HISTORY OF ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
Saint George’s Day is April 23, likely the day of his martyrdom. He is often depicted as a knight in armor.
He is the patron saint of England, and his day has been celebrated there from the 9th century and more recently throughout the British Commonwealth… though he was not English and never visited England.
Origin of St George
He was born in the 3rd century in Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey, and died in Lydda, or modern-day Israel, in what would have been the ancient Roman province of Palestine in AD 303. He would have been a Roman officer.
His story was brought back from the Holy Land to Western Europe during the Crusades during the Middle Ages, probably in the 12th century, and then popularized in the 13th century. The dragon motif was originally associated with the soldier saint St Theodore Tiro (Theodore of Amasea) of northern Turkey. In the 11th century, the dragon depictions were transferred to St George.
The Legend of St George
The narrative of the story of St George and the Dragon predates his Christian times. You may be familiar with the Greek myths:
- Jason and Medea, where Jason fights the sleepless (hydra) dragon — made famous by the movie Jason and the Argonauts
- Perseus and Andromeda, where in the movie Clash of the Titans, Perseus faces the sea monster Cetus to rescue the princess Andromeda… though the film uses the Kraken from Norse mythology.
There are many versions of the narrative about St George and the Dragon, but all contain the following similar themes:
- A town is terrorized by a dragon who requires placating, eventually including human sacrifice
- A young princess (Sabra?) is offered up to the dragon
- St George learns about this (from a hermit?) and rides to the town
- St George rescues the princess and slays the dragon at a vulnerable patch of skin under its arm (shades of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit!)
The story goes that St George rode into Silene (modern-day Libya) to free the city from a dragon with a taste for humans.
Jacobus da Laragine tells in his The Golden Legend in the mid-13th century the story that we best know, adding that St George offered to kill the dragon if the townspeople would convert to Christianity. Fifteen thousand did, including the king.
Popularity of St George
He became popular with English kings. Edward I (1272-1307) had banners bearing the emblem of St George (a red cross on a white background), and Edward III (1327-77) had a strong interest in the saint and owned a relic of his blood. The St George’s cross was not used to represent England until the reign of Henry VIII.
St George was canonized in AD 494 by Pope Gelasius. He is also the patron saint of Venice, Genoa, Portugal, Ethiopia, and Catalonia.
It is timely that St George was one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers,” a group of saints who could help during epidemic diseases. St George’s protection was invoked against several diseases, including the Black Death and leprosy.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Battle of Harfleur during the “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech, the battle cry was
“By all means cry God for Harry, England and St George!”
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, St George’s cross still appears on the Garter badge, and his image is the pendant of the Garter chain.
More Recent Depictions of St George
When Martin Luther was in isolation at the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany, in 1521, he lived among knights there. Living incognito, Luther did not wear his usual monk’s habit, but he wore a black robe with a high collar and let his hair and beard grow out to complete his disguise.
He carried a sword at his side, going by the name Junker Jörg or “Knight George” in honor of Eisenach’s patron saint, St George. It was also the name of Eisenach’s parish school he attended when he was young.
When I visited the Storkyrkan, the “Great Church” in Stockholm, Sweden, I saw the 11-foot tall impressive depiction of St George and the Dragon.
It is made of oak and has stood there for hundreds of years. It was commissioned to commemorate the victory over Danish troops at the Battle of Brunkeberg in 1471.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian