Today is St George's Day!
St George is the Patron Saint on England and so, actually, today could be considered the country's 'national day', except for a lot of people it will just pass them by. Some do 'celebrate' but it's not great partying like, for instance, St Patrick's Day in Ireland.
Today, though, the flags will be out boldly displaying the red cross of St George which has been an emblem of England since the late Middle Ages. Of course, it's also part of the Union Jack which brings together emblems from all the British nations which were designed in when that flag was created in around the year 1606.
But the story of St George goes back a lot further than that.
Down the centuries we've heard the story of George and the Dragon. St George slayed ... well, a dragon. That's how he became famous. Right?
Well no ... sorry to burst your bubble ... but it's a bit of legend!
We actually know little about George, the real man. Tradition says he was born around the year 280AD in a place called Cappadocia, an area that is now part of Turkey. He was born into a Christian family and George followed his father's profession and became a soldier in the Roman army.
He rose in the ranks to eventually become a member of the elite Praetorian Guard. This was a highly esteemed unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards and intelligence for Roman emperors. George served under the Emperor Diocletian.
Over a couple of centuries since the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian faith had grown and although persecuted especially in the very early days, believers had begun to gain some legal rights. But during the reign of Diocletian and other emperors who served concurrently and around the same time - Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius - a series of edicts were issued which rescinded those rights. This Diocletian Persecution has gone down in history as one of the most severe periods of oppression. One of the central features was that Christians were forced to comply with Roman, pagan, religious practices, including sacrificing to the Roman gods, and it was death for those who refused.
George was among the leading Christians who protested this persecution of his people and he did refuse to deny his faith, so Emperor Diocletian ordered his execution. He was was to death, allegedly beheaded, around April 23 in the year 303 AD, in Palestine, in a place called Lydda, now the town of Lod in Israel. His bones are buried in his tomb in the Church of Saint George, in Lod.
George was first written about a couple of decades later, around 322 by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, and over the following centuries he became of of the most venerated saints and martyrs in Christianity. His story apparently made it to England in the early 700s and he was made patron saint of England in the year 1098, after soldiers at the Battle of Antioch claimed they saw him and he came to their aid. That battle was one of the early conflicts in what became known as the 'Crusades' - a period of nearly 200 years when the medieval Christians fought Muslim rulers for control of what we now know as the Holy Land.
To mark his life, Saint George's Day is traditionally celebrated on 23 April, but it's interesting to note that it's not just in England that he's venerated. He's also the patron saint of Ethiopia, the country of Georgia, Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the city of Moscow in Russia, and in several other states, regions, cities, universities, professions and organizations.
And what about that dragon story?
Well the legend of Saint George and the Dragon was first recorded in the 11th century. It reached Catholic Europe by the 12th century. And one version goes something like this.
A fierce dragon was causing panic at the city of Silene in Libya, and every day the people gave two sheep to the dragon to stop the creature killing the whole population. But when the sheep were not enough, or ran out, they turned to human sacrifice to satisfy the demands of that dragon. The person to be sacrificed was chosen by the people themselves, and eventually the king's daughter was selected. The monarch hoped someone else would step forward, but no one was prepared to stand in the place of the princess.
Brave George was in the city and he saved the girl by slaying the dragon with a lance. The king was so grateful that he offered him treasures as a reward for saving his daughter's life, but George refused the gifts and instead he gave it all to the poor. People were so amazed by his bravery and kindness that many of them converted and became Christians.
It's a story which takes several forms and is actually attributed to different people and saints across time, including in the pre-Christian era. It's a legend known in many parts of the world and is familiar as being part of folklore called the Golden Legend. By the 15th century it was a popular story in England, thanks to a translation by William Caxton. Among other things Caxton was a writer, He's credited with introducing the printing press into England in 1476 and he became the first person to sell printed books.
But was it true?
Well, maybe, but only if you believe in dragons...!
However, in Medieval England the tale of an heroic Christian soldier coming to the rescue of a beautiful princess suited the whole idea of courtly love, chivalry and the creation of social order. Think the mythical legends of King Arthur and his knights. It's similar stuff.
There are, of course, many notions and theories of what it all means but the one I like is that the tale of George and the Dragon epitomises the enduring story of the fight between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness.
Fables such as these go back many many thousands of years and can be found in numerous ancient cultures. Many of our relatively modern 'fairy' tales often contain these deeply moral and philosophical lessons.
The legend may also have more of a solid foundation in the Christian faith which the real George followed. The story may also reflect his fight against the evil of the persecution of early Christians and the execution and martyrdom of faithful ones like George himself, and the power of Jesus Christ to overcome evil and death.
Whatever the case, it's a great story.
So - Happy St George's Day!