For England and St George: Dissecting the Role of a Dragon Slayer

by JoHarrington

April 23rd is St George's Day. But how much do you really know about the patron saint of England (and elsewhere)?

St George wasn't England's first patron saint. He rode a wave of chivalry to persuade the ladies to allow a soldier's saint to be their patron too.

It didn't hurt that he was said to kill dragons, while amassing along the border were the Red Dragon flags of the rebellious Welsh.

But in the end, St George took it all, including his red cross flag. That had originally belonged to another soldier-saint!

St George the Soldiers' Saint

'Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.'

The criss-cross red slashes of blood stained the flag of peace. But there was a reason for this.

St George is the soldiers' saint, a Roman general who died a violent death for his Christian faith.

There was no surrender. No giving in. No rushing into the hedgerow to save your skin. George stood tall, when all around him people fled in terror.

War was his modus operandi and, in him, all of the ancient traditions of Mithras could find a Christian outlet. His was a world of courage, bravery and victory. His name was yelled as a war cry, with the blood pumping and the testosterone high, from the Crusades to the Hundred Years War.

Only for the soldiers. Always for the soldiers.

But then, carried on the lips of those coming home from war in the Middle East, came a secondary tale concerning the soldiers' saint. It was one guaranteed to see St George win the hearts and minds of all good English folk - the women and children, elderly and infirm, none of them soldiers, but suddenly happy to embrace a new patron saint of their nation.

St George killed dragons, didn't he?

Bronzed Finish St George Slaying the Dragon Statue

Bronzed Finish St. George Slaying The Dragon Statue

Mithras: The Roman Soldier's God of Choice

There were no girls allowed here, this was a man's world. Mithras made Chuck Norris look like a wimp.

There were a lot of Gods and Goddesses in ancient Rome. There were large deities to take care of world-wide events; and small household ones to protect the home.

Then there was Mithras. In the high imperialism of the vast Roman Empire, he marched with the soldiers to war.

Mithras could wrestle with a bull and bring it down; and his worship was steeped in blood. Out on the battlefield, at close quarters, with the flash of the dagger and sword, Mithras was there.

He waited until you saw the whites of their eyes, when all that stood between life and death was your own skill and luck. That's when Roman soldiers learned if Mithras was on their side. When the blood pumped in screams and disorientation. When either you fell or the man before you. When you didn't panic, even until you were the last man standing and the battle was won.

There was more!  Seven levels of initiation, conducted in secret underground, which singled out the heroes and ejected the cowards. Anyone could rise through these ranks. No privilege of birth nor worldly goods could grease this passage into the Mysteries. A lowly legionnaire could shake hands with a Senator, because who knew who lurked behind the mask in darkness.

A brave soul, standing fast against whatever the Mithraic Masters devised, could become a member of a secret sect and an exclusive inner circle. A certain handshake, or codewords spoken in the outside world, could see them fast-tracked in promotion to the top.

Which Roman soldier worth his laurels would give up that for the Christian God of women and slaves?  A God preaching peace and turning the other cheek. Where would he be, when a barbaric longsword is bearing down?

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Who Was St George?

It would take a lot to shift Mithras; but here was a bloke who could do all of that AND get the girls.

At any step along the way, George could have said no. The Emperor was practically begging him to do so!

But this Roman soldier was willing to do whatever it took; and he would not say a word, even to stop the torture. Not even to save his own life.

An incredulous crowd of warriors, steeped in the Mysteries of Mithras, would all have been proud to have him amongst their number. They had each already fought alongside him, over many years of campaigns and tours into the theater of war.

They already knew his bravery and prowess. The disbelief stemmed from why George was doing this.

It was all in the name of Christianity!

Let's retreat a few steps to see how we got here. In the arena, with Emperor Diocletian and his wife presiding over a bloody scene, with thousands of spectators heightened in tension. Because nobody thought it would come to that.

In the Roman Imperial World of 303 CE, there were many problems with Christianity. At least there were from the point of view of the authorities and much of the populace.

