St George’s Day 2021: how the dragon-slayer became the patron saint of England

St George’s Day is nearly here, offering us all a chance to fly English flags, celebrate our country’s heritage and honour the patron saint of England.

While St Patrick’s Day, St David’s Day and St Andrew’s Day are all celebrated with patriotic community events, St George’s Day has become less significant over time and has left the nation somewhat confused about how to recognise the day.

But, who was the legendary figure and why is he the nation’s patron saint? From the history behind the dragon-slayer, to the global celebrations, here is everything you need to know about St George’s Day.

When is St George’s Day 2021?

St George’s Day, the patron saint day of England, falls each year on April 23. Recognised annually on the anniversary of St George’s death, the day was previously a national holiday and was once celebrated as widely as Christmas.

Since the 18th century, after England and Scotland united in 1707, celebrations have diminished, although some parades and public activities continue to be held every year. However, some of this year’s celebrations may not be able to go ahead in their usual form due to the Covid-19 restrictions. 

Who was St George?

Despite being adopted as the patron saint of England, St George wasn’t actually English, and most likely never stepped foot in the country. Born around AD 280, in what is now known as Cappadocia, Turkey, St George was a Christian martyr and became a soldier in the Roman army, later progressing to the role of a personal guard for the Emperor Diocletian.

The emperor was one of the leaders of the Great Persecution of Christians, where churches were destroyed, scriptures were burnt and followers of the religion were prohibited from joining the army and assembling for worship.

But his personal guard, St George, protested against the persecution and remained dedicated to his Christian faith, consequently facing imprisonment and torture. He was later beheaded in Palestine on April 23, AD 303.

His head was taken to, and stored, in the church dedicated to him in Rome, and the rest of his body was buried in Lod, Israel.

His strength, courage and loyalty to his faith soon spread around Europe, and it even inspired his wife, who apparently became Christian, and also faced execution.

Fighting a dragon and saving a princess

As well as his army background and dedication to his faith, St George is famous for fighting a dragon, which commonly symbolised the Devil during the Middle Ages.

Legend suggests St George fought a dragon and saved a princess in the town of Silene – although this is most likely a myth.

According to legend, the only well in Silene was guarded by a dragon and each day, residents had to make human sacrifices in order to access the water.

A princess was the next person to be sacrificed and on the day she was due to be killed, St George bravely fought the dragon to save her.

After St George successfully killed the dragon, the people of Silene were finally granted free access to the well, and in gratitude, they turned to Christianity.

Painting titled 'Saint George and the Dragon' by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) an Italian painter and a mathematician


Painting titled ‘Saint George and the Dragon’ by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) an Italian painter and a mathematician


Credit: Universal Images Group Editorial/Universal History Archive

Why is St George the patron saint of England?

Even though St George never stepped foot on English soil, he officially became the patron saint of England around 1348, after King Edward III established the Order of the Garter in his name. 

From the 14th Century, St George was regarded as a special protector of the English and following England’s victory at Agincourt in 1415, Archbishop Chichele raised the celebration of St George to a Double Feast.

Shakespeare made sure St George was never forgotten, concluding the Henry V, Act III, speech with ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St George’.

St George’s Cross, which is England’s flag and now forms part of the Union Jack, is the symbol displayed on April 23. Dating back to the year of 1188, crosses were first used by King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France for their crusade symbols.

Despite England adopting a white cross at first, they later switched to a red cross, which was used as part of the uniforms of English soldiers in several battles. Edward I eventually made this symbol a national emblem during his reign.

Today, St George’s cross is used frequently at football, rugby and cricket games, with fans wearing scarves, painting their faces and flying flags to show their support for England.

Unlike some patron saint days, St George’s Day isn’t a bank holiday, meaning transport, schools and businesses operate as normal every year.

However, in 2018, former leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, said the patron saint day would become a national holiday under a Labour government. Some people showed their support for this idea, arguing a public holiday would help increase celebrations again.

While St George’s Day celebrations have decreased over time, there are still some parades, music performances and public events held across the country to honour the patron saint.

A red rose has also been the national emblem of England since the War of the Roses, 1455-1485, and some people choose to wear this flower on St George’s Day.

As well as being the Patron Saint of England, St George is the Patron Saint of Scouting and around April 23, Scouts often hold celebrations such as parades and faith services.

St George’s Day events and celebrations

Fancy a pint? Some pubs are decorated with St George’s cross on April 23, offering people the chance to celebrate together with a few drinks. This year, however, it may be a little difficult to celebrate St George’s Day in this way, as pubs, bars and restaurants will not be able to open for indoor dining and drinking. But, in line with the rules outlined in Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown, groups of up to six people or two households will be able to mark the patron saint day together in pub gardens and outdoor seating areas. 

The hymn of Jerusalem is traditionally sung on the day and Morris Dancers often perform around the country.

The Feast of St George also takes place in Trafalgar Square, London, every year. Last year’s event was unfortunately cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is not yet known if the 2021 event will go ahead.

St George's Day Celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London


St George’s Day Celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London


Credit: Warren Allott

Celebrations of St George around the world

Even though celebrations may be minimal in England, St George is also the patron saint of other countries and each nation has their own way of honouring the day.

In Russia, St George’s Day is honoured on May 6, because the Russian Orthodox Church use the Julian Calendar.  In recognition of the patron saint, the black and orange Ribbon of St George is used by civilians as a patriotic symbol.

Albania also celebrate and represent their joy by lighting fires and playing around it while similarly in Croatia, fires are lit on St George’s Day to mark the first day of Spring.

In Catalonia, Spain, a public holiday is held for St George (Sant Jordi), with roses and books exchanged by lovers and in Bulgaria, it is a tradition to roast a whole lamb because St George is the patron saint of shepherds.

In Ethiopia, St George is known as the Patron Saint of Saints and they celebrate on May 1.

In Georgia, St George’s Day, is celebrated on November, 23, and on this day, they recognise the torture St George endured for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods.

Also on St George’s Day…

April 23 is believed to be the date of birth, and death, of English playwright, Shakespeare, with some celebrations of literature taking place around this day.

April 23, 1968, also marks the date when the first decimal coins, five and 10 pence pieces, were introduced. 

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