Every year on April 23, we celebrate St. George’s Day in honor of England’s patron saint. When we were kids, we were taught to believe in him as a great knight facing off against a fire-breathing dragon.
Yet, as with many things, it’s about why let the facts get in the way of a good story. The dragon slaying was a myth, he was not even English and never visited the country.
And, it might be news to some, St George wasn’t even England’s first patron saint.
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So who was St George and how did he become the patron saint of England? Here are some facts about St. George’s Day.
He never visited England
Unlike Ireland and St Patrick, who is said to have converted the Emerald Isle to Christianity, St George has no obvious connection to England.
St George was not England’s first patron saint
This honor was originally held by St Edmund, or Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia in the 9th century AD. He fought alongside King Alfred of Wessex against the pagan Vikings until 869/70 when his forces were defeated and Edmund was captured.
He was ordered to renounce his faith and share power with the Vikings, but he refused. He was then tied to a tree, pierced with arrows and beheaded.
During the Third Crusade in 1199, King Richard I visited the tomb of St. George at Lydda on the eve of battle. The next day he won a great victory. Following this triumph, Richard adopted St. George as his personal patron and protector of the army.
So he became the patron saint of England?
No, King Edward III made him the Patron Saint of England when he formed the Order of the Garter in the name of Saint George in 1350, and the cult of the Saint was further advanced by King Henry V, at the Battle of Agincourt in northern France. .
An event made famous by William Shakespeare. The playwright and St George have something else in common, don’t they?
That’s right, they share the same date of death – April 23.
So who was St George?
There are two popular theories about St George’s origins, but the consensus is that he was born in the Middle East. Some say his birthplace was in what is now modern Turkey, others say he was from Palestine.
Believed to be born of Christian parents, he was a soldier in the Roman army, but was said to have been persecuted and tortured for refusing to abandon his faith in favor of Roman paganism. According to legend, George was both boiled and sandwiched between two wheels of spikes.
He was executed on April 23, 303 after refusing Emperor Diocletian’s order to renounce Christianity. It is claimed that St George was dragged through the streets of Lydda and beheaded.
And the dragon?
Although it is unlikely that he actually slew a dragon, many paintings show him slaying one. It likely depicts him vanquishing the devil or evil, or reflects his bravery in refusing to bow to Roman persecution.
Jacobus de Voragine first invented the dramatic story of St George in his book “Golden Legend”. In it, George kills a dragon guarding a well, just before the villagers plan to sacrifice a woman to make him happy.
St George was a saint for 1,000 years before the feast
He was canonized in AD 494 by Pope Gelasius, who claimed he was one of those “whose names are justly venerated among men but whose deeds are known only to God.”
A Feast of St George has been celebrated in England for hundreds of years on April 23. After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, St. George’s Day became one of the most important holidays in the English calendar.
He’s a popular boy
St George is truly an international saint and England is not the only country or region to claim him as its patron.
England shares St George with Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Ethiopia and Catalonia – among others as patron saint and many of these places have their own celebrations and ceremonies in his honor.
St George represents those we honor
The Order of the Garter (founded by Edward III in 1348) is the highest order of chivalry in the country and Queen Elizabeth II is at the helm as Sovereign of the Garter. To this day, the Cross of St George still appears on the Garter badge and its image is the pendant of the Garter chain.
In 1940 King George VI established a new award for acts of the greatest heroism or courage in circumstances of extreme danger. The George Cross, named after the king, bears the image of St George vanquishing the dragon. The image of St George also adorns many memorials built to honor those killed in the First World War.