For a start, the religion preached a single almighty God, who dealt with all aspects of life and was ranked higher than the Emperor. Instant problem right there at the end, when Diocletian was supposed to be a God on Earth and supreme ruler of all.

Thus the Christian God hadn't won friends and influenced people in the Senate. In fact, he was an insult.

For the people themselves, a few wry chuckles at that might have been expressed behind their hands, but the major distasteful element there was the omnipresent part. There are some things best left on the battlefield, which don't need taking into the bedroom nor into the nursery, where the women and children reside.

And no woman wants a male God anywhere near her in childbirth.

These were just spiritual quibbles and with so many deities around, the people could take their pick of the right one in the circumstances.

There was something more insidious, in an Empire based around battle and imperial gains, in a religion which seemed anti-war.

'Blessed are the peace-makers,' was utter garbage, when their entire foreign policy was a study in gaining more territory. Roman imperial might looked set to take over the world.

Despite all of this, Christianity was slowly gaining strength in the heart of Rome, not least because it had attracted the sympathy of many noble ladies.

The last thing that a Roman soldier wants, when he comes home from a tour of duty, is to discover that his wife has turned Christian. The women had spotted one of the major pros in favor of the new religion. It would keep their husbands from disappearing for months or years at a time! All that they had to do was to convert too.

This worried the Emperor. To nip it in the bud before it threatened the whole imperial army, Diocletian banned Christianity from the military. Every soldier professing that faith was to be arrested; and everyone else should make a sacrifice to Mithras. A bull would be appropriate (and would have the great bonus of feeding whole armies out of the men's own pockets, at least until all of the beef was gone).

Unfortunately for Emperor Diocletian, he had never thought to ask about the religion of his friends, nor, more pertinently, their sons.

Gerontius and Diocletian went way back; so when Gerontius's boy had turned up looking for work as a career soldier, the Emperor was happy to oblige.

Young George was stationed right in the Imperial house, where he came into regular contact with the whole household. He was popular with the Empress Alexandra and all of the imperial family.

George quickly rose through the ranks to become a Tribune by his early 20s; and to remain at the Emperor's side as part of the Imperial Guard.

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Hence he was there when Diocletian pronounced his edict against all Christians in the military. George had been raised in a Christian household. His devotion to God had not presented any conflict of interest until now.

Perhaps he thought he could talk the Emperor into retracting the order. Maybe he simply couldn't lie. So George spoke up.

Emperor Diocletian must have known immediately that he had a problem. His family and the whole Senate were watching, not to mention the rest of Rome. Yet this was personal. George was known to him.

Diocletian couldn't back down. It wouldn't solve the problems that sparked the edict in the first place. It would look like he was indecisive.

He asked George, as a mark of respect and regard, to renounce Christianity. George refused, so Diocletian had him arrested.

Too close to home this. Diocletian waited until they could talk alone, before he offered George land and money to stop humiliating him. The Empress Alexandra turned up and tried to persuade the young man to renounce his God.

Nothing worked. But how could it?  George was a soldier with his own concerns. He had reached his position through the nepotism of his father. He'd been unable to move through the Mithraic ranks, because that would involve acknowledging Mithras.

It would come down to the might of Mithras against the all powerful God of the Christians. A deity of war against the perceived God of Peace.

All over the Roman world, his peers and counterparts would be waiting for George to fail. He had been outed as something less; something effeminate in such a masculine world. If the young man capitulated now, he would have his land and money, but his reputation would be in tatters and the whole army would know that the Christian God was no match for any Roman deity.

So George saw it through to the finish. He would face down trials more torturous than anything encountered in the Mithras temples. He would show them that it could be done with Christ alongside him and maybe that would reverse the edict.

After giving his worldly possessions to charity, George said his prayers and was stripped naked inside the arena. Thousands of Romans came to watch.

Mithras versus Yahweh. Those were the stakes and only Mithras should win this day.

