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Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 11:06 UK
Did St George slay the dragon in Oxfordshire?
Dragon Hill
Some claim the mound at Uffington next to the White Horse is the site where St George fought the dragon

In the shadow of The White Horse lies a strange flat-topped mound that has for centuries made a giant claim to fame.

Stories have long said that it was on this spot that brave St George slew a ferocious dragon.

The spilt blood of the beast left a white mark where grass can never grow.

But as England celebrates St George's Day many will choose to quietly ignore the fact that St George was not English and never visited England, let alone Oxfordshire.

Military martyr

"That would be a sign of how widely [his legend] travelled," says Neil McLynn, University Lecturer and Fellow in Later Roman History at the University of Oxford.

It is thought that the real George was a Roman citizen born in Palestine in the 3rd century, but in the original telling of his life story dragons were conspicuous by their absence.

"He was the son of an officer who volunteered to join the army just at a time when the Empire was moving to persecute Christians," Neil McLynn explains.

"He confessed his faith in front of the Emperor and was tortured quite gruesomely before being killed."

The story of a military martyr who put his faith before his profession quickly spread.

"The story first emerges at a time when a lot of communities were looking for their own martyrs. Every city wanted to have a patron martyr."

'Warrior saint'

St George and the dragon
The story of St George and the dragon has been retold many times

By the time the Crusaders went to the Holy Land eight centuries later George had been adopted by the Byzantine army.

Their version of the story now included the fight with the dragon. But the crusading knights were themselves in search of Christian authenticity and saints.

"It was English Crusaders who were particularly taken with this warrior saint who combated dragons, so [his story] came back via them to England.

"The dragon is attested in the Eastern version of George but it's one of his attributes. It's still his martyr's death that's the main thing.

"When he comes to England and Western Europe it's the dragon fighter who takes predominance."

England as a country was short of martyrs and its cities were keen to import patron saints and claim them as their own.

It didn't take long for the story St George the dragon slayer to spread and the myth that he was an English knight pervades.

"He does get totally domesticated by the Later Middle Ages," Neil McLynn confirms.

Pagan symbols

Sharon Smith, curator of Tom Brown's School Museum in Uffington, picks up the story.

"The hill that he's said to have killed the dragon on was thought to be the burial site of Pendragon, a chieftan, so that could have been how the name got linked with the dragon and St George.

"When Christianity came to the country they tried to take over heathen and pagan symbols for their own purposes. The White Horse was supposed to be an image of good.

"Good conquering evil was attributed to St George as well. That made the White Horse a Christian symbol instead of a pagan one."

Neil McLynn is sceptical whether St George ever walked Oxfordshire's green hills.

"It would come as a great surprise to the Byzantines who in the 10th century were still the 'owners' of St George. They'd be very surprised to hear how their man had gone to such beknighted parts.

"The Oxfordshire myth must be a consequence of the later fame of George."

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