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St George – Patron Saint of England

By Millie Earle-Wright
More by Millie

Dragon Slayer, Christian Martyr & Patron Saint

St George is best known as a dragon slayer, patron saint, and Christian martyr. Legend describes St George as a valiant knight who battled a mighty dragon, saving a princess and a village, before becoming a martyr for his faith. Behind this epic tale lies a complex history of religious devotion and royal influence.

Read on to separate fact from fiction. Discover the true story behind the Roman soldier who became England’s patron saint.

Ride straight to:

The Legend of St George and the Dragon

Many years ago, when the wind blew like ice through the trees and serpents with forked tongues hid in the corners of castles, there was a village in crisis. For a long time, all those who lived there were in fear.

Every day, as the inky darkness of night began to eclipse the mountains, a dragon would land with a great clap of thunder in the centre of the village. To placate this ridge-backed beast with leathery wings and needled teeth, the terrified villagers would bring it their livestock. Night after night, the dragon came. Night after night, the villagers brought bleating sheep and snorting horses to appease the fiery monster.

Soon, the pastures grew empty, the stables silent, and the birds no longer sang in the trees. The dragon arrived one night and found no shivering sacrifice. It snarled in uncontrollable fury and snatched a child instead. Night after night, the dragon would come. Night after night, the villagers would lose a child to the fiery monster. One frozen evening, the dragon seized the king’s daughter from her passing carriage. The villagers wept for their princess, and the king wept for his child. That night was as long and dark as the coldest of winters.

Our Hero Arrives

At first light, St George, riding north, caught the faintest sound of crying on the morning breeze. Turning his horse towards the noise, he began to pick his way across a barren, stony landscape towards the dark mouth of a cave. There, he found a girl lying in a heap among sun-bleached bones. Suddenly, a dragon with a flayed forked tongue flew down from his craggy perch and landed in front of the knight. Undaunted and unafraid, St George saw a chink in its scales. Without hesitation, he stabbed the dragon with his silver sword. He gathered the princess in his arms and climbed back onto his horse. He rode back into the village, dragging the weakened dragon behind.

As St George arrived on the outskirts of the village, the wide-eyed townsfolk flocked to meet him. He announced that he would slay the dragon if they would follow his faith and convert to Christianity. The villagers agreed. He swiftly killed the dragon. The princess joyfully reunited with her father. Afterwards, the grateful king offered St George a reward; he refused and asked that the king give the money to the poor.

From that day forth, St George was hailed as a hero. His bravery, chivalry and unshakable faith became immortalised with the passing down of the story from generation to generation.

What Is the True Story of St George?

Despite the well-known legend of George and the Dragon, we know very little about the man himself. Often depicted as a knight, he was most likely a high-ranking soldier in the Roman army. He was probably born in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) in the 3rd century AD. Historians believe that he died as a martyr in Palestine in AD 303 after refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

The Legacy of a Saint

Legends became increasingly extravagant after George’s death, and he became a symbol of chivalry and piety. Jacobus de Voragine’s book, The Golden Legend, repeated the tale of St George rescuing the princess and slaying the dragon. The book was one of the critical texts of the Middle Ages, translated into many Western European languages.

St George holds a last legacy throughout literature. Shakespeare references the saint several times, most famously in King Henry’s rallying speech to his troops: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends […] Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”.

George, the Saint

Insignia of the Order of the Garter

Why Did St George Become Patron Saint of England?

In his Oxford Dictionary Of Saints, David Hugh Farmer suggests that England, Georgia and Catalonia adopted St George as a patron saint in the Middle Ages. He was a popular saint amongst English kings of the time, including Edward I (1239 – 1307) and Edward II (1284 – 1327). St George’s popularity was primarily the result of his status as a symbol of piety, chivalry and bravery.

When Did St George Become a Saint?

Pope Gelasius I canonised St George in 494. The pope recognised him amongst those “whose names are justly revered among men but whose acts are known only to God”.

St George has been known in England for centuries. He was only recognised as a patron saint of England once Edward III (1312-77) founded the Order of the Garter. The Order of the Garter is an English order of chivalry, ranked as the highest British civil and military honour obtainable. To this day, St George’s cross still appears on the Garter badge, and his image is the pendant of the Garter chain.

Panels of The Wilton Diptych. St Edmund & St Edward are on the left, standing over Richard II.

The 23rd of April, the date of St George’s martyrdom, has been celebrated as a feast day in England for centuries. The saint was only recognised as the patron saint of England from the reign of Edward III in the 1300s.

Before St George, England had other patron saints; St Edmund and St Edward. Edmund was an English king in the 800ss, killed by the Danes for refusing to denounce his Christian faith. Edward the Confessor was also an English king, reigning in the mid-1000s until he died in 1066. St George replaced both in 1348 with the establishment of the Order of the Garter. King during a tumultuous period, Edward III frequently utilised the legend of St George, including flying a flag of the cross of St George in battle. Such was the extent of Edward’s use that St George became the country’s patron saint.

Does It Matter That St George Wasn't English?

According to the British historian Ian Mortimer, a patron saint did not have to be from the country they were born in. Instead, they could be chosen based on the traits and values they embodied. St George is a respected saint in Romania, parts of Greece, Catalonia and Egypt. He is also the patron saint of scouts and soldiers, amongst others.

How Do the English Celebrate St George’s Day?

Traditionally, there was a feast day on the 23rd of April in England. This is the supposed date of St George’s martyrdom.

Today, St George’s Day is not a public holiday in England. There are growing calls to recognise it as a national holiday, in line with St Patrick’s Day in Ireland and St Andrew’s Day in Scotland. However, St George’s Day remains an opportunity to celebrate English heritage and culture; many places host parades, dancing and historical reenactments. The national flag of England, derived from St George’s cross, is flown, waved and painted on smiling faces. Some people may also wear a red rose, England’s national flower, on their lapel.

St George’s Day falls in mid-spring. Celebrations usually enjoy bright blue skies, warmer weather and the smell of fresh grass and fragrant flowers. Discover more about why you should visit England in April here.

Meet the Author: Millie Earle-Wright

I grew up and studied in the UK. Itchy feet led to time spent in New Zealand embracing the seasonaire lifestyle and travelling in South East Asia. The last couple of years I’ve spent in British Columbia, an amazing place to chase adrenaline.

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