George the "Saintly" pork salesman?
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Cry "God for Harry! England and Saint George!"
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.
April 23rd, Saint George's Day Depending on who you choose to believe, the saintly George is variously thought to be a martyr who defied the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s 'persecution' of the Christians, an early Christian Bishop, or a disgraced supplier of dodgy pork to the Roman Army. Yet, very little, if anything, is known about the real 'Saint George'. His links with England are decidedly tenuous and there is no evidence at all of him being the slayer of any dragon. As the patron saint of England, however, George is popularly identified with English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry - even if he was not actually English at all. So, being unhappy to unquestioningly accept popular beliefs as fact, perhaps we should ask: 'What, if any, is the historical truth behind this saintly character?'
Evidence for George? Working backwards through centuries of popular myth, we find the 'knightly' George was brought to England by returning crusaders in the 12th/13th-centuries and was subsequently popularised in print by William Caxton. Even earlier, in the 8th-century, it was believed that George had visited Caerleon and Glastonbury while serving as a member of Emperor Constantine's staff. Yet in the 5th-century we find that neither the Syrian list of saints nor the so-called Hieronymian Martyrologium commemorate a St George at all. About this time, however, Pope Gelasius records that Saint George was among those saints 'whose names are justly reverenced among men but whose actions are only known to God'.
Despite a dearth of facts, the spirit of the times ensured a great many 'apocryphal acts' of Saint George were in circulation. These presented, at great length, not a dragon-slayer but an early Christian martyr. The supposed passion of Saint George involved an endless variety of tortures which the saint had endured and miraculously survived. These legendary 'acts' echo an earlier blend of Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic tradition, all derived from an unknown Greek original. The 4th- or 5th-century Coptic texts managed at one and the same time to relate George to the Governor of Cappadocia, to the Count of Lydda in Palestine and, amazingly, to Joseph of Arimathea. Incongruously, these tales were not condemned by the Catholic church for their implausibility but because they were the work of 'heretical' Arians who controlled the early churches and who challenged the Catholic contention of the divinity of Jesus. This 'civil war' between Arianism and Catholicism catalysed Pope Gelasius to outlaw the Acta Sancti Georgii in AD 496.
As the years passed Catholic attitudes softened and an approved legend rescued George from the heretics and placed him in the reign of Diocletian, a favourite villain of the early Christian authors. George was given a noble birth in Cappadocia (in today's Turkey) in the 3rd-century AD to parents with a tenacious commitment to the Christian faith. When his father died, George's mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her. George reportedly enlisted in the Roman army rising to the officer rank of Tribunus. In about AD 303, however, George is said to have objected to Emperor Diocletian’s campaign against the Christians (see opposite), resigning his military post in protest of this 'persecution'. George allegedly tore up the Imperial order against the Christians, infuriating Diocletian, and was duly imprisoned. Under torture George is said to have refused to deny his faith. Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lydda) in Palestine and beheaded. Later Christian authors wrote that Diocletian's wife was so impressed by George's resilience that she converted to the faith and was later executed for her beliefs.
A brief episode recorded in the early 4th-century history of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and propagandist for Emperor Constantine, may have seeded this yarn of George. Eusebius wrote of 'numerous martyrdoms' from shortly before his own time, although rather conveniently for later apologists, most of the faithful were unnamed. One in particular, a martyr of 'greatest distinction', may have influenced the later 'history' of George:
'Immediately on the publication of the decree against the churches in Nicomedia, a certain man, not obscure but very highly honoured with distinguished temporal dignities, moved with zeal toward God, and incited with ardent faith, seized the edict as it was posted openly and publicly, and tore it to pieces as a profane and impious thing; and this was done while two of the sovereigns were in the same city - the oldest of all, and the one who held the fourth place in the government after him. But this man, first in that place, after distinguishing himself in such a manner suffered those things which are likely to follow such daring, and kept his spirit cheerful and undisturbed till death.' - Eusebius, History of the Church, 8.5.
