St George Made Known in England
The Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval Period
St George first made known in England
The first evidence we have of St George being made known in England dates to about 670, when Arculf (properly called Arnulf), a bishop from Gaul shipwrecked on the west coast of Scotland, recounted his travels to the Holy Places to Adomnan, Abbot of Iona (625- 704), who recorded the details in De situ terrae sanctis, a guide for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Arculf ’s visit to Lydda, however, is reported as simply one more stop on his pilgrimage, and Lydda is given far less space than some other sites outside Jerusalem.
The first ‘official’ mention of St George’s Day in England was the listing of the Feast of St George on 23 April by the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) in his Calendar, which probably drew on Adomnan. Neither Bede nor Adomnan comment on or explain their references to St George, but it cannot thereby be assumed that these were familiar to their readers.
Although Bede knew Adomnan’s book well, he and his contemporary Aldhelm are silent about George, perhaps because it was not until the transfer of St George’s supposed head to the church of St George in Velabro by Pope Zacharias that the saint began to be culted in Rome and his feast found a permanent place in the Roman service books and their northern offspring.
The story of St George did, however, take root in the imagination of Saxon writers during the 700s at the latest. In his book Avalonian Quest, Geoffrey Ashe tells of a Georgian legend contained in an eighth-century MS. The legend says that Joseph of Arimathea and St Philip, the Apostle, travelled to Lydda and there consecrated a church to St Mary. This church was put in Joseph’s care. The king who received them would not become a Christian but gave them the island of ‘Ynys Witrin’ (later identified by some with Glastonbury) where they built a wattle church in honour of St Mary, which it was claimed had been dedicated by the Lord Himself.
St George then appears in a couplet in the metrical calendar by Ecgberht, bishop of York (754-766) which subsequently entered the ritual of Durham church, later to be rebuilt by 11th-century Normans as Durham Cathedral. The saint is later recorded in an 11th-century Old English martyrology given by Bishop Leofric (bp 1050-1072) to Exeter Cathedral and now at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. This was a unique compilation of Old English prose summaries of or extracts from Latin saints’ legends, which contains entries for George (April 23) and for the Empress Alexandra (April 27) and includes part of the martyr’s elaborate final prayer for his devotees. The author made use of the longer and probably older version of the Latin tradition which had been known in England from the ninth century.
A number of churches were dedicated to his memory, including one at Fordington in Dorset. This was mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (849-99) and is said to be the oldest Anglo-Saxon church in England. A fresco of St George as a Crusader, dating from the time of the Conquest, has been discovered there. In addition the tympanum over the south doorway, carved when the church was restored about the time of the Conquest, is usually considered to depict St George. Here the saint is fighting human enemies, not a Dragon. Mounted on horseback, he is thrusting a spear into the mouth of one, while another lies prostrate, and a third appears truncated with arms raised in fear or surrender. Behind the warrior saint are two soldiers kneeling at prayer, with shields and weapons propped against a wall. A rock to the right of the entrance is not local stone and is reputed to have been brought from the saint’s tomb at Lydda. Other churches of St George were built at Doncaster and at Southwark. The church at Doncaster, formerly supposed to have been dedicated to St George in 1061, however, is now believed to be post-Conquest. Monasteries of St George were established, including one at Thetford in the reign of Canute (1017-35). (Whether Canute was a Christian and possibly interested in St George is debatable.)
The crypt of St George’s Chapel, Oxford, lies beneath the hotel that stands on the site of the former prison, itself created from the remains of the castle. The church was founded after the Conquest in c. 1074, although it may been in some form of existence earlier, since the castle was built 1071-3 and may have replaced an Anglo-Saxon church whose dedication is unknown. St George’s began as a collegiate church for secular canons, founded and endowed jointly by Robert d’Oilly and Roger d’Ivry. D’Oilly accompanied William the Conqueror on the Conquest and the dedication of the church to St George suggests that the cult of the saint was held in high regard in the Conqueror’s circle. Amongst the later canons were Walter Map, Robert of Chesney and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The date of the original College of St George associated with the church is nowhere recorded, but tuition in grammar may have been given there from when the church was founded, although this is not generally thought to have amounted to a school.
The College was refounded c. 1429. In 1523 the abbey of Oseney paid £8 a year in alms ‘to six poor scholars in the castle of Oxford’. The scholars were bound to observe the ordinary rules of an Oxford college, and at their admission took an oath that they would leave something to the College by will, to help maintain before St. George’s altar the light called ‘the light of the scholars’. The College was more like a hostel or hall, where scholars could lodge under the supervision of those who would have a good influence on their morals, rather than their minds. As the priests were maintained from Oseney, receiving a daily allowance, the College came to an end at the dissolution of the monasteries.
