Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Feast of Saint George

The son of Christian parents, he served in the Roman Army under the Emperor Diocletian, rising through the ranks to become an officer in the Imperial Guard.

Diocletian's second in command was Galerius, a supporter of the pagan religion, and when rumours spread that Christians were plotting his death an edict was issued which ordered the destruction of Christian churches, the burning of scriptures and the decree that everyone must recognise the divinity of the Emperor by throwing incense on a lamp beside his statue. St. George refused and went to the city of Nicomedia where he tore down the notice of the edict, publicly denounced the persecution and gave all his property to the poor. Although arrested and tortured, he refused to denounce his faith and was beheaded on 23 April, 303.

St. George was buried in Lydda, where a rose bush was planted on his grave and a church built on the site.

Remarkably, within a few years of his death, under the rule of Emperor Constantine, Christianity  had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Word of St. George's courage and sacrifice spread across Christendom and the tomb of "The Great Martyr", as it was known, became a place of pilgrimage with many visitors telling stories of the miracles they had witnessed.

In 330 AD the Emperor dedicated a church to St. George in the new city of Constantinople and it is known that as early as 346 AD two other churches bore his name at Shaqqa and Ezria in Syria.

Although the fame of St. George is often said to have reached England's shores through stories told by returning crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the cult of St. George existed long before then. In his book The Story of St George, Anthony Cooney makes the interesting observation that a Church Council was held at Lydda in 415 AD, a meeting that was sure to have been attended by clerics from Britain who would have spread the word about St. George on their return. It is certainly known that there was a church dedicated to St. George at Fordington in Dorset during the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899) and that King Canute (who reigned 1016-1035) founded a monastery at Thetford under his patronage.

Many of the miracles associated with St. George were to do with people being healed of illnesses and injuries after offering up prayers to the soldier-saint, but it was the numerous accounts of how St. George appeared at critical moments in battles that enhanced his status as a great Christian defender. He was said to have helped the Normans beat the Saracens in Sicily in 1063 and on several occasions was seen by crusaders coming to their aid. At the siege of Antioch in 1098 his figure was glimpsed in the sky leading an army of knights, and at Jerusalem King Richard I, the Lionheart (1189-99), saw a vision of St. George with his red-cross banner. Richard took St. George as his own personal patron, placing himself and his army under the protection of the Christian martyr. This adoption by successive monarchs was tremendously important in the gradual evolution of St. George as patron saint of England.

In 1222 during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272) the Council of Bishops at Oxford declared 23rd April to be St. George's Day, and in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham the red cross was carried as a military flag for the first time. Edward I (1272-1307) took this a step further by ordering that the Cross of St. George should be carried by the monarch, joining the banners of Edmund and Edward the Confessor, two other popular saints.

It was Edward III (1327-1377) probably more than any other monarch, who promoted St. George most publicly and passionately.

In 1348 he founded the Order of the Garter, a brotherhood of chivalric knights dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Edward the Confessor and St. George, and built St George's Chapel at Windsor.

Edward's allegiance to the saint, whose help he had called upon, was strengthened by his victory at the siege of Callais in 1347, and in 1351 an official document declared: "The English nation call upon St. George as their special patron, particularly in war."

In 1415, on the eve of Henry V's departure to Normandy to campaign in the Hundred Years War, all English people were ordered to attend church and to pray to St. George to watch over the king. Following Henry's magnificent victory at Agincourt, a spectacular pageant was held in London which included a statue of St. George; St. George's Day was elevated to "a greater double" feast day, and a new declaration restated the position that the saint was to be regarded as "the special patron and protector of the English nation". Subsequent rulers remained devoted to St. George and during Henry VIII's reign (1509-1547) the Cross of St. George was officially adopted as England's flag.

St. George would certainly have become familiar to ordinary people through wall paintings, altarpieces and sculptures in many churches throughout England. One of the earliest of these was a carving above the door of the church at Fordington which shows the saint on horseback doing battle with enemy soldiers.

In the centuries since the Middle Ages the flame of St. George, enduring symbol of courage, sacrifice and unquenchable Christian faith, has sometimes burned brightly and sometimes merely flickered, but it has never gone out. As well as England, he is the patron saint of Aragon, Barcelona, Bavaria, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal to name but a few. He is also the patron saint of farmers and scouting.

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