April 23 celebrates the date of the martyrdom of St. George, a little-known saint by Americans, but one who, through the centuries, has stood as a shining star among all saints. He is also the patron saint of England.
His origins, however, are obscure. George is thought to have been a British soldier who was put to death in April a.d. 303, under Diocletian, though the story’s origins are uncertain. According to the fifth-century Apocryphal Acts of Saint George, he held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by Diocletian for protesting the emperor’s persecution of Christians. George rapidly became venerated as an example of bravery and military prowess and thus was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers. In time, it began to be reported during the Crusades that George appeared and aided the Christians in battle.
When I was writing my book about Saint Francis of Assisi, I became intimately familiar with Saint George because of the significant influence he had on shaping Francis’ thinking, inspiring Francis’ vision of God, his sense of vocation and his aspirations of valor.
Beyond stories told in school, Francis also would have learned about George in the many troubadour songs he learned, and later himself sang, while traveling to France with his father on business. Francis was well-known around Assisi in his youth for singing these songs as he himself longed to be a troubadour and the kind of hero they glorified. Foremost of these would have been the great San Giorgio, whose devotion and valor in slaying a dragon was hailed throughout the Christianized world.
Here is the legend as Francis and all medieval knights would have heard it (taken from my book):
There was in that land a terrible dragon, which came out of the sea and went into the city and killed many persons and ate them. And one day all the people of the city armed themselves, the people and the knights, and went out after that dragon. And the dragon was so terrible to look at that the people began to run away. And the knights, more than two thousand of them, also ran away. In order to appease the fury of the dragon, the king ordered that a maiden be given to him and that the choice of the maiden be made by lot. It happened that the lot fell to the daughter of the king, who was the most beautiful maiden of the time. And the king, held by his duty to the people, wept bitterly. But since there was nothing he could do, he had his daughter dressed nobly, like a bride, with a crown on her head, like a queen. He pressed her to him, then with terrible sorrow and weeping he sent her to the island where the dragon that was to devour her could be found. Left alone, so adorned and so beautiful, she waited, trembling, for the dragon.
Then the blessed Giorgio appeared on his great horse. He was the handsomest young man to be found anywhere and wore beautifully decorated armor. He went to the princess, who was crying, and said to her: “Gentle maiden, why are you crying here all by yourself?” She replied, “O most noble young man, I am waiting for the dragon that is to devour me. I beg you in courtesy to go away at once, so that you do not have to die with me, because it is to me that this cruel fate has fallen.” At this point the dragon came out of the water and hissed loudly and came toward her. Blessed Giorgio ran to meet him and gave him a blow with his lance that immediately knocked him down. Then he called the maiden and had her take off her girdle and put it on the neck of the dragon. Thus the young princess drew it along behind her, like a lamb, all the way to the city. All the people greatly marveled in seeing such courage and such wisdom in so young a knight.
The king could not express his joy, seeing that his daughter escaped from so cruel a death. When the dragon was before the king, Blessed Giorgio killed it, and six pairs of oxen were required to drag it out of the city. Then he preached the Christian faith to the king and to all the people. And through the miracle they had seen all believed perfectly in Christ. The king had churches built in honor of God and in reverence for the blessed knight San Giorgio. And when everyone had been taught how to serve and to love God, San Giorgio left the realm. Before leaving he gave to the poor the noble horse that he had been riding and his knight’s armor, nobly and richly decorated, for the love of God.
(Source: Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi; A Translation of Nova Vita di San Francesco)