Saint George - Patron of England

Saint George Slays the Dragon
Painted by Paolo Uccello between 1456-1460

Today is Saint George Day. Do you speak English as your native language? If so, than this day means something to you whether you realise it or not. Five-hundred years ago, a tiny little country on an island in the North Atlantic began the most dramatic expansion in the history of the world. English culture, religion, law, language and heritage, was exported first to North America, then Central America, then Africa, Australia and New Zealand. For a time, it became the largest empire in the history of the world. The sun never set on the British Empire, because it controlled a portion of every corner of the globe. The empire fell apart rather quickly, just a hundred years ago, but it's legacy remains. The reason why we speak English today is because of its influence. Long before its imperial expansion, and long before its break with Rome, England was a Catholic country, and its Patron Saint was (and still is) Saint George. The identity of England is so intertwined with Saint George that we could say Saint George is England, and England is Saint George.

Painting depicting the martyrdom of Saint George
Now Saint George was actually a martyr who was born in ancient Palestine, but died in Asia Minor in about AD 303 under Caesar Diocletian. He was a soldier and commander in the Roman army, but he was also a Christian. So when Caesar Diocletian ordered that all Christians within his army be executed, it turned out that George was a among them. Seeing as how George was such a trusted officer, and his father before him was so well respected in the Roman army, Diocletian made every effort to save him from death. He tempted him with riches, land and women, if he would only deny his faith in Christ and conform to emperor worship by throwing a pinch of incense on a Pagan altar and saying aloud 'Caesar is Lord'. George refused, promising lifelong loyalty to Caesar, but he could only worship Jesus Christ as Lord. Unable to persuade George, Diocletian ordered his execution.

The tomb of Saint George in Lod Israel
It is said that George was martyred in the most inhumane way imaginable. This painting (above right) on a choir stall in Germany depicts the macabre contraption they used to torture him. He was tied to a wheel and rolled over spikes or swords, that slowly pealed away his flesh. It is said he fainted three times from the excruciating pain, and was revived all three times, before he finally died of blood loss. This act of tremendous courage, combined with his resistance of extreme temptation to save his life and be rewarded with riches and pleasure, caused him to be revered as one of the greatest martyrs and saints in antiquity. As a result of his sacrifice, Christians were emboldened in the area, many more converts were made, people resented Caesar's treatment of one of his most honoured and loyal soldiers. The result was that Caesar began losing control of the area, and Christianity became more entrenched. Within a decade Diocletian would be dead, and his successor Caesar Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan, ordering that Christianity be tolerated and that all persecution of Christians cease. Within a decade after that, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Saint George had fallen victim to the last great persecution of Christianity by the Roman Empire, and his martyrdom played a role in securing the end of all Roman persecutions and the end of Caesar worship in general. Saint George was entombed (above left) in the City of Lod, which is currently south of Tel Aviv in Israel.

The Flag of England
Nearly a thousand years later, knights returning from the crusades in Palestine brought the devotion to Saint George back with them, and he subsequently became the Patron Saint of England. Figurative legend developed around him as a 'knight' who slew a 'dragon' to save a 'princess' from its evil clutches. The imagery was designed to draw attention to the way George's martyrdom robbed power and influence away from the Pagan cult of Caesar worship. The dragon represents Caesar, or the Pagan cult that worship him, which was threatening to kill the Church, represented as the princess in distress. In historical reality George gave his life for Christ, but in doing so, he figuratively 'killed' the 'dragon', because his act of courage and virtue secured the collapse of the Caesar worship cult in the area. It's a story that every English-speaking Christian should be familiar with. Even if you're not a Christian, it gives insight into the culture of the language you speak. Because you see, the story of Saint George, whether you choose to look at his literal martyrdom or figurative adventure, embodies the type of virtue sought by the English. From a very early age, English children are taught the figurative story of Saint George, and later told its historical meaning once they mature to an appropriate age. It is meant to teach them the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice in the name of all that is true and good.

The Flag of the United Kingdom
The flag of England is white, for purity, with a red cross representing martyrdom. We are familiar with it both as a traditional English flag (above right), which is also overlaid on the British flag (below left). The British flag depicts the red cross of Saint George up front with a white backing. Behind the cross of Saint George is the cross of Saint Andrew, which is a white X-shaped cross (or saltire) on a blue field. This is the flag of Scotland. The red X-shaped cross (saltire) is also for Saint Andrew, which represents Ulster Scots of Northern Ireland. Often the simple red and white flag of England is depicted in artistic representations of Saint George, as we see in the top painting above by Paolo Uccello. Saint George is widely venerated in Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. His feast day is April 23, which commemorates the day of his martyrdom on April 23, 303 AD. He is even known and respected among Muslims in the Middle East, from Egypt to Asia Minor, but particularly in Israel/Palestine. It has been said that the popularity of Saint George could be gauged by simply yelling his name in the middle of a crowded Middle Eastern street to see how many men will turn their heads to see who's calling them. George has also been a popular name for English kings, and even the great general who led Americans in rebellion against the British Empire was named George (Washington). Saint George is also the patron saint of: soldiers, cavalry, scouting, Palestinian Christians, horses, a host of various cities and countries.

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Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

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