St George's Day (23rd April)

St George is the patron saint of England. Read on to learn more about him and his history.

St George's Flag by Steve Webster

Saint George’s Day is April 23rd.

Very little is known of St George, but it is clear that not only was he not English; he is also patron saint of a number of other countries including the Netherlands, Lebanon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, and quite a few others.

An early Christian historian mentions him as a soldier of noble birth who was put to death during the last great persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire in 303 AD. No mention is made of his nationality, but the name George is originally Greek.

A 5th century Christian writing, ‘The Acts of Saint George’, says that he was beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian for objecting to the persecution of Christians. He rapidly became honoured as an example of bravery in standing up for the poor and defenceless, and for the Christian faith. This led to his becoming regarded as the patron saint of soldiers. There was also a legend that he did military service in Britain, during which time he visited Glastonbury in Somerset and Caerleon in South Wales.

A more obviously legendary story is of his killing a great dragon. This was a recurring theme of many popular plays during the Middle Ages. It was symbolic of the victory of good over evil, and its association with Saint George could be connected with his standing up to the Emperor Diocletian, who was sometimes called ‘the dragon’.

George was better known in the Eastern Mediterranean area than in the West, and English people came to hear more of him through the Crusades. It was said that he appeared to the Crusader army at the battle of Antioch in 1061. In a later Crusade (1191-2) King Richard I of England prayed for St George’s protection for his army, and used the St George’s flag (a red cross on a white background). Because of this, in 1348 King Edward III of England adopted St George as Patron of his new order of chivalry, the Knights of the Garter. This Order is thought to have taken its name from a pendant badge or jewel traditionally shown in depictions of Saint George. The Order still exists today, though its connection with the Crusades is now fortunately ancient history. It is one of the highest orders of knighthood: the Monarch and the Prince of Wales are always members of it, together with only 50 other people. Its place of assembly is St George’s Chapel, in the precincts of Windsor Castle.

Later King Edward proclaimed George to be the Patron Saint of England. One of the lines of Shakespeare that many of us remember is the climax to King Henry V’s address to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt: “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!”

There have been six kings of England called George. George I, who came to the throne in 1714, was a German prince who did not speak a word of English, but possibly the fact that he was named after England’s patron saint was a point in his favour. In 1940, at the height of the bombing during the Second World War, King George VI instituted the George Cross as an award for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”. This award, second only to the Victoria Cross, is usually given to civilians rather than soldiers, and can be given posthumously. The award consists of a silver cross with a picture of St George slaying the dragon, and the words ‘For Gallantry’. The whole population of Malta was awarded the George Cross for its heroism in resisting attack during the Second World War.

It is not only nations that have patron saints. If you didn’t know that, you might be surprised at the variety of places, professions, creatures and illnesses that St George is the patron of. Among other things, George is the patron saint of:

  • butchers
  • crusaders
  • farmers
  • herpes
  • horses
  • knights
  • lepers
  • leprosy
  • plague
  • scouts
  • sheep
  • shepherds
  • skin diseases
  • soldiers
  • syphilis.

Celebrations in England

Unlike the festivity and fervent patriotism seen among the Irish on St Patrick’s Day, the Welsh on St David’s Day, or the Scots on Burns Night, the English do not make much of this day. Many let the day pass without even thinking about it. In its heyday, St George’s Day was as important as Christmas on the English calendar. Throughout the 1500s, it was one of the biggest feast days of the year. By the 1700s, the importance had diminished, and the 20th Century saw St George’s Day being essentially forgotten.

However, the flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, has had a great revival of popularity in recent years, mainly among supporters of the England football team. At the time of the World Cup or any other important event, thousands of the red and white flags can be seen in the hands of England fans at the matches and flying from the windows of their houses and cars.