Will the real St George please stand up?

Posted on: 21 April 2010 by Mark O'haire

Find out how much we really know about England's patron saint.

Nobody knows too much about the real life of St George. So many legends surround him that it's impossible to separate the man and the myth. However a generally agreed story has been handed down through the centuries.

St George was not one of the knights of the Round Table. He wasn't English, and probably never even visited England. He was born and raised in the Middle East, somewhere in what is now Turkey, around the end of the third century AD.

George became a Roman army officer. It was during Emperor Diocletian's reign that he served in the army, and he rose through the ranks to captain level.

The Roman Empire was still pagan at the time, so as a Christian George left the military when Rome ordered its soldiers to persecute Christians. He spoke out against this action and was imprisoned and tortured. However he would not renounce his faith, so the Romans beheaded him.

His execution took place on 23 April, 303 AD, in Palestine. Sadly George didn't have much chance to live life to the full as he was only in his 20s or 30s.

This martyrdom is why the Church awarded him a sainthood. The Catholic Church downgraded celebration of his feast day to optional in 1969, but Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches venerate him highly.

Many countries other than England have adopted St George as their patron saint, including Georgia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Greece, Malta, Palestine, Ethiopia, Canada and Portugal. Aragon and Catalonia in Spain, and cities including Moscow, Ljubljana, Istanbul, Beirut, some in Italy and Germany have also adopted him.

He's patron saint of Freemasons, Scouts, soldiers, farmers, horse professionals, and those with syphilis, leprosy and skin disease too.

With so many international connections, it's hard to see why George was chosen to represent England. The cult of St George existed in the country for centuries, but worship of the chivalric knight really took off after the Crusades.

Crusaders coming back from the Middle East brought the tale of George and the Dragon to England. The story, in which the saint slays the Dragon and saves the Princess from being sacrificed to prevent the beast attacking the city, probably began as a pre-Christian legend.

In 1348 Kind Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, with George as its patron saint. He dedicated Windsor Castle's chapel to the saint, where the Garter Day ceremony still takes place annually.

Thus George became patron saint of the English monarchy and its army. Soldiers wore the sign of St George, a red cross on a white background, now flown at England football matches and which forms part of the Union Jack. This veneration of George spread to the whole nation after the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

It is perhaps the world's most famous playwright who cemented George's connection with England in the minds of the English. As well as writing Henry V, in which England's king rallies his troops at Agincourt with, "Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George", William Shakespeare was born and died on 23 April, in 1564 and 1616.

So these days England has more than one reason to remember 23 April.

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