Historians would have you believe that St George was born in Cappadocia, in Modern day Turkey. That he was a member of the Emperor’s body guard and that he was killed for his Christian faith. Not so. He was born in Coventry, in the English Midlands.
The historical George
Persecution of Christianity was not the default situation in the Roman Empire before Constantine. Some Emperors persecuted, some ignored and some even favoured it. The Emperor Severus Alexander may even have been a Christian of sorts. A later spurious biography reports that in his personal altar, he venerated images of Jesus, Abraham, Orpheus and other gods.
The Emperor Diocletian was a persecutor. To some degree an impressive figure, he reorganised and restored the Empire, increasing the size of the bureaucracy and attempting to stabilise the transfer of power. He also attempted to curtail the growth of Christianity. Perhaps he saw it as a rival power base. One of his reforms was the systemisation of two Emperors (in the East and West) with named successors: the so-called Tetrarchy (Rule of Four) with its Augusti (Senior) and Caesares (juniors).
The Great Persecution, or Diocletianic Persecution took place from roughly 303 – 313 CE. It varied in intensity depending on who was Emperor in what area and according to local conditions. The army coming under direct control of the Emperors, faced greater scrutiny. Oaths to the ruling Emperor were a common way to pledge allegiance.
George was perhaps executed in this purge.
The historian Eusebius narrates a similar story (which may be George’s):
1. Immediately on the publication of the decree against the churches in Nicomedia, a certain man, not obscure but very highly honored 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.
2. But this man, first in that place, after distinguishing himself in such a manner suffered those things which were likely to follow such daring, and kept his spirit cheerful and undisturbed till death.
The young man here is not named as a soldier. The context makes it sound like he was a civilian.
The most complete version of his story from the ancient world is found in a Syriac manuscript which adds details of his home life. He is a well born Greek whose father died for the faith when George was 14. After his mother’s death he joined the army and was executed by Diocletian. (A Latin text from the sixth century extends this part of the story with George being tortured over seven years). He converts the empress.
In reality little is known about the historical George and the literary texts conflicts with archaeological evidence of his early veneration (which links him with modern day Israel, not modern day Turkey).
The mythic George
In Christian texts, George was identified as one of the fourteen helper saints. As a soldier who died for his faith he became a symbol of masculine Christianity, which is why he became so popular. He is the patron saint of England, Catalonia, Ethiopia and Georgia.
Where did the Dragon come from? The earliest text is an 11th century Georgian text and the earliest Latin texts are 12th century, suggesting a transfer East to West.
In the collection of Saint’s stories, the Golden Legend collected and edited by Jacobus de Varagine, the tale of George and the Dragon is located in Libya and dated to 287. This account was influential in the Latin West.
George was also venerated in some Muslim texts as a prophetic figure. In one text he was alive around the turn of the second century CE, where he opposed the erection of pagan statues in Iraq. In another text from Pakistan, he was martyred under the reign of Diocletian but resurrected and then brings the death to life. He also converts the queen, who is martyred. These texts reveal the cosmopolitan nature of the medieval Middle East and the loose retellings of stories.
The real George?
Each country developed its own legends connected to various saints. As a popular saint, George collected a plethora of conflicting stories across a wide geographic area.
In Coventry, the legend developed that he grew up in Caludon Castle. Perhaps Edward III was the first to link Coventry with George. He owned a house near by and made George the patron saint of England. Richard Johnson was the first to name Coventry in print in the Sixteenth Century, identifying the castle. But there appeared to be an oral tradition developing as well. In one version of the tale, Coventry was the city threatened by the dragon.
An Eighteenth Century chap book develops Johnson’s version of the tale.
George was the son of Lord Albert and the daughter of the King. His mother, when she was with child, dreamed her son would be a dragon. The enchantress Kalyb tells her father it is because his son will be fierce as a dragon in acts of chivalry. Kalyb brings up George and gives him a suit of invincible amor.
He travels to Egypt where the land is desolate because of a dragon who every day killed a virgin and “had destroyed all but the king’s daughter”, whose name was Sabra and whose hand was promised to the person who would slay the dragon. George slew the dragon but angers Aminder, the King of Morocco, who is in love with Sabra.
He defeats Aminder, but Aminder spreads stories that he is trying to convert Sabra to Christianity. The King of Egypt, asks George to take a letter to Persia. In Persia, George is thrown in prison for seven long years.
His escapes, kills a dragon, rescues Sabra, survives a lion attack and arrives back in Coventry, where St David asks him to go on a crusade in Hungary. Whilst fighting in Hungary, the Earl of Coventry attempts to seduce Sabra who like a true Qween of Egypt, stabs him. George returns just in time to save his wife from execution. They live happily ever after and raise three sons Guy, Alexander and David.
Until George goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and on his return fights a dragon on Dunmore Heath near Coventry. He defeats the dragon, but like Beowulf “this proved the most fatal of all his adventures, for the vast quantities of poison thrown upon him by that monstrous beast, so infected his ritual spirals, that two days afterward he died in his own house”.
A lot is going on in this tale. The connections with travel might reflect the interest in George amongst crusaders. This is an orientalised East with monsters and duplicitous royals, yet Coventry is portrayed in the same terms. Perhaps the richness of the tale comes from an individual’s imagination, or perhaps it’s the accretion of years. Either way it is a fascinating tale.
Is it true? Let me know what you think in the comments below.