Today is International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, the day on which writers make part of their work freely available on the Internet. This great initiative in communication began in 2007. With today also being Saint George's Day, I thought the following piece from my book "Legends of British History" was appropriate to place here. All the best from a technopeasant.
Saint George and the Dragon
The supposedly reserved British public excelled themselves with a great display of patriotic flag-waving during June 2002, in a momentous double celebration. The month opened with a four day weekend to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. This coincided with the commencement of the England football team’s campaign in the World Cup finals, which were staged in Japan and South Korea. The Union Jacks with which the British greeted the Jubilee were accompanied by the flag of Saint George, the banner of England. The Republic of Ireland were also participating in the World Cup finals, with a team that included several men born in England of Irish descent, and Irish flags were seen flying alongside those of England. As England and Ireland progressed to the latter stages of the tournament, flags flew from homes and cars for three weeks. This outpouring of patriotism was accompanied by some media discussion about the origins of Saint George, and the English national flag, both of which were demonstrated to be muddled in obscurity or legend.
Saint George was not English. Indeed it is almost certain that he never even visited England. The story that George sailed through the stretch of water that separates south west England from the southern coast of Ireland – now known as Saint George’s Channel – in order to visit Glastonbury, the spiritual home of English christianity, can be dismissed as wishful fiction. Saint George’s place in the national affections stems from the ironic way in which the English, while often displaying a patriotism that borders on nationalism, with an alleged superiority to other nations, have relied heavily on the assimilation of foreign influences in the development of our history and culture. Saint George is a saint whom the English have had to share with many other peoples, and places. At various times George has been acclaimed as patron saint of Antioch, Aragon, Armenia, Branganza, Catalonia, Constantinople, Ethiopia, Ferrara, Genoa, Georgia, Germany, Hanover, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Russia, Schleswig, Valencia, and Venice. George has also been adopted as patron saint by archers, armourers, husbandmen, knights, and soldiers, while his influence is supposed to have helped people suffering from leprosy, plague, and syphilis.
George appears to have been a Palestinian soldier, who was tortured, and murdered, at Nicomedia (now Izmit in Turkey) on April 23 303. George’s death was part of the “great persecution” of Christians within the Roman Empire, which was commenced by Diocletian (ruled 284-305), and continued by Galerius (305-311). This repression was halted in 312, upon the abrupt conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine I (311-337). By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the leading religion within the Roman Empire. Within a few centuries of his death, the cult of Saint George stretched across both Europe and the Middle East. Although Saint George is generally associated with the man murdered in 303, there has been some debate about his original identity. George features in one of the most famous books written by a British historian, namely “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), which was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. In 1988, the two hundredth anniversary of the appearance of the final volumes of Gibbon’s work, I bought and read a one volume abridgement, with the truncated title “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, edited by D M Low, which had been published in 1960. Gibbon asserted that Saint George was the same person as George of Cappadocia, a notoriously corrupt tax collector, who became the Christian Archbishop of Alexandria, and was murdered by a pagan mob in 361. Gibbon wrote that, as a result of the manner of his death, George “assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero; and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the garter”.
The single action for which Saint George has become universally known is an astounding act of chivalry, in which he rescued a damsel in distress, and slayed a dragon. The popularisation of this tale cannot, however, be traced much further back than the appearance of the “Golden Legend”, a collection of biographies of saints, written by Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298), an Italian prelate. This book was translated into English in 1483 by William Caxton (circa 1422-circa 1491), the founder of English printing. The legend has been told many times, with many variants, but the basic story can be recounted in a few sentences. A dragon was said to have preyed upon a fabled country or city, using its vile breath to poison humans. The people managed to appease the dragon by feeding it two sheep each day until the supply of these animals was nearly exhausted. A decision was made to start offering humans as food for the dragon, and the drawing of lots selected the king’s daughter as the first such victim. As the moment of sacrifice impended, George rescued the princess, using her girdle to capture the monster. George then offered to kill the dragon in return for the people being baptised into the Christian faith. George’s dispatch of the dragon was duly celebrated with 15,000 baptisms, following which the people of this unknown land lived a Christian and caring life, in honour of George’s brave act.
Knowledge of Saint George apparently first reached England around four hundred years after his death, with one of the earliest references occurring in the “Martyrology” of the Venerable Bede (circa 673-735) – a monk of Jarrow Priory, who was one of the foremost scholars of his day. Around the turn of the first millennium the writings of Aelfric “the Grammarian”, abbot successively of Cerne Abbas (Dorset) and Eynsham (Oxfordshire) helped to spread the word about George. His reputation was strengthened by English participation in the Third Crusade. During the First Crusade a vision of George had preceded the Christian victory at Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey) in 1098. A century later, Richard I (reigned 1189-1199) led a strong English force in the Third Crusade, and apparently also saw a vision of George, who was already regarded as an international patron saint for soldiers. Richard put his men under the protection of George, and they learnt about his cult in the region where it originated. In 1222 the Synod of Oxford appointed April 23 as a feast day, this being the first English recognition of Saint George’s Day. Edward I (1272-1307) was the first English king to display the flag of Saint George. The flag’s red cross on a white background symbolises the blood spilt in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The Hundred Years War between 1337 and 1453 brought the high point in the English cult of Saint George. His courageous defeat of the dragon made George an ideal figurehead for an English nation locked in protracted war against France. Edward III (1327-1377) owned a relic of George’s blood, and oversaw the effective recognition of George as England’s patron saint. George displaced the previous joint holders of that honour, who had been lacking in military prowess. Edmund, King of East Anglia (854-869) was tortured, and killed, by Danish invaders, who conquered his territory. Edward “the Confessor” (1042-1066) was an exceptionally pious man, whose quiescent approach to international relations, combined with an unconsummated marriage, that left him without an heir, could be seen as one of the roots of the Norman Conquest.
