Cry God for Harry! England and Saint George!
William Shakespeare Henry V
Christianity came early to Britain, several centuries indeed before there was a nation called England, or a people called English. It spread from Rome through a network of underground contacts, reaching the outermost parts of the Empire in the islands of Britain in the far North-west. The waves of persecution of the Christians also reached out to the fringes of imperial territory. Around 300 A.D. one of these waves of persecution, perhaps even that which brought about the martyrdom of St.George in the homeland of Christianity, also brought about the death of the first British martyr, St. Alban, at the far end of the axis of Empire.
We know as little about St. Alban as we know about St. George, but the story of his generous act of giving his life to save that of the Christian priest being hounded by the authorities gave him a special place of veneration in the calendar of British Saints. In later centuries a great Benedictine Abbey was to arise on Holywell Hill in St. Albans, testifying to the place of his death, and destined to become one of the great seats of learning in the country. It even gave to the world the only Englishman ever to sit on the throne of the see of Rome, Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV.
St. Alban was the forerunner of a long and distinguished succession of British, and later English saints. The withdrawal of the Romans in the 5th century, and the incursions of the heathen Angles and Saxons from the continental mainland, forced the retreat of the early British Church westward into the Celtic heartlands of Wales, Cornwall and Ireland. Another one and a half centuries passed before Saint Augustine, sent by the Benedictine Pope Saint Gregory the Great, landed in Thanet, converted the English king of Kent, and founded the see of Canterbury. Sts. Augustine and Gregory shared the title “Apostle of the English”.
Barely a century later, there started a reverse wave of evangelisation, in which English missionary saints were sent out to convert the heathen peoples on the continental mainland: St. Willibrord who converted the Friesians and established both the see of Utrecht and the monastery of Echternach in Luxembourg: St. Willibald who, with his brother St. Winebald, established the monastery of Heidenheim: and their Devonshire cousin St. Boniface, the “Apostle of Germany”, who ranks with St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier among the great evangelists of the Church.
As England grew into a nation in the succeeding centuries, so grew the calendar of English saints, laymen as well as clerics: St. Edwin and St. Oswald, martyr kings of Northumbria in the 7th century: St.Ethelbert, martyr king of East Anglia in the 8th century: St. Edmund, famous martyr king of the East Angles in the 9th century: St.Edward the martyr, king of England in the 10th century: and in the 11th century the most famous of that long line of kingly saints, Edward the Confessor. And then, a century after the upheaval of the Norman conquest, there was added to the calendar of English saints the most noted of them all. He was not a king, but an archbishop, killed by the king’s own men, killed in his own cathedral at Canterbury: St. Thomas a Becket, martyred nearly six centuries after the see of Canterbury had been established by St. Augustine and some nine centuries after the death of the British protomartyr St. Alban.
The 13th, 14th and 15th centuries saw the emergence of the great Nations of Europe. They also saw the emergence of Chivalry and Knighthood, rooted in the turbulent history of the Crusades, and accompanied by their external manifestations of heraldry. For centuries past patron saints had been chosen for trades and vocations, and for towns and cities. Now the time of choice for the great city states and nations was at hand. This was the time when the Patron Saint of England was chosen. There was clearly no dearth of local candidates, in the long line of famous martyrs and evangelists, from St. Alban through St. Augustine, St. Boniface, St. Edmund, St. Edward the Confessor, to St. Thomas of Canterbury. Yet with all this wealth of choice, the English took for their national patron saint not one of their own, but a martyr saint from beyond the other far end of Europe: St. George of Lydda, an obscure little town two thousand miles away, in another country and another continent. Why such an extraordinary choice?
The answer lies in the fallacy hidden in the question. The medieval world of Europe was not geo-centric, but theo-centric. To a 14th century Englishman the centre of the world was not London, the capital city of England, nor even Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church. It was Jerusalem, the sacred city of the Holy Land: a city thousands of miles away and in another continent, but still the very centre of the world. Medieval maps of the world, exemplified by the Mappa Mundi that can be seen today in Hereford Cathedral, give visual utterance to this truth. At the far Eastern and South-eastern fringes of this map lie the fabled countries of China and the Indies. At the far North-western fringe lie the remote Islands of Britain. And there, in the very centre of this circular map, at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, lies Jerusalem, the Holy City.
