Sir Joseph Banks had introduced a brilliant young Italian engraver named Benedetto Pistrucci to William Wellesley Pole appointing him to the mint on the 26th June 1816, Pistrucci then suggested that the St George & Dragon theme would do well to remind the world of Britain’s victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815 and appear on the gold sovereign coins.
Who was Saint George?
The life of Saint George is shrouded in legend, so much so that it is quite difficult to untangle fact from fiction. Much of the problem lies in the Acta Sancti Georgii (Acts of Saint George) written at a very early date and outlawed by Pope Gelasius in AD 496. Meanwhile the Greeks also had a set of Acts which were more accurate and quoted by Saint Andrew of Crete.
From them and the writings of Metaphrastes, we can piece together that he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He was martyred at Lydda in Palestine (Nicomedia). He held an important post in the Roman army – the rank of tribune, or perhaps colonel in modern terms – during the reign of the emperor Diocletian (245-313). Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians (from about 302) and when the persecutions began George put aside his office and complained personally to the emperor of the harshness of his decrees and the dreadful purges of Christians. For his trouble, though, he was thrown into prison and tortured. He would not recant his faith however and the following day he was dragged through the streets and beheaded. It is uncertain whether he also tore down the emperor’s decrees as they were posted in Nicomedia. So, he was one of the first to perish. The emperor’s wife, Alexandria was so impressed at the Saint’s courage that she became a Christian and so too was put to death for her trouble.
Saint George and the dragon legend.
The legends surrounding Saint George are very varied. One of them concerns the famous dragon, with which he is invariably portrayed. According to legend, a pagan town in Libya was being terrorized by a dragon. The locals kept throwing sheep to it to placate it, and when it still remained unsatisfied, they started sacrificing some of the citizenry. Finally, the local princess was to be thrown also to the beast, but Good Saint George came along, slaughtered the dragon and rescued the fair princess. At this the townsfolk converted to Christianity.
The origin of the legend, which is very well known, came originally from the way in which the Greek Church honored George. They venerated him as a soldier saint and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century.
The reason for his being adopted as the Saint of Battles was partly because he was a soldier, but also because he is said to have appeared to the Christian army before the Battle of Antioch. It is also said that he appeared to our English King Richard I (the Lionheart) during his Crusade against the Saracens, which served as a great encouragement to the troops.
The Meaning of the Symbols.
The symbols explained are that the Dragon represented Satan and the Princess represented the Christian Church. Saint George rescued the pagans from evil by vanquishing it and saved the Church from being devoured by the insatiable forces of darkness.
The Cult of Saint George.
The cult of Saint George goes back a long way – certainly to the 4th century. The Syrian Church held him in great esteem. The church of Saint George in Velabro – (The Veil of Gold) – Rome, dating from about that time was built. Saint Clothilde, in Gaul dedicated a church to him; in Venice, he is the second patron after Saint Mark; the Greeks hold him in honor. And in 1222 the Council of Oxford appointed 23rd April as his Feast Day. He became the English Patron Saint in 14th Century and he became associated with the Order of the Garter. He is also the patron saint of Moscow in Russia, and of Georgia which bears his name, and of Aragon. He was, until 18th century, patron of Portugal (when they broke from Spain in 12th century, they had to choose a new patron: their acquaintance with the English in the Crusades confirmed George as the natural successor. He remains to this day still “in charge” of the army), although Our Lady is the Protectress of the Country now. St George is patron saint of Aragon.
I am grateful for this piece of information from Lisa Inskipp-Hawkins: “(St George) is also the patron saint of Catalonia, and his festivity is much celebrated here. In fact, the Catalonian people add their own tradition to this popular celebration. The legend here is that when St George killed the dragon, he gave the maiden a red rose … As a result, on the 23rd of April, especially in Barcelona City, it is traditional for men to give their girlfriend/fiancée/ wife a red rose, and the lady in question corresponds by returning a book. You could say that here St George is more popular than St. Valentine.”
Other correspondents mention the cult of St George in other places and traditions: The Coptic Church for example; the Island of Gozo, part of the Malta archipelago, where high festivities take place yearly each 3rd week in July (thanks to David Camilleri for that information). Many other places too numerous to mention here.