St George is best known as the patron saint of England – his feast day is celebrated across the nation on 23 April each year – and for slaying a mythical dragon. Yet the real St George was probably a solider of Greek origin, whose life was far from fairytale-esqe. Here are 10 facts about the man and the myth.
1. St George was probably of Greek descent
George’s early life is shrouded in mystery. It’s thought, however, that his parents were Greek Christians and that George was born in Cappadocia – a historical region which is now broadly the same as Central Anatolia. Some versions of the story say that George’s father died for his faith when George was around 14, and so he and his mother travelled back to her home province of Syria Palaestina.
2. Although he ended up as a soldier in the Roman army
Following his mother’s death, the young George travelled to Nicomedia, where he became a soldier in the Roman army – possibly in the Praetorian Guard. At this point (late 3rd / early 4th century AD), Christianity was still a fringe religion and Christians were subject to sporadic purges and persecutions.
3. His death is associated with the Diocletian Persecution
According to Greek hagiography, George was martyred as part of the Diocletian Persecution in 303 AD – he was beheaded on Nicomedia’s city wall. Diocletian’s wife, the Empress Alexandra, supposedly heard of George’s suffering and converted to Christianity herself as a result. Shortly afterwards, people began to venerate George and come to his grave to honour him as a martyr.
The Roman legend differs slightly – instead of being a victim of Diocletian Persecution, George was tortured and killed at the hands of Dacian, Emperor of the Persians. His death was prolonged, as he was tortured more than 20 times over 7 years. Supposedly, over the course of his persecution and martyrdom, over 40,000 pagans were converted (including the Empress Alexandra) and when he finally died, the wicked emperor combusted in a whirlwind of fire.
It’s likely the Diocletian Persecution is true: this persecution was primarily aimed at Christian soldiers within the Roman army, and is well documented. Many historians and scholars also agree it is likely that George was very much a real person.
4. He was canonised as an early Christian saint
George was canonised – making him St George – in 494 AD, by Pope Gelasius. Some believe this happened on 23 April, which is why George has long been associated with this day.
Gelasius reportedly said that George was one of those ‘whose names are justly revered among men but whose acts are known only to God’, tacitly acknowledging the lack of clarity surrounding both his life and death.
5. The story of the St George and the Dragon came much later
The story of St George and the Dragon is most popular today: the first recorded versions of this appear in the 11th century, with it being incorporated into Catholic legend in the 12th century.
Originally known as the Golden Legend, the story places George in Libya. The town of Silene was terrorised by an evil dragon – to begin with, they placated it with sheep, but as time went on, the dragon began demanding human sacrifices. Eventually, the king’s daughter was chosen by lottery, and despite her father’s protests, she was sent out to the dragon’s lake dressed as a bride.
George happened to be passing by, and attacked the dragon once it emerged from the pond. Using the princess’s girdle, he leashed the dragon and it followed him meekly from then on. After returning the princess to the village with the dragon in tow, he said he would kill it if the villagers converted to Christianity.
Almost all of the village (15,000 or so people) did just this. George therefore killed the dragon, and a church was built on this spot.
This legend saw the rise of St George as a patron saint in Western Europe, and is now most familiar – and closely associated – with the saint.
6. St George appears in Muslim legends, not just Christian ones
The figure of George (جرجس) appears as a prophetic figure in some Islamic texts. Rather than a soldier, he was supposedly a merchant, who opposed the erection of a statue of Apollo by the king. He was imprisoned for his disobedience and tortured: God destroyed the city of Mosul, where the story took place, in a rain of fire and George was martyred as a result.
Other texts – particularly Persian ones – suggest George had the power to resurrect the dead, in an almost Jesus-like way. George was the patron saint of the city of Mosul: accordingly to his Islamic lore, his tomb was in the mosque of Nabi Jurjis, which was destroyed in 2014 by IS (Islamic State).
7. St George is now seen as a model of chivalry
Following the Crusades in Western Europe and the popularisation of the legend of St George and the Dragon, St George increasingly became seen as a model of medieval chivalric values. The noble, virtuous knight rescuing the damsel in distress was a trope which fitted with ideals of courtly love.
In 1415, his feast day was officially designated as 23 April by the Church, and continued to be celebrated throughout and after the Reformation in England. Much of his iconography depicts him in armour with a spear in hand.
8. His feast day is celebrated across Europe
Although St George is best known to many as the patron saint of England, his reach is far wider than most people know. George is also the patron saint of Ethiopia, Catalonia and one of the patron saints of Malta and Gozo.
St George is also venerated in Portugal, Brazil, and across the Eastern Orthodox Church (although his feast day is often changed to 6 May in this tradition).
9. St George became associated with English royalty from the 13th century
Edward I was the first English king to adopt a banner bearing the emblem of St George. Edward III later renewed interest in the saint, even going as far to possess a vial of his blood as a relic. Henry V furthered the cult of St George at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. However, it was only in the reign of Henry VIII that the cross of St George was used to represent England.
In England, St George’s Day traditions often involve the flying of St George’s Cross flag, and often parades or re-enactments of his battle with the dragon happen in towns and villages.
10. He has an Order of Chivalry named after him
The Ancient Order of St George is associated with the House of Luxembourg, and is thought to date back to the 14th century. It was resurrected as a secular order of chivalry in the early 18th century by Count Limburg to help keep the memory of the Four Roman Emperors of the House of Luxembourg alive: Henry VII, Charles IV, Wenceslas and Sigismund.
Similarly, the Order of the Garter was founded in 1350 by King Edward III in St George’s name, and he simultaneously became England’s patron saint.