April 23: George, Soldier & Martyr, c. 304

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

George is the patron saint of England by declaration of King Edward II in 1347. He is remembered as a martyr, having given his life in witness to the gospel during the persecution of the church in the early fourth century. Very few details of his life have survived and his story is replete with legend. By the middle of the fifth century he was commemorated in local calendars and historical records of the period.

George was a soldier by vocation, serving as an officer in the Roman army. It is said that he “gave his goods to the poor, and openly confessed Christianity before the court.”

George’s initial notoriety may well have resulted from his faithfulness and witness to Christ during the Diocletian persecutions, 303-304, a particularly destructive period through which the church suffered.

Much of the legend of George dates back only to the eighth century, and more of it developed in the centuries that followed. The infamous story of George slaying the dragon, probably developed from Greek mythology, is not associated with him until the twelfth century. The inclusion of George’s story in the thirteenth century manuscript, The Golden Legend, accounts for his growing popularity in the Middle Ages.

In the twelfth century George was recognized as the patron saint of soldiers and he was called upon in support of those who would fight in the Crusades. The shield under which his soldier’s fought became a symbol of national pride for the English and in time was adapted into the national flag. Interestingly, the “St. George’s Shield”—white shield emblazoned with a red cross—is the basis of the Episcopal Church flag and seal.


I  Almighty God, who didst commission thy holy martyr George to bear before the rulers of this world the banner of the cross: Strengthen us in our battles against the great serpent of sin and evil, that we too may attain the crown of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  Almighty God, you commissioned your holy martyr George to bear before the rulers of this world the banner of the cross: Strengthen us in our battles against the great serpent of sin and evil, that we too may attain the crown of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Joshua 1:1–9

Revelation 12:7–12

John 8:21–29

Psalm 3

Preface of Lent (I)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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28 thoughts on “April 23: George, Soldier & Martyr, c. 304

  1. In the last paragraph, “soldier’s” is used as a plural noun, not a possessive, so it should not have an apostrophe. (I haven’t checked the print edition.)

    Also in the last paragraph, I wondered if the word “adapted” (into) should be “adopted” (into), and decided neither one sounds right. I think it should be “incorporated” (into) — but I’m not quite sure why I think that.

  2. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  3. Are we even sure that St. George is even a real person?
    Are the attributes mentioned in the collect actually true, or just fiction?
    Is the Gospel reading related to the lgeend of St. George in any way?

    HWHM should be about real people, IMO.

  4. The bare facts seem to confirm that he did exist, although like many early saints (e.g., Nicholas), the legends far exceed the certainties. In light of his patronage of England and the use of his cross in the Episcopal Church’s heraldry, I would vote to let him have his place on the calendar.

    In paragraph two, change the first sentence to: “George was an officer in the Roman army. ”

    In paragraph three, change “notoriety” to “fame.”

    In paragraph four, change “infamous” to “famous.”

    Change the last paragraph to read:

    “In the twelfth century George was recognized as the patron saint of soldiers and he was called upon to protect those who fought in the Crusades. The shields (white field emblazoned with a red cross, the “St. George’s Cross”) behind which his soldiers fought, became a symbol of national pride for the English, and in time this cross was adopted as the national flag. A variation of the St. George’s Cross is incorporated in the Episcopal Church flag and seal.”

    • I wouldn’t use either “infamous” or “famous” for a story about dragons. How about “legendary” or “popular”? Since it carries so much in the way of significant symbolism it could even be termed “mythic.”

  5. Very interesting fact that the St George’s Shield was the basis of the seal of the Episcopal Church. It’s a very nice connection to England and Anglicanism.

    • And this brings us in line with much of the Christian world who commemorate George. April 23 was the first page I turned to when HWHM arrived to see if George finally made the “cut.”

  6. John – thank you for catching “notoriety” and “infamous.” These make me fume. I like also youur last paragraph. George should have his own day.

  7. I supposewe can keep St. George’s Day, since he is the patron of England, but severl years back we rejeted him on the samw grounds the Roman dropwb St. Christopher. Namely, was there ever any such real person?

    I think the question needs to be raised again.

    • As far as scholars can tell, we are certain that George existed and was revered for his holiness. Arguments to the contrary tend to lean on refuting the legends about dragons than the idea he did exist.

    • George is still on the RC and Eastern Orthodox calendars. He did exist and was martyred, but he didn’t slay a dragon. Nor did St. Nicholas (December 6th) drive a sleigh lead by eight tiny reindeer (that was dreamed up by an Episcopal priest).

    • I have commented previously that I think “saints” who are traditional but for whom there is precious little, if any, factual information such as Anne and Cecilia should not be in the calender for commemoration. I would include George in this category.

      There is no tradition of celebrating St. George or St. George’s Day in the United States as there is in England, a number of Orthodox countries, and parts of Spain, etc. I might be a bit less dogmatic about his exclusion because we do commemorate Andrew, David and Patrick who are the patron saints of countries from which come the roots of the Episcopal Church in the USA. It would seem an insult to the heritage of the Episcopal Church not to include George in that illustrious company.

      And if George is to be commemorated, it should be noted that he is symbol of the traits of honor, fortitude, courage, courtesby and generosity.

  8. George should stay, if only because there are so many Episcopal Churches dedicated to him. His cult as a military martyr is older and more widespread that of Agnes, to cite only one example of a similar sort. Besides, we’ve incorporated his banner into our flag and many diocesan crests, so we really ought to give him a date or pay a licencing fee to the Republic of Genoa (see below).
    Donald Attwater (A Dictionary of Saints) says “St. George . . . was one of the most famous of the early martyrs, and his reputation is still alive, especially in the East. But no historical particulars of his life have survived; and such are the vagaries of his legend that earnest endeavours have been made to prove that he never existed, or that he was somebody else, or that he represents a christianized version of one or other of the pagan myths. These endeavours are more remarkable for their ingenuity than for their cogency.” Sabine Baring-Gould is more to the point, denouncing such endeavors as “a parody of history, and an insult to religion.”
    I’m glad others caught the “infamous” slip — The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the attack on Pearl Harbor are infamous. The story of George and the Dragon is, as you prefer, “celebrated,” “charming,” or even “late and historically worthless.”
    How George became the patron saint of England is unclear. His name was known in England before the Norman conquest. The saint was seen helping the Crusaders at the siege of Antioch in 1098. The knights of Robert Curthose (eldest son of William the Conqueror) may have brought him back as their patron when they returned from the Holy Land in 1100 or so.
    Somewhat better documented is the adoption of George’s red-cross flag by English merchant ships in 1190. Flying the banner – which was also the ensign of the Genoese fleet and merchant marine – made the Mediterranean Sea a much safer place for English traders, as the Genoese Navy was a far more certain help in those waters than the distant and still rudimentary English fleet. London merchants paid a licensing fee for the privilege of using the flag of the Republic’s patron saint.
    Much later, the warrior-kings Edward III (1327-77) and Henry V (1413-22) found the bellicose George a more congenial patron saint than England’s traditional one, Edward the Confessor (1002-66). In 1348, Edward III made George the patron saint of the Order of the Garter. In 1415, following the English victory at Agincourt, St. George’s Day was made a festival of the highest rank in the English Church.
    It’s true that the tale of George and the Dragon bears a suspicious resemblance to the story of how Perseus rescued Andromeda from the sea-monster, but there is considerable independent evidence of a widespread animosity between the saints of the early Church and dragons.
    Dragons – singular or plural – appear 34 times in the Authorized Version of the Bible, suggesting that such creatures were once common. As the Rev’d Edward Topsell (1572-1625) warned with regard to another fabulous beast, “That there is such a beast Scripture itself witnesses, . . . we will have to traduce God, Himself, if there is no unicorn in the world.” The Emperor Augustus collected dragon bones, and Topsell reports that the Emperor Tiberius “had a dragon which he daily fed with his own hands.”
    But these fabulous beasts could not survive the attacks of the Christian Church. Christ and the Virgin Mary are sometimes depicted treading the creatures underfoot. In addition to St. George, the Apostles Philip and Thomas, Mary Magdalen, Lazarus’ sister Martha, Martin of Tours, and at least a dozen less-well-known saints all killed dragons. The Archangel Michael threw one out of Heaven, and the Apostles James the Greater and Matthew, as well as several lesser saints, had non-lethal encounters with the beasts. Throughout medieval Christendom, bone-fires were lit on the eve of the Nativity of John the Baptist to keep dragons away from the crops. The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516-65) reported that, in his time, only a handful of these once-common creatures survived in the remotest parts of the Alps, and none have been reliably reported since 1587.
    While the western dragon must be regarded as extinct, its Asiatic cousins continue to flourish. In 1970, the construction of the luxury Regent Hotel in Hong Kong was plagued by accidents, delays, and cost overruns. In desperation, management brought in a feng shui expert for consultations. The hotel had been sited across the dragons’ preferred path from their mountain lairs down to the beach. The plans were duly revised to include a central multi-story glass-walled atrium. The change provided a path for the dragons through the building. Being invisible themselves, the dragons’ progress is unimpeded by walls they cannot see. Harmony thus being restored, construction was completed without further problems.

