'Seynt George, on Whom Alle Englond Hath Byleve'
Samantha Riches describes the role of St. George as a patron saint in medieval England
Familiarity does not always breed contempt. It can simply lead to complacency, where an immediately obvious impression is assumed to be representative of the whole story. St George is a case in point. As the patron saint of England he is a commonplace of the English conception of their nationhood. He is perceived as a mythic hero fighting under the banner of the red cross on a white field, a valiant Christian knight who rescued a beautiful princess from the predations of an evil dragon. His image and device are instantly recognisable, whether deployed as the English flag or on commercial insignia, but most people know remarkably little about the man himself or how he came to be chosen as the patron of England.
In contrast with the situation in other parts of the British Isles – there are clear reasons why the particular patron saints of Scotland, Wales and Ireland were selected – St George’s links with England are decidedly tenuous. Some English towns claim to be the place of his birth or the site of his combat with the dragon, but any investigation into the development of his cult reveals these traditions to be of no great antiquity. The ‘real’ St George probably lived in Palestine at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century AD. There is some possibility that he may have been a Roman soldier, but no evidence at all to link him to the killing of a dragon: his importance actually derived from the belief that he was a Christian, martyred, in AD 303, by a heathen ruler for his refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods. He was quickly identified as a Christian saint, and his devotion had spread throughout both the Byzantine and Roman churches well before the end of the first millennium.
St Gregory of Tours (died c.594) wrote of the veneration of St George’s relics in France, and also of miracles that were said to have occurred as a result of his intercession. There are several examples of churches dedicated in honour of St George in the sixth century, and by the eighth century his veneration was general throughout Christendom. In England, St George appears in a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon ritual at Durham, also a Saxon martyrology from around the mid-tenth century; Ælfric’s Passion of St George was written at York between 1020 and 1051. There is also some evidence of pre-Conquest foundations in England dedicated to St George. The church at Fordington (Dorset), mentioned in King Alfred’s will, was dedicated in his honour, and King Cnut (‘Canute’, king of England 1016-35), or perhaps his father Sweyn, seems to have founded a house of regular canons at Thetford under his patronage. A church in Southwark was dedicated to him in Anglo-Saxon times, while a church of St George is recorded in Doncaster in 1061.
This early phase in the development of his cult was clearly centred on the iconography of the martyred saint. The motif of gruesomely tortured flesh, common to the presentation of many saints in both written and visual treatments of their lives, seems to be based on the concept of the saint as an exemplar of Christian forbearance: in some cases the tortures are clearly modelled on the Passion of Christ himself. This reading of the life of St George continued to be an important part of the cult for many centuries, appearing in both visual and written narratives of his life. However, during the later Middle Ages the story of the Passion of St George often appeared alongside, or was even replaced by, a narrative of the saint overcoming a dragon, especially following its inclusion in the Golden Legend, a highly influential mid-thirteenth-century collection of saints’ lives which enjoyed a wide circulation throughout Europe in many editions.
The origins of the story of St George and the dragon are unclear: no actual dragons are alluded to in any early version of the legend of St George, although the heathen emperor is metaphorically described as a dragon in some accounts of the martyrdom of the saint. It may well be significant that virtually every known human culture seems to possess a version of the story of a hero overcoming a monster, and it seems likely that this legend of St George is based on a Christianised form of a fundamental creation myth. The Egyptian motif of the god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, in combat with the crocodile-form of the god Set, or Seth, is a good example of a pre-Christian narrative which has obvious parallels with the iconography of St George and the dragon. This aspect of the saint’s legend also appears to be informed by the archetypal romantic myth of the hero who rescues the maiden in distress: the legend of Perseus and Andromeda is a prime example of this idiom. The early dates of these analogues of the story of St George and the dragon clearly demonstrate both the antiquity of the motif and the likelihood that it developed entirely separately from the original martyrdom legend of the saint. Furthermore, it is notable that the early Greek Church used an iconographic motif of a heroic Christian figure overcoming the Devil, in the form of a dragon, to rescue the Church, personified as a woman known as Ecclesia. Interestingly, the narrative of St George and the dragon seems to have occurred in visual imagery long before any written version is known, and it is quite possible that the story arose as a way of explaining these early Greek-influenced images once their original meaning had become obscure.
