Today being St George's Day, when we commemorate the patron saint of England (and a good number of other places besides, but we tend to forget that...), I thought I ought to say something about the man behind the ubiquitous red cross on a white ground that springs up everywhere during the World Cup.
If Mary Magdalene was the victim of misunderstanding, George is the object of a vast amount of imagination. There is every reason to believe that he was a real martyr who suffered at Lydda in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. There are no historical sources on Saint George. The legend that follows is synthesized from various hagiographical sources, such as the Golden Legend.
George was born to a Christian family during the late 3rd century. His father was from Cappadocia and served as an officer of the Roman army. His mother was from Lydda, Palestine (now Lod, Israel). She returned to her native city as a widow along with her young son, where she provided him with an education.
The youth followed his father's example by joining the army soon after coming of age. He proved to be a good soldier and consequently rose through the military ranks of the time. By his late twenties he had gained the title of Tribunus (Tribune) and then Comes (Count), at which time George was stationed in Nicomedia as a member of the personal guard attached to Roma Emperor Diocletian.
According to the hagiography, in 303 Diocletian issued an edict authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. The emperor Galerius was supposedly responsible for this decision and would continue the persecution during his own reign (305–311). George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision. An enraged Diocletian ordered the torture of this apparent traitor, and his execution.
After various tortures, beginning with being lacerated on a wheel of swords, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia's defensive wall on April 23, 303. The witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians as well, and so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr.
The Church adheres to the memory of StGeorge, but not to the legends surrounding his life.
That he was willing to pay the supreme price to follow Christ is what the Church believes. And it is enough. The embroidery that has accrued over the years is just embroidery, though it is worth looking at briefly just to show how the "St George and England!" thing developed...
The story of George's slaying the dragon, rescuing the king's daughter and converting Libya is a twelfth-century Italian fable. George was a favourite patron saint of crusaders, as well as of Eastern soldiers in earlier times. He is a patron saint of England, Portugal, Germany, Aragon, Genoa and Venice.
George was probably first made well known in England by Arculpus and Adamnan in the early eighth century. The Acts of St George, which recounted his visits to Caerleon and Glastonbury while on service in England, were translated into Anglo-Saxon. Among churches dedicated to St George was one at Doncaster in 1061. George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine troops, and were circulated further by the troubadours. When Richard 1 was campaigning in Palestine in 1191-92 he put the army under the protection of St George.
Because of his widespread following, particularly in the Near East, and the many miracles attributed to him, George became universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. Originally, veneration as a saint was authorized by local bishops but, after a number of scandals, the Popes began in the twelfth century to take control of the procedure and to systematize it. A lesser holiday in honour of St George, to be kept on 23 April, was declared by the Synod of Oxford in 1222; and St George had become acknowledged as Patron Saint of England by the end of the fourteenth century. In 1415, the year of Agincourt, Archbishop Chichele raised St George's Day to a great feast and ordered it to be observed like Christmas Day. In 1778 the holiday reverted to a simple day of devotion for English Catholics.
The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard I, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. In a seal of Lyme Regis dating from 1284 a ship is depicted bearing a flag with a cross on a plain background. During Edward III's campaigns in France in 1345-49, pennants bearing the red cross on a white background were ordered for the king's ship and uniforms in the same style for the men at arms. When Richard II invaded Scotland in 1385, every man was ordered to wear 'a signe (sic) of the arms of St George', both before and behind, whilst death was threatened against any of the enemy's soldiers 'who do bear the same crosse or token of Saint George, even if they be prisoners.'
St George was not an Englishman; he did not wear plate armour; he slew no physical dragons, and if he rescued any maidens the fact is not recorded. Disturbingly perhaps for some of his more nationalistic devotees, there is even a tradition in the Holy Land of Christians and Muslim going to an Eastern Orthodox shrine for St. George at Beith Jala, Jews also attending the site in the belief that the prophet Elijah was buried there!
Note: I've drawn the above from several sources, mostly from Wikipedia, Britannia History, and AmericanCatholic.org.