St George's Day: when is it, the history behind the legend and ideas to celebrate

Most of us will have the heard the tale of George and the dragon, but do you know the real history behind the legend? Have a read of our handy guide to everything you wanted to know about the patron saint of England, plus other famous British legends. 

20th April 2017
Getty

When is St George's Day?

One of the two Griffen dragon statues that stand either side of the Victoria Embankment marking the border between the City of London and city of Westminster
One of the two Griffen dragon statues that stand either side of the Victoria Embankment marking the border between the City of London and city of Westminster/Credit:Getty

23 April marks the death of St George, the Patron Saint of England, who is thought to have died in around AD 303 when he was tortured and executed in Palestine, becoming an early Christian martyr.

The history of Saint George

Legend has it that St George slew an evil dragon that was plaguing a local town and saved a princess. It is traditionally a Christian celebration as the story goes that St George offered to kill the dragon only if the town converted to Christianity. Historical evidence however points to the 'real' St George, living in Palestine in the third century who followed in his father's footsteps to became a soldier in the Roman army, and was executed for his Christian beliefs. St George is also patron saint of Georgia and the Russian city of Moscow. 

St George and the Dragon', c1500. St George (dc303) was an early Christian martyr and is the Patron Saint of England. Here he is depicted in a suit of black armour standing on a dragon he has killed with his lance. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
St George and the Dragon', c1500. St George (dc303) was an early Christian martyr and is the Patron Saint of England. Here he is depicted in a suit of black armour standing on a dragon he has killed with his lance. Credit: Getty

St George’s Day became a national holiday in England in the early 15th century, remaining until the tradition dwindled after the union with Scotland in the late 18th century.

How to celebrate St George's Day

Since then, the day has become a rather low-key affair, unlike the Irish celebration of St Patrick’s Day or Scottish observance of St Andrew’s Day. However, here are some quirky ideas to help you celebrate, courtesy of Visit England

1. Watch an open-air play, Cornwall

Minack theatre
View From The Minack Theatre In Cornwall, England/Credit:Getty

Carved into a granite cliff face on the southern tip of Cornwall, the Minack Theatre is a wonderfully unique theatrical experience, where audiences soak up opera, classic dramas and musicals in the sunshine or under the stars with the sparking Atlantic Ocean as an aptly dramatic backdrop.

The theatre was the brainchild of local woman Rowena Cade, who conceived, helped build and even financed the theatre from 1931 up until her death in 1983. Opening with Shakespeare’s The Tempest back in 1932, the theatre today draws audiences from far and wide with a packed programme filling spring and summer months. Being open air, the English weather always plays a big role, but in true English spirit performances are only cancelled in extreme conditions.
Porthcurno, Penzance TR19 6JU

2. Have a pint in England’s oldest pub, Nottingham

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem built up against Castle Rock claims to be the oldest inn in England, dating back to 1189 when it was a meeting place for crusaders en route to the Holy Land. This building on the site of the old brewhouse dates from 1760.
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem built up against Castle Rock claims to be the oldest inn in England, dating back to 1189 when it was a meeting place for crusaders en route to the Holy Land. This building on the site of the old brewhouse dates from 1760. Credit: Getty

Backing into the network of caves built beneath Nottingham Castle, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem takes the prize for England’s most eccentric pub. ‘The Trip’ (as it is affectionately known) is regarded by many to be England’s oldest watering hole, established in 1189 AD and frequented by Richard the Lionheart’s crusading knights. Weaving further intrigue into The Trip’s past are tales of ghost sightings and poltergeist-driven antics, which the proprietors tell with aplomb.

