St. George is the patron saint of England whose day is celebrated on 23 April. He’s often represented as an English knight gallantly fighting a dragon and rescuing a princess. But who was the real George, was he British, and did he really fight dragons?
George the Roman Soldier
St. George is based on a real person, but his story is a murky mixture of fact and fiction. We know he was born in the third century in Cappadocia, Turkey to Greek Christian parents, and we know he became a soldier in the Roman army.
Around the year 300, Roman Emperor Diocletian began a campaign of persecution against Christians. And he started with those Christians which were in the Roman army. All Roman soldiers were forced to show their loyalty by making a sacrifice to the Roman gods. If they refused, they would be kicked out of the army, punished, or even executed.
George the Martyr
Of course, George, being a good Christian, refused to bow to the Roman gods. Legend says he was jailed, and this is where the fiction possibly kicks in, he was tortured for seven years. He was beaten, boiled in hot oil, forced to drink poison, had spikes run through him, etc. But it seems that none of this had any effect on George – he didn’t even get a headache.
George’s endurance of all these tortures was drawing even more people to Christianity which really upset the Romans. Finally, on 23 April 303, George was beheaded, and that was the end of George… but not the end of his story. He lived on as a popular warrior saint.
George the Medieval Knight
Now, let’s skip ahead about ten centuries, and Medieval Europe is in the era of Crusades. Countless knights clad in chain mail armour are steering their gallant steeds toward the Holy Land. While there, they hear stories about George, the warrior saint, and he becomes their hero.
Although the real George never set foot on English shores, the returning knights brought tales of his daring deeds back with them. And poof… George is transformed. No longer is he a Roman soldier – he becomes a medieval English knight. And, like all great knights worth their salt, he rescues a princess and slays a fearsome dragon – in Oxfordshire, England.
Printed versions of George’s heroic deeds pop up around the 12th century and they go something like this…
A certain kingdom had a dragon problem. To keep the hungry dragon satisfied, the people were feeding him two sheep per day. They would tie them out on the hill near the river where the monster lived.
But they couldn’t raise sheep fast enough, and soon they had to leave one sheep and one person for the dragon. Not many people volunteered to be dragon dinner, so a lottery was started. The King thought his family should be exempt, but his sweet daughter convinced the King that they were all in this together and they all had to take their chances with the lottery.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, the Princess’ name was drawn. The King was heartbroken and begged for someone to take her place. Even though the people felt sad for their princess, no one was keen to be eaten.
The brave Princess prepared herself for her fate. She put on her best gown and tied ribbons in her hair. Then she was led out to the hill and tied to a stake along with a sheep. There she awaited her certain death.
George the Dragon Slayer
Then George in his shining armour rode up on a white steed. He stopped in front of the tearful Princess. “Why are you crying, My Lady? And why are you tied to a post with a sheep?”
“You better get out of here,” she sobbed, “or you’ll end up as dragon food too.”
But, faithful knight that George was, he could never leave a damsel in distress. He stayed and listened to her tale about the dragon whose dinner she was meant to be. While they were talking, the ground began to shake. It was the dragon running towards them. He was drooling with excitement because he thought he was having knight and horse for dessert.
George jumped on his horse and pulled out his lance. Then he made the sign of the cross and galloped toward the beast. As they collided, George’s spear ran through the dragon and he fell to the ground moaning, George untied the Princess and told her to take off her belt and tie it around the dragon’s neck. Then they led the dragon back to the city like a little dog on a leash.
The people were afraid and ran into their houses and peeked out the windows. George said, “Fear not! Believe in God and be baptized, and I will slay this dragon.” So the King and all the people ran to the pond where George baptized them all. Then George cut off the dragon’s head and peace returned to the kingdom.
Everyone was grateful to George and the King offered him a pile of riches. But George refused, telling him to give it to the poor. The King promised to build churches and be a good Christian, and George rode off into the sunset.
George the Patron Saint
The knights were so inspired by St. George, that they adopted him as their protector. When they rode into battle, they carried his banner: a red cross on a white background. St. George officially became English when King Edward III made him the patron saint of England around 1350.
Just as George became English, his exploits were transferred to England too. The place where he had performed his knightly feats became associated with Oxfordshire. A mound near Uffington, is said to be the place where the damsel was offered, and the dragon slain. And, there is proof: There is a spot at the top of the hill where nothing will grow – because that’s where the dragon’s blood seeped into the earth.
However, George isn’t just an English saint. Knights from all over Europe came back from the Crusades singing his praises, and he’s patron saint of several countries, areas, and cities, including Catalonia.
- If you want to read more about George in Catalonia and a Barcelona house that was inspired by his dragon, click here: Gaudi Architecture Tells a Story in Barcelona
- For a French dragon story, see: St. Martha and the Tarasque
- And another dragon story: A Saint, a Convict, and a Gargoyle go into a Swamp
- To read an article I wrote for BlogExpat.com, click here: London During the Coronavirus Pandemic
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