England Gifts and all about St Georges Day
There aren’t many dragons left in Sheffield or Swindon, and people in England don’t carry swords for fear of meeting one in Tesco’s car park. So it’s strange that a man who did kill one, over fifteen hundred years ago, is still a national hero. St. George wasn’t even English – as far as we know he never set foot in Britain. He was a Roman citizen, and a Roman soldier.
George was probably born in Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey, sometime during the second century AD. He would have been a social outcast from birth, because his Christian parents refused to worship the Roman gods. Despite his background, George is supposed to have joined the army and risen quickly to the rank of tribune. You usually had to be rich and well connected to get that far – George was neither, so he must have been a tough and determined young man.
This determination showed itself when the Roman emperor Diocletian (AD 254-313) cracked down on the Christians. George tore up the order that told him to persecute members of his parents’ religion – and it cost him his life. He was given a final chance to make a pagan sacrifice. When he refused he was dragged through the streets of his home city of Lydda and beheaded.
The church made George a saint soon afterwards. He is patron of countries like Portugal, Germany and Greece, and of farmers and soldiers.
St. George has been patron saint of England since the thirteenth century. His popularity grew after 1483 when printer William Caxton published the Golden Legend – the story of St. George saving a princess from a dragon. The story symbolises St. George’s defence of the church, represented by the princess, against the ‘dragon’ of the Roman government.
The soldierly St. George was very popular in fifteenth century England. The Hundred Years’ War against the French had finished not long before, and the Wars of the Roses were in full swing. George was even said to have appeared at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to help the outnumbered English army.
Shakespeare – who was born and died on a St. George’s day, 23rd April – certainly knew this story. In the playwright’s Henry V the English king inspires his troops before the battle by ordering them to ‘cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’
We know that the most famous story about St George is just a myth. Yet his symbol is still on the English flag and the national football and rugby shirts today.
The George Cross – the UK’s highest award for civilian bravery – bears an image of the saint slaying the dragon. He may not have been quite what we imagine, but St. George remains an example of steadfastness and bravery to this day.