The Golden Legend
ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON:THE
St George and the Dragon, Raphael (1483-1520) Source: Britannia Internet Magazine
It is not known when the legend of St George and the Dragon was first told; some say as early as the sixth century. Possibly the tale existed as an oral tradition before it appeared in a twelfth-century prologue to a version of the martyr’s Passion. In this early account the details were not quite the same as those familiar now. There was no actual fight; the dragon was overcome simply by the sign of the Cross, and the encounter made less demands on St George’s courage and skill. Even so, the legend had started to spread in Europe at the latest by the middle of the twelfth century. Two translations of the Greek original appear in two different MSS of the Liber de Miraculis of John the Monk, who lived at Amalfi c. 1150. The fact that this is the earliest written source now known means that oral tradition and images probably preceded written accounts in the West.
The fame of St George throughout Europe was greatly increased by the publication of Legenda Sanctorum (Readings on the Saints), later known as Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) by James, or Jacobus, of Voragine (1230-98) in 1265. It was in that form that the myth became widely known throughout Christendom and has been remembered ever since. (The title originally referred to a ‘collection’ or ‘selection’ of readings, not ‘legends’ in the modern sense). Voragine was a Dominican who in 1292 went on to become Archbishop of Genoa. The name ‘golden legend’ does not refer to St George but to the whole collection of stories, which were said to be worth their weight in gold.
It was this book which popularized the legend of George and the Dragon in the West. The citizens of a town, desperate to control the depredations of a dragon which was devastating its fields, and poisoning the people with its breath, had resorted to sacrificing one unmarried girl and one sheep a day, drawn by lot, to the monster. One day the lot fell to the king’s daughter and, despite the pleas of her father, she was delivered to her fate, decked as a bride for marriage. Just then, a handsome young knight rode by. At first the princess was reluctant that anyone should risk himself against the monster, but St George insisted and wounded it with his lance. The princess was then urged to lead the dragon towards the city with her girdle. There the saint would despatch the monster if all would become Christians. The princess accepted and St George performed a mass baptism, afterwards killing the dragon and instructing the building of a church. In other versions, he is offered money, land and the princess’s hand in marriage but generally refuses.
The story may have been particularly well received in England because of the legend of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon literature, which is generally dated 725-750. As a youth Beowulf killed Grendel, a cannibalistic monster and descendant of Cain, that was attacking Heorot, the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. After that he killed Grendel’s mother, who had come the next night to avenge her son. Then, 50 years later, Beowulf, now king of the Geats, fights a dragon which is attacking his people. In the combat both he and the dragon are mortally wounded.
There is a strong thread of Christian commentary in the tenth century manuscript in which the poem is preserved and Beowulf is presented as the pattern of knightly behaviour. Patrick Wormald has written about what can be deduced from Beowulf about the nature of early English Christianity and its relationship to secular aristocratic culture. An aspect worth considering is that dragons were reputed to be greedy hoarders of treasure; possibly the Golden Legend reflects a strain of social protest.
Reference: Farrell, Robert T. (Issue editor). Bede and Anglo-Saxon England: papers in honour of the 1300th anniversary of the birth of Bede, given at Cornell University in 1973 and 1974, BAR Brit Ser , 46.
Pre-Conquest England used the dragon as an emblem of war. Uther Pendragon, future father of Arthur, was said to have seen a vision of a flaming dragon in the sky, which was taken by the seers as a sign of his coming rule: ‘He ordered two dragons to be fashioned, like to those he had seen in the circle of the star, one of which he dedicated in the cathedral of Winchester; the other he kept by him to be carried into battle’.
In the background also were a number of classical stories. One told of a dragon that slew the companions of Cadmus as they drank at a fountain. Another was that of Siegfried at the Drachenfels.
The story of St George and the Dragon filled a gap in the ‘pantheon’ of saints and turned St George into a knight of Christian chivalry. The symbol changes from that of a martyred Roman soldier into one of a martyred knight, indeed, a knight who, like Christ going to Jerusalem, knows that that is his destiny (realistically, the deathrate among Crusaders was much higher than among soldiers generally) :
And strive and suffer, till the morn shall dawn,
That brings for me the martyr’s fadeless crown’
In paganism, the dragon was emblematic of winter, and in spring, winter battled with summer. The conflict at first sight seems to be between two gods, but actually, winter and spring were twin aspects of one god. The Church took over the symbol. The dragon was borne in the Rogationtide processions which took place in the middle of spring to intercede for fine weather for ploughing. At the spring equinox, March 21st, the sun completed its victory over winter. The reason that St George became so strongly associated with the dragon may be because his feast fell in the middle of Rogationtide, the season of prayer for the crops. His victory over religious evil was taken as a sign that his intercession would also be effective against natural misfortune.
It is a measure of St George’s great popularity in the Middle Ages that this floating myth should have become attached to him, and an open question what Voragine’s motive was in so elaborating the symbolism. Voragine was the first Western writer to introduce the princess and the king and queen into the legend of St George and the Dragon. The princess seems to represent the church, especially orthodoxy as against heresy. The most dangerous contemporary heretics were the Albigensians. As early as 1216, during the crusade against the Albigensians, Simon de Montfort (father of the better-known rebel of battle of Evesham fame) was hailed as a new Saint George that had crushed the Cathar dragon. An objection to this suggestion is that the last Cathar stronghold had fallen in 1255 and the Treaty of Corbeil 1258 sealed the Cathars’ surrender. But this, though it was the end of Catharism as a political force, was far from its end as a popular religion. In 1278, 200 Patarin heretics were burnt at the stake in Sermione and 200 Cathars were burnt at Verona. It was because the anti-Cathar crusade had failed to stamp out the movement that an inquisition was kept at work for decades to come. The figures of the king and queen combine symbols of authority and humanity. Even so, St George as usually depicted makes no use of skilful swordplay or forceful lance-thrusts. He makes gestures with the weapons, usually pointed towards the mouth of the dragon, whose poisonous breath may be taken to be heretical preaching. Thus the sword is the sword of the Spirit rather than that of the contemporary knight. Possibly the nearest parallel to the lance is the crozier of a bishop whose primary role then as now is guardian of orthodox doctrine.
Voragine was also the first writer to site the legend in Libya, perhaps chosen as a place where it could still be believed that dragons might exist: stuffed crocodiles had been brought back from the East by the Crusaders. Otherwise there is no obvious reason for Voragine to site the legend in Libya. The name ‘Silene’ or ‘Sylene’ remains a mystery. It could be a corruption of Cyrene in Cyrenaica, or possibly of the name of a small village (Zilin or Selen) on the coast of Tripolitania, near Lepcis Magna, where there is a fine Roman villa, but the legend of St George and the Dragon is not known to be connected with either. [I am grateful to Dr Andrew Wilson of the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford, for this information.] An alternative explanation is that the terms ‘Libya’ and ‘Silene’ were corruptions of a much earlier version (possibly the ultimate source) now known to have originated in Georgia. Finally, as if the provenance of the tale were not obscure enough, the Libyan setting may also derive from North African folk tales of the sixth century.
Numerous versions of the Golden Legend circulated in the Middle Ages. An English translation was published by Caxton in 1483. In Caxton’s version (drawn from an earlier English translation now unknown, together with a French and a Latin version), St George killed the dragon at the first encounter.
‘Saynt George was a knyght and born in Capadoce. On a time he came to the provynce of Lybye to a cyte which is sayd Sylene. And by this cyte was a stagne or a ponde lyke a see wherein was a dragon whyche envenymed alle the contre’. The monster had been bought off at first with two sheep a day, latterly with ‘chyldren and yonge peple’. After killing the dragon, St George baptized the king and 15,000 others before departing.
