Long before Richard the Lionhearted invoked him in the Crusades, before he became England’s patron, Saint George was a popular figure in medieval Christianity.
The basic story is that George was born to noble Christian parents in Cappadocia and moved with his mother to her native Palestine after his father died. He joined the Roman army and was named a tribune. Sometime in his career, he rescued a princess from a dragon in the city of Selena. However, Emperor Diocletian issued an anti-Christian edict. Refusing to renounce his faith, George resigned his commission and complained to the emperor. For his troubles, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded around 303.
Regardless of whether the events are historically accurate, Saint George’s legend captured medieval Christians’ imagination. The saint’s tomb is in Lydda (later Diospolis then Lod in Israel), and after Constantine issued an edict of tolerance in 314, churches were dedicated to George in the region. Perhaps, pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land brought the saint’s legend back with them to Europe and the British Isles.
If you’re familiar with the hero’s epic of Beowulf, it’s easy to see why Saint George caught the interest of Christians from warlike Germanic cultures such as the Saxons and the Franks. Like Beowulf, Saint George is a tough guy who killed a monster. The greatest different is that George makes the ultimate sacrifice for God, while Beowulf dies in a fight for the sake of his people.
On the Continent, the Franks knew about Saint George by the sixth century. After King Clovis was baptized in 496, he founded a monastery at Baralle in George’s honor. Clovis’s wife, Clotilda, who wanted her husband to convert in the first place, also honored George by building an altar and the church at Chelles.
Whether Saint George’s story had crossed the Channel at that time is uncertain. However, around 670, Bishop Arculf, a pilgrim from Gaul, was blown off course on his return from the Holy Land and landed on the island monastery of Iona (also called Hy), near today’s Scotland. His host was the Irish abbot Adamnan. As Arculf talked about the Holy Land, Adamnan wrote down his guest’s account on wax tablets, then transcribed them to parchment and presented Arculf’s descriptions to the king of Northumbria in 698. The Venerable Bede also used that information in his own writing about holy places, and his martyrology included Saint George.
Might Arculf have also told the story of Saint George during his visit? It’s possible. Saint George’s acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest. Artwork of George slaying the dragon dates back as early as the seventh century. Perhaps the image of a hero literally driving a lance through a symbol of evil (or paganism) inspired medieval Christians.
Herbert Thurston, “St. George.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6, 1909.
Godefroid Kurth, “Clovis.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, 1908.
William Grattan-Flood, “St. Adamnan.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.
Thomas Walsh, “Arculf.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.
Herbert Thurston, “The Venerable Bede.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, 1907. 14 Jun. 2014
The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volume 177
Originally published June 22, 2014, on English Historical Fiction Authors.