St George triumphant
Detail of St George having slain the dragon from the east window in Leicester Cathedral.
The best known form of the legend of St. George and the Dragon is that made popular by the "Legenda Aurea", and translated into English by Caxton. According to this, a terrible dragon had ravaged all the country round a city of Libya, called Selena, making its lair in a marshy swamp. Its breath caused pestilence whenever it approached the town, so the people gave the monster two sheep every day to satisfy its hunger, but, when the sheep failed, a human victim was necessary and lots were drawn to determine the victim. On one occasion the lot fell to the king's little daughter. The king offered all his wealth to purchase a substitute, but the people had pledged themselves that no substitutes should be allowed, and so the maiden, dressed as a bride, was led to the marsh. There St. George chanced to ride by, and asked the maiden what she did, but she bade him leave her lest he also might perish. The good knight stayed, however, and, when the dragon appeared, St. George, making the sign of the cross, bravely attacked it and transfixed it with his lance. Then asking the maiden for her girdle (an incident in the story which may possibly have something to do with St. George's selection as patron of the Order of the Garter), he bound it round the neck of the monster, and thereupon the princess was able to lead it like a lamb. They then returned to the city, where St. George bade the people have no fear but only be baptized, after which he cut off the dragon's head and the townsfolk were all converted. The king would have given George half his kingdom, but the saint replied that he must ride on, bidding the king meanwhile take good care of God's churches, honour the clergy, and have pity on the poor.
The story of the dragon, though given so much prominence, was a later accretion to the legends of St George, of which we have no sure traces before the 12th century. There is every reason to believe that St. George was a real martyr who suffered at Diospolis ( i.e. Lydda) in Palestine, probably before the time of Constantine. It may have been derived from an allegorization of the tyrant Diocletian or Dadianus, who is sometimes called a dragon and who persecuted Christians including George in the 3rd century.
It is not quite clear how St. George came to be specially chosen as the patron saint of England. His fame had certainly traveled to the British Isles long before the Norman Conquest. It seems likely that the crusaders, notably King Richard I, came back from the east with a great idea of the power of St. George's intercession. At the national synod of Oxford in 1222, St George's day was included among the lesser holidays, and in 1415 the constitution of Archbishop Chilchele made it one of the chief feasts of the year. In the interval King Edward III had founded the Order of the Garter, of which St George has always been the patron. During the 17th & 18th centuries his feast was a holiday of obligation for English Catholics, and Pope Benedict XIV recognized him as the Protector of the Kingdom.
His feast is 23 April.