England is far from being the only country to invoke St George as her patron. One commentator on the cult noted that St George has been claimed as patron saint of Germany, Portugal, Barce-lona, Genoa, Ferrara, Armenia, Antioch, Constantinople, various parts of France, and of the Coptic Christians, while ‘St George for Holy Russia’ was a battle-cry of the Tsars. Other writers have added Aragon, Hungary, Lithuania, Hanover, Schleswig, Braganza, Malta and Valencia to the list of countries and provinces that have placed themselves under St George’s patronage.
It seems that St George was first identified as the patron saint of England during the time of Edward III (r. 1327-77). Edward is famed as the founder in 1348 of the Order of the Garter, England’s premier chivalric institution, and of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle; it is notable that the Order actually enjoyed the joint patronage of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and St Edward the Confessor as well as St George, although these other dedicatees were quickly relegated to a minor role. This development corresponds to St George’s gradual displacement of St Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66) as an English patron saint. However, it is by no means clear whether St George, or indeed St Edward the Confessor, was ever recognised as patron of the entire nation of England during the medieval period; in fact, there is strong evidence which suggests that both saints were called upon by discrete groupings within English society, rather than by the populace as a whole, and that they served quite specific functions within their roles as the ostensible national patrons.
The English monarchy is the most obvious social grouping that honoured St George as the patron of England, although the date at which this dynastic veneration was established is in some dispute. Richard Coeur de Lion (r. 1189-99) is sometimes credited with establishing the English cult of St George, but, as we have seen, the saint was venerated in England long before the Crusades. Richard himself may have had a personal interest in this saint, but his great-nephew Edward I (r.1272-1307) may well have a stronger claim to be recognised as the king responsible for adding St George to the canon of ‘English’ saints, for he instigated the practice of displaying St George’s banner alongside those of the native saints Edmund and Edward the Confessor.
It is likely that the usurpation of St Edward the Confessor’s role as the English patron saint relates to the identification of St George as a figure of chivalry and authority, and especially of prowess in battle: in 1351 it was written that ‘the English nation... call upon [St George], as being their special patron, particularly in war’. St George’s identification as a military leader may well be based on the miraculous appearances which he is said to have made at various battles, especially where he ‘led’ the Crusaders to victories at Jerusalem and Antioch in 1098. This mythic ability seems to have given St George a clear advantage over the native patron saints, Edward the Confessor and Edmund, neither of whom is associated with victory in battle (indeed, St Edmund – a ninth-century king of the East Angles – was said to have been killed during a defeat by the Danes at Thetford in 869).
Yet St George did not displace his rivals overnight, but was identified as one of a group of patrons of England for a number of years. Thus we find that in 1377 Richard II was crowned with St Edward the Confessor’s crown while wearing the Confessor’s coat and St Edmund’s slippers; he maintained his veneration of these two saints throughout his life, even though royal devotion to St George was clearly established during the reign of his grandfather Edward III.
The supreme indication of Edward III’s veneration of St George was the founding of the Order of the Garter, but he clearly had a strong interest in the saint during the earliest years of his reign. An image in a manuscript known as the Milemete treatise (1326-27) depicts St George arming the young king. Made as a gift for Edward by Master Walter of Milemete, the king’s clerk, the treatise instructed the new monarch on his responsibilities as well as the moral virtues which he should embody. St George and the king have a very similar presentation, and the implication seems to be that Edward should seek to emulate the chivalric values embodied in this soldier-saint. The king’s own devotion was almost certainly a significant factor in the development of a wider cult. He owned a relic of the saint’s blood, which was included in an inventory of royal relics made in 1331-32, while wall paintings on the east wall of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, dated to 1355-63 but destroyed c.1800, are known to have featured the king, his wife Philippa of Hainault and their ten children alongside St George as their patron saint.
