The history behind St George’s Day - and when it takes places this year

Every April 23, England celebrates its patron saint, St. George, who according to legend, was a soldier in the Roman army who killed a dragon and saved a princess (Shutterstock)
Every April 23, England celebrates its patron saint, St. George, who according to legend, was a soldier in the Roman army who killed a dragon and saved a princess (Shutterstock)

Every April 23, England celebrates its patron saint, St. George, who according to legend, was a soldier in the Roman army who killed a dragon and saved a princess.

His past is rich and varied, but what’s the story behind the legendary man we celebrate annually and how did he become our patron saint?

When is the Feast of Saint George?

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    The Feast of Saint George, which is more commonly known as St George’s Day, is annually commemorated on 23 April, and is the day which sees England celebrate its patron saint.

    St. George is now a highly celebrated saint in both Western and Eastern Christian churches and a huge number of patronages of St.George exist all over the world.

    Since the 14th century, St.George has been both England’s patron saint and the protector of the royal family. His cross forms England's national flag and features within the Union Flag of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

    St.George continues to be remembered and celebrated to this very day, with April 23 being a national day of celebration dedicated to the life, courage and martyrdom of St.George.

    St.George's Day is celebrated not only in England, but in the several countries, nations, kingdoms and cities of which St.George is also the patron saint.

    Who is St. George and where did he come from?

    The early life of St.George is relatively unknown with accounts differing in regards to his place of birth.

    Some believe George was born in Cappadocia and others that he originates from Syria Palaestina, but it is agreed by many that he was raised at least partly in the Lydda area of Palestine.

    It is believed his parents were Christian, belonged to nobility and were of Greek heritage.

    His father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia, and his mother, Polychronia, was from Lydda, Palestine.

    George’s father died when he was 14 years of age and he then returned with his mother to her homeland of Syria Palestina.

    Aged 17, shortly after his mother’s death, George traveled to the capital at Nicomedia, where he then joined the Roman army, climbing through the ranks and being promoted to the rank of military tribune by his late twenties, where he was stationed as an imperial guard of the Emperor at Nicomedia.

    How did St. George become a Martyr?

    On 24 February 303 AD, the Emperor Diocletian, issued an order that every Christian soldier in the army should be degraded and that every soldier was required to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.

    George, when seeing this, distributed his wealth to the poor and confronted the emperor, declaring himself to be a Christian.

    It is believed that the Emperor then tortured George in order to get him to deny his faith and convert, but George withstood this torture and refused to cave.

    George was then executed in front of Nicomedia's city wall on April 23 303, where his courage and faith made him a martyr.

    His body was returned to Lydda for burial and his head later taken to Rome where it became interred in the church dedicated to him.

    What is the legend of St George?

    Stories of George’s strength and courage began to spread throughout Europe, and the legend of his fight with a dragon became the best-known story about him.

    George was first credited with slaying a dragon around the 12th century, but his name started to become known in England as early as the eighth century.

    The legendary story about George and the Dragon is that St. George fought and killed a dragon on the flat topped Dragon Hill in Uffington, Berkshire, where it is said that no grass now grows where the dragon’s blood trickled down.

    Although it was around the 12th century that Crusaders first invoked his name as an aid in battle, King Edward III didn’t make him the patron saint of England until 1350, where King Edward III formed the Order of the Garter in St. George’s name.

    Stories surrounding our patron saint continued to be perpetuated.

    Shakespeare carved George’s name in the nation’s mind and history with the iconic line Henry V, when the King ends his pre-battle speech with the renowned phrase, ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!’.

    How do people celebrate St. George’s Day?

    Traditionally people used to celebrate St. George’s Day by partaking in feasts, but this started to wane in the 18th century.

    Although usually a much more subdued affair than the likes of St. Patrick’s Day, authorities across England usually fly the national flag, which is called St George's Cross, and some villages still put on fairs and perform the Morris dance, or head to the local pub for a pint.

    However, this year is set to be a quieter affair due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.