Some 900 manuscripts of the Golden Legend survive and between 1470 and 1530 it was the most often printed book in Europe. An English translation was made in 1438. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press published a beautiful version of the Caxton edition in 1892.
St George and the Dragon, early fifteenth century. Source: Icons Explained
Writers after Voragine provided the princess with a name, Cleo(do)linda or Sabra, and gave various accounts of St George’s conversation with her. One version had St George marry the princess, in another variant most unchivalrously making marriage a condition of her rescue. English writers turned St George into an English knight, with an English birthplace, exploits and son, Guy of Warwick. By this time the legend had largely ceased to be a moral fable and had become a romantic ballad, mirroring the decline of the chivalric ideal into an erotic fantasy typified by such productions as the contemporary verse romance The Roman de la Rose which even some contemporaries found shocking.
The origin of the legend of the dragon remains obscure. It is first recorded in the late sixth century and may originally have been an allegory of the persecution of Diocletian, or ‘Dadianus’, who was sometimes referred to as ‘the dragon’ in ancient texts. The story resembles the Greek legend of Perseus, who was said to have rescued the virgin Andromeda from a sea monster at Arsuf or Jaffa, near Lydda (Diospolis), but sometimes in Ethiopia, where the cult of St George grew up around the site of the saint’s tomb. But the Christian version is more likely to derive from the Dragon of the Apocalypse in the Bible, which is the point of the fable in the Greek churches. The story may also arise in part from reflection on Isaiah 27.1. Speaking of the Day of the Lord, the prophet says:
‘In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea’.
The Christian story made use of ancient myths of dragon-slayers (themselves based on real encounters with crocodiles). The purpose of the story, as its ending shows, was to commend the benefits of baptism, which assured believers of the protection of God and would empower them to overcome evil. Later glosses gave injunctions to rulers that they should maintain churches, honour priests, diligently attend religious services and show compassion to the poor.
An alternative interpretation is that the Dragon represents the instincts and passions of the Flesh. In Celtic mythology in particular the red dragon represents energy and power, the unlimited life force. The King represents reason which should rule these passions. The Princess is the Soul. At first the Dragon can be placated but growing stronger through these concessions eventually threatens the soul. St George represents the Grace of God which if accepted enables the Soul to overcome the passions.
The Golden Legend Text Source: Medieval Sourcebook
Fairrosa’s St George and the Dragon site
To donate free food to fight the dragon of hunger
ST GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
The famous story that St George saved a young woman by slaying a dragon at Arsuf, Jaffa or Silene in Libya is unlikely to be based on fact. Even conceding that the dragon may have been a crocodile, as stated by some Orthodox today recalling similar stories about Agapetus, Arsacius and St Theodore of Bythinian Heraclaea, the story is almost certainly an allegory of the deliverance of the Church from persecution, and the triumph of innocence over evil, the virgin princess representing the Church and in a wider context suffering humanity, and the dragon, Satan. St George may represent Christ, or true believers who, under him, will defeat the powers of darkness. In the Syrian tradition particularly, but also elsewhere (as in the famous Uccello painting of the legend) St George is represented with a baby face. This depiction is drawn from the Revelation of St John the Divine 12:6, which speaks of a man-child being born who is under the special protection of God and will have a major role in the conquest of evil. The dragon as a Christian symbol of evil derives from Revelation 12:9: ‘the great dragon was thrown down, that serpent of old that led the whole world astray, whose name is Satan, or the Devil’; from Psalm 90:13 ‘the dragon shalt thou trample under foot’; Isaiah 27:1, and the book Daniel. St George has often been confused with his heavenly counterpart, St Michael, perhaps because of the reference in Jude 9 to the conflict between St Michael and the devil over the body of Moses.
