Prolific author and historian Rupert Matthews, equipped with sword and shield, entertained our April meeting with his talk about the surprising roots of England’s patron saint, writes Lionel Cartlidge
With great enthusiasm and several changes of costume Rupert Matthews explained how a rich Christian of noble origins from Cappadocia (now central Turkey) was transmuted into the patron saint of England. This remarkable tale had its beginnings in those old favourites, taxes and death, with an added strong flavour of Christianity.
George lived in Lydda (now in Palestine) and acquired his riches by supplying the Roman army with bacon, wine and leather goods. The rise of Christianity had diminished the income of the pagan temples and the Emperor Diocletian determined that Christians must pay taxes to support the social and community services which the temples provided.
The Christians refused to pay and were then subject to persecution. George himself was imprisoned and, after again refusing to accept the Emperor’s diktat, was murdered in Nicomedia in the year 303.
This was the perfect scenario for the establishment of George as a Christian martyr, and he was subsequently honoured by the Christian emperor, Constantine, who, with the disappearance of paganism, established the Church of St George and closed the pagan temples. The veneration of George spread westwards and he was formally canonised by Pope Gelasius in 494.
The Muslims ruled the province until the First Crusade and destroyed the church of St George. The Crusaders rebuilt the church and did so again in the Third Crusade after its destruction by Saladin.
The importance of George as a Christian martyr spread, especially as his apparition was said to have helped the Crusaders to defeat the Muslims at the battle of Antioch in 1094. The simple red cross was adopted as a Crusader tabard and George’s legend percolated west, eventually into England with the returning Crusaders.
An early book of saints associated George with defeating a sea monster and freeing Andromeda. The monster was later transformed by hagiographers into a dragon, which has for long been a popular image in England, where he has his own saint’s day in the calendar.
Rupert gave us a rapid and fascinating sprint through history and a picture of a most unusual saint.