Today is the Feast of St. George
“Liberator of captives, and defender of the poor, physician of the sick, and champion of kings, O trophy-bearer, and Great Martyr George, intercede with Christ our God that our souls be saved.” – Hymn of Saint George
All that is truly known of St. George is that he was martyred in the early 4th century in Palestine. Yet this patron of chivalry has been popularly venerated since shortly after his death during the early centuries of the church. Multiple orders have existed throughout different periods of time and different places in history, having nothing in common but veneration of this popular saint, and the highly regarded Order of the Garter was founded in 14th century with George as the patron. Over the centuries, George has become almost seamlessly associated with the ideas of knighthood, chivalry, and noble acts.
There are many fantastical stories attached to St. George, describing such events as the saint being chopped into pieces and burned before being resurrected by the power of God or milk, rather than blood, flowing from his head after his being decapitated. Though these stories, sometimes called the Acts of St. George, are ancient in date, they cannot be assumed to be an accurate description of the martyr's life.
The most well known legend of St. George is the popular story of George and the dragon. The origin of the story is rather obscure; it is traced only to about the 12th century, but was then further embellished over the next few centuries in the fashion of medieval romances. In the story, George comes upon a kingdom of pagans who must offer humans as sacrifice to appease a dragon that ravaged their countryside. George slays the dragon, saving the king's own daughter from being the next person to be handed over to the dragon, and then converts the citizens to Christianity. The legend was especially popular during the time of the crusades.
The dragon-slaying legend should not be seen as reason to consider George mythical rather than historical, however, as the cultus of St. George is much older than the legend of the dragon and other notable historical persons have also been celebrated as dragon slayers. While little is known of this saint, the famous decree De Libris recipiendis, attributed to Pope Gelasius in 495, includes George among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are only known to God.”
If you are interested in reading more about the life of St. George, the great Catholic convert, writer and apologist Ronald Knox has included the life of St. George in this wonderful book:
St. George, hero, martyr and champion for Christ, pray for us!