St George is the patron saint of England and among the most famous of Christian figures, yet, he is also one of the saints about whom little or nothing certain is known. The first known possible record of him is in about 320 AD. Eusebius of Caesarea tells of a soldier of noble birth who was put to death under Diocletian at Nicomedia on 23 April, 303, but makes no mention of his name, his country or his place of burial.
According to the fifth Century apocryphal ‘Acts of St George’ still in use in various versions in Orthodox churches, George was a tribune in the Roman army who was beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. George rapidly became venerated throughout Christendom as an example of bravery in defence of the poor and the defenceless and of the Christian faith.
George was probably first recognised in England by Arculpus and Adamnan in the early eighth century. The Acts of St George, which recounted his visits to Caerleon and Glastonbury while on service in England, were translated into Anglo-Saxon, though the dates of these visits, if they were actually made, are not certain.
Because of his widespread following and the many miracles attributed to him, George became universally recognized as a saint sometime after 900. A church at Doncaster was dedicated to St George in 1061.
George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Many similar appearances were reported to European countries by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine troops. When Richard 1 was campaigning in Palestine in 1191-92 he put the army under the protection of St George.
George’s military feats seem to have been known to Shakespeare given the famous lines from Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1, l. 31 at the onset of the battle of Agincourt:
‘I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!’
The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the overshirt uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard 1, and later became first the flag of England and subsequently the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.