When did St George’s Day begin? What date is it celebrated on? And why did St George kill a dragon? Professor Jonathan Good brings you 11 lesser-known facts about England’s patron saint…
Did St George really exist? Not necessarily…
Despite popular belief, St George is not English. Very little is known about the actual man. If he ever existed (and there’s no proof he did), George would likely have been a soldier somewhere in the eastern Roman empire, probably in what is now Turkey. According to legend, he was martyred for his faith under Emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century, and his major shrine is located in Lod, Israel.
Yet the Roman church had its doubts. In the sixth century it declared that George was “one of the saints who were rightly reverenced by men, but whose deeds were known only to God”. However, this intervention had little effect and legends associated with St George spread through Europe.
St George’s earliest legends were so outlandish that the Pope condemned them
Early Christians were known to exaggerate the tortures endured by their martyrs, but St George is in a league all of his own. According to one source, St George was torn on the rack, hit on the head with hammers until his brains oozed out, forced to drink poison, torn on a wheel, boiled in lead, and much else besides – all over a period of seven years.
A fifth-century decree attributed to Pope Gelasius declared that, lest it give rise to mockery, the details were not be read out in church.
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St George was one of several military saints honoured in the Byzantine Empire
Others included Theodore, Demetrius, and Mercurius. All of these saints had been soldiers when alive, and continued their patronage of the Byzantine army in death – especially St George, who became the most popular.
Crusaders to the Holy Land in 1099 adopted this tradition of military saints, and brought the veneration of St George back to Western Europe.
St George had some competition…
Although St George was well known in early medieval England, Edmund the Martyr, Gregory the Great and Edward the Confessor were chief contenders for the title of the country’s patron saint.
St George is also connected to agriculture
His name means ‘earth-worker’ – that is, farmer – and his feast day of 23 April is in the spring, when crops are starting to grow. Many people throughout European history have prayed to St George for a good harvest.
The dragon was not always a part of St George’s story
The earliest legend that features St George rescuing a princess from a dragon dates to the 11th century. It may have started simply as a way to explain icons of military saints slaying dragons, symbolising the triumph of good over evil.
For the permanent association of St George and the dragon we have to thank the Golden Legend, a popular collection of saints’ lives written in the 13th century.
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St George was known as ‘Our Lady’s Knight’ in medieval England
As a patron of crusading, St George easily became the quintessential knight. And every knight needs to serve a lady – who better than the Blessed Virgin Mary herself?
Edward I is ultimately the reason why St George ‘became’ English
As a crusader, Edward I (r 1272–1307) acquired an affinity for St George, and back in England outfitted his troops with the St George’s cross when fighting the Welsh. He raised St George’s flag over Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland in 1300, among other things.
- Read more: The conquest of Wales
Later, Edward III, hoping to revive the glories of his grandfather’s reign, founded the Order of the Garter under the patronage of St George.
St George appeared to the English army at the battle of Agincourt in 1415
King Henry V (r 1413–22) was especially devoted to St George, as is reflected in William Shakespeare’s play. The idea later arose that St George had actually appeared to the English during the battle of Agincourt in 1415, which was a stunning victory for them against the French.
The Reformation was not kind to St George
Even King Edward VI himself mocked the legend as improbable. But the poet Edmund Spenser, among others, kept George’s legend alive as a romantic and nationalistic story. And it is one that shows no signs of losing its appeal.
St George is the saint of countries other than England
The English share him with a number of other countries, including Portugal and Georgia, and groups ranging from cavalrymen to sufferers from syphilis and the Scout movement.
Jonathan Good’s The Cult of St George in Medieval England (Boydell & Brewer) is out now