Who was St George?

Today, England celebrates St George’s Day. But who was he, why is he the patron saint of England, and where did the story of dragon-slaying come from?

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He is remembered as a brave and gallant knight who saved a damsel from a ferocious dragon. His colours are now immortalised as the English flag – a red cross on a white background – and he is viewed as a protector of the English since Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, c1348, under St George’s patronage. William Shakespeare even honours him in his famous speech in Henry V.

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He wasn’t English, however. George was born in the late third century in Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, to Christian parents. As a Roman soldier, he defied the Emperor Diocletian, who was persecuting Christians in the Holy Land, and for this, he was imprisoned and tortured.

There are conflicting reports about the methods of torture he endured. Some say he was forced to wear iron-spiked shoes and drink poison, others claim he was repeatedly bludgeoned around the head. Possibly the least pleasant was the account that said he was thrown into a cauldron of molten lead. George was eventually beheaded but he never renounced his faith.

The first known mention of George in England is in an account by the seventh-century Abbot of Iona, St Adamnan. Through the Crusades, George’s legend grew in popularity and became more elaborate. The tale of the dragon is most likely a poetic embellishment from the medieval period to symbolise St George’ fight against evil.

In 1222, it was decided by the Council of Oxford that 23 April would be St George’s Day in England.

England is not the only place to be honoured by his patronage. Palestine, Germany, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Greece, Aragon, Catalonia as well as the cities of Moscow, Istanbul, Genoa and Venice all enjoy having St George as a patron saint. He looks after soldiers, archers, cavalry and chivalry, as well as farmers, riders and saddlers. More recently, the Scouts were added. He also protects people from a variety of horrid diseases, including the plague and leprosy. 

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On that note, Happy St George’s Day.