A history of St George’s Day

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St George’s Day is one of the most ancient and widely recognisable days of celebration in the English calendar. Our patron saint and Christian martyr, St George lived during the fourth century and went on to become one of England’s most important historical figures. His Saint’s Day is celebrated on April 23rd every year in several countries.

Our patron saint and Christian martyr, St George lived during the fourth century and went on to become one of England’s most important historical figures

Who was Saint George?

Most of us will immediately think of St George as being the warrior knight who slays dragons. In reality, very little is known about the early life of George. According to legend, he was born in what is now modern-day Turkey in around 280AD and went on to become a high-ranking officer in the Roman army under Emperor Diocletian. In 303 Diocletian, as part of a crackdown on the growing influence of the Christian community, ordered that all Christian soldiers in the army should be expelled and all Roman soldiers be forced to make the traditional pagan sacrifice. George refused and declared himself a Christian in front of his fellow soldiers. Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303.

Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303

The legend of George and the dragon

In the Middle Ages, George became associated with the slaying of dragons. In modern-day Libya, a group of villagers were supposedly held to ransom by a fearsome dragon, which demanded it be fed livestock every day or set their homes ablaze. When one villager was forced to offer their children after they ran out of livestock, George is said to have ridden past and offered to slay the dragon if all other residents willingly converted to Christianity. In recent times, the myth has remained a popular account of the story of George, as an allegory for his persistent strength and courage.

How did he become England’s patron saint?

King Edward III made St George the country’s official saint just after he came to the throne in 1327. In the Middle Ages, a patron saint did not have to be from the country they were born in – they just needed to embody the characteristics the kingdom wanted to project to the outside world. As well as England, St George is also the patron saint of Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia and Lithuania. Edward was keen to depict England as a powerful and warlike territory.

King Edward III made St George the country’s official saint just after he came to the throne in 1327

Modern traditions

In England, it was always customary on St George’s Day to wear a red rose on one’s lapel, sing Jerusalem in churches and to fly the St George’s flag. Traditions began to decline after the union with Scotland but have recently been revived by English heritage. In Catalonia, the day is also known as El Dia de la Rosa (The Day of the Rose), and a key tradition sees young boys give girls red roses, and for girls to give boys books.

 

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