      • The Golden Legend has more than one saint who tamed a dragon. In the story of St. George and the dragon, George wounds the dragon. Then the unnamed king’s daughter parades the now meek dragon around the city with her belt wrapped around his neck. George does not slay the dragon until after all the people are converted to Christianity and been baptized. [So much for the image of George slaying the dragon from his horse.]

        Then there is the story of Margaret, a Christian virgin from Antioch. The dragon is this story is green as grass (at least according to the Middle English verse version of the tale.) She caused the dragon such indigestion after he ate her and she made the sign of the cross, the dragon’s gut burst open and she was delivered “whole and sound.” In the verse version, Margaret holds a cross (not just a sign of the cross) and the dragon became “A grysly syght, for sothe, was he, A fouler best never man se.”

        St. Martha’s dragon was half beast and half fish, described as “greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side.” She did not parade the dragon around. She tamed him with holy water and a cross. After she placed her girdle around the dragon, he was killed by spears.

      • The legend about St. Martha’s dragon presents the beast as a symbol for the “Old Church,” and, as such, she left it to the villagers to determine what to do with the big ole thang rather than slaying it for them. Love these lay-led legends.

  9. William Shakespeare (birthday and death date are both supposed to be April 23 )

    Henry V, III, i.

    Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
    Or close the wall up with our English dead…
    And you, good yeoman,
    Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
    The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
    That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
    For there is none of you so mean and base,
    That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
    Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
    Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

    I suppose that is enough reason to keep St. George. 😉

    • And maybe add St. Denis? We otherwise lack a cephalophore, and every calendar shoul include at least one.
      St. George he was for England;
      St. Denis was for France;
      Sing, Honi soit qui mal y pense.

  10. I don’t usually comment on the Preface, but I wonder why the Lenten preface is called for during a day that is usually within The Great Fifty Days.

    I also wonder why we would add this legendary figure so soon after the RCC has decided that the legends outweigh the discernible facts. One can understand why the English would still want to honor their Patron Saint, but despite the many TEC anglophiles, I find this commemoration inappropriate for us. I would not bring this forward in 2012.

    Nevertheless, I shall review the bio.

    Line 1, third paragraph: substitute “fame” for “notoriety”. In many other parts of the WWAC, “notoriety” is only used in its pejorative sense.

    Line 4, fifth paragraph: substitute: “adopted for” for “adapted into”. How much “adaptation” was needed for a red cross on a white background?

    Line 5, fifth paragraph: substitute “The” for “Interestingly, the”. I suggest that is out of place for this type of comment to be printed.(The design was adopted just over seventy years ago–an interesting article about “The Episcopal Church Flag” can readily be found online, but is irrelevant here.)

  11. I think the historic connection between PECUSA and the C of E and our heraldic use of his banner justifies the continuing commemoration.

    In the bio, ‘during the Diocletian persecutions, 303-304, a particularly destructive period through which the church suffered’ seems very awkward. I’d say ‘during the last and most terrible persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian in 303-304’.

    In the collect ‘commissioned’ is too mundane a term for a divine call. He wasn’t called to bear a banner, even if those inspired by him chose to do that. ‘Great serpent’ is confusing and should be dropped, but ‘great dragon’ would be cringeworthy, so don’t go there.

  12. May I wade in as an art historian? It’s fairly clear that the dragon legends connected to St. George are, as Steve Lusk says above, “late and historically worthless.” It is the case, though, that like St. Theodore and other warrior saints in the Orthodox tradition, George was frequently–and from a very early period–shown slaying a dragon as a symbol of triumph over evil. It is, if you will, a shorthand way of visualizing his sharing in Christ’s victory through martyrdom. Only much later was this iconography “back-translated” into hagiography, giving rise to the charming, but not terribly edifying, story of the dragon slaying. By a similar mechanism, sea monsters creep into late versions of the legend of the Egyptian martyr Menas. For further reading, I suggest the book on Byzantine warrior saints by Christopher Walter.

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