Emperor Diocletian had told George that all he had to do was shout stop. Then it would all be over. The Christian God renounced and wealth poured into his pocket.

Stories get exaggerated over time, so many of the tortures attached were probably fanciful later additions. Amongst them was how George was sawn in two, but the Archangel Michael appeared to piece him back together into full life.

Some things are easier to deduce. Given the context, then seven tortures would have been appropriate. They would have represented the seven gates of Mithras. A fitting test for this soldier's endurance; and the only thing which might have stood a chance of converting the on-looking military.

Of all of the methods of torture fixing themselves to his legend, one or two stand out. There's the bull being set upon him. The symbol of Mithras, which George evidently killed (the story goes that his prayers brought an oxen back to life). An alternative telling is that he was fastened into the belly of a 'metal ox' (a kind of barrel) filled with nails and spikes, then dragged with that revolving around the arena.

The second certainty is that he was strapped down under a wheel of swords, which span around and lacerated him at all four points of the axis.

We know because it's there, in front of our eyes, in the symbol which became St George's Cross. Four swords, turning around, drenched and dripping with his blood.

As for the rest, who knows from that gruesome list of horrors which occurred in actuality. The main point prevails, which was George endured it all in the name of Christ. He never once yelled stop; nor did he call upon Mithras in his field.

He had struck a profound psychological blow against the forces of Paganism, and pulled off a public relations coup for Christianity.

Emperor Diocletian had no option but to ultimately order it finished. George was stretched out for his head to be struck off.

It's around this point that Empress Alexandra attempted to intervene. She must have recognized the humiliation of her husband, but George was known to her. She'd watched all of this with no real sympathy with the whole Mithraic cause. She was a woman, not a military man, and this seemed like just so much testosterone fueled posturing.

So she declared herself a Christian, in front of the whole arena.

Diocletian was betrayed and furious, but he wasn't about to be cuckolded by the Empress. He signaled for George's decapitation to go ahead. In the high drama of the moment, more than a few on-lookers were appalled, when they would ordinarily have been baying for blood.

No doubt that the Emperor anticipated his wife would simply sit down and shut up. She did not. She still declared herself a Christian and so he ordered her execution too. Dragged out into the arena, Alexandra was beheaded before the crowd.

It was all enough to convert a Mithraic Priest, who had just witnessed his God matched by another. But he had also seen the sacred rituals desecrated by the inclusion of a woman. (No females allowed in the Mysteries of Mithras.) He too stepped forward in defense of Christ and he too was decapitated.

It's said that over a thousand soldiers were killed that day, as they chose Christ over Mithras in that bloody arena. Whether they were originally Christians too, or converted on the spot, the legends never say.

But the surviving Roman legionnaires, and every military personnel hereon, had their Christian Soldier Saint and that man was George.

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St George's Cross, Or How the English Won the War

Military, political and psychological wrangling saw England wielding St George's Flag to its best advantage.

Even St George's cross was taken as a spoil of war. It had originally belonged to another soldier-saint, St Ambrose, who was superseded in popularity by St George. Victor takes all.

It was handed to the French, during the Crusades, as Pope Urban II decreed that all participating Christian nations should distinguish between themselves by different colored crosses. The English weren't impressed with their allocation, so simply started wearing the French colors on their tabards.They were supposed to be decked with a white cross on red instead.

Philip II of France graciously gave up and agreed to swop the national crusading colors in 1188.

But that was a political coup for the warring English. The red cross on a white background was more than a representation of Christianity. It had a dual meaning in its own right.

For a start, it was on the flag of the dominant Genoese navy. Their sailors would mistake English ships for their own and turn their impressive military might into protecting them. The Doge of Genoa quickly got wise to this one and had words with Richard I. England was forced to pay an annual tribute for the privilege of using Genoese naval protection.

Secondly, this was St George's flag! Many nations went into the Crusades, but their colors merely told them apart. Yellow cross on a white background, there was Italy. White cross on a red background, that was now France; and so on.

