Who was St George and how did he become patron saint of England?

A 13th-century depiction of St George rescuing a young woman from a dragon.Wikipedia

Who was St George and how did he become patron saint of England? 23 April is St George's Day. But who was St George and why is he patron saint of England? This is the story ...

St George

George was born in the 3rd century AD in Cappadocia in Asia Minor, then in the Roman Empire. This is now in modern day Turkey, but it would be wrong to call him Turkish since this was before the Turks settled in that area.

George was a soldier and rose to be a commander in the Roman Army. He was known for his courage and he also became a Christian. At this time the Roman Emperor Diocletian was persecuting Christians. George went to the Emperor and spoke out against the persecutions. Diocletian asked him to recant but George refused.

Even when he was chained and tortured, he refused to renounce his faith. It is said that many people followed Christ as a result of his witness, including Queen Alexander, the wife of Diocletian. He was beheaded and thus became a martyr for the gospel. This happened in Lydda, in the holy land, probably in AD 303. The story of George rescuing a princess from a dragon is a later legend, which first appears in a book in the 13th century.

George's Tomb

George's tomb became a centre of Christian pilgrimage, and church was built over it during the time of Emperor Constantine. Lydda is in modern Israel, and is now known as Lod, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The current church dates from 1872 and incorporates parts of previous Byzantine churches. The tomb is in a chapel in an underground crypt.


In AD 494 George was canonised as a saint by Pope Galasius. Saints were usually marked on their day of death, so 23rd April, the anniversary of his execution, became his saint's day.

St George's fame spread from the Middle East throughout the Christian world and he is still revered as a great saint across the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican world. Many churches are named after him in England, but also in Orthodox countries like Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia - where there are said to be 365 churches dedicated to him.

Patron Saint

As well as England, St George is patron saint of Ethiopia, Portugal, Moldova, Bosnia, and the regions of Aragon and Catalonia in Spain, as well as towns and cities such as Moscow, Genoa and Freiburg im Breisgau in the Black Forest.

How he became Patron Saint

St George was not English and never came to England. How St George became the patron saint of England is linked to the time of the Crusades. During the Crusades, visiting European knights would visit ancient churches and became more aware of the Orthodox saints of the east. St George who had been a courageous soldier who tried to defend Christianity, was seen as a good role model.

In pre-Reformation times it was more common for Christians to pray to deceased saints with the idea that they would intercede for them. So it was that in 1199, during the Third Crusade, on the eve of battle, King Richard the Lion Heart visited the tomb of St. George in Lydda and prayed for victory. The next day he won a great victory, which he partly ascribed to St George. Following his victory, King Richard adopted St. George as his personal patron.

In a similar war in 1346, St George was credited with helping England to win the Battle of Crécy in France. In 1348, King Edward III now back in England, created a new order of chivalry called the Noble Order of the Garter, which still exists today. King Edward III made St George the patron of the Order, and also declared him Patron Saint of England.

In William Shakespeare's play Henry V, set on the early 1415, Shakespeare has the final line of the king's rousing speech as "Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

In 1552, under king Edward VI, all religious banners were banned in England, except for those of St George.

St George's Flag

The red cross on a white background was originally used as an emblem worn by crusaders in the Middle East. It later became associated with St George. After 1348 it was used as the flag of England. Flags were originally naval ensigns called jacks. The City of London used the St George's flag, with the addition of a red sword in the top left corner. St George's flag also flies as the flag of Genoa, which was a former maritime city state, although now a constituent town of Italy. This may not be a coincidence because one theory is that St. George's flag was adopted by the City of London and England in 1190, for their ships entering the Mediterranean in order to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet, which was using the same flag.

In 1606, after the crowns of England and Scotland were united, the jack of St George's cross used in England, and the jack of St Andrew's cross used in Scotland were combined to create the Union Jack. In 1801, after the union with Ireland, the jack with St Patrick's cross was added to create the current version of the Union Jack. Thus the flag of the UK has the St George's cross in the middle, and this also appears in the canton (top left hand quarter) of the flags of Australia and New Zealand.

Today St George's flag is best known from sporting events, where England plays separately from the other nations of the United Kingdom, notably in football, rugby and in the Commonwealth Games.

St George's Day

23rd April became Saint George's Day in England and most countries, although it does not fall on that day everywhere. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, Saint George's Day comes on 24th April. In Georgia, Serbia and Bulgaria, St. George's Day is 23rd April in the ecclesiastical Gregorian calendar which is 6th May, in the civil Julian calendar. Since the Reformation when saints' days became less celebrated, St George's Day has not been particularly marked in England.


When Robert Baden-Powell developed Scouting he made Saint George the patron saint of the movement. Many cub and scout groups used to hold St George's Day concerts to raise money for their huts, or events. Since the 1930s, Scouts and Guides all over the world have held Saint George's Day parades and services, on the nearest Sunday to St George's Day, when they also renew their Scout Promise. In the past, an annual St George's Day service was held in a central town church, when Scouts and Guides would parade through town to the service, although this is less common these days.

St George's Day events

Outside the Scouting movements, St George's Day can pass by unnoticed. St George has no personal connection to England, and so does not have the same significance to the English, compared to the importance of St David to the Welsh and St Patrick to the Irish. Sometimes organisations have used St George's Day as an excuse for a patriotic event.

St George's Day is not a public holiday in England, and for many it passes without notice. The main tradition in England has simply been to fly St George's flag from the local town hall, and the Anglican parish church tower. Many Anglican churches mark St George's Day with the Revised Common Lectionary readings Psalm 95; 1 Chronicles 11:1-9 and Revelation 7:13-17.