St George – England’s Patron Saint
It is probably safe to assume that many of you reading this article will already know the basics about the legend concerning George the Christian Saint. Slayer of dragons, saviour of maidens, mighty warrior and religious icon; there’s no doubting that for a man who lived almost 2000 years ago, whatever his exploits in life, St George certainly left an impression. But just how much do we know about the patron Saint of England? What defined him? And did he really kill dragons? Here we take a look at St George, the man, the myth and the legacy…
The Man – St George of Cappadocia…
It is unfortunate that if we were to base this piece purely on certified, proven fact, there wouldn’t be much to write about. The truth is we don’t actually know an awful lot about the personality and day to day actions of St George any more than we know about the vast majority of his contemporaries. The following comprises what we know with what is widely accepted as ‘logical fact’.
St George was born in Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey) to Christian parents around 270 AD. His parents are thought to have been from the Greek nobility and it is likely he was well educated and had some experience of soldiering from an early age, due to his father’s position as an officer in the Roman Army. Following the death of his father, George (or Georgios) relocated to the Imperial city of Nicomedia (also in modern Turkey) where it is said that he presented himself to the Emperor Diocletian and offered his services as a soldier. George showed prowess with a weapon and courage in battle, rising to the rank of Tribunus Militum (equivalent to, say, Sergeant Major) in relatively quick time.
However, George became increasingly disillusioned with what he viewed as the pagan leadership of Emperor Diocletian, resigning his post in protest at the persecution of Christians by the order of Rome. The former Roman officer engaged in open rebellion against the Empire, and this eventually led to his capture and imprisonment as a traitor and renegade. In a bid to undermine the piety of his Christian faith (and thus the faith of his followers), George was subject to hideous, brutal torture and was bidden to renounce Christ. He would not and, despite what must have been unimaginable horror and pain, stayed faithful to his belief in one true God. This enraged Diocletian further and as punishment, on the 23rd of April 303 AD, George was dragged by horses through the streets of Nicomedia to a place of execution where he was beheaded. However, in a bizarre twist of fate, many who witnessed the execution were so inspired by the manner of St George’s courage in the face of certain death that they converted to Christianity. In fact, shortly before the execution Alexandra of Rome (Diocletian’s Empress and secret Christian, now also a Saint) bowed before St. George and professed her Christianity openly. She too was beheaded along with 630 others for professing her Faith while witnessing George’s martyrdom.
The church of St. George in Lod, Israel (known in the Bible as Lydda) is the foremost shrine to the veneration of St George, and houses the tomb of the martyr. The site is shared by those of Christian and Muslim faith as George is one of the rare Saints that is respected and revered in both religions.
The Myth – There be dragons…
The medieval legend of St George and the dragon is over a thousand years old. The story goes that a fearsome dragon made its nest by a fresh water spring in the town of Silene in Libya. When people came to collect water, they inadvertently disturbed the dragon and many were killed. Thinking it impossible to destroy the creature, the people of Silene offered sheep as a distraction and appeasement.
After a time, there were simply no more sheep to offer the dragon, and so the people of Silene decided to choose a maiden from the town by drawing lots. Eventually, after several commoners’ daughters had been sent to their doom, it was revealed that the daughter of the King was to be the dragon’s next victim. Despite the Monarch’s protests, his daughter Cleolinda (sometimes also referred to as Sadra) could see no difference in her sacrifice to that of her people and presented herself to the dragon…
However, at the moment of offering, a knight from the Crusades rode by on his white stallion. St George dismounted and drew his sword, protected himself with the sign of the cross and fought the beast on foot, eventually destroying it and thereby saving the princess. The people of Silene were so exceptionally grateful that they abandoned their pagan beliefs and converted to Christianity.
Of course, to believe as fact such a fanciful tale would be absurd. Hypothetically one could argue that a similar encounter may well have taken place and that the creature described as a dragon was in fact an abnormally large salt-water crocodile, or perhaps a large snake (the word ‘dragon’ derives from the Greek word ‘drákõn’ which can roughly be translated as ‘water-snake’). What we can be sure of is that St. George did not take part in The Crusades, which took place some 700 years after his death. If he did indeed slay a ‘dragon’ and save the Princess, it would seem most likely he did so as a Roman soldier or as a fugitive renegade.
The Legacy – Why isn’t St George’s Day a Bank Holiday?
While it may seem strange to some that the patron saint of England is in fact a Turk of Greek descent, there is of course nothing unusual about the practice of adopting a foreigner as a national icon. Indeed, St. Andrew was born in modern day Israel and St. Patrick was a Romano/Brit whose foremost experience of Ireland came from being held captive there as a slave!
The earliest known reference to St. George in England seems to have been in the mid-8th century, in the writings of St Bede the Venerable, a famous historian of his day from Newcastle. However, it would be with the Battle of Antioch in 1098 that St. George would truly bore his way into the consciousness of England, supposedly appearing in a spectral form to guide English Crusaders to victory over their enemies. After this George was unofficially recognised as the patron saint of England, although it would not be until 1348 that this was officially adopted.
In 1222 the Council of Oxford, also known as the ‘First English Parliament’, declared that April 23rd should be recognized to commemorate the martyrdom of St. George. By 1415 it was decided that this auspicious day should be celebrated with a national feast day and holiday in England. Popular symbols of recognition for this day were seen in the form of the flying of the St. George Cross and the wearing and displaying of red roses. Many churches incorporated the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ to services that fell on the closest Sunday to April 23rd.
This custom of a national holiday continued for centuries but, following the union with Scotland, popularity for the event had waned by the end of the 1700s, largely due to a lack of support from the newly established British Government. Today, England (along with Wales) does not celebrate its national day with a public holiday, the reasons for which are largely unclear. Critics would argue that the English do not take as much pride in their nationality as, say, the Irish, and so a public holiday would be unnecessary. However, this surely misses the point. In Scotland, St Andrew’s day passes relatively unnoticed and yet it is still a public holiday, and how can the people of England feel undiminished pride in their roots when the icons that represent them are side-lined and disregarded? Perhaps rather than wait for the British Government to recognise an English tradition, the people of England should take it upon themselves to publicly celebrate St George’s day on the 23rd of April this year. If carried out in keeping with the tradition of what a national day should be, then it would bring together communities of all types and origins under the banner of one identity – if only for a day. Surely that is something to aspire to, something St George himself almost certainly would have approved of…
Who else celebrates St George’s Day?
Countries that celebrate St George’s Day include; Canada, Croatia, Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Macedonia. Cities include Moscow in Russia, Genova in Italy, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Beirut in Lebanon, Qormi and Victoria in Malta and many others. It is also celebrated in the old Crown of Catalonia-Aragon in Spain—Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, and Majorca.