Once you’ve quaffed a pint of the house dark ale, you might be brave enough to take a tour of the pub’s rear drinking rooms and cellars, which are stuffed with unusual relics. Watch out for the cobweb-ridden ‘Cursed Galleon’, said to bring a gruesome death on all who dare dust it!
Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham NG1 6AD

 

3. Take afternoon tea at Bettys, Yorkshire

Bettys
 Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms, the best spot for tea and cake in Yorkshire/Credit: Getty

No Yorkshire holiday is complete without an indulgent hour or two at Bettys – a local institution with a tea list as long as your arm and a truly tempting selection of Yorkshire and continental desserts. Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont created an unlikely but delicious union between Yorkshire and Switzerland over 90 years ago, combining his homeland’s famous chocolate roll with a good old Yorkshire brew. Yorkshire now has six Bettys. To see where it all began in 1919 stop by the Harrogate branch and treat yourself to cream cakes, fresh scones and raspberry-studded macaroons washed down with a steaming brew.The light and airy surrounds still offer plenty of early 20th-century charm, with quaint views of the Montpellier Gardens through gleaming Edwardian windows.
1 Parliament Street, Harrogate HG1 2QU

 

4. Scale England’s highest peak, Lake District

Colourful rainbow soaring over the blue shore of Wast Water and Yewbarrow overlooed by the snowy peaks of Great Gable and Scafell in this picturesque panoramic vista of the Lake District National Park, Cumbria, UK.
Colourful rainbow soaring over the blue shore of Wast Water and Yewbarrow overlooed by the snowy peaks of Great Gable and Scafell in this picturesque panoramic vista of the Lake District National Park, Cumbria, UK. Credit: Getty

Scafell Pike is the highest point in England and successfully scaling it guarantees sublime rewards. The fell rises some 978m above sea level and from the peak on a clear day you can see all the way across the sea to the Isle of Man. The Lake District has inspired writers and artists for centuries and when you’re standing at its highest point, towering above a beautiful scene of sparkling waters, twisted crags and pristine highlands, you’ll understand why. It’s enough to turn even the most taciturn hiker into a poet. The feeling will stay with you long after you’ve made the descent, and are kicking-back in a country pub in one of the area’s countless picturesque villages and hamlets.

5. Discover Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln


Not only is Lincoln Cathedral widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe, but for nearly 300 years, it was the tallest building in the world, reaching higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s still as impressive today – the medieval spire is 160 metres tall – but the devil, as they say, is in the detail.
It’s the intricate touches that make this such a remarkable and spellbinding place. Watch out for the Lincoln Imp, a tiny mischievous-looking figure perched atop a pillar, and the tiny cat and mouse carved into the masonry. The Medieval Library, built in 1422 and filled with books even older than the cathedral, is worth making time for too.
Minster Yard LN2 1PX

 

6. Ride the Settle-Carlisle steam train, Northern England

Hark back to a time when the world was powered by coal with a ride on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. Begun in 1869 and constructed almost entirely by hand over seven years, this 72-mile line was designed for speed to compete for the lucrative Anglo-Scottish passenger market. The result is an incredible elevated route that slices across the scenic Pennine hills, following natural pathways and contours over rivers and ravines, and taking 20 viaducts and 14 tunnels in its stride.
A selection of charter companies operate steam tours along the line, allowing you to soak up the scenery in style from the comfort of a vintage carriage. The views alone though are worth the trip at other times when normal services are operating.

 

7. Join a bat patrol at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset


As the sun sets, the silvery moon lights up Cheddar Gorge making it the perfect time to join a bat walk. Cheddar Gorge is made up of lots of small caves but the two largest, Gough's Cave and Cox's Cave, are open to the public. Once you’re kitted out with an ultra-sonic bat detector the bat patrol explores Gough’s Cave, a mystical limestone stalactite cavern where endangered greater horseshoe bats scan the night air for moths and insects to feed on. The caves are home to the UK’s largest colony. Don’t worry if you’re as blind as a bat and have trouble spotting them as the conservation officer leading the walk will be happy to help point them out.
Cheddar BS27 3QF

 

8. Explore Havergate Island, Suffolk

Suffolk’s only island is a gem. Nestled within the Alde and Ore Estuary, this secluded nature reserve is only accessible by the RSPB boat. No more than 12 visitors are allowed to set foot here each day, so peace and quiet is guaranteed… at least, until the terns arrive. Spring and summer sees these black-headed birds return to the island to breed and raise their young, throwing up a riot of sound. The hares are also friskier during this time – their boxing antics are a real treat to watch. During autumn and winter the island is a haven for ducks and wading birds, while few sights are as moving or memorable as that of the enigmatic barn owl silently scouring the grassland for prey.

