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St George: the soldier-saint of which little is known for sure

A detail from a modern icon depicting St George

St George is patron saint not merely of England, but of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. It is just a shame that nothing certain is known about him.

The tale of a distinguished soldier in the Roman army, who was tortured and martyred after tearing up the edict which instituted the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of 303, is first found in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (c 325).
Eusebius, though, never accorded a name to this martyr, describing him simply as “a man of no mean origin”. It is pure conjecture to hazard that he might have been referring to St George.

During Constantine’s reign (306-337) a church was built at Lydda, in Palestine, and dedicated to “a man of the highest distinction”. This important personage was subsequently identified as St George; once more, however, faith had outrun proof.
All that can be safely established is that the cult of St George originated in Palestine and during the fourth century spread into the Eastern Empire, from where it seeped gradually westwards.

In 494 Pope Gelasius I included George among those “whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God”.

The first reference to St George in England is found in the Martyrology of the Venerable Bede, who died in 735. The earliest church dedication to St George in this country, certainly no later than the ninth century, was at Fordington, near Dorchester.

The story of St George and the Dragon was first discovered in Turkey and Georgia, during the 11th century. This legend was probably brought to England by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. It gained immensely in popularity after it was included in Voragine’s Golden Legend (c 1270), which Caxton published in 1483.

Well before that, however, Richard I (1189-99) had solicited St George’s aid on Crusade, and seems to have adopted the flag with the red cross of the martyr. Edward III (1327-77) made George patron of the Knights of the Garter; and after the saint had been successfully invoked at the battle of Agincourt (1415) Archbishop Chichele ordered that St George’s Day should be observed on the same scale as Christmas Day.

Even after the Reformation St George’s Day remained an occasion for national celebration in England. In 1963 the Church, bowing to scholarship, removed St George from the Universal Calendar, Thirty-seven years later Pope John Paul II, bowing to popular faith, reinstated him. In March 2009, Mayor Boris Johnson, no less sensible of the power of tradition, called for a more enthusiastic celebration of St George’s Day in London.

Those with money to burn may go to Lydda – now Lod, near Tel Aviv airport – to inspect what passes for the martyr’s tomb.