By Steve Muhlberger
St. George is one of the earliest martyrs of the Christian church. He is also well-known in the present day if only for his banner – a red cross on a white background. St. George’s Cross flies above every continent, and represents, among other things, traditional power and legitimacy. Many soldiers now wear the cross as a sign of their military service. George’s extraordinary service is evoked by his well-known conquest of a dragon, which makes him one of the most impressive of all of God’s saints.
If St. George is venerated in the present day, his reputation reaches back to the Middle Ages and Late Antiquity. The old roots of this military saint allow us to appreciate the somewhat paradoxical relationship between earthly and spiritual power.
St. George is sometimes regarded as a purely legendary figure. His story, however true it may be, is typical of those told about martyrs of the age of the Roman emperor Diocletian (who reigned from 284 to 305), the foremost pagan persecutor of the 3rd century. George was from a Greek Christian family and a military background. He had attained one of the highest ranks when he heard that the emperor was forcing Christians to worship the Roman gods George felt compelled to register his dissent.
After he defied the emperor to his face, George was subjected to a long list of torments, and eventually succumbed. But George became one of the most popular saints in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Was George particularly regarded as a martyr because he used his earthly power – soldier’s strength in God’s cause? He certainly had plenty of strength and he had used it against a dragon, an evil monster with Satanic associations. Even today the most common depiction of George shows him on horseback battling the monster.
St.George’s reputation continued to grow in both east and west. His patronage remained especially important in the Greek provinces of the Byzantine empire, which were constantly endangered both by Muslims and even Christian neighbors. George became a figure of Christian unity when eastern and western churches became tangled in a debate over leadership in the Christian community. In the turbulent years around 1100, warriors and clergy competed for leadership of the churches, and Christians found themselves under attack by pagan raiders and invaders. Clerics – monks, bishops and abbots – needed protection from warriors but were skeptical of milites – soldiers, or later, knights – who devoted themselves to fighting and plundering, as they so often did. Too often these milites oppressed their Christian neighbors, when the warriors were needed to defend the Christians. Christian warriors, on the other hand, were proud of their military way of life. Prowess and honor and pride were the necessary ingredients for effective warriors.
Sometimes the ideal of Christian cooperation came true. The centuries after 1100 were an era of famous knights and holy war. The threat of Muslim expansion and intra-Christian conflicts required the clergy to muster princes to fight worthy wars. In 1066, for instance, William the Conqueror asked for a papal banner to bless his expedition to England, and the pope, at odds with the leading English bishops, sent him one. A generation later a far larger force including men who had helped William take England, marched and sailed to Jerusalem with papal authorization. The Crusaders, as we call them, were accompanied by Michael the Archangel, the champion who at the beginning of time had led God’s heavenly army against the rebel angels. In the second rank, though, was St. George, no mean champion and well known in the Christian East.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, St.George and other saints were invoked through the use of heraldic symbolism and banners. The saintly intercessors were regarded as knights, earthly knights being now a higher class of warriors than before. In the middle of the 14th century, St. George’s iconography became closely associated with worthy military men. King Edward III of England, for instance, appealed to chivalric sentiment to justify his flashy, ambitious projects. Foremost among them was St. George Chapel at Windsor, which was not only an impressive church but the seat of a chivalric order – The Order of the Garter. It was a shrine that among other things celebrated the foremost warriors of Edward’s realm and put the Order under the patronage of St. George.
Although Edward believed that he had a special link to St.George, he had no actual monopoly on George’s claim to claim George’s patronage. The wars of the 14th century spawned mercenary companies of many nationalities, and various independent cities. It was quite natural for any of these Christian warriors to look to the great St. George as their special patron. How often, I wonder, did one bannered force face another? We know that it did happen in the Italian and French wars during the 14th centuries.
At the end of the Middle Ages St. George became more strongly associated with the important dynasties and states of Christian Europe. The red cross on white now flew over England, of course; the Iberian kingdoms of Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Portugal; the Kingdom of Georgia; Serbia and Montenegro; Ethiopia; Russia; the wealthy and belligerent Italian cities of Genoa, Milan, Bologna and quite a few others; and many historic Greek cities.
In the early modern era, heraldry became increasingly systematic and the St. George flag became a permanent element in the symbolism of monarchical power. It was a practical custom too. The traditional flags came to be regarded as national and imperial flags, and as claims to ownership. In the era of oceanic exploration the famous captains flew flags symbolizing their allegiance to both the monarch and the patron saint. When an explorer planted a flag or flags over a newfound land, it was not merely a historic decoration; the banner had a legal and diplomatic meaning. An example of this can be seen in the flags of British North America (Canada). Today, more than half of the Canadian provinces celebrate the ancient ties to Britain by including the modern version of the provincial arms, which themselves include St. George’s Flag (and others include the English royal lion). A significant minority of the province of Quebec are less enthusiastic about the symbols of the Conquest by the British. Quebec once had a St George’s Cross on its flag and its arms, but in more recent times has eliminated British symbols and replaced them with blue and white banners reminiscent of France, from where the settlers of New France came.
This one example of how imperial expansion wrote itself on the land and shows how the stories of warriors and martyrs helped make such figures as St. George the foundation of modern communities. George, the ancient martyr and medieval knight, is still with us and is likely to display his power and his patronage for some time to come.
Steven Muhlberger, before his retirement from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.
Top Image: Miniature of Saint George and the Dragon, from the Legenda Aurea – British Library MS Royal 19 B XVII, f. 109