 

9. Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire


Every year on the last Monday of May, a group of what can only be described as crazy people hurl themselves down a very steep hill in pursuit of a large 7-8lb Double Gloucester cheese. The tradition is centuries old and is apparently rooted in a pagan ritual celebrating the return of spring. There are three men’s races, and one ladies’, with the first cheese rolled at midday. Each race lasts about 30 seconds, if that, during which hundreds of competitors roll, bounce and slide down the 200m, 1:2 gradient slope. We’re not suggesting you take part – it really is a mad thing to do, as proven by the broken bones – but join the crowds to watch this awesome, unique and utterly English event.
Cooper’s Hill, Brockworth, Gloucestershire GL3

 

Other legendary stories in British history

Saint George’s story isn’t the only famous legend in British history, in fact there are countless moral tales and fireside stories that continue to get told today. To mark St George’s Day this year, Forest Holidays explores some of England’s most famous myths and legends.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor

A myth which began in the 1970s, the infamous Beast of Bodmin Moor is said to roam the moors in Cornwall. The Beast is described as a black panther-like big cat and there have been more than 60 sightings over the years. Many suggest that the big cats could have been imported as part of private collections or zoos, who later escaped or were set free into the wild, but scientists at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food declare there is no hard evidence of the Beast’s existence. Either way, the legend of the Beast of Bodmin Moor continues to live on.

 

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Tintagel
Could you pull the sword from the stone? The adventures of King Arthur live on in British folklore with tourists continuing to flock to the ruins of Tintagel Castle/Credit: Shutterstock

The many tales of King Arthur have captured the imagination of children and adults for centuries and he is arguably the most famous of British kings. Although his existence is debated, the adventures of King Arthur live on in British folklore with tourists continuing to flock to the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall each year, a place inextricably linked with King Arthur. He has been the subject of several stories, achieving mythical status in Britain, including: the sword in the stone, the round table, his war with Lancelot and his quest for the Holy Grail.

 

Robin Hood and his Merry Men

Robin hood
The Mighty Oak in Sherwood Forest/Credit: Shutterstock

Robin Hood has become the figurehead for the triumph of good over evil – the foundation for many myths and legends. His story has all the ingredients for great legend; his skills in archery and sword-fighting, his love for Maid Marian, his loyalty to King Richard and his bravery for standing up for the poor against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The Mighty Oak, which stands tall in Sherwood Forest, is still a popular attraction amongst tourists and residents alike, and is said to be the hideout for this lovable outlaw and his Merry Men.

The Ghost of The Grey Lady and Longleat House

Longleat house
Would you fancy spending the night in the spooky haunt of Longleat House? Credit: Shutterstock

Whilst many myths and legends lend themselves to victory of good over evil, such as the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur, others focus on our fascination with mystery and romance. The well-known story of The Grey Lady (also referred to as The Green Lady) is one of passion, love and loss.

Shortly after marrying Lady Louisa Carteret, the 2nd Viscount of Weymouth, Thomas Thynne, became suspicious of his new wife’s relationship with a young footman. Over time, rumours spread amongst the staff of Longleat House and Thomas’s temper was getting shorter. One night, Thomas confronted the footman who denied any affair and in a fit of rage, Thomas pushed him down the stairs breaking his neck in the fall. The body was said to have been buried in the cellar and Thomas informed Lady Louisa that the footman had left without a word. Not believing Thomas’s story, Lady Louisa believed the footman had been imprisoned in the house. Each night she searched the rooms, until she died. Legend has it that Lady Louisa still wanders the corridors in search for her true love with reported sightings by staff and visitors.

 

Main image: Getty

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