The number of pre-Conquest churches dedicated to St George is sometimes said to have been as high as 120, but recent research has shown that many dedications were in fact re-dedications made after the Reformation, and there were probably only about 50 before the Conquest. Even so, the cult was important enough for relics of the saint to be kept. One was at the New Minster in Winchester (the capital of Anglo-Saxon England). By mischance, the New Minster was burnt down on St George’s Day, 1065 – in spite of a relic of St George being among the Minster’s possessions.
St Willibald (c.700-786)
The tradition of the saint was also possibly known to St Willibald. St Willibald was born about 700 of noble West Saxon parents. He was a relative of St Boniface, although he is not to be confused with the Willibald who wrote the first Life of St Boniface. About 720 he made a pilgrimage to Rome, which he extended into a tour of the Holy Land. Many years later his memories were recorded by a nun who knew him well, and the result is the earliest travel book ‘written’ by an Englishman: ‘He stayed there [Jerusalem] for a little while and then set out for a place called Lydda, to the Church of St George’ (Medieval Sourcebook: Huneberc of Heidenheim: The Hodoeporican of St Willibald, 8th Century). What St Willibald learned of the tradition of St George and what effect this passing reference, or any oral reports of his journey, had in England is of course another question.
Aelfric ‘the Grammarian’, Abbot of Eynsham (c.955-1020) wrote an alliterative metrical homily in Old English on the passion of St George in his Lives of the Saints (990-992). Aelfric (not to be confused with Aelfric of Canterbury or Aelfric of York) was the most admired prose writer of his day and a large number of manuscripts of his works survive. Aelfric made use of a significantly reduced version of the Latin form of the legend. This recension recounts only three tortures and George’s final beheading. Retained, however, are the saint’s victories over the magician Athanasius and the god Apollo and his worshippers, as examples of George’s favour with God. The final intercessory prayer, for those who remember him and his feast day, is also preserved, but in shortened form. After the Norman Conquest this version continued to be used to provide lessons to be read in churches on the saint’s feast day, as well as for devotional reading among monastics. It was Aelfric who largely began the creation of an English tradition of St George, turning him into ‘a rich earldormann from the shire of Cappadocia’, of whom the Emperor [Diocletian] asks from what borough he comes.
His poem begins:
The story of the martyrdom of St George in defence of Christians and of his effective intercession on their behalf might well have appealed to the Anglo-Saxons during the time of the raids of the pagan Vikings. St George was certainly known in England by the time of the Conquest, although apparently not the focus of a major cult. We cannot speak confidently of an English cult of St George until the late Middle Ages. According to Orderic Vitalis, writing around 1200, one of William the Conqueror’s companions, Hugh d’Avranches, 1st earl of Chester, had a clerk (chaplain) named Gerold d’Avranches who would recite edifying tales about George and other martial saints to the men and boys of the household during the 1070s. Gerold’s activities are often seen as indicative of the role played by the clergy in constructing the militant knightly piety that emerged on the eve of the First Crusade. But James B. MacGregor has shown that Gerold was not an advocate of this aggressive new piety. Rather than promote knightly prowess, he used the warrior saints as models of humility in order to convince contemporary warriors to renounce the world and become monks.
The figure of St George was given prominence by writers during the Crusading period. At a battle between the Normans and Sicilian Moslems at Cerami in 1063, St George was said to have appeared to the Normans on a white horse wearing shining armour and bearing on his lance a white banner decorated with a cross. At the same moment the banner appeared on the lance of the Norman leader, Count Roger of Sicily. St George was later said to have appeared to the French Crusaders at the Battle of Dorylaeum in 1097 and led them to victory over the Seljuk Turks.
The most important source after Bede for the English tradition of St George is the Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) (1120), by William of Malmesbury (c.1090-1143). William tells how, during the First Crusade, George was adopted as patron saint of the soldiers of Robert II ‘Curthose’, Duke of Normandy (1087-1134), eldest son of William the Conqueror (1066-1087). Together with St Theodore and with Demetrius of Thessalonica, his fellow ‘martyr knight’ (other traditions completely identify George and Demetrius), St George was said to have appeared on a hillside before the siege of Antioch (1098) wearing white armour with a red cross at the head of a large heavenly army on white horses and displaying white banners; they led the Crusaders to victory (Peter Tudebode, Historia Hieroslymitana Itinere, written by at least 1111). In about 1120, however, Archbishop Baldric of Dol in Brittany wrote that the heavenly army had all ridden white horses and carried white banners. It is not clear in any case how these stories reached William, whilst we can tell from his writings that he had a preoccupation with boosting the notion of England as a leading Christian power.