About the Isaiah passage, the Matthew Henry Whole Bible Commentary (1706) has this to say:
The Lord Jesus with his strong sword, the virtue of his death, and the preaching of his gospel, does and will destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, that old serpent. The world is a fruitless, worthless wilderness; but the church is a vineyard, a place that has great care taken of it, and from which precious fruits are gathered. God will keep it in the night of affliction and persecution, and in the day of peace and prosperity, the temptations of which are not less dangerous. God also takes care of the fruitfulness of this vineyard. We need the continual waterings of Divine grace; if these be at any time withdrawn, we wither, and come to nothing. Though God sometimes contends with his people, yet he graciously waits to be reconciled unto them. It is true, when he finds briers and thorns instead of vines, and they are set in array against him, he will tread them down and burn them. Here is a summary of the doctrine of the gospel, with which the church is to be watered every moment. Ever since sin first entered, there has been, on God’s part, a righteous quarrel, but, on man’s part, most unrighteous. Here is a gracious invitation given. Pardoning mercy is called the power of our Lord; let us take hold on that. Christ crucified is the power of God. Let us by lively faith take hold on his strength who is a strength to the needy, believing there is no other name by which we can be saved, as a man that is sinking catches hold of a bough, or cord, or plank, that is in his reach. This is the only way, and it is a sure way, to be saved. God is willing to be reconciled to us.
(The Commentary of Matthew Henry (1662-1714), the Welsh-born English Nonconformist minister, is one of the classic commentaries and influenced Whitefield and Wesley.)
Michael killing the Dragon, Coventry Cathedral. St George was sometimes regarded as St MIchael’s copy on
earth. Source: Lycos Web Gallery
‘Then there suddenly appeared to her in the corner of the prison a marvellous dragon; from his nostrils proceeded smoke and fire, and he uttered a strong, rough voice, and fire from his mouth gave light to all the prison. And the dragon came at her with his mouth wide open, and swallowed her. But the sign of the cross which she put upon her grew in the mouth of the dragon, and became greater and greater until it cleaved him into two pieces’ (quoted in Bond’s Dedications).
St Barbara, Hessett, Suffolk. Source: Medieval Wall Painting in the English Parish church
Existentialist theologians have argued that the allegory should be seen as one of inner purification rather than of overcoming evil that has been projected externally. Recognition of collective guilt, social injustice and ‘institutionalized violence’, however, suggests that both are involved.
The dragon or serpent is a metaphor for everything that stops us from being free – tyranny, injustice, hunger, greed. The dragon-slaying myth is a myth of death and rebirth. St George, whose Greek name means ‘farmer’ or ‘close to the Earth’, is linked in Eurasian folk memory to the Green Man, that mocking nature spirit who grimaces from cathedrals and country churches to remind the worshippers of the power of evil, although whether the association precedes the Middle Ages is a matter of dispute.
At the tomb of St George in Lod, there is a bas-relief of Constantine trampling on a dragon and piercing it with his labarum or spear. (The use of the sword, although known in the early centuries, was commonly depicted only in the late middle ages.) According to Eusebius, De vita Constantini, III: 3, Constantine ordered that he be widely portrayed overcoming the evil of paganism. One of his bronze coins dating from 326-330 shows him surmounted by the chi-rho monogram and transfixing a serpent with his labarum. A gold solidus of Valentinian III struck at Rome 424-5 shows the emperor bearing a long cross and transfixing a serpent with a human head.
A similar motif has been found among the 40 terra cotta icons unearthed in Macedonia in the 1980’s and dated to the 6th or 7th centuries. One depicts St George and St Christopher side by side each impaling with a long lance a human-headed serpent (although the identification is disputed). The icons present the figures in full size, dressed in short tunics, with round mantles thrown over their chests and buttoned with decorated fibulae. St George holds in his left hand a spear, stabbing a snake with a man-like head, and in his right hand, he holds a big shield, placed under the cross. On the shield itself, a flower or a star is made in relief. St Christopher, who has the head of a dog and is in many features reminiscent of the Egyptian god Anubis, holds a spear in his right hand, stabbing a snake with a man-like head, and in his left hand he holds a big “tetragrama” cross. The cross is so modelled that it is placed in the middle.
Similar icons have been found in Tunisia.
It is impossible to say when or how the dragon motif became attached to St George, except that it was much earlier than often claimed. It is commonly believed that it is a Christian overlay of the legend of Perseus and Andromeda. Other similar myths involve the gods Marduk, Tammuz and Ahuramazda. Possibly, as suggested by Milner, the legend of George and the Dragon originated when the imperial image on the bas-relief was mistaken or reinterpreted as that of St George. At any rate, so far as is known, the legend came into common currency only in the eleventh century. An intriguing connection with Egypt is suggested by one early source which says that St George accompanied Diocletian’s army into Egypt in 295 and there slew a man who was molesting a woman in the street; the story was supposedly later developed into the dragon myth, which would account for its siting in North Africa.
Dragons were prominent in the mythologies both of the Near East and of Gaul and Northern Europe. In Egyptian religion, the serpent Apep was believed to lie in wait to destroy the sun god as he rose each morning. The god Aai is depicted holding Apep (Apopis) with a rope while he wove spells to paralyze the serpent. The crocodile god, Shesses, is also portrayed having a serpent’s head. Likewise Anubis is portrayed bearing a cuirass and a spear. Horus was also seen as a dragon slayer. Some historians claim that the Ptolemaic Temple of Edfu in Egypt probably shows the origin of St George’s Legend in the bas-relief of ‘Horus riding and killing Seth, the unknown animal’.
Other parallels may be drawn with the myths of Bel and the Dragon, Apollo and Python, Osiris and Typhon, and the story of the Hindu god Karttikeya.
If George by some pre-figuration of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ was seen as partly divine, that could account for his portrayal in terms of the myths of the ancient religions of the Near East and Mesopotamia. Robin Lane Fox in particular has shown that, contrary to what used to be thought, pagan religion in this period was very much alive. Just as the Christian apologists began to defend their doctrines of creation and incarnation in the terms of Greek philosophy, so also the redactors, preachers and pilgrims would commend the tradition of the martyr in the immemorial language of the ancient myths of the surrounding peoples.
The tradition became garbled, twisted and overlaid in re-telling by the travellers, traders and troops through whom the faith was disseminated to new areas. Without the aid of written accounts, informed local teachers or a worked-out theology of martyrdom, they had to translate and apply the story they had heard or the miracle they had experienced into the languages and thought-forms of themselves and their hearers.
St George & The Dragon, Fritton, Norfolk (Norwich) C. 15
(NB: there are 2 villages called Fritton in Norfolk – this is inland to the south and east, near Tacolneston and
Shelton). Reproduced by permission.
Acres of print have been misspent in attempts to prove that the legend of St George and the Dragon is simply a Christian re-telling of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda or myths from other religions. The underlying assumption of such reductionism is that, because Jesus of Nazareth gave few positive commands to his followers and Christianity took over a good deal of custom and practice from pagan religion, therefore Christianity is nothing but a synthesis of pagan cults with a superstructure of ethical teachings likewise derived from other sources.
Analyses of this type have appeared from the earliest times, but were given systematic form in the nineteenth century by ‘scientific’ historians who, directly or indirectly, derived their methodology from Hegel. To them, Christianity was an epiphenomenon or outgrowth of underlying religious ideas. If we discard this philosophical presupposition and look at the facts that come most easily to hand, we see that the legend of George and the Dragon is most nearly derived from the foundation documents of Christianity, now to be found in the New Testament and, behind that, the Old Testament and the apocryphal writings of Judaism, from which Christianity emerged. (The contents of the Bible as we know it were fixed in the fourth century. Before that, the writings which were then identified as canonical circulated alongside a wide range of other materials.) The pagan legends may strike us as mildly entertaining and sometimes raunchy tales about celestial goings on, which are not to be taken too seriously. But to the people of the ancient world they depicted the sort of thing that was all too likely to happen to those who failed to give the gods their proper sacrifices and cult. To the early Christians, these stories were fantasies and falsehoods, and the cults of the gods and the emperor were evil.
Thus it is unlikely that the tradition of St George and the dragon was fabricated to imitate legends from the very worship which the historical St George had given his life to protest. By the time the dragon legend began to be attached to St George, the pagan myths had become a distant echo. There was no need to take them over. Josephus records the precise spot near Beirut where Perseus had rescued Andromeda, but no Christian church is known to have been built there, as Christian churches often were when Christianity supplanted the local religion. It is true that a place called ‘St George’s Bay’ is known in that area to this day, but one wonders how far the identification predates the enquiries of Western travellers about it in recent centuries. Again, it is not a question of whether or not one holds the Christian faith: it is a question of historical method. The likelihood is that the Christian legend of St George and the dragon was an ethical fable drawn from the Bible and designed to illustrate Christian teaching. The legend was only indirectly derived from the common stock of near Eastern dragon myths.
THE BANNER OF ST GEORGE
According to Harding’s Chronicle, a red cross was used in Britain ‘for a common signe eche manne to knowe his nacion from enemies’ long before St George was born.
Military banners of St George, St Michael and other military saints date from at least the tenth century in Byzantium. The banner of St George is the red Greek cross of a martyr on a background of white, the colour of heaven (argent, a cross, gules). Apparently, the symbol was taken over from that of the Archangel Michael, the heavenly counterpart of St George, who was shown as a knight in silver armour with a red cross on his shield and banner, symbolically killing the Devil in the shape of a dragon. One source, Geoffrey Malatessa, says that the banner was adopted as the symbol of St George in the West in the late twelfth century.
The banner may have been thought particularly appropriate because of this passage from Isaiah, chapter 63:
coming from Bozrah, his garments stained red?
Under his clothes his muscles stand out,
and he strides, stooping in his might”
‘It is I, who announce that right has won the day,
I, who am strong to save.
‘Why is your clothing all red,
no man, no nation was with me.
I trod them down in my rage,
I trampled them in my fury;
and their life-blood spurted over my garments
and stained all my clothing.
For I resolved on a day of vengeance;
the year for ransoming my own had come.
I looked for a helper but found no one,
I was amazed that there was no one to support me;
yet my own arm brought me victory,
alone my anger supported me.
I stamped on nations in my fury,
I pierced them in my rage
and let their life-blood run out upon the ground.’
It has often been claimed that the cross of St George was first adopted for the uniform of English soldiers in the reign of Richard I, but this cannot be proved. The claim rests on the assumption that later chroniclers’ statements that Richard put his army under the protection of St George (even if true) mean that he immediately adopted St George’s cross. At the time, however, it was French crusaders who wore red crosses, while the English wore white. At other times, according to contemporary chroniclers, the standards of Richard’s army bore a dragon or a lion. According to Roger of Howden, this was agreed between Henry II and Philip Augustus, king of France, when they met on 21 January, 1188 to plan the Third Crusade. There was indeed no particular connection between England and this foreign saint. In any case, there was no clear distinction between ‘crusades’ (a term little used in medieval times) and pilgrimages, and thus it is misleading to think of the cross of St George as a unique badge of Crusaders. The first known appearance of the banner of St George (as distinct from red crosses on soldiers’ surcoats) was at least as late as 1300 at the siege of Caerlaverock, in company with those of St Edward and St Edmund, but some say the true date was 1308. See About Scotland >http://www.aboutscotland.co.uk/caer/caer.html.
Even so, the flag of St George was adopted by the City of London in 1190 in order for itsships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genovese fleet. The English monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genova (Genoa) for this privilege. It may be this custom that led earlier writers to assume that the flag of St George had become the flag of England at this time.
Until the end of the thirteenth century, the cross of St George was used interchangeably with the white cross of the Angevin monarchs. In addition to the king’s banner of his coat of arms, his army would use a separate flag, often bearing a cross. Many such crossed banners were presented by the Popes. Hence perhaps the confusion in chroniclers’ accounts about the two. At the battle of Evesham in 1265, however, when Simon de Montfort’s rebel forces made use of the white Angevin flag, royalist forces adopted a red cross. No contemporary chronicler, however, connects this device with the banner of St George. Another possible source of later confusion is the fact that Jacobus de Voragine, in the Golden Legend, added a red cross to the white banners of the heavenly host reportedly seen at the siege of Antioch in 1098.
As far as the records show, St George’s Cross was first used as an English emblem by the army of Edward I on campaign in Wales in 1277. It was only from this time that England may first be considered a nation state, the previous post-Conquest kings having been Norman or Anglo-Norman. (England had of course been united for a brief but brilliant period under the later Saxon kings.) Originally the badge of English soldiers had been a white cross on blue. The roll of accounts for 1277 includes payments to Ademetus, the king’s tailor, for the purchase of white and coloured cloth, buckram, etc. for the manufacture of 100 bracers and 340 pennoncels ‘of the arms of St George’. Where men-at-arms did not wear the livery of their feudal lord, crosses were often worn in the form of large cloth badges over the shoulder, front or back, or fully-made surcoats over armour. In a seal of Lyme Regis dating from 1284 a ship is depicted bearing a flag with a cross on a plain background.
One chronicler says that the cross of St George was worn by English troops on campaign against Scotland in 1300, although this has been doubted. The explanation is believed to be the claim of Edward 1 that because the Scots would not make peace, they were hindering him from going on crusade, which he was sworn to do, and hence his troops were effectively crusaders.
It seems safest to say that St George was first recognized as one of the patron saints of England during the reign of Edward I. At this period he was joint patron with St Edmund and St Edward the Confessor. It was Edward III in 1348 who started the process of changing England’s patron saint to St George alone, by dedicating the new chapel at Windsor to him. It should also be remembered that, in popular piety, St Thomas of Canterbury, after his martyrdom in 1170 and the accounts of miracles at his tomb, was adopted as a patron saint by the English.
During Edward III’s campaigns in France in 1345-49, pennants bearing the red cross on a white background were ordered for the king’s ship and uniforms in the same style for the men at arms. The king ‘appoynted his souldiers to wear white Coats or Jackets, with a red Crosse before and behind over their Armoure, that it was not onely a comely, but a stately sight to behold the English Battles, like the rising Sunne, to glitter farre off in that pure hew; when the souldiers of other nations in their baser weedes would not be discerned’. Froissart, who wrote from 1357 onwards, repeatedly refers to the English calling on St George for aid.
When Richard II invaded Scotland in 1385, every man was ordered (17 June 1386) to wear ‘a signe of the arms of St George’, both before and behind, whilst death was threatened against any of the enemy’s soldiers ‘who do bear the same crosse or token of Saint George, even if they be prisoners’. Wearing the cross of St George was the subject of a dispute between English crusaders and the Teutonic Knights in 1354 and between the Knights and the Earl of Derby in 1391. The cross of St George was worn by the English on Despenser’s crusade in Prussia in 1383 and, later, in Bohemia.
Henry V ordered his ships to fly the cross of St George at the siege of Harfleur at the start of his attack on France in 1415, and his army to wear that symbol during the subsequent land campaign. The saint’s banner was flown and his name invoked at the Battle of Agincourt. The saint’s arms were worn again at the siege of Rouen in 1418.
Badge of Rouge Croix Pursuivant. A red cross, either couped or in a white roundel.
At about this time, Henry V made the first appointment of Rouge Croix or Red Cross pursuivant in ordinary of the College of Heralds. He took the name of his office from the red cross of St George, badge of the Order of the Garter and national flag of England. The earliest known mention of the title is in the sixth year of the reign of Henry V, 1418/19, when Rouge Croix was at Caudebec.
Later in the century, many contemporary reports state that in 1451 the English garrison at Bayonne, terrified by the appearance of a white cross in the sky (similar to that the French then wore on red jackets), removed the red cross from their banners and pennons, and surrendered, pleading that since it pleased God they should become Frenchmen, they would all wear white crosses.
On his expedition to France in 1513, Henry VIII wore the tunic of a Crusader knight bearing St George’s cross, bore a jewelled George in his crown and displayed the banner of St George. A ship called the George was among the fleet, and some of the naval guns are believed to have borne the device of St George stamped on their muzzles. Sailing off into a storm, Lord High Admiral Howard ‘trusted to God and St George’. St George’s cross did not, however, achieve any sort of status as the national flag until the 16th century, when all other saints’ banners were abandoned during the Reformation. The earliest record of St George’s flag at sea, as an English flag in conjunction with royal banners but no other saintly flags, is 1545. From this period the banner of St George began to be used as what is now known as the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.
Before then, the cross of Saint George had commonly been flown by English ships from the thirteenth century and in particular by the Matthew on John Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in 1497. There was also the Tudor naval ensign, with (nine?) alternating green and white horizontal stripes (the livery colours of the Tudor family) with St George in a square canton or overall. The colour of the stripes was sometimes blue or red, perhaps according to the livery colours of the commanding officer. The plain cross of St George was flown by Drake, Gilbert and Raleigh, and by the Mayflower as it sailed into Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. The colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth first flew this flag over their stockades.
St George’s flag is also the flag of the cities of Durham, Lincoln, London, Rochester and York.
The Banner of Arms of the City of Durham, UK
The Banner of Arms of the Corporation of the City of London (ie. the ancient city, not Greater London). The sword
in the Canton is the sword that beheaded St Paul.
The Banner of Arms of the City of York
The Cross of St George features prominently in the Arms of the Honourable Artillery Company. The HAC is the oldest Regiment in the British Army. In 1537, the Overseers of the Fraternity or Guild of St George received a Charter of Incorporation from King Henry VIII. According to the Charter, the Guild was intended for ‘the better increase of the Defence of this our Realm and maintenance of the Science and Feat of shooting Long Bows, Cross Bows and Hand Guns’. The HAC hold an annual St George Dinner for Members and guests.
British Union Flag 1606
The cross of St George and the cross of St Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, were combined in the British Union flag of 1606, following the union of the Crowns at the accession of James 1 of England and VI of Scotland.
The Union Flag is often referred to as the ‘Union Jack’ (and either usage is acceptable under a Statutory Instrument passed at the beginning of the last century) but, strictly speaking, the name ‘Union Jack’ should only be given to the British flag flying from the jackstaff at the bow of a naval vessel; other British vessels, under an edict of Charles I in 1634 (since supplemented by numerous regulations) are not allowed to fly the Union Jack. Their flag is the Red Ensign (the “Red Duster’), a red flag with the Union Jack in a canton top left, the place of honour. Ships on British government service, and similar organizations, fly the Blue Ensign.
The Museum of HMS St George (wrecked 1811)
There is a special jack, the St George Jack, for vessels that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940.
The cross of St George is the flag of the Church of England, and also appears in the flags of its provinces and dioceses. The flag should be flown by Church of England parishes on St George’s Day, strictly speaking with the arms of the diocese in the canton.
There is no British law governing the flying of land flags; indeed, the Union Flag is not the British flag by law, but by custom. Despite this, the UK has more official flags than every other country put together, over 500. Flying a naval flag without a Warrant, however, is an offence. The Union Jack is the jack of the Royal Navy and the flag of rank for an Admiral of the Fleet. The widespread flying of the Union Flag by private citizens seems to have begun some time before Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Over the last century and more, questions have been put to Officers of the Royal Household, or raised in Parliament, about whether private citizens may fly the Union Flag on land and the answer has always been ‘yes’.
The cross of St George is still borne in the flags and ensigns of over 20 independent countries and UK colonies and in the flag of the US state of Hawaii.
The author acknowledges with thanks advice from Graham Bartram of Flags of the World.
St George in English History Sample