In 1348 Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, which brought together English knights in an attempt to recreate Arthurian romance. The order owed much to the inspiration of Saint George, and Edward III created Saint George’s Chapel, at Windsor Castle, as a meeting place for its members. The first formal meeting of the order took place on Saint George’s Day in 1349. The naming of the order stemmed from a ball held by the English court in France in 1347, during a lengthy siege of Calais. Although Edward III was married to Philippa of Hainault, he apparently had what would now be called a crush on his cousin, Joan of Kent, who was nicknamed the “Fair Maid of Kent”, due to the combination of her being the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent (a son of Edward I) and her beauty. Joan was also married, in fact she had wedded two men in quick succession, namely Thomas Holland and William Montague, the latter being both Earl of Salisbury and King of the Isle of Man. The bigamous nature of Joan’s second marriage led to it being annulled. Following the death of Thomas Holland, Joan would marry Edward “the Black Prince”, a son of Edward III. During a dance at the Calais ball, one of the blue silk garters that Joan was wearing to keep her stockings in place fell to the floor, and was immediately retrieved by Edward III, who in turn tied the garter around one of his legs. Amidst suggestive comment from onlookers about his action, Edward declared “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, a French phrase meaning “Shame on him who thinks shameful thoughts”. The French version of the phrase features on the Lion and the Unicorn emblem of the United Kingdom, along with “Dieu et Mon Droit”, a motto introduced by Richard I. Building upon the Arthurian theme, Jean Froissart (circa 1333 – circa 1404), a brilliant French chronicler who surprisingly became a member of the English court during the Hundred Years War, claimed that King Arthur had flown the flag of Saint George as he battled to defend the independence of Britain.
George was venerated by a series of monarchs in the century following the death of Edward III, as the war against France gave way to the Wars of the Roses, in which both Lancastrians and Yorkists proclaimed the saint as a champion. George’s leadership was famously invoked by Henry V (1413-1422), in a speech prior to the English victory against the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Later that year Henry Chichele, who had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1414, promoted Saint George’s Day to the rank of a principal religious feast. In the twenty first century, Saint George’s Day is recognised by the flying of flags from public buildings but, despite spirited campaigns from groups of patriotic citizens, April 23 is not a national holiday in England.
Saint George has remained a significant part of the English identity ever since the fifteenth century, but there has not been a major development of his cult during that period. In view of the English monarchy’s promotion of the saint, it is surprising that only six of our nation’s kings have borne the name George – with each of these having ruled in the last three hundred years, rather than the medieval period or the Middle Ages. The first such monarch was George I (1714-1727), who was born at Osnabruck in Germany, as a member of the Hanoverian monarchy. At his birth on May 28 1660 – coincidentally the day before Charles II became king upon the restoration of the English monarchy, following the interlude of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic – George had virtually no prospect of becoming king of England. Following the Act of Settlement 1701, the Hanoverian royals began to prepare for possible succession to the English throne, and the future George II, who had been born at Schloss Herrenhausen, in Hanover, in 1683, became a naturalised Briton in 1705. George II, the son of George I, reigned from 1727 until 1760, when he unfortunately died of a heart attack while sat on a lavatory. George II was followed by his grandson George III (1760-1820), the first of the Hanoverian kings of Britain to be born in this island. George’s reign is famous for Britain’s loss of the colonies which became the United States of America, and also spells of supposed “madness” – the latter of which will feature at length later in this book. George III was replaced as effective ruler in 1811 by his son, the Prince Regent, who reigned as George IV from 1820 to 1830. George V (1910-1936), a great great grandson of George III, presided over Britain’s conflict with Germany in the First World War, during which he changed his family’s surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – the Geman principality of Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria – to Windsor. The idea for the surname came from the discovery that Edward III had been known as “Edward of Windsor”, due to his birth in Windsor Castle. George V was followed by his son, George VI (1936-1952). The latter was named Albert Frederick Arthur George at birth, and known as Bertie to his family, but officially called himself George. In 1940 George VI introduced the George Cross and George Medal, to recognise acts of bravery during the Second World War.
Saint George’s Chapel is an enduring legacy of George’s elevation to be England’s patron saint. The chapel created by Edward III was rebuilt by his great great grandson Edward IV (1461-1470 and 1471-1483), with work commencing in 1475. Edward IV was the first king to be interred in the chapel, which has become one of the premier burial grounds of the British monarchy. Edward IV was followed by Henry VIII, Charles I, George III, George IV, William IV, Edward VII, George V, and George VI. Four of the six kings named George have therefore been entombed in the chapel. The exceptions are the two Georges who were born in Germany. George I died during a visit to Germany, and his brial took place in Hanover, making him the first English monarch to be buried abroad since Richard I. George II was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. The royal consorts buried in the chapel include Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, and Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII. Most recently the body of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was buried in the chapel, alongside that of her husband George VI, fifty years after his death had occurred in 1952. The ashes of Princess Margaret, a daughter of George and Elizabeth, who had died a few weeks before the Queen Mother, were also interred in Saint George’s Chapel. Our rapid journey through several countries, and across the centuries, in search of the significance of Saint George has brought us back to the Britain of 2002, which is where we started.