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Saint George in Medieval England

Illustration of Saint George defeating the dragon

Saint George is famous as the original dragon slayer and patron saint of England.  In the late Middle Ages, English enthusiasm for this saint reached a cult status.  So much so that this saint became a key figure in defining English identity, even to the point of giving us the English flag.

But who exactly was Saint George? And how and why did he become so incredibly popular with the English?

Who was Saint George?

The real Saint George was not English.  He was Cappadocian Greek (i.e. from the ethnic Greek community in Turkey).  He lived at the end of the third/early fourth century AD and he served in the Roman army during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.

George, like an increasing number of people at this time, was a Christian.  The Roman Empire had been struggling with Christianity ever since its inception and, from time to time, various emperors had actively persecuted the Christian community. 

By the end of the fourth century, the general attitude to Christianity was one of uneasy tolerance.  However, in 303 AD Diocletian initiated one of the last great imperial persecutions of Christians.  A series of edicts rescinded Christian religious rights and insisted that Christians comply with traditional forms of Roman religious practice.  Those who failed to comply were persecuted.

Martyrdom

George, as a Roman soldier, had a particularly strong duty to serve the will of the emperor.  He and those like him would have been expected to set an example for the wider community.  However, George refused to recant his Christian faith and make offerings to pagan gods.  As a result, he was tortured and executed.

Not long after George’s demise, the new Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  The change in regime saw a church dedicated in George’s honour within a decade or two of his martyrdom.  His popularity spread and grew during the fourth and fifth centuries until, in 494 AD, he was officially sainted by Pope Gelasius I.

As a martyred soldier, George always had a particular appeal to military men, but none of the early stories relating to this saint associate him with dragon slaying.  Indeed, we know little to nothing of George’s actual military career beyond the fact that he was a soldier.

Several centuries would pass before we can find any written evidence of any association with dragons.  The earliest known reference to Saint George as a dragon slayer dates to the eleventh century, around 800 years after his death.

The Golden Legend

The dragon slaying stories appear to have originated in Georgia in the east.  However, these stories quickly became very popular and spread throughout Christendom. 

The classic Saint George story appears in a book called The Golden Legend, written during the mid-thirteenth century.  The Legend was a collection of saintly hagiographies, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, the Archbishop of Genoa.  It is not well known today but during the Middle Ages The Legend was a smash hit.  Its colourful tales of saintly derring-do made it the most popular book of the entire Middle Ages, second only to the Bible.

The Dragon Slayer

In de Voragine’s hagiography of Saint George, we see the classic dragon slaying story in its final form.  So classic, in fact, that it now appears to be full of tropes. 

In it we hear of a town that is plagued by a terrible dragon.  The beast breathes poisonous fumes that spread plague.  The locals attempt to placate the beast by feeding it livestock.  This works for a time, but then the livestock runs out!

In their desperation, the townsfolk must resort to offering a human sacrifice.  This is determined by drawing lots and, sure enough, a fair young maiden is selected.  With heavy heart she sets off to meet her doom but, on the road, she encounters a travelling knight – Saint George.  Needless to say, the knight cannot stand by and abandon the maid to her fate, so he sets off and slays the dragon.

De Voragine then proceeds to relate the original tale of Saint George’s martyrdom.  Aside from the fact that Saint George appears in both tales, they could easily stand alone as two separate stories.

A Patron Saint of Knights

Of course, Saint George’s valiant dragon slaying tales endeared him even more to the knights of Christendom.  He became exactly the kind of martial saint they aspired to emulate.

He became the classic valiant knight-saint, admired by the knights of Europe throughout the Middle Ages.  In the First Crusade, at the battle of Antioch in 1098, several crusaders claimed to have been inspired by a vision of Saint George. This vision, they claimed, had been the source of inspiration for their famous victory at that battle.  As a famed dragon slayer as well as a soldier, there seemed few saints better qualified to act as patron for those who aspired to martial greatness.

England’s Patron Saint

Prior to the mid-fourteenth century, the patron saint of England had not been Saint George but Edward the Confessor.

Edward had been king of Anglo-Saxon England between 1035 and 1066.  He was famous not as a war leader or a warrior but for his piety and holiness.  Strangely, the real Edward may not have been a particular paragon of saintliness.  During his life he was recorded as being susceptible to bribes, had something of a temper and happily engaged in worldly pursuits such as hunting.

However, after Edward’s death, the man quickly acquired a reputation for piety that saw him elevated to the ranks of the saints.  Indeed, he was the only English king to ever be sainted.  However, his holy reputation appears to have owed a lot to the propaganda of English clerics who took the fact that he was childless as a sign of pious celibacy.

Edward the Confessor, as depicted in the fourteenth century, was regarded as England’s patron saint for much of the Middle Ages.

So, whatever Edward the man had been like, as the only English royal saint he was an obvious shoo-in as England’s patron saint.  And, for most of the Middle Ages, the church and a succession of English kings happily venerated him as such.

