The Mysterious Identity of St George

Unlike the patron saints, Andrew of Scotland, David of Wales and Patrick of Ireland, who are all historically recognizable figures, St George of England is a patron saint with no immediately apparent historical provenance. Apart from what seems to begin with 5th-century folklore, most reference books relate that there are no contemporary or other historical documents relating to St George. Under such circumstances, it is rather odd that George became not only the patron saint of England, but also of numerous other countries, orders and occupations. 1 The most perplexing anomaly is that, although George rose to prominence in the saintly ranks, he was originally deemed personally unsuitable by the Vatican, and the written accounts of his life were proscribed by Pope Gelasius in AD 496. But why would Gelasius have denounced George as a known individual if he were mythical as so often supposed? Clearly, there was an aspect of George's character of which the Church did not approve - an aspect that was subsequently veiled and conveniently forgotten as the centuries passed. In this regard, the literature concerning the saint identifies an evolutionary strategy of character manipulation through more than 1,000 years. This ongoing creation of an acceptable heritage for George actually led to the emergence of an entirely mythical figure, in the course of which the real history of the man was lost.

Original Records

The oldest extant Greek manuscript of George's tradition dates back to the early 5th century, and a revised Latin version known as the Acta Sancti Georgii was circulating in the 6th century. The Greek text exists today only in fragments at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, but had been translated into Syriac (a classical Aramaic language of 2 Mesopotamia) in the middle 5th century.2 The oldest extant Syriac manuscript concerning George is preserved at the British Library, and was written around AD 600, making it the earliest complete witness to the original. In the Syriac rendition, George is referred to as Mor Gewargis Sahdo (St George the Martyr)

Fire-breathing dragon - St George
St George & The Dragon

Since the 13th century, most people have associated St George with the dragon that he slew, but there is no dragon as such in the early accounts. Originally, the term drakon (serpent) was used as an epithet for King Dadianus of the Black Sea region of Bithynia, where Georgios (Mor Gewargis) was said to have confronted "this dragon", a forceful oppressor of the Christian faith. In later texts of the Catholic tradition, the reality of King Diadanus was strategically corrupted by substituting his name for either the Roman Emperor Diocletian (AD 245-312) or his co-ruler Galerius Maximianus (AD 250-311), both of whom had been violent persecutors of Christians before the 4th century implementation of the Church of Rome.

Although the now familiar fire-breathing dragon of George's legend did not enter the literary arena until 1275 (page 20 - pdf), the symbolic drakon of Diadanus (as in the above Syriac icon) was portrayed in much earlier times, thereby giving rise to the tradition as it evolved pictorially from its original figurative context.


George the Martyr

As mentioned above, the Catholic Church was initially reluctant to accept George within the saintly fold. Even though he was venerated by the Eastern (Byzantine) Church, the Western Church of Rome found his legacy disturbing. Some decades before things changed and the first Acta Sancti Georgii manuscript was produced, Pope Since the 13th century, most people have associated St George with the dragon that he slew, but there is no dragon as such in the early accounts. Originally, the term drakon (serpent) was used as an epithet for King Dadianus of the Black Sea region of Bithynia, where Georgios (Mor Gewargis) was said to have confronted "this dragon", a forceful oppressor of the Christian faith. In later texts of the Catholic tradition, the reality of King Diadanus was strategically corrupted by substituting his name for either the Roman Emperor Diocletian (AD 245-312) or his co-ruler Galerius Maximianus (AD 250-311), both of whom had been violent persecutors of Christians before the 4thcentury implementation of the Church of Rome. 3 Gelasius had denounced the Greek and Syriac literature concerning St George in his decree De Libris Recipiendis et Non Recipiendis of AD 496 concerning approved literature. He acknowledged that many Christians honoured the saint, and plainly understood why, but in his opinion George's legacy was heretical, and he claimed that his "actions are only known to God".4 The main implication here was that George was indeed known to Gelasius as a real figure of the preceding era.

In order to understand the Pope's concern, we need to discover the man and the actions to which he was referring - and from the earliest reports of St George these things are not difficult to ascertain.

