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On the 23rd of April, England, amongst a number of other countries, will celebrate St George’s Day. Four hundred years ago, the date was celebrated with almost as much pomp and circumstance as Christmas Day, however nowadays the date seems to go by without much fuss, especially compared to the extravagant festivities held for the patron saint of our Irish cousins. Many people around the country may not even know of the origins behind this figure of valour and chivalry, whose cross we bear on our national flag. Read on to find out more about the origins, legends and influence of St George on English and global history.
The story of St George’s life has been somewhat veiled and confused over the centuries, with multiple chroniclers telling very different versions of events. Nowadays, it is commonly accepted amongst historians that St George did exist and that, although there are many variations as to his story, there are some common similarities, such as:
What happened in between the third and fourth points differs somewhat depending on who is telling the tale. The earliest known written chronicle dates to between 350-500 AD and was found beneath a pillar in the Cathedral of Qasr Ibrim in 1964. This details that St George rose rapidly through the ranks of the Imperial Service and was transferred to the city of Dispolis, where he was later gruesomely tortured and sentenced to death by the pagan ruler, Emperor Diocletian.
There are many stories of St George’s exploits that have endured over the years, from epic resurrections to battles with dragons, all of which contributing to his Godly mystique. Many of these tales have been introduced centuries after the Saint supposedly died, leading many historians to believe that these hagiographies are embellished or purely fictional.
In true chivalric style, one of the most well-known legends involved slaying a dragon and rescuing a princess. The story goes that a fierce dragon was terrorising a town in Libya, forcing its people to appease it with human sacrifices, including the King’s daughter. The Princess was dressed in her ceremonial garb and left to wait by a lake for the dragon. While she was waiting, St George rode past and stopped to ask her what was happening and offer his protection. Once the dragon arrived, the brave St George tames and slays the dragon, thus saving the princess and freeing the town from its dominion.
The second tale is focused upon the saint’s death. It is believed that he was tortured and later beheaded for his Christian beliefs, but later chroniclers have added a further dimension to the tale. After each form of torture St George had to endure, he was purportedly healed by the Archangel Michael, who also aided his escape, a miracle that resulted in the conversion of many Pagans to Christianity, including the Emperor’s wife and daughter. Diocletian reportedly executed may of the converts and after his escape, St George destroyed the Pagan temple of Apollo, an act that lead to his eventual execution.
Despite St George having died in the fourth century, it was not until the year 1348 that he was made patron saint by King Edward III, upon the King founding a new order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, and naming St George patron of both the order and the country. Prior to this, England’s patron saint was St Edmund, or Edmund the Martyr as he was also known.
Born in 841 AD, he was the King of East Anglia and fought the Viking and Norse Invaders alongside King Alfred of Wessex. His army was defeated, possibly near Bury St Edmunds, and he was captured and ordered to renounce his Christian faith and share his power with the Vikings. He refused and as a result, was bound to a tree and shot with arrows and subsequently beheaded on the 20th of November 869 AD. The story states that his decapitated body was reunited with its head thanks to a talking wolf who protected it and directed his followers to it.
So should we be raising a flag featuring a white dragon on the 20th of November instead of a red cross on the 23rd of April? The question is often debated with a petition launched only a few years ago to reinstate St Edmund as England’s patron saint, and prior to that, in 2006 the issue was debated in Parliament.
Over the years, St George has become a figure of Christian sacrifice and chivalry, even before becoming England’s patron saint. His standard was adopted by legendary crusaders such as Richard the Lionheart during his campaign in Palestine towards the end of the 12th century. St George is often depicted by artists robed in the costume of a medieval knight and linked to heroic Arthurian Legends, cementing the patron saint as an English hero. Over the years, this gallant figure is still seen in government recruitment posters for the First World War and on the George Cross award for heroism introduced in 1940 during the Blitz, both depicting the Saint slaying the dragon.
St George’s Day was declared a national holiday and feast day in 1415, growing in popularity over the years to become nearly as big as Christmas. This all began to change at the beginning of the 18th century as England united with Scotland, with date slowly become less and less prominent with the passing of each century. Nowadays, some do still celebrate the date with small parades, displaying the saint’s flag and wearing a rose in their lapel.
St George is not just an important figure to the English; he is celebrated around the world and is patron saint of a number of countries and cities such as Portugal, Beirut, Venice, Malta, Ethiopia, Catalonia, Aragon, Georgia, Moscow, Palestine, Serbia and Lithuania, as well as a number of armies and communes.
In the Catalonian capital, Barcelona, it is tradition for lovers to exchange roses and books on La Diada de Sant Jordi. The celebrations are similar to Valentines Day, with popular streets like Las Ramblas suddenly awash with colourful flower stalls and booksellers.
A thanksgiving celebration is held in the town of Valencia on La Diada de Sant Jordi. A huge parade takes place with partakers and many of the spectators dressed in Medieval garb, acting as either Christian or Moorish soldiers and depicting the story of the siege of the city of Alcoy and its conversion to Christianity.
In Bulgaria, St George’s Day is widely celebrated in May as opposed to April. St George is patron saint of shepherds in the country and to honour the date, many Bulgarians will prepare and eat an entire lamb.
This is another grey area. There are plenty of chroniclers that state that he did in fact visit the British Isles as a tribune in the Roman army under Diocletian’s orders, however, similar to the other tales, these stories appeared centuries after St George’s death, having developed during the medieval era. Upon arriving in Britain he is rumoured to have visited the tomb of his relative, Joseph of Arimathea, in Glastonbury, as well as Caerleon-on-Usk, a Roman garrison town near Newport in South Wales and the historic City of York.
Although it is highly doubted that St George ever stepped foot on British soil, there are plenty of locations around the UK in which evidence of Roman occupations that predate the saint are still visible today. Northumberland has the renowned Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda Fort, in the Lake District there is the remains of a Roman Bath House and Hardknott Roman Fort, further South the Roman cities of Chester, York and Bath all have remnants of their Roman past incorporated into the architecture and closer to London there is the Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex and the Canterbury Roman Museum.
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