"God for Harry! England and Saint
V, Act 3, Scene 1.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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."
History of the Church,
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
As rapidly as cultic imagery was being destroyed in the east, it
was being created in the west.
The Real George
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
Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, 23.
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.
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.
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:
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 bishops
chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile.
his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and
cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging
the ancient temples. "The tyrant
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 bishops palace.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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:
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."
a success story for an unmitigated rogue and bacon
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
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
E. A.Watllis Budge, George of Lydda, the Patron Saint of England. (Luzac,
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP,1997)
Giles Morgan, St George (Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Samantha Riches, St George Hero, Martyr & Myth (Sutton,
The Friends of St George (www.fsgr.org.uk); University College Cork;
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2006
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material
herein is sold for profit.