A primary exponent of medieval saintly lore was the 10th-century Byzantine hagiologist Symeon Magister, better known as Metaphrastes (the Compiler), who prepared the Menologia - a calendar for the Eastern Church year. From this work we can see how the Byzantine Church viewed George as against the early Catholic opinion of the Church of Rome.5 In line with Metaphrastes, the original Greek and Syriac manuscripts identify that the chronology of George's story began not in the era of Emperor Diocletian (AD 245-312), as given in the subsequently contrived Latin Acta Sancti Georgii, but in the later period of Emperor Constantine (AD 312-37).

The Church of Rome was established by Constantine after the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This edict (jointly declared by Constantine in the West and Emperor Licinius in the East) put an end to the persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire. To formalize the Church, an ecumenical Council of bishops from various regions was convened in AD 325 at Nicaea in Bithynia - a region of latter-day Turkey. A primary aspect of the debate was that of the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and there were two main groups of protagonists. Those in favour of the Trinity doctrine were led by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in Northern Egypt, and those against were led by Arius, a presbyter also from Alexandria. His followers were called Arians. They did not concede that God and Jesus were one and the same person, but asserted (in line with the Gospels) that Jesus was born separately in the flesh. Although the Trinitarians won the vote and Arius was banished as a heretic, it was actually the more moderate 4 Arian view that Emperor Constantine preferred. Resultantly, on his death-bed in AD 337, Constantine requested baptism by Eusebius, the Arian prelate of Nicomedia (another city of Bithynia).6

Constantine had been born in Britain as the son of Emperor Constantius Chlorus, who had his Western base at York. Constantine's mother was Princess Elaine (Helena) of Colchester and, before becoming Emperor in AD 312, Constantine was raised by his mother's Christian household. This facilitated his introduction of the faith as the new religion of his Roman Empire. The prevailing Nazarene faith of Britain was far more like the moderate Arian view than that of the Trinitarian bishops and, although Arius was banished by the Council of Nicaea, Constantine's sister Constantia convinced him that it was a serious error. Constantine therefore recalled Arius to his capital at Constantinople where he was granted a pardon and given a special communion.7

Another Eusebius, the Bishop of Emesa in Phoenicia, had been the chief spokesman for the Arian party at Nicaea, but he was shouted down, his papers snatched from his hands, torn to shreds, and trampled.8 When writing afterwards of the event in the Historia Ecclesiastica (AD 439), the Byzantine historian Socrates of Constantinople 9 stated that the notably violent Athanasius subsequently travelled to Emesa, where he charged Eusebius with practising astrology. Under threat of Catholic reprisals, Eusebius fled to the company of his closest friend George of Laodicea, the chief confidant of Arius.10

Prior to AD 246, Laodicea had been called Diospolis and was a city of Lydia in Anatolia (eastern Turkey).11 George (Georgios), the Arian Bishop of Laodicea, had been born in his father's province of Cappadocia (northern Phrygia, to the east of Lydia), and his mother was from Lydia. Following Emperor Constantine's acceptance of the Arian belief, Athanasius was banished by Constantine's son in AD 356, to be succeeded by George of Laodicea as Bishop of Alexandria. He was appointed by the Council of Antioch at a time when the bishopric of Alexandria was second in status only to the papal bishopric of Rome.12 Socrates of Constantinople recorded that George then wrote the life history of his colleague Eusebius and, based on his home and clerical territories, he became variantly known as George of Cappadocia or George of Lydia.

St George of Laodicea
St George of Laodicea

In all early texts, prior to the 6th-century Latin Acta Sancti Georgii (which began the papally approved corruption of St George's history in order to bring him posthumously into the Catholic fold), the saint was only ever classified by either one of three names: George of Laodicea, George of Cappadocia, or George of Lydia. He had been the closest friend of Arius, who ordained him, and became the Arian Bishop of Alexandria.

From the era of Constantine's son, Emperor Constantius, Arianism flourished widely from its Alexandrian base. But things changed in AD 361 with the accession of his younger cousin Emperor Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus). Known as 'Julian the Apostate', he completely rejected Christianity in any form (Catholic or Arian), and on 4th February AD 362 he promulgated an edict to return to a pagan regime. Some years earlier, Julian had met with Bishop George (a comrade of Emperor Constantius), and was also reputed to have met with George's colleague Eusebius of Nicomedia. But when eventually fronting his campaign to restore polytheism, Julian's punitive measures targetted the most influential Christians so as to drive them from the empire.