The Hundred Years’ War

In 1337, a dispute between the king of France and Edward III of England escalated into full scale war.  Edward III claimed the throne of France.  In all likelihood Edward had simply done this to use as a future bargaining chip in a dispute over the Duchy of Aquitaine and Ponthieu.  However, it triggered a war that would last for a hundred years.

In such a war a pious saint such as the Confessor hardly fitted the martial needs of the times.  In around 1344, Edward III instituted a new order of knights known as the Order of the Garter.  This prestigious order was dedicated not to the pious Confessor but to Saint George, the valiant dragon slayer.

For a country trapped in a century long cycle of on-again, off-again war, Saint George would prove extremely popular.  The less martially inclined Richard II would return the Confessor to pre-eminence for a brief time, but Richard was out of touch with the zeitgeist of his times.  This was the age of Crecy and Agincourt, and what the English demanded was a dragon slayer, not a holy man.

By the time of Henry V, Saint George had been fully appropriated by the English.  Henry V invoked the aid of the saint just before the famous battle of Agincourt.  And, following Henry’s famous victory, Saint George’s Day, on 23rd April, became firmly established as a significant day of celebration for the English.

The Cult of Saint George

As the fifteenth century wore on, the popularity of this dragon slaying saint continued to grow. 

Saint George’s Day came to be celebrated with increasingly ostentatious processions in which the leading participant would dress as Saint George.  In the more elaborate of these pageants a mock dragon might even accompany the revellers.  These dragons could be quite spectacular, having been constructed from canvas wrapped around a wooden framework.

Plays featuring Saint George and the Dragon also became popular during this period.  John Paston, a Norfolk country gentleman living at around the time of the Wars of the Roses, records employing a man to perform the role of Saint George in plays staged for John’s household.

By the early part of the sixteenth centuries these processions, plays and pageants appear to have reached the height of their popularity.  Saint George’s place as the patron saint of the English was established by this time.  So much so that Saint George’s flag, the red cross on a white background, would eventually be adopted as the flag of England.

End of an Age

In the middle of the sixteenth century, the protestant reformation swept England.  All things Catholic, especially the numerous saints’ cults, were regarded with extreme suspicion.  The celebration of saints’ days suddenly became strongly associated with papism and even treason against the protestant Tudor regime.

Saints’ day parades, especially the flashy pageants that accompanied Saint George’s day were suppressed.  Even the display of saints’ banners was made illegal by the protestant Edward VI in 1552.  All banners, that was, except for Saint George’s flag.  Even the ultra-protestant Edward could not bring himself to erase the last vestiges of Saint George’s catholic trappings from English society.

Nowadays the spectacle of medieval pageants may be gone but Saint George’s Day is still marked on the English calendar.  Even though the real George was a Greek who never even visited England, he gave the English both their flag and their patron saint.

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The Antisemitic Cult of William of Norwich

The Green Man – History and Origins

Travel in Medieval England

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

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References and further reading

Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle – Juliet Barker, Abacus, 2006

The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine, Princeton University, 2012

The Stations of the Sun, A history of the ritual year in Britain, R Hutton, Oxford, 2001

Images

Edward the Confessor: the Wilton Diptych c14th (via Wiki Commons)

Saint George and the Dragon:  Bernat Martorell, 1435 (via Wiki Commons)

2 thoughts on “Saint George in Medieval England”

  1. Graham Ruston

    I was wondering how East Anglian king Edmund the Marytr’s cult interacted with Edward (and later George), and also did the fact that Edward (and Edmund) were Anglo-Saxon aristocracy rather than Norman rulers have any influence upon their being supplanted by a foreigner?

  2. Medieval History Blog

    Thanks for raising that question Graham. Edmund the Martyr was another very important English saint (he was particularly revered during the Anglo-Saxon period). You could regard him as England’s co-patron saint along with the Confessor during the early to high medieval period. Both he and the Confessor may have been Anglo-Saxons but they continued to be revered long into the Norman and Plantagenet periods. Other popular saints with the English over the medieval period also included Saint Gregory (the Pope) and Saint Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket). But they were all ultimately eclipsed by Saint George.

    However, this happened quite a long time after the Norman Conquest. Both Edmund and Edward remained very popular saints with the English Kings throughout most of the Middle Ages. That only began to change after Edward III instituted the Order of the Garter during the early part of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry V sealed the deal after Agincourt when he raised the status of Saint George’s feast to one of the principal feast days of the year. So, we really have Henry V to thank for elevating Saint George to the status of England’s patron saint. And we know why he did it as well. He claimed he did so to give thanks to the saint for aiding him during the battle of Agincourt. And he invoked the saint’s aid because of Saint George’s reputation as a martial saint. It was a reputation that none of England’s homegrown saints could match (the Confessor and Saint Thomas were holy men. Edmund had been an Anglian king but had been defeated and slain by the Vikings – so not an especially successful soldier). Saint George, on the other hand, was not only a soldier but also a dragon slayer. Consequently, Saint George had established a reputation as a soldiers favourite during the Middle Ages (the crusaders had invoked him as a patron during the battle of Antioch for example).

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