The Legend of St George
St George is one of the best-known saints, but it is often difficult to determine exactly who he was or what he did because there are so many different versions of his legend, having since become entwined with Arthurian, Celtic and Islamic folklore.
The earliest account of St George comes from the Coptic Church in Egypt. In this version of events, George was a Roman soldier born in 280 AD in Capadocia, in present-day Turkey. In 303 AD, Roman Emperor Diocletian made a formal order against Christianity. Churches were levelled and Christians were either deprived of their civil rights or enslaved. In defiance, George denied the order, released his slaves and distributed his wealth to the poor. George was arrested and failed attempts were made to convert him away from Christianity. After many weeks of torture, George died and was resurrected by Jesus, only to be later beheaded. His body was supposedly buried at Lydda, in Palestine, and Constantine, who succeeded Diocletian, ordered a church dedicated to George to be built on the site. George became known as the Prince of Martyrs and over 200 churches in Egypt have been built in his name. His story, the earliest known references to which are found in Syrian texts from the 4th century, spread quickly across the Mediterranean and the legend of St George was widespread throughout Christianity by the 8th century.
It is uncertain when the legend of St George fighting a dragon became established but there are no known references to it until the 9th century. One of the first saints associated with slaying a dragon was Theodore Tiron. Tiron has a similar legend to St George, having also served with the Roman army and been tortured for his beliefs. He is supposed to have slain a dragon near Euchaita, in present-day Turkey, not far from George’s birthplace. Often depicted alongside each other in paintings, it’s possible that the legends of Tiron and St George have become confused over time.
During the First Crusade (1096-99), a religious war fought to recover the Holy Lands from Islamic rule, stories were told of St George appearing at times of need. At the Battle of Antioch in 1098, for example, soldiers had a vision of St George leading an army on white horses, confusing the enemy and forcing them to flee, and, in 1099, George is supposed to have assisted with the siege of Jerusalem while holding a banner with a red cross on it, a motif worn by all those who dedicated themselves to the Holy cause.
A red cross on a white background, now known as St George’s flag, was chosen by both Henry II of England and Philip II of France to identify their troops during the Third Crusade (1189-92), and Henry’s heir, Richard I continued to use it. In 1191, St George, dressed in a white tunic with a red cross, is said to have fought beside Richard at the Battle of Arsuf, in present-day Israel. Seen as King Richard’s protector, St George become known as the ‘warrior saint’ and public perception of him shifted from a martyr to a chivalrous hero.
Between 1259 - 1266, Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, wrote a book known as the Golden Legend, in which he compiled stories of the lives of the saints. Chapter 58 was dedicated to St George and describes the encounter that George had with the dragon:
‘A city was surrounded by water, which was poisoned by a dragon. After failing to slay the dragon, the people decided to offer two sheep a day to feed him, to placate him. When there were no more sheep to offer the dragon lots were drawn on which child should be sacrificed to the beast. One day the name of the kings daughter was drawn and he was distraught. As the princess approached the dragon St George was passing by and declared that he would help her in the name of Christ. He drew his spear and garnished him with the sign of the crosls and smote him. The king and all the people were baptised, and a church was built, within which stood a fountain of living water to heal the sick.’
The Golden Legend, to which additions and embellishments were often added, was one of the first books to be printed in English. The greater accessibility of these printed editions made the Golden Legend one of the most widely read books of the Middle Ages, increasing public awareness of St George’s tale.
George remained popular even after the English Reformation in the 1500s, when most other saints were rejected. Following the English Civil War in the 1600s, St George shifted from being patron saint of the monarchy to that of the country, and, a century later, St George was officially declared the patron saint and principal protector of England by Pope Benedict XIV.
The age of Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1840s saw the medieval world depicted as a lost age of perfection. Authors and artists created a romanticised version of the past and St George was seen as the valiant hero saving the princess. It was at this time that he was falsely attributed to being born an Englishman.
Today, St George and his cross continue to be depicted on war medals, shields and flags throughout the world, and hundreds of churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals and mosques are dedicated to him.
St George in Royston Cave
In Royston Cave, on its southern side, stands a large, military figure thought to be a carving of Saint George. He appears to be wearing plate armour and a cross is inscribed on his chest. The figure holds an upturned sword which points to a line of 13 smaller figures assumed to be Jesus and his disciples. The much thinner of these figures, fourth from right, is believed to be the traitor Judas who has been discredited and squeezed into the background. Reports from historians who visited the cave shortly after its discovery note that the military figure was painted red, but any trace of paintwork has since disappeared.
Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
Riches, S. (2015). St George: A Saint for All. London: Reaktion Books.