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Home  > News  > Who was St George?

Who was St George?

April 19 2007

Have you seen people waving a white flag with a red cross on it whenever England play a game of football, cricket or rugby?

This flag is known as the St George Cross.

But who was St George, why do people fly his flag and do you know when St George's Day is?

© Mark Mordecai

Saints are people who the Christian church have recognised as a good example of how to live a holy life ('holy' means kept special for God).

Many countries or groups of people have chosen a particular saint to call their own, known as a 'patron' saint. Wales has St David, Scotland has St Andrew and Northern Ireland has St Patrick. England's patron saint is St George.

It is thought that St George was a cavalry (horseback) soldier in the Roman army from the 3rd century AD - about 1,800 years ago. He probably came from Capadoccia in modern-day Turkey.

The story says he was ordered to kill some Christians who the Romans didn't like. George refused because he was secretly a Christian himself.

When his commander found out he was furious and had George executed. The tale of his bravery became well known and George was made an important saint.

Have you seen pictures of St George in armour, on horseback, killing a dragon? This part of the story was added in the Middle Ages (from about the 11th century to the 15th century).

The legend says that a dragon was terrorising Libya in North Africa. Every day, the people had to send a young woman for it to eat. Eventually the only girl left was the king's daughter.

© Herbert Museum and Art Gallery

Medieval wood carving of a knight in armour on horseback, raising his sword to strike at a dragon

George saw what was happening and rescued the princess by killing the dragon, although it was a long and hard fight.

Lots of artists have drawn, painted or carved their own versions of this story.

Oil painting of a medieval scene with a knight on horseback sticking a lance through the head of a dragon, watched by a woman in elegant robes.

This picture was painted in about 1470 by an Italian artist called Paolo Uccello.

You can zoom into a larger version of it on the National Gallery's website (it might take a minute to load, but it's worth the wait).

© National Gallery, London

This pencil drawing, called St George fighting the Dragon, was done by Victorian artist Edward Burne-Jones, around 1865.

To see a larger version, go to The British Museum's website.

© The British Museum

Pencil drawing of a man in armour standing over a dragon pushing a sword into its mouth as a woman in flowing robes watches.

A group of knights who liked the story of St George called their flag - a red cross on a white background - the St George's Cross.

It became the special flag of England and in 1415 St George was made the patron saint of England.

April 23rd (the date George had been killed) became 'St George's Day', when every town and village had big celebrations and people ate huge feasts, sang, danced and performed special plays.

Soldiers had archery and sword fighting competitions because St George is also patron saint of soldiers, archers and horsemen. (He is even patron saint of boils and skin diseases!)

St George has become a symbol of bravery.

This is the British War Medal, which was awarded to all members of the British Armed Forces who had fought in the First World War.

On the front it has a picture of George V, who was king at the time. On the back is a picture of St George on horseback trampling a standard (a battle flag), with a skull and crossbones beneath.

© Fitzwilliam Museum

Silver metal medal with engraving on a naked man wearing a laurel wreath, on horseback.

Golden statue of a man in a flowing cape on horseback attacking a dragon with a lance or spear.

Other countries also celebrate St George's Day - in Bulgaria they have a national holiday and don't have to go to work or school.

Here's a dramatic statue of St George and the dragon which stands in Tblisi, Georgia.

© Ian Beeby

George is also the patron saint of Georgia, and the 'George Cross' appears on Georgia's flag.

White flag with a large red cross which divides it into four quarters, each of which has a smaller red cross in it.

Round, richly decorated pendant with a stylised portrait of a man with a sword in his right hand and a halo. There is Greek lettering all around the border of the portrait.

St George is also an important saint in Greece.

This gold and enamel pendant, which has a picture of George on it, was made in Thessaloniki, Greece, over 700 years ago.

Take a closer look at it on
The British Museum's website.

© The British Museum

This painting of a religious procession was done in the 19th century in Ethiopia by an unknown artist.

It shows St George riding above the procession on a white horse. You can look at it in more detail on
The British Museum's website.

St George is one of the most important saints in Ethiopia. Paintings of him were taken into battle ahead of the Ethiopian army to give them victory.

© The British Museum

A painting of a group of people walking behind a man on horseback. In the sky is another man on horse, holding a rifle and a lance, trailing a white flag with a red cross on it. Above him is a cloud in which there is the head and arms of a winged person with a halo.

You can see dragon pictures by kids in the British Museum's online Children's Gallery.

Lots of St George's events take place each year.

Photo showing a young boy dressed in knight's armour and holding a English shield and lance.

English Heritage have dragons, duels and jousting as part of their St George's Day Festival.

© English Heritage

Why not play some knight games on the Royal Armouries' website Game Zone?

Play more knight games with Show Me.

Happy St George's Day from all at Show Me!

STOP PRESS: This feature first appeared in 2007 but has been updated for 2011.

Graham Spicer and Kristen Bailey