The Real St. George


st georgeTCS Third grade teacher Joelyn Phillips recently returned from a trip to Israel. When she and her family went to Bethlehem, they saw several references to Saint George. Mrs. Phillips had read he was a Roman soldier that had been martyred in the early 4th century, which led her to the question, “OK, so why is he known as a legendary knight of the Middle Ages?” She did a little digging and this is what she found.

Matthew 16:24 “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'”

In Bethlehem are memorials like this one to Saint George, the patron saint of England, of chivalry, of Boy Scouts, and of various other things.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Saint George, it goes something like this: the princess must be sacrificed to appease a ferocious dragon. George, a brave young knight, promises the despairing king he will slay the dragon and save the princess. George is successful, marries the princess, and everyone lives happily after. This story is first recorded in a book of legends in 1265, though stories of Saint George were prevalent centuries before 1265.

However, the Middle Ages Saint George is a complete reinvention of a third century Christian martyr. The Roman historian, Eusebius, writes about a Roman soldier who was executed by Diocletian for his Christian beliefs. Though Eusebius does not mention the name George, fourth century inscriptions found in Syria and George’s burial site corroborate the chronicles of George as the martyr described by Eusebius.

The story of the real man is much more fascinating than the Middle Ages legend that has been perpetuated to modernity. George was born in Palestine in the 3rd century to a Roman officer and his Greek wife. A devout Christian, George served in the Roman army and ascended to the rank of tribune.

Unfortunately, the Roman emperor, Diocletian, instituted widespread persecution of Christians. Thousands were tortured and killed. Diocletian urged his respected tribune to renounce Christ and sacrifice to the pagan gods. George refused. Excruciating torture was employed. George still refused. He was adamant in his devotion to Christ. Diocletian ordered George to be executed.

Following his death in 303 AD, news of George’s martyrdom spread throughout the vast Roman Empire and emboldened Christian believers.

Over time, George’s noble death inspired legends that deviated greatly from the true story. In the Middle Ages, George was portrayed as a chivalrous knight who defeats a dragon, probably symbolic of the devil. Saint George became popular among crusaders, who intermittently controlled the Holy Land during the Crusades (1095 – 1291). Later, in 1348, Edward III established an elite order of knights and chose Saint George as the patron saint. Shakespeare, in his play “Henry V,” has King Henry use the name of Saint George to rally his troops at the Battle of Agincourt. In 1606, Saint George’s flag—a red martyr’s cross on a white background—was made the official flag of England.

All very interesting. Still, the story of the real man, the Roman tribune, is the most fascinating…and inspiring.