Tradition has it that, on April 23 in AD 303, a young and promising Roman soldier in the army of the Emperor Diocletian was beheaded after gruesome torture, and died professing his Christian faith to the end.
Very little is known of his life, but it’s believed he was born into a devout Christian family, perhaps in Cappadocia, an ancient district of Anatolia, somewhere between AD 270 and 280, and that he was raised at least partly in his mother’s home city of Lydda (Lod), in what is now central Israel.
After joining Diocletian’s army, he rose quickly, becoming a Tribune and then an Imperial Guard for the Emperor himself. When Diocletian announced in AD 303 that all Christians serving in the army must offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods, our hero refused.
Diocletian, uncharacteristically, stayed his hand for a bit, out of respect for his friendship with the young man’s father, but eventually had him cut to pieces on a wheel of swords, and then beheaded, on April 23, 303.
His body was buried in Lydda, and a shrine was erected to his memory in the church there. One hundred ninety one years later, he was canonized as a saint by Pope Gelasius I, being among those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
Over time, as is wont to happen with those who die so bravely and so publicly, a legend built up, and began to surround, our hero. By the 12th and 13th centuries, it was codified in several manuscripts, most famously in the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus de Voraigne, the Archbishop of Genoa.
In the best tradition of medieval story-telling, the Archbishop’s account involves a knight, a lady, and a dragon. It goes like this:
A town in what is now modern-day Libya once lived in thrall to a large dragon which inhabited the pond outside its walls. Only by sending one or two sheep each day to placate it, could the townspeople stay safe and keep the dragon confined to its pond.
Eventually, they ran out of sheep to feed it, so they moved on to the next best thing that was in plentiful supply.
Every day, the town held a lottery. The poor girl drawing the short straw was sent outside the city walls to be consumed by the beast.
One sad day, the king’s daughter drew the short straw. But, never fear! Because that’s the day our young man came riding along, saw the princess who was being led outside the city walls to her fate, and intervened. As Jacobus de Voragine tells it:
[He] drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground. And after said to the maid: Deliver to me your girdle, and bind it about the neck of the dragon and be not afeard. When she had done so the dragon followed her as it had been a meek beast and debonair.”
Once he and the maid led the dragon inside the city walls, our hero converted the king and his people to Christianity, won the heart of the princess, and only then did he finally slay the dragon.
And they all lived happily ever after. Except the dragon, of course.
At the same time that our young man’s chivalric exploits were being celebrated and recorded, his reputation as a military saint was growing by leaps and bounds.
Richard the Lionheart placed himself under his protection during the Third Crusade, and the Frankish army at the Siege of Antioch, in 1098, was strengthened by his apparition, which appeared to them just before the final battle. Over the first part of the twelfth century, as a red cross on a white background began to be associated first with the Knights Templar, and by the end of the century with English soldiers, the symbol also began to represent our young man, eventually becoming the unmistakable designation for a Crusader the world over.
Meanwhile, among the royalty and courts of Europe, our hero’s martyrdom and faith was recognized far and wide as he was named the patron saint of, among others, Malta, Romania, Aragon, and Catalonia; as the savior of Portugal; and as the knight under whose banner the Order of the Garter was formed. In 1222 the Synod of Oxford elevated April 23, his feast day, to special prominence in the Church calendar, essentially placing England under the protection of this warrior saint.
The most detailed and lengthy exposition of his maturation as a warrior saint, which takes the form of an epic English poem, is told in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Therein can be found our hero, a young knight-in-training, at the start, who, though a series of adventures, trials, and tribulations, learns his true purpose in life, which is to personify holiness by fighting for the one true Church (in post-Henry VIII England, this would have been the Protestant Church), and to defeat evil in all its forms. Along the way, he has many adventures and meets many interesting folk. (I don’t really like Spenser’s poetry, and wonder if there has ever been a more labored, and less subtle, allegorist in all of English literature. In addition, he is utterly devoid of the warmth, the common touch, and the sense of humor of his literary antecedent Geoffrey Chaucer, and of his contemporary, William Shakespeare. But I digress. An unfortunate effect of too long an acquaintance with primary sources, I suspect.)
We meet “Redcrosse” early in the poem, first accompanied by the virtuous lady Una (good woman, chastity, the one true Church), before he falls into the toils of Duessa (bad woman, falsity, the devil). And on and on. That’s just how Spenser is. Eventually, Una rescues the poor fellow from the Cave of Despair and takes him to the House of Holiness, where he does penance and is purged of his sins. Finally–and I do mean finally, although we are only on Book One of the six-and-a-half Spenser actually completed, as he died before finishing the anticipated twelve (a small mercy if you’re an old-style college English major)–he is told by the wise hermit, Contemplation, that his destiny is to become a great saint, the patron saint of England, in fact, and that his name is not actually “Redcrosse,” but, rather–
St. George’s Day, April 23, 2021