Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

The life of an English icon

St George is popularly identified with England and English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry, but actually he wasn’t even English. Little is known about the life of the man who has evolved into the mythical St George. In this article I plan to explore a little into the life of the real St. George and how he came to be so revered in England.

It is likely that Saint George was born to a Christian noble family in Lod, in the Roman Province of Syria Palaestina during the late third century. His father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia and his mother, Polychronia, was from Palestine. They were both Christians and from noble families of Anici, so George was raised with Christian beliefs. They decided to call him Georgius, meaning “worker of the land”. At the age of 14, George lost his father; a few years later, George’s mother, Polychronia, died.

At the age of 17 he joined the Roman army and soon became renowned for his bravery. He served under a pagan Emperor but never forgot his Christian faith. When the pagan Emperor Diocletian started persecuting Christians, St. George pleaded with the Emperor to spare their lives. However, St. George’s pleas fell on deaf ears and it is thought that the Emperor Diocletian tried to make St. George deny his faith in Christ, by torturing him. St George showed incredible courage and faith but was finally beheaded near Lydda in Palestine on 23 April, 303.

In 1222, the Council of Oxford declared this day to be St George’s Day and he replaced St Edmund the Martyr as England’s patron saint in the 14th century. In 1415, April 23 was made a national feast day.

St George had international appeal and is patron saint not only of England but also of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia, as well as the cities of Amersfoort, Beirut, Bteghrine, Cáceres, Ferrara, Freiburg, Genoa, Ljubljana, Gozo, Pomorie, Qormi, Lod and Moscow.

St George is also patron saint of scouts, soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, farmers and field workers, riders and saddlers, and those suffering from leprosy, plague and syphilis can pray to him specifically for support.

The most famous legend of Saint George is of him slaying a dragon. In the Middle Ages the dragon was commonly used to represent the Devil. The slaying of the dragon by St George was first credited to him in the twelfth century, long after his death. Pope Gelasius stated that George was among those saints whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God.

Like other countries with St George as a patron, the English frequently used St George’s cross as their flag. The cross was originally the personal flag of another saint and key Christian figure, St. Ambrose. Adopted by the city of Milan (of which he was Archbishop) at least as early as the Ninth century, its use spread over Northern Italy including Genoa. Genoa’s patron saint was St. George and through the flag’s use by the vast Genoese trading fleet, the association was carried throughout Europe, and reached England through this route.

The flag was officially adopted by England and the City of London in 1190, for their ships entering the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet from pirate attacks. However as shown below by 1190 the flag was already an integral symbol of England. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege.

During the first Crusade, the Pope decided that knights of different nationalities should be distinguished by different colours of cross. French knights were allocated the red cross on white & English knights white cross on red. English knights complained about this, since they considered this to be their St George’s cross. In 1188 the French King, Philip II of France accepted the claim of the English to the red cross on white, and the English and French officially exchanged their respective crosses. However by this time, the red cross on white had become a typical crusader symbol. The cross has remained symbolic to England ever since, but modern usage is in a sporting context.

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