From Chris Berard, a short article on Medievalists.net, which I take the liberty of reprinting in its entirety:
St. George the martyr and his banner
By Steve Muhlberger
St. George is one of the earliest martyrs of the Christian church. He is also well-known in the present day if only for his banner – a red cross on a white background. St. George’s Cross flies above every continent, and represents, among other things, traditional power and legitimacy. Many soldiers now wear the cross as a sign of their military service. George’s extraordinary service is evoked by his well-known conquest of a dragon, which makes him one of the most impressive of all of God’s saints.
If St. George is venerated in the present day, his reputation reaches back to the Middle Ages and Late Antiquity. The old roots of this military saint allow us to appreciate the somewhat paradoxical relationship between earthly and spiritual power.
St. George is sometimes regarded as a purely legendary figure. His story, however true it may be, is typical of those told about martyrs of the age of the Roman emperor Diocletian (who reigned from 284 to 305), the foremost pagan persecutor of the 3rd century. George was from a Greek Christian family and a military background. He had attained one of the highest ranks when he heard that the emperor was forcing Christians to worship the Roman gods George felt compelled to register his dissent.
After he defied the emperor to his face, George was subjected to a long list of torments, and eventually succumbed. But George became one of the most popular saints in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Was George particularly regarded as a martyr because he used his earthly power – soldier’s strength in God’s cause? He certainly had plenty of strength and he had used it against a dragon, an evil monster with Satanic associations. Even today the most common depiction of George shows him on horseback battling the monster.
St. George’s reputation continued to grow in both east and west. His patronage remained especially important in the Greek provinces of the Byzantine empire, which were constantly endangered both by Muslims and even Christian neighbors. George became a figure of Christian unity when eastern and western churches became tangled in a debate over leadership in the Christian community. In the turbulent years around 1100, warriors and clergy competed for leadership of the churches, and Christians found themselves under attack by pagan raiders and invaders. Clerics – monks, bishops and abbots – needed protection from warriors but were skeptical of milites – soldiers, or later, knights – who devoted themselves to fighting and plundering, as they so often did. Too often these milites oppressed their Christian neighbors, when the warriors were needed to defend the Christians. Christian warriors, on the other hand, were proud of their military way of life. Prowess and honor and pride were the necessary ingredients for effective warriors.
Sometimes the ideal of Christian cooperation came true. The centuries after 1100 were an era of famous knights and holy war. The threat of Muslim expansion and intra-Christian conflicts required the clergy to muster princes to fight worthy wars. In 1066, for instance, William the Conqueror asked for a papal banner to bless his expedition to England, and the pope, at odds with the leading English bishops, sent him one. A generation later a far larger force including men who had helped William take England, marched and sailed to Jerusalem with papal authorization. The Crusaders, as we call them, were accompanied by Michael the Archangel, the champion who at the beginning of time had led God’s heavenly army against the rebel angels. In the second rank, though, was St. George, no mean champion and well known in the Christian East.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, St. George and other saints were invoked through the use of heraldic symbolism and banners. The saintly intercessors were regarded as knights, earthly knights being now a higher class of warriors than before. In the middle of the 14th century, St. George’s iconography became closely associated with worthy military men. King Edward III of England, for instance, appealed to chivalric sentiment to justify his flashy, ambitious projects. Foremost among them was St. George Chapel at Windsor, which was not only an impressive church but the seat of a chivalric order – The Order of the Garter. It was a shrine that among other things celebrated the foremost warriors of Edward’s realm and put the Order under the patronage of St. George.
Although Edward believed that he had a special link to St. George, he had no actual monopoly on George’s claim to claim George’s patronage. The wars of the 14th century spawned mercenary companies of many nationalities, and various independent cities. It was quite natural for any of these Christian warriors to look to the great St. George as their special patron. How often, I wonder, did one bannered force face another? We know that it did happen in the Italian and French wars during the 14th centuries.
At the end of the Middle Ages St. George became more strongly associated with the important dynasties and states of Christian Europe. The red cross on white now flew over England, of course; the Iberian kingdoms of Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Portugal; the Kingdom of Georgia; Serbia and Montenegro; Ethiopia; Russia; the wealthy and belligerent Italian cities of Genoa, Milan, Bologna and quite a few others; and many historic Greek cities.