Edward III’s interest in St George was emulated by many of his successors to the throne of England, and a devotion to this saint was shared by both Yorkist and Lancastrian kings during the Wars of the Roses. St George was regularly invoked as a patron of the English monarchy in poetry, drama and visual imagery during the reign of Henry VI, the last Lancastrian king (r.1422-61 and 1470-71), but Henry’s Yorkist deposer Edward IV (r.1461-70 and 1471-83) also seems to have used the image of St George as a way of asserting the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. In 1475 Edward began to rebuild St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, possibly in thanks for the saint’s aid in the recovery of his crown after the temporary re-establishment of Henry VI, at an enormous cost of over £1,000 per year. Part of this rebuilding included the erection of new choir stalls with decorative bench ends (or ‘popeys’), some of which featured scenes of the legend of St George himself. One of these images depicts the obeisance of St George before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. The Virgin is seated on the left of the subject, with the infant Christ on her lap and a bunch of lilies behind her. St George kneels on one knee before them in the centre of the composition; his horse stands on the right and two angels appear in the background, one holding a small banner bearing a letter ‘G’. This image invokes the concept of St George as ‘Our Lady’s Knight’, a motif that is very common in the late-medieval cult of St George, especially in England: the phrase from the anonymous fifteenth-century lyric ‘Speed Our King on his Journey’, used in the title of this paper, is an example of a literary allusion to this idea. The Windsor carving seems also to play on the idea of St George as a representative of the English nation: there is evidence to suggest that during the late Middle Ages England was considered, by English people at least, to be ‘the Virgin’s dowry’, a realm over which she had special authority, and St George’s obeisance to the Virgin may well carry the connotation of England herself showing reverence to her true, heavenly, ruler.
The monarchy did not command an exclusive claim to the saint. While evidence of the devotion of ‘lesser people’ is much harder to interpret conclusively – as a result of the losses of altars, images and other tangible aspects of the cult, in addition to the simple lack of recording of many types of veneration – there are still strong indications that St George was a popular saint in many parts of England just as elsewhere in Europe. Almost a hundred English wall paintings featuring the saint are known, dating largely from the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; they invariably depict St George in combat with the dragon. Late-medieval English images in glass, wood or other materials are now less common, almost certainly as a result of iconoclasm, but it is notable that St George is recorded as a painted decorative figure on seven church screens in Norfolk alone. There is little direct evidence about the motives for such commissions: the venerators who expressed their devotion to a particular saint by paying for the creation of wall paintings and other images within churches are almost always anonymous and have left us few clues about their wealth, status or personal concerns. These works could have been created as the expression of a general interest in St George in these communities, but it may well be that relatively wealthy devotees were imposing their reverence for the saint on their neighbours because they were the only people rich enough to be able to afford to pay for the beautification of the church.
One good example of such moneyed patronage in honour of St George is found in the records of the ‘Ridings of St George’. Throughout much of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries local organisations of people devoted to St George, usually known as Guilds of St George, held a procession on the saint’s feast day (April 23rd). These festivities are known to have taken place in many English towns; there are several aspects of these guilds and their Ridings which are particularly striking. The Guilds of St George were often very closely allied with civic authority: in late medieval Norwich, for example, this guild functioned, in effect, as a branch of local government. Membership of St George Guilds was often tightly controlled, with only the upper echelons of society admitted, and there is some evidence to suggest that the Ridings could also be used as a means of social control, for St George was strongly identified as a figure of urban authority. It is worth noting that in the medieval representations of the saint, the battle with the dragon invariably takes place outside a city wall: according to the legend the saint rescues the town (the urban civilisation) from the predations of a dragon (the threat of chaos and disorder). A good example of this trend towards an iconography of social control occurred at Leicester, where the urban patriciate class ensured the re-imposition of the social status quo by demanding that their humbler neighbours should all view the mounted and expensively-costumed procession: a local bye-law of 1467 stipulated that the entire citizenry had to turn out and witness the parade, under pain of fines for non-attendance. There are also several examples of images of St George that are the direct result of urban bourgeois patronage, such as the glass commissioned during the early sixteenth century by a Leicester patrician, John Wyggeston. A man or woman of similar social standing is very likely to have owned the late-fifteenth-century English translation of the Golden Legend which is decorated with an image of St George. Clearly the saint was invoked in private devotion as well as public display.