Eusebius avoided naming this 'high placed martyr' but he did identify the two sovereigns: Diocletian and Galerius. Thus, when the legend of St George began to take shape, sometime in the late 4th- or early 5th-century AD, the most consistent refrain in a story otherwise notable for its variations, was that George had 'stood up to' the dastardly Diocletian. The earliest extant evidence we have for the legend (not George himself!) are fragments from a reused parchment (or 'palimpsest') dated to the 5th-century, the so-called Decretum Gelasianum.
A Glorious Death Much of the passion ascribed to George was actually modelled on that of Christ himself, and it was for that reason that the Feast of St George was celebrated near to Easter (April 18th and April 23rd). In the legend, George does not go quietly to meet his maker. In fact, he is brutally tortured to death being, for example, forced to swallow poison, crushed between two spiked wheels and boiled in a cauldron of molten lead. Astoundingly, none of these tortures killed him as his wounds were healed overnight by Christ himself. To save himself George was told his life would be spared if he would offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. As the story goes, the people assembled to see him do so but the wilful George instead prayed to the Christian God. Immediately, fire shot from heaven, an earthquake shook the ground, and priests, idols, and the temple buildings were destroyed. In an ironic twist of fate that George clearly did not see coming, God then willed that the 'Saint' should die for his faith. George was beheaded without further trouble.
Stories of this nature abounded about pagan and Christian figures in the early Middle Ages. People would have expected their heroes to have undergone such experiences and in an age when many things seemed mystical, few were sceptical about such tales. According to one of the innumerable tales, Saint George endured no less than seven years of torture.
In the late 4th-century AD the political value of 'saint’s bones' had been pioneered by Bishop Ambrose of Milan as a weapon in his power struggle with the Empress Justina. The exploitation of 'religious relics' may explain how it was that by the 8th century at least five different 'heads of Saint George' were being venerated. One such trophy was produced by Pope Zacharias (AD 741-52), last of the Greek popes. Zacharias amazed and delighted the credulous denizens of Rome by 'finding' a head of Saint George in the decaying Lateran palace. The head was carried ceremoniously through what was left of the city and placed in triumph in the suitably renamed San Sebastiano, San Giorgio in Velabro. Perhaps it is more than just coincidence that, at the time of Zacharias' 'find', the Pope was locked in bitter conflict with the Byzantine Emperors Leo III (AD 717-41) and Constantine V (AD 741-75) over their fierce iconoclastic policy. As rapidly as cultic imagery was being destroyed in the East, it was being created in the West.
The Real George If the mention of an unnamed martyr of Nicomedia by Eusebius seeded the idea of a martial saint battling the forces of paganism, the reference was all too brief for a full blown legend. Inspiration had to come from elsewhere. Fortuitously, there was just such a character. The 'real' George was a rather different character from the paragon of Christian tradition. As Edward Gibbon and others made clear, 'Saint George' was a legendary accretion around a notorious 4th-century bishop, George of Cappadocia. Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that it is 'not improbable that the apocryphal Acts have borrowed some incidents from the story of the Arian bishop.' George, the future archbishop of Alexandria, began his career as a humble cloth worker in Cilicia (now southern Turkey). By 'assiduous flattery' or other means he acquired the contract to supply the Roman army with bacon. As Gibbon says:
Making his way to Palestine, George set himself up in the religion business at Diospolis (Lydda), where he became a profane grandee of the ruling Arian Christians. As a wealthy and influential opponent of the Catholic Athanasius he was well-placed to take the bishop’s chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile. In his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging the ancient temples. 'The tyrant…oppressed with an impartial hand the various inhabitants of his extensive diocese', notes Gibbon. So incensed were the inhabitants that on at least one occasion George was expelled from Alexandria by a mob and troops had to be deployed to get him back into the bishop’s palace.
His end came with the elevation of Emperor Julian to the purple. The angry 'pagans' of Alexandria (possibly aided by Catholics) took their revenge on George by throttling him and dumping his body in the sea. It seems highly probable that some supporters of the murdered bishop recovered what they claimed to be his erstwhile remains and made off with them to the nearest centre of Arianism, Lydda in Palestine. Emperor Julian himself sequestered the extensive library which George had acquired.
