“Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' ”
Saint George was born to Christian parents of Greek origin in Cappadocia (now modern Turkey). At the very young age of only 14, his father was martyred for being a Christian and his mother took young George back to her homeland of Syria Palestina, specifically the town of Lydda. Shortly after arriving home, his mother died as well. Now alone, Saint George travelled to the town of Nicomedia and enlisted into the Roman army.
Saint George embraced the life of a Roman soldier and quickly climbed the ranks under the Emperor Dioclecian. By the time he was in his late 20s, Saint George had become a Military Tribune and served in the Imperial Guard at Nicomedia. The life of service and contentment dramatically changed on February 24th, 303 AD when Emperor Diocletian announced that all Christians in the Roman empire were to be immediately arrested and every other soldier to give sacrifice to the Roman gods. Saint George went immediately to the Emperor and announced boldly that he was a Christian and that he could not nor will not make sacrifice.
Diocletian was stunned and despaired for this great soldier he had known now for several years. In an attempt to have him recant his faith and be spared, Diocletian offered Saint George land, wealth, and slaves. The deal was simple, just make sacrifice to the Roman gods and all would be given to him. Every offer was turned down. Diocletian, seeing no chance in Saint George recanting, ordered his execution. Diocletian allowed Saint George to sell his possessions and land holdings and gave him time to give away the money earned from the sales to the poor. On April 23rd, 303 AD, Saint George was executed by beheading at the city's wall. Empress Alexandra of Rome witnessed the execution and was so moved by the faith Saint George showed converted to Christianity as well. In a fit of rage, Diocletian had her executed as well. Saint George's body was recovered by Christians and taken to Lydda where it was buried.
The story of Saint George comes from two sources - a fifth century Greek text that was survived when it was translated into Syriac and a sixth century Latin version known as the Passio Sanci Georgii.
During the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337) a titular church was built in the town of Lydda and consecrated to Saint George according to Saint Eusebius. In the 400s veneration of Saint George had exploded westward throughout the empire culminating in the formal canonization of Saint George by Pope Gelasius I. In Archdeacon Theodosius's De Situ Terrae Sanctae, written in 518 AD, Lydda is described as being a major point of pilgrimage but pilgrimages began to move to Cappadocia by the 7th century. A basilica dedicated to Saint George existed in Palestine but was destroyed by the invading Islamic army in 1010. Crusaders rebuilt the basilica and rededicated it to Saint George when the town was recaptured but it was again destroyed in 1191 by Saladin when the Ayyubid dynasty invaded.
Twice soldiers attested to miraculous interventions by Saint George. After capturing the city of Antioch in 1098, the crusaders found themselves in the city, short on food and encircled by an Islamic relief army. Supplies became dangerously low and the crusaders prayed aloud to God for a sign of their relief. In June, an priest of no great social station by the name of Peter Bartholomew came forward stating that he had a vision from Saint Andrew that the Holy Lance was buried inside Antioch. The crusaders begun to dig under the Cathedral of Saint Peter inside the city and initially found no items. Peter went into the dig site, reached down and pulled out the spear tip he had seen in his visions. The army that was on the brink of starvation and without hope were suddenly renewed by this find and began to prepare themselves for a final battle. Peter had a second vision around this time in which Saint Andrew appeared to him again and instructed them to fast for five days for victory.
At the end of the fast the Crusaders burst through the city gates holding the Holy Lance high. As they charged into the enemy lines, soldiers would later swear under oath to see three saints riding alongside them on white horses with white banners held high - Saint George, Saint Mercurius and Saint Demetrius. The battle was a total disaster for the Turkish army - the crusaders swept through their lines despite heavy losses and soon drove the Turks into a frenzied panic. A year later, at the battle for Jerusalem, again the army saw Saint George appear in battle alongside them.
The legend of Saint George battling a dragon was first recorded in the 11th century and became popular in Europe during the 13th century writing of Archbishop Jacobus da Varagine's Golden Legend. The story tells that the people of Seline, Libya were being constantly attacked by a terrible dragon. Saint George was sent to help the people and when he arrived he found that for some time the people had been giving the dragon two sheep each morning but the dragon had grown tired of eating only sheep. The townspeople had begun to sacrifice people rather than sheep to the dragon by an election of the populace. When Saint George arrived the King's daughter had been chosen for the next sacrifice and Saint George lept into action. He slayed the dragon singlehandedly with a lance, saving both the king's daughter and the town. Many of the people who were not Christian converted that day and were baptized. The king offered Saint George treasures and massive piles of gold, but Saint George asked that they be given to the poor instead.
Remarkably, Saint George is not only venerated in the Christian faith but the Islamic faith as well. In some Islamic sources Saint George lived with a group of people who were the last groups to have direct contact with the Apostles of Christ. In one of the stories he is a rich merchant who is tortured when he stood up against the king of Mosul when he attempted to erect a statue of Apollo in the town. Saint George exposed the statues as figures of the devil and was martyred when God rained fire down upon the city.
After the ending of the crusades, the people of Europe began to uphold Saint George as the idyllic model of chivalry. Several books were written romanticizing Saint George's chivalry and honor, including the Legenda Sanctorum and the Legenda Aurea. His feast day was elevated to a festum duplex in 1415 on April 23rd, the date of his death. Observance of his feast day survived even through the English reformation when several saint days were banned from celebration. in the Levant, Saint George is renowned by both Muslims and Christians of all denominations. Many Christians are named after Saint George and consistently seek his intercession in their struggles. Saint George is often treated as a family member, a brother who has gone before them to Heaven. When William Dalrymple visited the shrine of Saint George in the village of Beit Jala, he wrote:
"I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, and discovered that the place was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem – an illness, or something more complicated – they preferred to seek the intercession of George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem."
Today the feast day of Saint George is celebrated on April 23rd in the General Roman Calendar. Since the 1969 revision, the feast is considered an optional memorial, though in some countries such as England the rank is considered a Solemnity and transferred to the Monday after the Second Sunday of Easter if it falls between Palm Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter. The Orthodox Church refers to Saint George as the Great Martyr and celebrates the feast also on the 23rd of April (according to the Julian calendar). In Bulgaria, Гергьовден is celebrated on May 6th with a tradition of roasting lamb. In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church refers to Saint George (Ⲡⲓⲇⲅⲓⲟⲥ Ⲅⲉⲟⲣⲅⲓⲟⲥ or ⲅⲉⲱⲣⲅⲓⲟⲥ) as the Prince of Martyrs and celebrates his martyrdom on the 23rd of Paremhat.
Saint George is the patron saint of England and his cross forms the national flag of England. His cross is also featured within the Union flag and since the 14th century Saint George is the patron saint and protector of the Royal Family.