A forefront recipient of this assault was his predecessor's friend George of Laodicea, the Bishop of Alexandria. He was arrested, imprisoned and subsequently executed. His mutilated body was cast into the sea by a pagan mob on 24th December AD 361.13

Purchase the full 43 page pdf. © Laurence Gardner, 2007.

1. Alphabetically, St George's patronage includes: Amersfoort, Aragon, agricultural workers, archers, armourers, Baden-Württemberg, Beirut, butchers, Canada, Cappadocia, Catalonia, cavalry, chivalry, Constantinople, the Crusaders, England, equestrians, Ethiopia, farmers, Ferrara, field workers; Freiburg, Genoa, Georgia, Germany, Gozo, Greece, Haldern, Heide, husbandmen, Istanbul, lepers, Limburg, Lithuania, Malta, Modica, Moscow, the Order of the Garter, Palestinian Christians, Portugal, Ptuj, saddle makers, the Scout movement, Slovenia, Senj, sheep; shepherds, soldiers, Teutonic Knights, Venice.
2. The Syriac text, with an English summary, is published in G Kiraz, The Acts of Saint George and the Story of His Father, from the Syriac and Garshuni Versions, Bar-Hebraeus Verlag, Losser, NL, 1991.
3. Dr Thomas Joseph in Shroro: The Syriac Orthodox Christian Digest, Syriac Orthodox Church, vol 1, issue 6, May, 2005. Also see EA Livingstone and FL Cross (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, under 'St George'.
4. Abbê Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina, Migne, Paris, 1844-55, vol LIX:157-64.
5. The Menologia of Metaphrastes is given in Abbê Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Migne, Paris, 1865, vols CXIV-CXVI.
6. Eusebius of Nicomedia, as distinct from the Roman Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.
7. Norman J Bull, The Rise of the Church, Heinemann, London, 1967, ch 7, p 197.
8. Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Harper Collin, San Francisco, CA, 1984, vol 1, p 164.
9. See his life in Theresa Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople: Historian of Church and State, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1997.
10. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds), Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1994, series II, vol. II, bk II, ch IX, 'Of Eusebius of Emesa'.
11. The city had been renamed by King Antiochus II after his wife Laodice. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton, New York, NY, 1910, vol VIII, under 'Laodicea.
12. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911, under 'George of Laodicea'.

12. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911, under 'George of Laodicea'.
 
11. The city had been renamed by King Antiochus II after his wife Laodice. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton, New York, NY, 1910, vol VIII, under 'Laodicea.
 
10. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (eds), Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers, Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1994, series II, vol. II, bk II, ch IX, 'Of Eusebius of Emesa'.
 
9. See his life in Theresa Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople: Historian of Church and State, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1997.
 
8. Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Harper Collin, San Francisco, CA, 1984, vol 1, p 164.
 
7. Norman J Bull, The Rise of the Church, Heinemann, London, 1967, ch 7, p 197.
 
6. Eusebius of Nicomedia, as distinct from the Roman Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea.
 
5. The Menologia of Metaphrastes is given in Abbê Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Migne, Paris, 1865, vols CXIV-CXVI.
 
4. Abbê Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina, Migne, Paris, 1844-55, vol LIX:157-64.
 
3. Dr Thomas Joseph in Shroro: The Syriac Orthodox Christian Digest, Syriac Orthodox Church, vol 1, issue 6, May, 2005. Also see EA Livingstone and FL Cross (eds), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, under 'St George'.
 
2. The Syriac text, with an English summary, is published in G Kiraz, The Acts of Saint George and the Story of His Father, from the Syriac and Garshuni Versions, Bar-Hebraeus Verlag, Losser, NL, 1991.
 
1. Alphabetically, St George's patronage includes: Amersfoort, Aragon, agricultural workers, archers, armourers, Baden-Württemberg, Beirut, butchers, Canada, Cappadocia, Catalonia, cavalry, chivalry, Constantinople, the Crusaders, England, equestrians, Ethiopia, farmers, Ferrara, field workers; Freiburg, Genoa, Georgia, Germany, Gozo, Greece, Haldern, Heide, husbandmen, Istanbul, lepers, Limburg, Lithuania, Malta, Modica, Moscow, the Order of the Garter, Palestinian Christians, Portugal, Ptuj, saddle makers, the Scout movement, Slovenia, Senj, sheep; shepherds, soldiers, Teutonic Knights, Venice.
 
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