But England went out wearing the colors of the solders' saint; right into a war where Christian soldiers need their saints.

St George was not an English saint. Both sides were invoking him and his name was a war cry all over Europe. But in the Crusades, St George and England became so irrevocably linked that the colors came to symbolize the whole endeavor.

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St George, the Patron Saint of 18 Countries

Well, they all have soldiers, don't they?
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St George Patron Saint of England

It could be that Roman soldiers engaged in the invasion of Britain might have mentioned George at the time. He was certainly known by the 7th century, as he was mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede.

But even with the English coup of securing his flag in the Crusades, St George wasn't so very important back home in England. He was the soldiers' saint, that was all. The men could indulge in their divine bro-mance all that they liked, but the country already had a patron saint. St Edmund the Martyr was doing the job well enough.

But then a few things happened, nearly all at once, which raised George's status amongst the ladies too.

In 1348, there was a bit of a faux pas in the English court. A noble lady was dancing with the king, when her garter slipped down her leg onto her ankle.

(There were witchcraft connotations there, so it was all a bit dangerous for her.)

Edward III very courteously picked it up and before a shocked crowd proclaimed that he was founding the Order of the Garter.

This would be a chivalrous order, founded upon the principles of the Arthurian knights (Edward was a bit of a fan. He'd also had the Round Table reproduced for the great hall at Winchester).

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Only those gallant gentlemen willing to honor their ladies would qualify to wear a garter; and they would be part of a select inner circle led by the King. And just to ensure that everyone understood the inherent manliness here, then the garter would be fastened by the medallion of St George.

The ladies were charmed. The gentlemen nodded their understanding. The Order of the Garter was formed; and St George finally made a benevolent impact on the lives of English noblewomen.

Something else happened in England in 1348, as it did in much of the rest of the world. It was to shake everyone's faith, many in the whole of Christianity, but specifically in the ability of St Edmund the Martyr to protect his country.

The Black Death arrived and, between 1348 and 1350, over a quarter of the population of England was dead. For the survivors, the entire social order was in chaos, with the Peasant's Revolt signalling the end of feudalism and a lot more besides.

For the English Christians, the climate was right to swop patron saints and they all felt like soldiers now. St George was already a favorite of the men; while the women had started to view him as a symbol of chivalry. That could only be good for them.

None of this was the deciding factor. They just eased the way and placed St George up there on the shortlist of candidates. But he was the one who won.

Did anyone mention that St George slays dragons?

Y Ddraig Goch - The Red Dragon Flag of Wales

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The Welsh Revolts of the 14th Century

Oh! Look! I can see dragons! Lots of them! Threatening fair England!

The Welsh Revolt of 1294 nearly succeeded. Madog ap Llywelyn's forces secured the entire of North Wales and took most of the castles that symbolized the English occupation.

Edward I had arrived to quell the uprising, but ended up besieged in Conwy Castle. It was humiliating to the English and their monarchy, when he'd had to summon the navy to help him escape.

Nevertheless, the rebellion was put down, as were others in 1301, 1314 and, more seriously, in 1316. None of this left England feeling very safe though, especially since a Welsh noble family managed to claw back their borderlands in 1327.

By 1370, there was yet another close shave, when Owain Lawgoch achieved French support to free Wales from English occupation. Unfortunately, the French King Charles V proved unreliable. Three times, during that decade, the army was poised to take back Wales; and three times Charles recalled them from Welsh shores to fight in French wars instead.

Finally, in 1400, came the uprising led by Owain Glyndŵr. This was successful! The war turned Wales into a republic for the next twelve years; and briefly saw the Welsh Red Dragon enjoying hitherto unseen influence over English politics too.

Incidentally Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) comes from a story from the Black Book of Carmarthen and a vision of Merlin. The white dragon (Anglo-Saxons, aka the English) and the red dragon (Welsh) had a fight and the former won. But the red dragon wasn't dead and it limped away to lick its wounds. Time passed and the red dragon healed. The two fought again and this time the red dragon won. They never did battle again.

