The fascinating history of St George's Day

Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johann König (c.1630)

Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johann König (c.1630) - Credit: cea + / Flickr

St George is the Patron Saint of England, but how did that come to pass, and why do we celebrate St Georges Day on the 23rd of April?

The first mentioning of St George's Day as a celebration was in approximately 735 by the Venerable Bede, a Benedictine Monk and writer of Britain's foremost account of Medieval life, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The event was referred to as the Feast of St George in Bede's Calendar, but no explanation of the reasoning behind this feast was mentioned, just that it was on the 23rd of April. 

Miniature of St. George and killing the Dragon (1382)

Miniature of St. George and killing the Dragon (1382) - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

Originally, St. George was George of Lydda, a warrior born in modern-day Turkey who died in 303. He was a soldier in the Roman army who was sentenced to death after refusing to denounce his Christianity. In the grand tradition of Christian martyrs, George was soon recognised as a Saint.

Fast-forward to the Crusades; St George had over the years become one of Christianity's most venerated martyrs; he was also adopted as a symbol of bravery and as a military saint. It was also during this period that an earlier tale of a heroic man slaying a dragon was attributed to St George. 

This legend would endure the ages and spread through Europe as the Christian faith became the dominant religion in the region.

During a battle in 1063, Normans asserted that St George appeared to them upon a glorious white stallion in shining armour bearing a lance and a banner with the St George Cross. This collective vision is said to have helped the Norman Crusaders defeat the Muslim forces of Sicily.

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In the years after this first vision, many more Norman forces were said to have seen heavenly armies led by St George before battles and with each win, they attributed their success to the presence of the great Martyr Knight.

Saint George Killing the Dragon, 1434/35, by Bernat Martorell

Saint George Killing the Dragon by Bernat Martorell (c. 1434) - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, is said to have had a particular affinity with the saint after hearing stories of him on his travels in the crusades. The king soon adopted the St George cross as his banner in battle, and he encouraged his men to see St George as their protector.

In the years that followed, England, under the rule of Edward III, denounced its former patron saint, Edmund, in favour of the seemingly undefeated St George.

The fierce martyr warrior was now firmly and forever associated with the English ideals of bravery and honour, and for many, he is seen as a distinctly British hero and not someone who had a vast cultural history before the 1500s.

The legend of St George and the Dragon has also been subject to many artistic interpretations over the years. Most depictions show the triumphant George upon a horse with the Dragon slain beneath him, and as a result of this unchanging cultural depiction, St George has become a symbol of valiance.

St. George and the Dragon by Briton Rivière (c. 1914), painted in the Academicism style

St. George and the Dragon by Briton Rivière (c. 1914) - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

British artist Briton Rivière subverted this longstanding noble depiction of St George and instead opted to paint his version in the Academicism style, departing from the very Christian portrayal of the undefeated knight. In the 1914 painting, St George lays exhausted beside the slain dragon, having been thrown from his horse.

This painting indicates that by the beginning of the 20th century, the mysticism behind St George had waned dramatically and would never again reach the heights of The Crusades or Tudor era veneration.

However, this more nuanced and realistic portrayal of St George was very quickly abandoned due to the onset of the first world war. Post-romantic era cynicism was cast aside; the British people didn't need to know the historical accuracy of St George. They needed a symbol to rise up under.

And so it was that a St George, valiant and brave in the face of grave danger, was used in a WWI recruitment poster alongside the patriotic messaging of 'Britain needs you at once'.

WWI recruitment poster created by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915

WWI recruitment poster created by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915 - Credit: Wikimedia / Wikipedia

In recent years there have been many efforts to make St George's Day a much bigger celebration again, as its proximity to Easter often makes it easy to forget. In the last 30 years, there have been many Medieval style events set up to commemorate St George, such as Wrest Park’s St George’s Festival, which is organised by English Heritage. 

We inherited the story of St George, a bold and brave hero whose cultural identity is a curious balance of fact and fiction. And while we don't celebrate St George as much as our ancestors in the Middle Ages did, he is still a steadfast bastion of hope and heroism that is enduringly present in the psyche of our nation.

But our Patron Saint doesn't just belong to us; he is also the patron saint of many nations, including Ethiopia, Turkey, and several European countries such as Georgia, Germany and Portugal, to name but a few. And that's part of what makes St George such an enduring figure.

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