Another appearance was reported at the Crusaders’ successful siege of Jerusalem in July, 1099, when St George is said to have promised them victory if they carried his relics with them into battle. As they hesitated to scale the walls, the saint again appeared and, heartened at the sight, the hungry and exhausted Crusaders made a supreme effort and stormed into the city. Geoffrey (or Godfrey) de Bouillon, Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum, Robert of Gloucester in his Metrical Chronicle, and other chronicles give similar accounts.
It has been suggested that St George was really Nestor, a friend of Demetrius, but the story of Nestor is usually placed a century before that of St George. According to the received account, stories about St George were mostly transmitted to the West by Crusaders, but there is no evidence for this oft-repeated assertion, even if, as is often claimed, they had heard them from Byzantine troops, who had previously adopted St George as patron saint of their armies. More likely it was ecclesiastics who accompanied the Crusaders who transmitted the tales. The stories were, however, although much later, circulated by the 14th-century troubadours. Even so, the popularity of his cult may owe more to the Golden Legend and to Edward III’s adoption of St George as one of the patrons of the Order of the Garter.
This account of Richard I, and of the origins of the Order of the Garter, relies heavily on Olivier de Laborderie, ‘Richard the Lionheart and the birth of a national cult of St George in England: origins and development of a legend’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies, 39 (1995), 37-53.
When Richard I was campaigning on the Third Crusade in Palestine in 1191-92, St George is said to have appeared to the Crusaders at the siege of Acre and led them to victory. Subsequently, the king is said to have discovered the tomb of St George at Lydda and, following a dream, put his army under the protection of St George and repaired the saint’s tomb. Another tradition has it that during that campaign, when Richard’s army was marching along the coast road from Acre, the rearguard was attacked and outnumbered by Saracens. Their plight was serious; but one among them cried to the warrior saint for aid and, though he did not appear, he so strengthened their hearts and their arms that they were able to pass from defence to attack and, in two splendid charges, drive off the enemy. The visit to Lydda, however, and the personal and important part that Richard I is generally supposed to have played in establishing a national cult of St George in England, may be a later invention. Only one of the numerous contemporary chronicles reports that Richard even invoked St George in battle. This is Ambroise who says:
E li reis el non a seint Jorge
Fist doner as chevals lor orge
a cry uttered not in the heat of battle but while the king and his knights were preparing to attack a caravan. No contemporary source records that Richard placed his army under the protection of St George, adopted the banner of St George for his troops, repaired (or even visited) St George’s tomb at Lydda, or established a national cult of St George when he returned to England. The details of the Council held at Winchester on the eve of the Crusade, when Richard is supposed to have decided to re-found a previous Order of St George, are taken from a history of the Order of the Garter by Elias Ashmole published in 1672. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose, as is often assumed, that Richard I particularly contributed to the spread of representations of St George and the Dragon. The legend was already known. A depiction of it at St Botolph’s, Hardham, Sussex, has been dated to 1120-1140, and the Norman tympani at Brinson, Herefordshire and Ruardean, Gloucestershire, which also show the scene, have been dated to 1140-60.
The story that Richard I placed his army under the protection of St George can be found in the 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century historians Anstis, Ashmole, Camden, Dawson, Heylin, Salmon and Seldon, all of whom expressed doubts about it. De Laborderie has traced it to a speech made by John Taylor, Master of the Rolls, in 1527 at the conferment of the Order of the Garter on Francis I of France by Henry VIII. De Laborderie thinks that Taylor invented the role of Richard as a pre-founder of the Order of the Garter as a ‘white lie’ to avoid the embarrassment of referring to Edward III and Henry V, who had inflicted crushing defeats on the French. At the same time, the figure of king Richard supplied a fittingly martial origin for the Order of the Garter, which was essential because Henry VIII saw his rivalry with Francis I in terms of chivalry. See more about the Crusades at http://medievalcrusades.com.
