St George’s legendary fight against the dragon is firmly embedded in England’s cultural history. But who was St George, and why has he become so famous?
Little is known about the exact details of St George’s life, but he is believed to have been born in Cappadocia (an area in modern day Turkey), in the 3rd century AD. After his father’s death, George and his mother returned to her Palestinian homeland, where he became a Roman soldier. However, events soon took a darker turn. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-313 AD), began persecuting Christians, and George, a devout Christian, found himself in trouble.
A fierce opponent of the Emperor’s campaign, George resigned from his military post in protest- an action that angered Diocletian. George was soon imprisoned and subjected to horrendous punishments: swallowing poison, being boiled in a cauldron of lead, and being crushed between two spiked wheels. Because of the strength of George’s faith, Jesus saw that George survived these punishments, and healed his wounds.
Diocletian offered to spare George’s life if he worshipped the Roman gods- but George refused. George was dragged through the streets of Lydia (in Palestine), and then beheaded.
St George and the Dragon
But where does the dragon fit into this story? Early versions of the legend of St George do not refer to his fight against the dragon. The famous encounter, so ingrained in our popular imagination, was simply an embellishment, added to the legend in the medieval era.
Jacques de Voragine’s work Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), popularised George’s fight with the dragon. Written in 1260, Voragine’s work is a Latin collection of the lives and miracles of saints, and was one of the most influential books of the later Middle Ages. The work captured the imagination of the English printer and translator, William Caxton, who stated:
“for in like wise as gold is most noble above all other metals, in like wise is this Legend [The Golden Legend] holden most noble above all other works.”
Caxton combined Voragine’s text, and two other translations of Voriagne’s work- Jean de Vignay’s French translation of Legenda Aurera and a 1438 English translation (the Gilte Legende)- to create his own translation of The Golden Legend, completed in 1483.
The account of St George in The Golden Legend, describes how George came into the city of Silene, in Libya, where the town was being held hostage by a dragon. To prevent the dragon attacking, the people had no choice but to offer the monster human sacrifices, drawing lots to determine who will be chosen. This continued until the king’s daughter was chosen. The king protested, but he had no choice but to deliver her to the dragon. Just as he is about to do so, St George arrives, draws out his sword (decorated with the sign of the cross), fights and injures the dragon.
Using the princess’s girdle, St George leads the beast into the town, and tells the townspeople that if they turn to Christ, he will kill the dragon. The townspeople do so, George kills the dragon and the king establishes a church on the site: Our Lady and Saint George. With his work finished, St George continues on his travels.
Caxton printed The Golden Legend c.1469, and his work spread the story of St George to a wide audience (nobles, gentry and urban merchants). The text became so popular that it was said to be the most widely read book after the Bible in the Middle Ages.
St George’s popularity
When the crusading knights returned from their battles abroad in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, St George’s reputation began to grow. Saint George was seen to embody the English ideals of bravery, honour and gallantry, and in 1222, St George’s feast day (April 23rd) was made a holiday.
In the 14th century, St George became firmly established in the English popular imagination. When Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, the highest order of chivalry, St George was made its patron saint. St George’ s Chapel (on the site of Windsor Castle), was built by Edward IV and Henry VII as the chapel of the Order.
St George is a key figure in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (c.1590). The protagonist of the first book, the Redcrosse Knight, (who is St George, the patron saint of England), is an allegory for holiness, and his character embodies the human soul’s struggles to reach the virtue of holiness. At the end of the book, Redcrosse fights and kills the Dragon, a symbolic allegory for Christ’s defeat of the devil.
When religious beliefs changed after the Reformation, St George’s popularity faded. However, his cultural legacy still lives on, whether that’s in the form of the George Cross (a medal awarded for acts of heroism and courage in extreme danger), or the numerous pubs in his name.
For more information
Cover image- St George killing the dragon, Legenda Aurea, Paris, 1382. Image sourced from The British Library