WHO WAS THE REAL SAINT GEORGE?
by Richard Freeman
We all know Saint George from Childhood stories. We imagine him as a bold knight in shining armour. Astride a white stallion and bearing a red cross on his shield. His battle with the dragon is retold again and again and is known to all school children.
It comes as quite a shock when we take a look at the real, historic Saint George. He was about as far from the legend as it is possible to get.
The man who was to become Saint George was born in the third century in a fuller’s shop in the city of Epiphania (now Hamath) in Syria. Little is known of his early life, but as an adult we know that he used servile flattery to climb the social ladder and gain a lucrative job providing the Roman army with bacon.
He amassed a large amount of money from dishonest and downright unscrupulous dealings. When this 3rd century, pork dealing Del Boy was found out, he had to flee to Libya to escape the wrath of his countrymen.
In Libya he converted to the heretical sect of Arianism, that denied the divinity of Christ. So zealous was he in his new religion that the Roman Emperor Constaninus sent George to Alexandria to become an Archbishop.
A cruel and greedy man he pillaged pagan temples and taxed both pagans and Christians beyond endurance. Finally the people had enough and rose up to overthrow him. The Emperor Constaninus reinstated George but when Emperor Julianas came to power Alexandria reverted to paganism.
George and two of his most ardent followers were thrown in prison and remained there for 24 days till and angry mob broke the doors down and beat the trio to death. Their carcasses were paraded triumphantly through the city and then tossed into the sea.
When the Arians finally re-entered the mainstream church they brought the ‘martyr’ with them and George was established as a saint by the 6th century.
Now things started to get silly. During the Crusades he was supposed to have resurrected and fought for Godfrey of Bouillion at the battle of Antioch and appeared to Richard the Lion Heart as a portent of victory.
The legend of George fighting a dragon was tacked on centuries after his death in order to make him seem braver and appealing. The story is an almost word-by-word rip-off of the Greek legend of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. The venue was change to the city of Selena in Libya and the sea into a marsh.
Though George had never set foot in England he became our patron saint in 1284 replacing the less ‘action packed’ Edward the Confessor. He is also the patron saint of Greece, Germany, Malta, Italy, farmers and horsemen.
Despite never having come to England, even in his fictional fight with the dragon, there are two English dragon legends associated with him. At Brinsop in Herefordshire Saint George supposedly slew a serpentine, well dwelling dragon. A twelfth century tympanum inside Brinsop church depicts this. At Dragon Hill, close to the famous White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire George is supposed to have slain a dragon whose blood burned the hilltop so no grass will grow there.
These anomalies are easily explained by the ‘christianization’ of earlier, pre-existing legends featuring local heroes. Another Saint who supposedly slew a dragon in a forest in Sussex was Saint Leonard. He was a Frankish nobleman who became a hermit. There is no evidence that he ever came to England. At Helston in Cornwall there was an ancient legend of a dragon who dropped a ball of fire just outside the town. It cooled down and formed a rock that is still there to this day. In later times the dragon was ‘christianized’ into the devil whom Saint Michael supposedly trapped under the rock.
I think if the real Saint George had ever met a genuine dragon he would have died of fright!