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24 September 2014

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The Legend of Coventry's St George

Children in Coventry City Centre act out a fight with a dragon
Children fight the dragon at the St George's Day event in April 2002
England's Patron Saint, St George is best known for his dragon slaying but did you know legend places him as a Coventry Kid? We tried to uncover the truth.

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It continues the work of both former companies, managing Coventry city centre and promoting the city region as an attractive area in which to live, invest, study or visit.

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You're bound to know St. George is the Patron Saint of England - and Catalonia, Moscow and Aragon - but you may be surprised to learn that legend has it he was born and died in Coventry.

So the city has more reasons than most to celebrate its very own Coventry Kid during the annual St. George's Day celebrations.

History or legend?
Richard Johnson, 16th century author of the Famous Historie of the Seven Champions of Christendom, was the first to place St. George in Coventry.

Johnson said George was born the son of Lord Albert in a local castle with a "blood red cross on his arm and a dragon on his chest".

Admittedly that's a story, but it points the finger at Coventry's historical importance as a city once powerful and important enough to have been selected as the birthplace of our patron saint.

Patron saint of England
Johnson's selection of the city may also be linked to Edward III's decision to change the Patron Saint of England from St Edward to St George inaround 1349. At the time, Coventry was the fourth largest city in England.

 St George stands over the dragon victorious
St. George stands victorious over the dragon
Edward III's mother, Queen Isabella lived here and his eldest son, the Black Prince was to inherit Coventry's Royal Palace, Cheylesmore Manor, the remains of which now serve as the city's register office.

The romantic Caludon Castle, now in ruins, was chosen by Johnson as St George's family residence.

The beauty and majesty of the building could well have been another influence in Johnson's selection of Coventry as the birthplace of a legend.

According to the popular story, a menacing dragon threatened the city and could be appeased only by gifts of human flesh, especially that of young maidens.

The townspeople drew lots one by one to choose the victims untilone day, the lot fell on the King's daughter, forcing him to sacrifice her to save the town.

St. George learned of the princess' plight and bravely fought the dragon to save her.

The origins of the legend
But the powerful legend of St. George is closely connected with 2000 years of Christianity and for its origin you have to go back to the third century AD.

The life of St. George is shrouded in legend, making it nearly impossible to disentangle fact from fiction.

The following details seem to belong to the category 'fact': George was born to noble, Christian parents in the third century AD. After the death of his father he and his mother moved to Palestine, where the family owned land. 

He became a soldier during the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian (245-313), a bitter enemy of the Christians, who put to death each one of them he could find.

As a brave Christian himself, George complained personally to Diocletian of the harshness of his decrees and dreadful purges of Christians. George then left the Roman army and for this he was imprisoned and tortured for seven years.

He would not recant his faith and was finally beheaded at Lydda in Palestine.

 Legend of St George
The cross of St. George has become a symbol of patriotism
His bold and cheerful declaration of his faith and his matyrdom made St. George the centrepiece of many songs, poems and legends.

The Greek Church venerated him as a soldier-saint and this tradition was adopted and elaborated by Christians over time. Legends about the soldier-saint began in the 6th century and by the 12th century the famous story had become widespread.

St. George was popularised in England by the Crusaders. He was supposed to have appeared to the Knights dressed in white robes decorated with a red cross. In 1222 the Council of Oxford appointed 23 April as his Feast Day.

There are many legends surrounding St George, the dragon story being the most prominent one. One story has the saint rescuing a pagan town in Libya from the terror of the dragon. After his victory the townsfolk is said to have converted to Christianity.

Pictures usually depict him killing the dragon, standing for wickedness, to rescue a beautiful lady, who represents the Christian Church. A brave martyr, St. George was victorious over the devil.   

A powerful parable
The story we know today of St. George and the dragon dates back to the troubadours of the 14th century and has remained the most prominent one associated with St. George.

The slaying of the dragon is a powerful parable on conquering our inner demons, may it be pride, envy or one of those other cardinal sins we might have occasional troubles to recite.

Admittedly only on a speculative basis, this might also shed a different light on why a dragon-slaying Roman soldier, who probably never visited England, was adopted as its Patron Saint.  

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