St George

(d. c. 300)

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This early martyr was probably a soldier. He is credited with enduring astounding tortures and performing equally astounding miracles, but it was the tale of his combat against a dragon to save a princess's life which really ensured his popularity. This first appears in the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) in the 13th century.

His importance in Western Europe increased after a reported vision of him during the siege of Antioch in the First Crusade was taken as a sign of victory. A military and aristocratic cult rapidly developed. His feast day (23 April) was made a holiday in England in 1222; Edward III chose him as patron of the Order of the Garter in 1343; Henry V invoked him at Agincourt; by the close of the Middle Ages he was regarded as the patron saint of England, and a model of chivalry. His feast was celebrated by civic and guild processions, which gave much scope for horse-riding knights and effigy dragons, such as Snap at Norwich. Parades were held at Leicester, Chester, Coventry, Reading, and King's Lynn, as well as many smaller places, but they did not long survive the Reformation; popular customs were then transferred to warmer dates such as May Day and Midsummer, and 23 April is not now marked by any traditional customs.

George's persona was remodelled in a remarkably popular work, The Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom (1596–7) by Richard Johnson, which strips away the Christian elements, replacing them with chivalric and magical adventures imitated from medieval romances. Here, George is born in Coventry, son of the Lord Steward of England, but stolen soon after birth by an enchantress whose power he eventually outwits; he saves Sabra, the King of Egypt's daughter, by killing a dragon; after further adventures he dies from the poison of another (English) dragon, and is buried in Windsor Chapel. Johnson's book was often reprinted, and formed the basis for chapbook abridgements, plays, and children's versions; it is thanks to this that George appears in many texts of the mumming play.

There have been repeated attempts to persuade English people to celebrate St George's Day by flying flags or wearing a rose, and frequent newspaper complaints of the lack of a national holiday. Local celebrations were fairly common in the 1930s, but faded out again after the Second World War. Currently (1996–9) appropriate greeting cards are commercially available, and a civic pageant was once again held at Salisbury in 1997. The St George flag (red cross on white ground) has recently been enthusiatically adopted by English football fans as a national symbol.

Wright and Lones, 1938: ii. 178–83;Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes (1948), 103–20;Simons, 1998: 80–94.

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