(St.) (g soft). Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall, ii. 323, asserts that the patron saint of England was George of Cappadocia, the turbulent Arian Bishop of Alexandria, torn to pieces by the populace in 360, and revered as a saint by the opponents of Athanasius; but this assertion has been fully disproved by the Jesuit Papebroch, Milner, and others.
That St. George is a veritable character is beyond all reasonable doubt, and there seems no reason to deny that he was born in Armorica, and was beheaded in Diocletian's persecution by order of Datianus, April 23rd, 303. St. Jerome (331-420) mentions him in one of his martyrologies; in the next century there were many churches to his honour. St. Gregory (540-604) has in his Sacramentary a “Preface for St. George's Day;” and the Venerable Bede (672-735), in his martyrology, says, “At last St. George truly finished his martyrdom by decapitation, although the gests of his passion are numbered among the apocryphal writings.”
In regard to his connection with England, Ashmole, in his History of the Order of the Garter, says that King Arthur, in the sixth century, placed the picture of St. George on his banners; and Selden tells us he was patron saint of England in the Saxon times. It is quite certain that the Council of Oxford in 1222 commanded his festival to be observed in England as a holiday of lesser rank; and on the establishment of the Order of the Garter by Edward III. St. George was adopted as the patron saint.
The dragon slain by St. George is simply a common allegory to express the triumph of the Christian hero over evil, which John “the Divine” beheld under the image of a dragon. Similarly, St. Michael, St. Margaret, St. Silvester, and St. Martha are all depicted as slaying dragons; the Saviour and the Virgin as treading them under their feet; and St. John the Evangelist as charming a winged dragon from a poisoned chalice given him to drink. Even John Bunyan avails himself of the same figure, when he makes Christian encounter Apollyon and prevail against him.
George (St.), the Red Cross Knight (in Spenser's Faërie Queene, bk. i.), represents “Piety.” He starts with Una (Truth) in his adventures, and is driven into Wandering Wood, where he encounters Error, and passes the night with Una in Hypocrisy's cell. Being visited by a false vision, the knight abandons Una, and goes with Duessa (False-faith) to the palace of Pride. He leaves this palace clandestinely, but being overtaken by Duessa is persuaded to drink of an enchanted fountain, when he becomes paralysed, and is taken captive by Orgoglio. Una informs Arthur of the sad event, and the prince goes to the rescue. He slays Orgoglio, and the Red Cross Knight, being set free, is taken by Una to the house of Holiness to be healed. On leaving Holiness, both Una and the knight journey towards Eden. As they draw near, the dragon porter flies at the knight, and St. George has to do battle with it for three whole days before he succeeds in slaying it. The dragon being slain, the two enter Eden, and the Red Cross Knight is united to Una in marriage.
A very similar tale is told of Hesionê, daughter of Laomedon. (See Hesione, Sea Monsters.)
Our ancient word of courage, fair `St. George,' Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894