Although St George may have been popular among the Crusaders, he did not have any special status until he was made a patron of the Order of the Garter by Edward III in 1348. Even then, he was joint patron with the Virgin Mary and St Edward the Confessor (1042-66). Meanwhile medieval tradition began to elaborate on the English connections of St George already provided by Anglo-Saxon writers. Antonius, a mythical fifth-century Count of Britain, had supposedly made St George patron of heavy cavalry. He thus became an inspiration for writers about the Knights of the Round Table. According to the medieval version, St George came as tribune of Beirut under Diocletian, having become a friend of ‘Queen Helen’. She was identified with Helena (c.250-c.335), mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross. St George became friendly with the future emperor while both were serving at York. From there they journeyed together to visit the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a supposed kinsman of George, at Glastonbury. Some medieval romancers have St George delivering Winchester from Olaf Trygvesson in 993. John Speed’s Historie of Great Britain (1611) records that Edward III also ‘appointed his souldiers to wear white coats with a red crosse before and behind over their armoure’. The adoption of St George as England’s patron saint eclipsed the cult of St Edmund (canonised 1247), the ninth-century king of the East Angles (d. 878). Edward the Confessor, too, seems to have been dropped as an English batttlecry. An article calling for the reinstatement of St Edmund as patron saint of England has been published by W. E. Tucker in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries 41, 1999, 44–45.
While at Calais in 1336, Edward III is reported to have urged on his troops to cries of ‘St Edward!’ and ‘St George!’. By the time of Poitiers, twenty years later, Froissart has his son, Edward the Black Prince, address his troops in these terms: ‘if, through good fortune, the day shall be ours, we will gain the greatest honour and glory in this world: if the contrary should happen, and we be slain, I have a father and beloved bretheren alive, and you all have some relations, or good friends, who will be sure to avenge our deaths. I therefore entreat of you to exert yourselves, and combat manfully; for, if it please God and St George, you shall see me this day act like a true knight’. He bade his banner advance ‘in the name of God and St George’.
Yet, as Samantha Riches has noted, 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 until his death in 1399. But by 1405 the articles issued by the leaders of Scrope’s Rebellion against Richard’s successor, Henry IV, appealed to the ‘merites of [the Virgin and] … S. George our defender under whose displayed banner we wish to live and die’. The saint was becoming a symbol of good governance.
A contemporary or near-contemporary account of Henry V’s campaign in France between 1415 and 1422 states that the image of St George appeared on the banners of the English. John Hardyng (1378–1460), who served at Agincourt, says in his Chronicle that the French wore red crosses and the English white, ‘for a common signe, eche manne to knowe his nacion from his enemies’. The banner of St George is not mentioned, while the banners of the commanders, including the Royal Standard, would have been prominent. A carol dating from around 1450 celebrates the event. The most famous reference to Henry V occurs in Shakespeare, who has the king urging on his men at the siege of Harfleur with the immortal words:
‘I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,
Cry God for Harry, England and St George!’
Meanwhile the people of England were bidden to pray to St George for the king’s safety. On returning to England after his crushing against-the-odds victory at Agincourt in 1415, Henry held a victory parade through London, marching through a triumphal arch topped with a statue of St George in armour, wearing a laurel wreath of victory.
Later, when wooing the king of France’s daughter, Katherine, Shakespeare has the king speak thus:
‘If ever thou beest mine, Kate, as I have a
saving faith within me tells me thou shalt, I get
thee with scambling, and thou must therefore needs
prove a good soldier-breeder: shall not thou and I,
between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a
boy, half French, half English, that shall go to
Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard?
shall we not? what sayest thou, my fair
This scene was pictured in a ‘sotyltie’ (a tableau in the form of a cake) served at the coronation of Henry VI (1422-71) as king of England in 1429. On either side of the Virgin Mary were St Denis and St George. When the boy went to be crowned king of France the following year a poem of well-wishing contains a stanza commending him to St George:
Seynt george, oure ladyes knight
On whom alle englond hath byleve,
Shew us thy helpe to god almyght,
And kepe oure kyng from alle myscheve.
Thou art our patronesse knyght y-preve
To defend wyth fyght oure ladyes fe,
Seynt george, by oure helpe yn all oure greve,
Salvum fac regem domine’.
Later in his reign Henry VI founded Eton College, where St George still slays the Dragon on a buttress of the antechapel, a statue of St George stands in Upper Chapel, and a tapestry depicting the life of St George commemorates the 1,577 boys who gave their lives in the First World War. St George is cast as a young Etonian in the short-cropped hair of the period receiving his commission with the Eton College buildings in the background. Designed by Amy Akers Douglas, the tapestry was woven at the William Morris works 1922-27.