The survival of pilgrim badges probably bought at Windsor may suggest that St George was venerated by a wide social mix during the late medieval period, for these relatively cheap devotional objects would have been affordable to all but the poorest people. However, it is difficult to know whether the survivals of such tokens reflect a genuine groundswell of popular interest in an individual saint, for pilgrims are known to have amassed the badges of shrines as a kind of hobby, just as some people today collect badges from towns and countries they have visited without necessarily feeling any real regard for each particular place. St George is invoked in some late medieval charms (for example, ‘against the night-mare’) and also in weather-lore, but these rare occurrences also seem to suggest that he may not have been a particularly important saint for the bulk of the population.
By contrast, there is clear evidence of his veneration among higher social classes. In the early years of the fifteenth century the church of St George at Stamford (Lincolnshire) was virtually derelict, but from around 1420 it was restored at huge expense by William Bruges. Bruges himself was a native of Wiltshire, and his reasons for deciding to patronise this particular building are obscure, but it is likely that the dedication to St George was a determining factor. In 1415 Bruges became the first Garter King of Arms. This was a very important heraldic post: in effect, the holder was the chief herald of all England. Bruges’ position in the Order of the Garter is reflected in his decision to include a series of images of the men thought to have been the founder knights of this Order, and their patron saint, in the glazing of the chancel.
However, Bruges’ own interest in St George went well beyond the saint’s connection with chivalry. The images of the founder knights were accompanied by a series of subjects of the life of St George; sadly, virtually all the chancel glass was destroyed during the iconoclasm of the seventeenth century, but copies of the images made shortly prior to the English Civil War indicate that much of the St George cycle was concerned with imagery of the torture of the saint. For example, the image of the scourging is strongly reminiscent of images of the torture of Christ, indicating that Bruges was interested in St George as a figure of Christ and Christian forbearance, as much, if not more, than as a figure of chivalry.
Another interesting aspect of the Stamford imagery is the evidence it provides of a genuine localised English legend of St George. In this narrative, St George is shown fighting an enemy army, about to be beheaded before an altar bearing an image of the Virgin Mary (the implication is that he is being executed because he is a Christian), and then being resurrected by the Virgin herself in recognition of his devotion to her. Three extant late-fifteenth-century visual cycles, all the product of English artists and craft workers, include this story, and in each case the subsequent episode shows St George being armed as the Virgin’s knight. This image is missing at Stamford, but the next part of the story is found in each of the four versions, for St George is then shown fighting the dragon. This suggests that the saint has been resurrected in order that he should kill the dragon. This account is entirely different from the imagery found in European narratives of St George, whether literary or visual. It does not appear in any extant English hagiography of the saint, and this may indicate an embellishment of the identification of St George as ‘Our Lady’s Knight’ which existed only as an oral and visual tradition.
This aspect of St George’s cult emphasises the extent to which he was a polyvalent figure. His cult was based to some extent on his importance to the monarchy, but his identification as a figure of urban authority and Christ-like forbearance was probably equally significant. Ordinary people may not have venerated him as a natural patron; indeed, it is likely that he was strongly identified as a saint of the upper social echelons (this was certainly the case in post-medieval France, where images of St George armed as a knight were singled out for particular attack during the iconoclasm of the Revolution). The peculiarly English narrative of his connection with the Virgin Mary may well have widened his appeal during the late Middle Ages, but this aspect of his cult generally fell away with the advent of the Reformation and its new attitudes to the more ‘superstitious’ elements of Christian belief. In the post-medieval period St George is rarely invoked in connection with the Virgin Mary, but it is significant that many other parts of his cult, and most particularly the Ridings, continued to exert an influence well into the modern era.
It seems that St George’s secular importance, notably as a figure of authority, was simply too important to allow him to disappear with the suppression of other saint cults, including that of the Virgin herself. The concept of St George as the ‘national patron saint’ during the late medieval period is clearly a gross oversimplification: to some extent his devotion was imposed and encouraged by the Church and the crown, but there is also clear evidence that he was a genuinely popular saint among particular social classes. The fact that St George has come to be recognised as England’s patron is testament to the considerable influence exerted by his devotees in late-medieval English society.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology