Friday, 23 April 2010

"For England and St George!" Henry V

"Carissime: Memor esto, Dominum Iesum Christum"
Beloved: Fix thy mind on Christ II Tim 2:8

So began today's epistle reading for the feast of St George, Principal Patron of England, that great saint who so inspired England to be "great"... From Good King Richard I, the "Lion heart" who granted release to prisoners who would wear it and dedicated his crusading armies to the Cross of St George, through that other great King immortalised by Shakespeare, Henry V who cried "For England and St George" at Agincourt to those great personages honoured most highly by our monarch as members of the Royal Order of the Garter, of St George. Yet so little and yet so much is known about St George... little for certain, but much in the way of legend. Yet I believe a fair balance of the two may yet convince one, as it seems it has the majority of the Church Catholic for centuries as well as our monarchs, that "George" did indeed exist.

The oldest and most popular legend of St George is widely held by the Church of the East who claim him particularly as one of her sons. Believed to have been a soldier in the Roman Army serving the tyrannical Emperor Diocletian, it is said that George was beheaded for standing up to the Emperor against the persecution of Christians. The great ecclesial historian, St Eusebius of Caesarea, records such a soldier of fame being thus martyred writing in 322AD, a soldier of noble-birth martyred under Diocletian at Nicomedia on April 23rd 303AD though this otherwise detailed scribe does not give the name, country or place of burial of the martyr! That said, an apocryphal legend called the "Acts of St George" widely circulated from the Fifth Century by the East confers with these details, adding only the soldier's rank of "Tribune". These accounts were later translated into Anglo-Saxon adding the Saint's visits to Caerleon (outside Newport) and Glastonbury, also recounting the slaying of the dragon. A later collection of legends known as the "Golden Legend" (Legenda Aurea) by James of Voragine in 1265 includes the most famous account of "George and the Dragon" which every schoolboy used to know in England!

It has been suggested that Arculpus (an avant pilgrim of the 7/8C) and St Adamnan (of Mayo) brought the translated "Acts of St George" to these Isles and the Saint quickly caught on in the minds and hearts of the people. But it was really the Crusades that would establish St George as the patron of England. The Crusades were, in part, an outlet for an intense religious piety which rose up in the late 11th century among the lay public. The specific crusades to restore Christian control of the Holy Land were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. A crusader would, after pronouncing a solemn vow, receive a cross from the hands of the Papal legates, and was thenceforth considered a "soldier of the Church". King Richard I led the Third Crusade to the Holy Land in 1190 adopting the Cross of St George for his crusading knights and putting his army under the Saint's Patronage. At the Synod of Oxford in 1222, St George was declared the patron of England. Together with the ancient legends adn the "Acts of St George" and combined with the complimentary devotion of the Byzantine armies to the saint in common with the English crusaders, he became firmly established in the hearts of the English...

So, all in all, I think one can be fairly certain that St George is the Roman soldier and noblemen who was beheaded on this day in 303AD, referred to by St Eusebius.  The legend of the slaying of the dragon on the other hand may not be so reliable... 

According to The Golden Legend, there was a dragon that lived in a lake near Silena, Libya. Not even armies could defeat this creature, and he terrorized flocks and the people. St. George was passing through and upon hearing about a princess was about to be eaten, he went to battle against the serpent, and killed it with one blow with his lance. Then with his great preaching, George converted the people. He distributed his reward to the poor, then left the area.  The legend does go back to the Fifth/Sixth Century and the Act of St George but may be allegorical refering to the persecution under Diocletian who was referred to as "the dragon" in ancient texts. The story may also be a Christianized version of the Greek legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster at Arsuf or Jaffa, near Lydda (Diospolis), where the cult of St George grew up around the site of his supposed tomb...

I suppose the hardest question for a boy old enough to have been schooled in "The Golden Legend" and the slaying of the dragon, is whether or not it needs to be true?!

Well of course, the slaying of the dragon doesn't have to be true, though again I like the suggestion that it is ancient and allegorical, re the tyrant Diocletion as "the dragon" and thus demonstrating the herioc nerve of our Saint George in standing up to the Emperor, even if losing his head by it.  But what then of the "Princess"?  Well, I suppose she could be the embodiment of the poor and defenceless Christians, indeed of The Church herself?  Who knows?  Who needs to know?

One thing is certain, whoever "George" was, he was an inspiration to the people who knew him from whence sprang the legends about him. Another certain thing is, that whoever "George" was, he was, has been and continues to be an inspiration for thousands upon thousands of Christians since... Why?

Of all the types of saints, bishops, doctors, confessors, virgins etc, it has to be admitted, I think, that the martyrs on the whole capture the devotion and admiration of the faithful in a unique way, often because of their bravery, their courageousness in the face of trial and adversity and their embrace of death.  It is of course, because of their desire for eternal life that these martyr saints go to their deaths "happily" or "bravely" and always the account of their martyrdom demonstrates their witness to their faith in Christ.  In far removed times such as these and in our relative safety, it is easy perhaps to forget that for many hundreds of years, The Church was herself the persecuted rather than as some think now, the persecutor.  It is also sadly not widely known that even now, in some places in the world, Christians still are and may yet be, physically persecuted and martyred for their faith.  What sums up the attitude however of all these martyr saints we heard in the first line of the epistle today, "Beloved, fix thy mind on Jesus Christ."  Indeed, if we fix all our being on Jesus Christ as they did, perhaps we too will earnestly desire and gain eternal life with Him, no matter what may befall us in this life.

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