A devotion to St George was shared by both Yorkist and Lancastrian kings during the Wars of the Roses. He 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. His third son, prince George, Duke of Bedford (1475-1477), was the first English prince to bear the name George. Richard III (1483-1485) owned a Book of Hours containing a ‘suffrage’ (a short intercessory prayer) to St George; the principal feasts celebrated at his college of priests at Middleham were those of Sts George and Ninian. Every night, as soon as evensong was said, a ‘memory’ of St Ninian and St George with their accustomed versicles and collects was to be sung. Of four fellowships he endowed at Queens’ College, Cambridge, one was in the name of St George. At Bosworth, Henry Tudor (1485-1509) invoked St George; his standards included one of St George, which was placed together with those of the red Dragon and the dun cow in St Paul’s after his victory procession in 1485.
St George in Caxton
The 15th century saw the height of St George’s popularity as patron saint of England and personal intercessor for English Christians. He was celebrated in every aspect of English life, secular as well as religious. William Caxton, who introduced printing to England, composed a special conclusion to the legend of St George in the English version of Legenda Aurea, which he published in 1483:
‘This blessed and holy martyr S. George is patron of this realm of England and the cry of men of war. In the worship of whom is founded the noble order of the garter, and also a noble college in the castle of Windsor by kings of England, in which college is the heart of S. George, which Sigismund, the emperor of Almayne, brought and gave for a great and precious relic to King Harry the fifth. And also the said Sigismund was a brother of the said garter, and also there is a piece of his head, which college is nobly endowed to the honour and worship of Amighty [sic] God and his blessed martyr S. George. Then let us pray unto him that he be special protector and defender of this realm’.
Caxton’s book went through nine editions 1483-1527.
Although king Arthur had started as part of Welsh history, indeed was regarded as one of its founding figures, the Tudors reinvented St George as an English figure in the Arthurian mode before and after the Reformation. In his triumphal procession through the City of London after the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII, who was Welsh in origin although he spent most of his life in France before becoming king, displayed the red Dragon of Cadwaladr, king of Gwynedd (reigned c. 655 – 682), as well as the standard of St George. Cadwaladr is particularly associated in Welsh poetry with Arthur, and Welsh medieval chroniclers created a genealogy for him which listed his forebears as Wledig (Cunedda), Ambrosius, Arthur and Cadwallon of the Long Hand. Henry too claimed descent from king Arthur and encouraged scholars to provide proofs in order to support his claim that with him a prophecy that a second Arthur would arise and usher in a second golden age had been fulfilled.
Arguably England’s greatest and most popular king, Henry VIII (1509-47) was born into an atmosphere of history and romance carefully fostered by his father, Henry VII. By careful stage management, his first-born son, Arthur (1486-1502) was born at Winchester, which was believed to be one of the sites of king Arthur’s castle and capital, Camelot; his supposed Round Table was still there. Thomas Malory’s Morte d‘Arthur had been republished by Caxton the year before. The naming of the heir of the Tudors after the first British king was intended to chime in with contemporary beliefs about the origins of England as a nation and to create a myth of unity between the English and their new Welsh ruler. (King Arthur, though, if he existed at all, was probably based in the Strathclyde region of Scotland.)
Born in 1491, Henry was inducted into the Knights of the Bath at the age of three, and in 1505, while only 14, played a part in the annual Garter ceremony which was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. He took part in the procession, which included part of a leg of the saint newly-presented by Maximilian, king of the Romans (heir apparent in English terms to the Holy Roman Emperor). In 1497, his mother, during her last pregnancy, had taken Henry on pilgrimage to Walsingham, where she would have venerated the milk of the Virgin and prayed for a safe delivery. In his teens, he is known to have used a bederoll, a portable illustrated aid to devotion whose use procured remission of many years in Purgatory, and which also served as a lucky charm. The saints illustrated were St Gregory, St Michael, St George, St Erasmus (not the humanist scholar), St Anthony and St Armagil of Brittany. The latter had been introduced to England by Henry VII in 1498 in gratitude for being saved from shipwreck while he was an exile in response to prayers to the saint. His image on prince Henry’s roll shows him leading a Dragon by a stole wrapped round its neck. The image was also painted on the reredos of the altar at Romsey Abbey.
Henry was widely read in English chronicle history. At his coronation on 23 June 1509, immediately following the king himself, the standards not only of St George but of St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund were carried to symbolize Henry’s revival of the claim of the English monarchy to the throne of France. Thus, as David Starkey points out, Henry was initiated ‘into the magical, mysterious, many-coloured world of medieval piety’. Henry went on pilgrimage at least three times as king. As late as Good Friday 1539 he crawled to the Cross. ‘His will made abundant provisions for intercessory prayers’, David Starkey, Virtuous Prince, pp.198ff.