St George of England: a study of sainthood and legend
By C. Addington and H. Foy
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 82 (1989)
Introduction: Nothing more vividly displays the workings of the Byzantine ’Ministry of Truth’ than the extraordinary career-both living and posthumous-of George the Cappadocian.
From the very outset, the triumph of Christianity had been soured by sectarian quarrels. Although the Orthodox Christians were in the habit of calling Constantine ‘the equal of the Apostles’, they were not always happy about the ideological correctness of his beliefs. During his reign and that of his son, the Arian heresy grew so influential that it came very close to supplanting Orthodoxy as the official sect. Towards the end of his reign, Constantius I became actively embroiled in the controversy, and gave his support to the Arians in their attempt to suppress the ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Catholic’ sect. He encountered the strongest opposition in Egypt, where the See of Alexandria was held by the most prominent champion of this sect, Athanasius. So important, indeed, was the part played by this theologian in the controversy that even today the official Christian faith is known as the Athanasian Church, after him. In 356 an order was issued for his arrest, and the bishop only escaped death by taking refuge among the hermits of the desert.
In place of Athanasius, Constantius appointed as Bishop of Alexandria an adventurer called George. This character had a very chequered background. His early transactions as a war profiteer had put him on the wrong side of the law. If this had happened in a less factious period of history, one cannot help concluding that his career would at this point have come to an untimely and inglorious end – and the thousands of people living today who are called George or Georgina would have been christened with a different name. He saved his skin, however, by becoming a fanatical supporter of the favoured Arian sect. It is said that he found his way into the Emperor’s favour by bribing the court eunuchs with embezzled Church funds. Once installed as Bishop of Alexandria he set about persecuting Pagans and Orthodox Christians with equal vigour, closing and plundering their temples and churches with the aid of Duke Artemius, the military governor of Egypt, who was another Arian fanatic. The crowning achievement of this team was the pillaging of the Serapium, which was at that time the second largest temple in the Inhabited World.
Bishop George was detested by both parties alike. Gregory Nazianzen, a staunch supporter of Athanasius, heaps upon George the same ecclesiastical billingsgate, almost word for word, as he uses in his invectives against the apostate Julian: ‘That servant of the Wicked One, that sower of tares, that forerunner of the Antichrist . . . hurricane of unrighteousness . . . corrupter of godliness . . .’ etc.
So strong was the Egyptians’ hatred of Bishop George, that the moment the country received news of Constantius’s death and Julian’s succession, an angry mob dragged him out of his church, lynched him, and threw his body into the sea. It is difficult to discover which party was responsible for this crime, since Pagans and Catholics alike took credit for George’s death, as a matter of pride. It is quite possible, in fact, that the mob which murdered him was made up of both Pagans and Catholics – united, for once, in a common hatred.