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St George - Patron Saint of England
Posted on Jun 09, 2002 - 05:17 AM by Bill McCann

Several stories have been attached to Saint George, the best known of which is the Golden Legend. In this, a dragon lived in a lake near Silena in Libya. Entire armies, sent to destroy the monster, were routed and annihilated . The monster devoured two sheep each day, eventually eating his way through the entire flock of the region. Things got desperate then and, in an effort to appease the monster, lots were drawn in the local villages and maidens were substituted for the sheep. Into this country came Saint George. Hearing the story on the very day when a princess was to be thrown to the monster, he crossed himself, rode to battle against the serpent, and killed it with a single blow from his lance. George then held forth with a magnificent sermon, and converted the entire region to Christianity. Given a large reward by the king, the saint distributed it to the poor, then rode away into the sunset......The real story is a little more prosaic if not less fabulous.

The Catholic St George
It is believed that St George was born in Cappadocia (central Turkey) towards the end of the third century. It is also believed that his parents were Christian. The legends have it that he served with distinction under Diocletian who was the Roman Emperor between 284 and 305 AD. This service is said to have included a military mission to the Roman province of Britannia. Diocletian was convinced of the Divine sanction of imperial power and totally committed to the worship of the state gods. Twenty years into his rule, he decided, for reasons which have never been entirely clear, to make Christians conform to the State religion. He may have seen them as a threat to religious and political unity, the way that the Manicheans were during the 290s. A series of four edicts were issued against the Christians. The first, of these issued, in 303, called for the destruction of Christian churches and books. The second and third quickly followed and ordered the imprisonment of Christian clergy of all ranks and that they should then be made to sacrifice to the state gods.

The fourth edict, issued in 304, required that all persons must make the customary sacrifices on pain of death. The edicts were not carried out with equal diligence in all parts of the Empire. As his eastern imperial capital, Diocletian has settled on Nicomedia (now Izmit in Turkey) an it was said to have been his favourite City. He was there in 303 and George is reputed to have sought a personal interview at which he professed his faith and resigned is military commission. He was arrested, tortured and finally executed on April 23rd of that year. Two years later, on the great plain outside Nicomedia, the ageing Diocletian abdicated in favour of Galerius.

In the East, St. George has, from an early date, been classed among the greatest of the martyrs and attracted a large cult following it seems to have reached the West quite quickly. Apart from the ancient origin of St. George in Velabro at Rome, Clovis built a monastery at Baralle in his honour around 512. Arculphus and Adamnan (successor and biographer of Columba at Iona ) probably made him well known in Britain early in the eighth century. His Acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and there is evidence that English churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest That at Doncaster, for example, was dedicated in 1061.

During the crusades the cult, perhaps inevitably, took on a military aspect. In his Gesta Regum, William of Malmesbury writes that Saints George and Demetrius, "the martyr knights", were seen assisting the Franks at the battle of Antioch in 1098. It is also claimed that the "arms of St. George" were introduced about the time of Richard Coeur de Lion but there is no hard evidence for this. It is certain, however, that in 1284 in the official seal of Lyme Regis, a ship, is represented with a plain flag bearing a cross. The large red St. 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.

St George from a Russian icon

By the fourteenth century, St. George's arms" had become established as a sort of uniform for English soldiers and sailors - in the wardrobe accounts of 1345-49, at the time of the battle of Crecy, a charge is made for 86 penoncells (penanats) of the arms of St. 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 St. George on both his chest and back. Interestingly, the same ordinance threatens death against any of the enemy's soldiers who do bear the same crosse or token of Saint George, even if they be prisoners.

Ecclesiastically, he did become formally established until 1222 when the Council of Oxford ordered that the saint's day be kept in remembrance as a national festival. In 1415, the Constitution of Archbishop Chichele raised St. George's day to the rank of one of the greatest feasts and ordered it to be observed like Christmas day. It was not until the reign of Edward III, however, that St George was declared the Patron Saint of England when the Order of the Garter, with the saint as its principal patron, was founded on April 23rd 1349.The chapel dedicated to St. George in Windsor Caste was built to be the official sanctuary of the order, and a badge or jewel of St. George slaying the dragon was adopted as part of the insignia. Thus, the cross of St. George became identified with the idea of knighthood and attached to the legends of Arthur and the Knights of the round Table.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries St. 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. The famous connection with the dragon is said to date back to the sixth century when the martyr's remains were moved from Nicomedia to Lydda (Diospolis) in modern Palestine/Israel. This was the scene of the legendary exploit of Perseus in which he rescued Andromeda by slaying a sea monster and an inflated version of the legend became attached to the Christian martyr. A printed version was translated into English and published by Caxton in the 15th century. Modern scholarship now questions the location and details, if not the fact, of the martyrdom.


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