence that, at the time of Zacharias's "find", the Pope was locked in bitter conflict with the Byzantine Emperors Leo III (717-41) and Constantine V (741-75) over their fierce iconoclastic policy. As rapidly as cultic imagery was being destroyed in the east, it was being created in the west.


The Real George

"Every moment of his reign was polluted by cruelty and avarice. The Catholics of Alexandria and Egypt were abandoned to a tyrant, qualified , by nature and education, to exercise the office of persecution."

– Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, 23.

If the mention of an unnamed martyr of Nicomedia by Eusebius seeded the idea of a martial saint, battling the forces of paganism, the reference was all too brief for a full blown legend and inspiration had to come from elsewhere. Fortuitously, there was such a character.

The ‘real' George was a rather different character from the paragon of Christian fiction. As Gibbon and others made clear, ‘St. George’ was a legendary accretion around a notorious 4th century bishop, George of Cappadocia. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that it is ‘not improbable that the apocryphal Acts have borrowed some incidents from the story of the Arian bishop.’

The future archbishop of Alexandria began his career as a humble cloth worker in Cilicia (now southern Turkey). By ‘assiduous flattery’ or other means he acquired the contract to supply the Roman army with bacon. Says Gibbon:

"His employment was mean; he rendered it infamous. He accumulated wealth by the basest arts of fraud and corruption; but his malversations were so notorious, that George was compelled to escape from the pursuits of justice."

Making his way to Palestine, George set himself up in the religion business at Diospolis (Lydda), where he became a profane grandee of the ruling Arian Christians. As a wealthy and influential opponent of the Catholic Athanasius he was well-placed to take the bishop’s chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile.

In his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging the ancient temples. "The tyrant…oppressed with an impartial hand the various inhabitants of his extensive diocese," notes Gibbon. So incensed were the inhabitants that on at least one occasion George was expelled from Alexandria by a mob and troops had to be deployed to get him back into the bishop’s palace.

His end came with the elevation of Julian to the purple. The angry pagans of Alexandria (probably aided by Catholics) took their revenge on George by throttling the bishop and dumping his body in the sea. It seems highly probable that some supporters of the murdered bishop recovered what they claimed to be remnants of the erstwhile bishop and made off with them to the nearest centre of Arianism, Lydda in Palestine. Emperor Julian himself sequestered the extensive library which George had acquired.


Post-mortem success

Yet the notorious prelate was to achieve a nobility in death which had been denied to him in life. The family of George built him a tomb and a church to house it at Lydda, and the shrine soon attracted a profitable traffic in pilgrims. At the same time, in the mid years of the 4th century, the hierarchy of the church had been seriously alarmed by the apostasy of Emperor Julian (360-363) and a resurgent paganism. His brief reign had threatened their but recently gained temporal power and the hierarchs were desirous of every possible device to prevent such a calamity again.

The Catholic Church was more than prepared to overlook George's heretical and criminal past. The ‘official’ legend of St George would symbolize the complete and irreversible victory of Christianity over paganism. Hence the image of St. George as a fearless warrior, defeating enemies of the faith by Christian forbearance, no matter what trials were to be overcome. In many of the ‘traditions’ the climax of the story actually has George smashing pagan idols.

Evidently the George cult spread outwards from Palestine. In the late 19th century two churches were identified in Syria with inscriptions indicating the veneration of a martyr called "Georgios". One was the ruins of a church at Shaqr (Shakka, Maximianopolis) dedicated by a Bishop Tiberinus; the other was an erstwhile pagan temple at Ezra (Azra/Zorava), where a re-dedication plaque had been found. The inscriptions are dated to the early-6th century.

By then, the venality of George's real life had either been forgotten or merely white-washed. Thanks to the creative scribblers for Christ two hundred years later, his name was attached to a colourful story of piety, fortitude, divine deliverance and – ultimately – a princess and a dragon. As Gibbon famously records:

"This odious stranger 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 St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter."

Quite a success story for an unmitigated rogue – and bacon salesman.


Postscript: Georgia?

A number of countries (and cities) honour the notorious saint. The Caucasian republic is seemingly named for St George. In reality, the name Georgia probably derives from the word for "farmer".

However, the region does have a venerable connection with Christianity. As client states of Rome, the ancient kingdoms of Iberia and Lazica followed Constantine's lead and endorsed Christianity in the 4th century. Byzantine power waned and the kindred but heathen kingdom of Abasgia in the mountains to the north overran Lazica in the 8th century. In 978, the enlarged state took the name "Georgia" in a bid for pan-Caucasian dominance.

The cult of St George played a political role in Georgia, comparable to that of St James in Spain.

Well, what else can you do with a saint other than conquer somebody else in his name?


Georgian flag – five crosses. One for each head?


November 2006 – and St George is still conquering!

With no shred of historical verisimilitude a tacky golden George takes up residence in Freedom Square, Tbilisi, Georgia.


Edward Gibbon
, The Decline& Fall of the Roman Empire, 23.
E. A. Wallis Budge, The Martyrdom and Miracles of St. George of Cappadocia (London, 1888)
E. A.Watllis Budge, George of Lydda, the Patron Saint of England. (Luzac, 1930)
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP,1997)
Giles Morgan, St George (Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Samantha Riches, St George – Hero, Martyr & Myth (Sutton, 2000)
The Friends of St George (www.fsgr.org.uk); University College Cork;
Estonian Folklore
Catholic Encyclopedia



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Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Humphreys.
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