Post-Mortem Success Yet the notorious prelate was to achieve a nobility in death which had been denied to him in life. George’s family built him a tomb and a church to house it at Lydda, which as a shrine soon attracted a profitable traffic in pilgrims. At the same time, in the middle years of the 4th-century AD, the hierarchy of the church had been seriously alarmed by the apostasy of Emperor Julian (AD 360-363) and a resurgent paganism. Julian's brief reign had threatened their recently gained temporal power and the church hierarchs desired every possible device to prevent such a calamity again.
The Catholic Church was more than prepared to overlook George's heretical and criminal past. The 'official' legend of Saint George would symbolise the complete and irreversible victory of Christianity over paganism. Hence the image of Saint George as a fearless warrior, defeating enemies of the faith by Christian forbearance, no matter what trials were to be overcome. In many of the 'traditions' the climax of the story actually has George smashing pagan idols.
Evidently the George cult spread outwards from Palestine. In the late 19th-century two churches were identified in Syria with inscriptions indicating the veneration of a martyr called 'Georgios'. One was the ruins of a church at Shaqr (Shakka, Maximianopolis) dedicated by a Bishop Tiberinus; the other was an erstwhile pagan temple at Ezra (Azra/Zorava), where a re-dedication plaque had been found. The inscriptions are dated to the early 6th-century AD.
St George, a Dragon and England The familiar image of 'the saint dressed in a white tunic bedecked with a red cross, astride his stallion, and skewering a dragon as he rescues a fair maiden, depends more on a late medieval and Renaissance ideal of this miles Christi (knight of Christ) than on his legend in its earlier forms' .
The earliest known British reference to St George, however, occurs in an account by Saint Adamnan, the 7th-century AD Abbot of lona. He is believed to have heard the story from Arcuif, a French bishop who had travelled to Jerusalem and other holy places in Palestine. The saint is also mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede. As already mentioned, George's reputation grew with the returning crusaders. A miracle appearance, when it was claimed that he appeared to lead crusaders into battle, is recorded in stone over the South door of a church at Fordington in Dorset. This still exists and is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to Saint George. It was not until AD 1222 that the Council of Oxford named April 23rd as St George's Day.
His story only achieved mass circulation when it was first printed in 1483 by William Caxton in The Golden Legend. This book was a translation of a work by Jacques de Voragine, a French bishop, which incorporated fantastic details of saints' lives. Saint George was adopted in England because the story in the Golden Legend was identifiable with a similar, popular Anglo-Saxon legend. He was quickly incorporated into miracle plays adapted from pagan sources and is a prime figure in Spenser's famous epic poem The Fairie Queen. George's popularity faded, however, as religious beliefs changed with the Reformation. He also lost ground as gunpowder became the primary weapon of war and protection, making the lance and sword less significant. In 1778 Saint George's Day was demoted to a simple day of devotion for Catholics in England for whom the venality of George's real life had either been forgotten or merely white-washed.
Thanks to successive creative writers, George’s name as been attached to a colourful story of piety, fortitude, divine deliverance and - ultimately - a princess and a dragon. As Gibbon famously records:
Quite a success story for an unmitigated rogue - and a dodgy bacon salesman!
1. The Martyrdom of St. George in The South English Legendary, ed. E. Gordon Whatley Sources:
In compiling this article, the following sources were called upon:
Gibbon, E. (1776), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Wallis Budge, E.A.T. (1888), The Martyrdom and Miracles of St George of Cappadocia, London.
Wallis Budge, E.A.T. (1930), George of Lydda, the Patron Saint of England, Luzac.
Farmer, D. (1997), Oxford Dictionary of Saints, OUP.
Morgan, G. (2006), St George, Pocket Essentials.
Riches, S. (2000), St George - Hero, Martyr & Myth, Sutton.
The Friends of St George, University College, Cork.