According to tradition, Saint George was killed on this day in 303. As a patron saint, George has a formidable portfolio. Not only is he claimed by all of Aragon, Catalonia, Georgia, England, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, and Portugal, not to mention Genoa, Istanbul, Moscow and Venice, but he also looks over archers, cavalrymen, farmers, field workers, riders, saddlers and soldiers, and is prayed to by those suffering from leprosy, syphilis, and even the plague. The 23rd of April is celebrated as his Saint’s Day the world over.
George was a soldier from the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. His father, Gerontius, was a Roman army official from Cappadocia and his mother Polychronia was from Palestine—both Christians from noble families. George joined the army, where he was stationed at Nicomedia as an imperial guard of the Emperor Diocletian, and settled into what appeared would be a long and successful career.
However, things became complicated for the devout George when, in 302, the Emperor ordered the arrest of every Christian soldier, and demanded that all soldiers offer sacrifices to the pagan Roman gods. George refused to comply, despite bribes of land, money, and slaves from Diocletian, and declared that he would always be a Christian. He was tortured on a wheel of swords, and decapitated by the city walls of Nicomedia—his body eventually returned to Palestine for burial. Soon afterwards, Christians started to worship him as a martyr.
With time came a remarkable mythology built around the martyred George. In the Romantic legends brought back to Europe by the Crusaders, George rescued Alexandra, a Libyan King’s daughter, after slaying the dragon that was about to devour her. This tale was developed and distributed through the Golden Legend—a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voraigne that became a late medieval bestseller. In this story, the dragon (or, possibly, a crocodile) made its nest at the freshwater spring nearby the city of Silene. The citizens hoping to dislodge it, tried to tempt away the horrifying monster with a sheep. Failing with the woolly creature, they decided to up the ante and offer a maiden. Lots were drawn to choose a maiden and the unlucky Princess Alexandra found herself in the hot seat. The King protested, but the citizens refused to spare her. Fortunately for Alexandra, George arrived on his stead to save the day. With the sign of the cross as his protection, George slayed the dragon and rescued the Princess.
The Crusaders brought this legend back to Europe where it eventually reached England. On 1222, the date of 23 April was named as Saint George’s Day. The century after, King Edward III named Saint George as patron of the newly founded Order of the Garter, and as the patron saint of England. George was seen as embodying the country’s medieval ideals of bravery, gallantry and honour—not to mention slaying dragons and protecting princesses.