In the early modern era, heraldry became increasingly systematic and the St. George flag became a permanent element in the symbolism of monarchical power. It was a practical custom too. The traditional flags came to be regarded as national and imperial flags, and as claims to ownership. In the era of oceanic exploration the famous captains flew flags symbolizing their allegiance to both the monarch and the patron saint. When an explorer planted a flag or flags over a newfound land, it was not merely a historic decoration; the banner had a legal and diplomatic meaning. An example of this can be seen in the flags of British North America (Canada). Today, more than half of the Canadian provinces celebrate the ancient ties to Britain by including the modern version of the provincial arms, which themselves include St. George’s Flag (and others include the English royal lion). A significant minority of the province of Quebec are less enthusiastic about the symbols of the Conquest by the British. Quebec once had a St. George’s Cross on its flag and its arms, but in more recent times has eliminated British symbols and replaced them with blue and white banners reminiscent of France, from where the settlers of New France came.
This one example of how imperial expansion wrote itself on the land and shows how the stories of warriors and martyrs helped make such figures as St. George the foundation of modern communities. George, the ancient martyr and medieval knight, is still with us and is likely to display his power and his patronage for some time to come.
I’d like to state that my attitude towards St. George is not all that proprietary. If other people want to write about that fascinating figure, then go right ahead! I would love to hear their perspectives. However, I dare say that this article could be improved. It’s not just all the vagueness and passive verbs, it’s also such errors as:
• “The Crusaders, as we call them, were accompanied by Michael the Archangel.” No primary source that I’ve ever read records an appearance of St. Michael to the soldiers of the First Crusade. George, Demetrius, and Theodore were the three main ones.
• “Quebec once had a St. George’s Cross on its flag and its arms, but in more recent times has eliminated British symbols and replaced them with blue and white banners reminiscent of France, from where the settlers of New France came.” Quebec’s blue and white fleurdelisé flag dates from 1948, and is based on the Carillon-Sacre-Coeur flag of 1902. I don’t believe that Quebec ever had a flag with St. George’s cross on it, unless the author is referring to a time when the Union Jack flew over Quebec, or to the Quebec Blue Ensign, which never really flew. Certainly, Quebec never had a cross of St. George on its arms, which were granted in 1868 and modified in 1939.
• Most important, we need to draw a distinction between a plain red cross on a white field (in heraldic lingo: “Argent a cross Gules”) and the veneration of St. George. The two things had little to do with each other originally, and even now you can find examples of the arms referencing things other than St. George, such as those of the city of Milan (patron: St. Ambrose), the diocese of Trier (patrons: St. Mary and St. Michael), and the Arthurian figure of Sir Galahad. The most obvious origin for these and other heraldic crosses is the idea of Christian warfare, i.e. crusading, but such crosses were not originally associated with particular saints. It stands to reason that the preeminent crusading saint should come to bear the preeminent crusading symbol, but I have a theory how exactly this happened: the city of Genoa (patron: St. George) bore a red-cross shield as its civic emblem, and Jacobus de Voragine, in the 1260s, inserted this detail into his account of St. George appearing to the Crusaders in the Golden Legend as a point of local pride. The huge popularity of the Golden Legend thenceforth ensured that a Genoese custom spread far beyond Genoa.* Edward I (1272-1307) went on crusade and in so doing acquired an affinity for St. George; he then deployed the saint in his wars against the Welsh and Scots, largely through the use of Argent a cross Gules in various media. The less said about his successor Edward II (1307-27) the better, and when Edward III (1327-77) assumed personal rule around 1330, he consciously sought to revive the glories of his grandfather’s reign, including his use of St. George. The chief evidence of this project is Edward’s foundation of the Order of the Garter (1348) with St. George as its patron, but plenty of other evidence exists for both the private veneration and public deployment of St. George throughout Edward’s long reign, including with the red cross banner. Unlike St. Edward the Confessor, St. George made the leap to becoming a patron saint of the English nation as well as the English royal house,** and thus did Argent a cross Gules come to refer to “England” as well as “St. George” – especially after the Reformation deprecated the veneration of all saints. From there the emblem spread throughout the British Empire, sometimes on its own, sometimes in combination with St. Andrew’s saltire for Scotland (i.e. as the Union Jack), but always referring back to the metropole. Thus does decolonization sometimes inspire people to drop it.
* See “Argent a Cross Gules: The Origins and English Use of the Arms of St. George,” The Coat of Arms 213 (Spring, 2007): 9-18.
** I have a theory about this too; see “Richard II and the Cults of Saints George and Edward the Confessor,” in Translatio, or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Laura Hollengreen (Brepols, 2008).