In short, the Welsh flag is telling the English that one day Wales will be truly independent. In the 14th century, it appeared that time was right now.

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The Golden Legend: George and the Dragon

Courtly love, chivalry and one dead dragon. St George had everything that a beleaguered English court required!

Some metaphors can go too far, but this one worked out well for the English.

In his youth, Emperor Diocletian had been nicknamed Dacian, or dragon. This was fine while he was in the Roman army; and still great once he became its Emperor. Once he'd ordered the execution of George and the story had been used in Christian conversions all over the Empire, then 'Dacian' became a real dragon.

By the time the Speculum Maius was being written in 1226, then George had literally killed a dragon. Moreover, Empress Alexandra had relocated from the center of a bloody Roman arena, into a new station under a Syrian tree.

She was threatened by the dragon (her husband/Paganism), but she was saved by the bravery of George (Christianity). The word 'saved' isn't stretched to the edges of its definition, if you consider that she converted to Christianity at the end there.

Author Jacobus de Voragine took the bare bones of that story and, in 1260, wove it into a Medieval best-seller called The Golden Legend. Now was included all kinds of knightly elements and chivalrous love stories.

All just ripe, in fact, for the English court, where it finally reached around the time that Edward III was creating the Order of the Garter in the name of St George. All of this against a backdrop of the Black Death breaking faith with St Edmund the Martyr; and a series of Welsh uprisings, leading to insecurity in England, all done under the banner of a red dragon.

Edward was well versed in his Arthurian legend. He'd used it twice, in symbolism and furniture. He would have known precisely what Y Ddraig Goch meant. Now he could answer it with a flag of his own. The soldiers' saint, the dragon slayer, St George Patron Saint of England!

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Updated: 01/10/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 05/29/2012

It's great to hear from people like yourself and SilviaAM (see first comment), confirming that St George is an international figure. So many English people think that he's just about England!

Is the Ljubljana dragon because of St George too? The one on the Welsh flag isn't; but the fact that George is chosen for the English is because of that dragon. :)

Thanks for sharing too!

Tolovaj on 05/29/2012

St. George is one of most popular saints in the world. He is a hero in Slovenia too. He symbolizes return of spring and a progress. Of course he is more respected in rural parts of our country. I suspect this is not only because of tradition...
You see, dragon is a symbol of our capital Ljubljana!
Thanks for sharing interesting and enjoyable story;)

JoHarrington on 04/08/2012

*blush* Thank you very much. :)

msclick on 04/08/2012

This is so interesting. You have a wonderful talent. I thoroughly enjoyed every word.

JoHarrington on 04/08/2012

Thank you very much, I'm glad that it worked for you. :)

BrendaReeves on 04/08/2012

Jo, I love reading about the saints, and you did a very thorough job of telling some of their stories.

JoHarrington on 04/07/2012

Wow! I didn't know any of this. I knew that St George was celebrated all over Christendom, so I'm not surprised, but it's great to have the specifics.

I wonder if the Catalonia one comes from the chivalry aspect of the 13th-14th centuries? The Moors v Christians thing is probably something to do with his emblem being used in the Crusades.

Gracias. <3

SilviaAm on 04/07/2012

It's celebrated in some parts of Spain too (being calles San Jorge), mainly Catalonia (called there Sant Jordi) and Aragon, where is the patron saint, and the red cross appears on their flags.

In Catalonia is considered some alternative day to Valentine's, a lovers day too. Men give their gf's or wives a red rose that represents the blood of the dragon,and women give them a book (the book part fits well, since it was later declared that 23th of april is also the International Day of the Book).

In Alicante, Saint George is the patron saint too, and they celebrate that, according to the legend, the saint, somehow, centuries after his death, helped Christians to kill moors and stuff. They celebrate the festivity of Moors and Christians, were they represent medieval battles.

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