As today is the official day of the patron saint of England, it seems only right and proper to have a bit of a delve into history’s golden gumbo pot to see what facts we can dredge up. As you’d expect for someone who is principally famous for being noble and slaying mythical beasts, there’s a lot of conjecture around not-too-many facts, but we’ll do our best.
Fact 1: He gets about a bit
While St. George is indeed the patron saint of England, with his familiar red cross flag, dragons to slay and fair maidens to rescue, he’s been claimed by a few other countries along the way too. In fact, 20 other countries name him as their patron saint: Georgia (who must surely win a prize for fan worship), Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Russia and Syria.
And that’s not counting the cities of Genoa, Amersfoort, Beirut, Botoşani, Drobeta Turnu-Severin, Timişoara, Fakiha, Bteghrine, Cáceres, Ferrara, Freiburg im Breisgau, Kragujevac, Kumanovo, Ljubljana, Pérouges, Pomorie, Preston, Qormi, Rio de Janeiro, Lydda, Lviv, Barcelona, Moscow and Victoria, or the Scout Movement, people of Romany heritage or people suffering with skin disease or syphilis.
By way of contrast, St. Patrick—who we all know about from the partying that goes on in his name—is only the patron saint of three countries, and one of them is the little island of Montserrat.
Fact 2: He was not born George, nor in England
While scholars will freely debate the circumstances of his life and the date of his birth, it seems most likely that the man we know as St. George was born Georgios to a Greek officer in the Roman army by the name of Gerontios (or possibly Anastasius). He and his wife Polychronia (or Theobaste) lived on the Greek island of Lydda in the late 3rd Century AD, and they were both Christians from high-ranking families. Georgios’ experiences as an officer in the Roman army in the Guard of Diocletian are part of the reason he is venerated as a brave warrior saint.
Fact 3: His mythical exploits are on a par with King Arthur
At a time when soldiers were expected to be able to spin a yarn or two in order to impress the royal court, the legend of St. George battling with a dragon to save the hand of a fair maiden became a popular tale. The earliest mention of it comes from an 11th century Georgian text, but there are similar accounts coming from English knights returning from the Crusades. The young lady in question is thought to have originally been based on the wife of Emperor Diocletian, in Alexandria, and the dragon is either a beast like a crocodile, or a metaphor for Satan.
Of course, the legendary version is very different, with George arriving in a kingdom that is trying to appease a beast that is blocking their water supply by offering it a sheep, or if there are no sheep, a woman. As he arrives, it transpires that the lottery system devised to choose an unlucky lady has picked the king’s daughter. Unable to pull strings on her behalf, the panicked monarch turns to St. George for help, and he saves the princess, having defeated the evil beast by using the sign of the Cross. This encourages everyone to convert to Christianity, in the hopes that they would be similarly protected.
Fact 4: He was martyred by the Romans
Back in a more biographical frame of reference, George is said to have defied an order from Emperor Diocletian to arrest every Christian soldier in the army and force them to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. The Emperor attempted to bribe him into renouncing his faith, with offers of money, slaves and land, but George held firm, knowing that to refuse the Emperor was a death sentence. He was tortured on a wheel of swords and then beheaded (beat that, Game of Thrones). And THAT’S how you get to be a saint.
The warrior saint has inspired centuries of English soldiers
Having been cited in the early 700s by Bede—the earliest known chronicler of the English church—a dedication to the gallant St. George lies in a church in Fordington, Dorset that is mentioned in the will of Alfred The Great. The Synod of Oxford declared April 23 a feast day in his honor in 1222, and Edward III flew the banner of St. George over his Order of the Garter in 1348. Soldiers were observed shouting his name in the heat of battle during the Hundred Years’ war, a situation later illustrated by William Shakespeare in the epic battle scenes within Henry V:
“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!”
He attained “patron saint” status during that century, although he had to wait in line behind Edward the Confessor, who already fulfilled that role for England. It wasn’t until 1552 and the English Reformation that George finally took his place, his reputation and feast day being too popular to be packed away with all the other saints and banners.Read More