On a wind-swept hill close to Uffington, in Berkshire, you'll find a patch of ground where no grass will grow. The blood of a dragon is said to have been spilt there, its scaled hide having been pierced by Ascalon, the famed spear of England's most recognised hero, St George.
The Red Cross on a white banner, symbol of my country's patron saint, still flutters from countless proud households and is worn by thousands in the terraces when English teams compete in the international arena. While it has unfortunately also been appropriated by some extremist xenophobic factions on the far right, it remains an iconic part of our cultural heritage and yet, how many of my countrymen know anything of St George's life? Do you?
In reality, it is highly unlikely that St George ever stepped foot in this green and pleasant land! The legend of his encounter with the dragon is historically associated with the city of Silene in modern day Libya, rather than Berkshire! It seems that a large pond, near the city, was plagued by a dragon who had been appeased by the locals with daily sacrificial sheep and, once the supply of mutton had dried up, the maidens of the populace had become fair game instead. By the time George arrived on the scene, only one young virgin remained uneaten - the daughter of the King of Egypt. The King promised his daughter's hand in marriage to anyone brave enough to slay the monster, and St George was happy to oblige. The fight was not an easy one - his spear broke in the fracas and he was only able to deliver the lethal blow by driving his sword into the less armoured underbelly of the fire-breathing great wurm.
Over time, St George became a favourite among the crusaders, medieval knights looking to his example for courage in the face of a terrifying foe. With each new generation, the cult of George swelled, helped considerably by Edward III's enthusiasm for all that he represented. In 1348, when Edward established the chivalric Order of the Garter, he picked George as its patron and observed that he was "the most invincible athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English nation invoke...especially in war”.
Henry V reinforced the connection between the dragon slayer and our national identity, and it did no harm that William Shakespeare is also reported to have both born and died on the feasting day of 23rd April - St George's day. Even Winston Churchill appropriated the iconography of the saint, naming his personal aircraft 'Ascalon' during the Second World War.
However, the historical records of St George's life, while scant, tell a very different tale, albeit no less heroic, in my opinion. Sadly the dragon does not make an appearance (although I live in hope that they are indeed real). Instead, George was born in 3rd century Turkey and lost both his mother and father before he reached maturity. When he came of age, he travelled to Nicomedia where he presented himself to the Roman emperor Diocletia, who had held his father in high regard as a soldier under his command. George took up arms in service of the emperor and, in time, he rose to officer status as 'tribune'.
George would no doubt have crumbled to ashes, unknown to the ages, like so many of us, were it not for Diocletia's proclamation on 24th February 303 AD, that any soldier in his army who was a Christian must denounce their faith and make immediate sacrifice to the Roman gods, or face execution.
George, who had embraced the faith of the Nazarene not only refused to comply, but made a public declaration of his defiance. Given his status as an officer, and his reputation as a worthy Roman, the emperor sought to convince him with bribes of gold, lands and titles, but George was resolute. Diocletia's patience ran out and George was horribly tortured (while on one piece of grisly apparatus known as the 'wheel of swords' he had to be resuscitated three times) before being finally beheaded on 23rd April of that same year.
It is interesting to note that England's long affinity with St George is by no means unique; Malta, Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Aragon in Spain and Catalonia are just a few of the other places around the world that consider St George 'theirs'. As we approach our uncoupling from Europe through Article 50 and Brexit, it is sobering to reflect on the idea that what we consider 'English' is rarely distinct from our European cousins!
And as for George, while he might not have rescued an Egyptian princess from the maw of a monster, if the historical accounts are accurate, he did something perhaps more courageous in that he was faithful to himself, his values and his vows. He stood alone and opposed the might of Rome, even when offered an easy 'out' by his emperor. Perhaps he did slay a dragon after all...