Nor did this theo-centric view of the world conflict with the political and economic realities of the time. For a thousand years past Christian civilisation had been centred on Constantinople, the city chosen to be the New Rome by the Roman son of a British princess, St. Helena, discoverer of the True Cross. It was Constantine the Great, first acclaimed Emperor at York, in Roman Britain, who chose this political and economic centre of the world at the meeting place of Europe and Asia, only a few hundred miles from the Holy City itself.
Lydda, Lod of the Old Testament, the probable place of St. George’s martyrdom and burial, was and is barely a day’s journey on foot from the Holy City, just half way between Jaffa and Jerusalem. St. George was not in fact an unknown saint from an obscure city in an unimportant country. He was the Great Martyr of the Eastern Church, the State Church of the great Empire of Byzantium. He was venerated alike by Christian and Moslem, and tradition said that he was martyred and buried almost within sight of the place where Our Lord himself was martyred and buried. To medieval man he ranked with the other great martyrs and evangelists from the Holy Land: St. Peter, the founder saint of the temporal Church in Rome: St. James, chosen as Patron Saint of Spain: St. Mark, Patron Saint of the great city-state of Venice: St. Andrew, Patron Saint of Russia and of Scotland. In a very few cases, as with St. Stephen of Hungary, nations chose one of their own sons as Patron Saint. But far more often, they chose from the martyrs and evangelists of the Holy Land. The Holy Places of Palestine evoked intense emotions in the hearts and minds of Christians in the Western World. The choice of St. George of Lydda as the Patron Saint of England thus fully matched the temper of the times.
It is widely thought that the English cult of St. George started with the Crusades. It is certainly undeniable that the cult was immeasurably strengthened by the stories brought back by Crusaders from their military pilgrimages, but in fact there is substantial evidence of a strong devotion to the Saint in earlier centuries of English history. There is no factual evidence of a Georgian cult in Roman Britain, and one can dismiss as fiction the extravagances of Arthurian legend which tell of King Arthur carrying the flag of St. George into battle. More credence can however be extended to stories that as part of his missionary message, St. Augustine told the Anglo-Saxons to build churches throughout the land, dedicating them to St. Michael and to St. George. But the first firm record of the cult of the Saint having reached these islands comes from the writings of an Abbot of St. Columba on Iona, named Adamnan, dated around the end of the 7th century.
Adamnan’s information about the Saint came to him through the hair-raising misadventures of a Frankish bishop, named Arculf, earlier mentioned in Chapter 7. This bishop was returning by ship from a pilgrimage to the Holy Places, when his ship was driven by gales far to the north of his intended destination. It was finally wrecked on the rocky shores of Iona, where Arculf was succoured by Adamnan and his community. He seems to have stayed there over the winter months before setting sail again for his homeland, and to have spent much of the time relating the experiences of his pilgrimages to the monks of the Abbey.
Adamnan incorporated Arculf’s account in his treatise on the Holy Places, ‘De Locis Sanctis’, the original text of which is available in Latin, and which has been translated into modern English by Wilkinson in his ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’. Being the sanctuary of St. George, Diospolis (Lydda) was inevitably among Arculfs places of pilgrimage. Following his narrative, Adamnan gives a lengthy account of miraculous happenings at the Diospolis shrine, in which St. George apparently convinced some sceptical visitors of his saintly powers. This account does not however refer to the events of the apocryphal Acts of the Saint, which in varied forms were widely available at that time.
Only a generation later, in the year 725, St. Willibald set out from the Hampshire town of Hamble on a pilgrimage to Rome and the Holy Land, with his father, later canonised as St. Richard, and his brother St. Winebald. His father died en route, and his brother apparently stayed in Rome, but Willibald travelled on to the Holy Land with two other companions. He visited Jerusalem, and all the famous cities and shrines of the country. His account of his travels was taken down by Hugeburc, an English relative who was a nun of the double monastery of Heidenheim, which Willebald and Winebald later founded in Germany. Her record of his early history and travels, the ‘Hodoeporicon’, records that after a short stay in Jerusalem, “he set out and came to the place Diospolis, to St. George: it is ten miles from Jerusalem”. She gives no details of his visit, but her words makes clear the association of Diospolis (Lydda) with our Saint. Although there is no record of Willibald having returned to England after his visit to St. George’s shrine at Lydda, it is certainly reasonable to suppose that accounts of his travels would have been sent back to his native land.
A copy of Adamnan’s ‘De Locis Sanctis’ came into the possession of the Venerable Bede soon after it was written. He used it extensively for the writing of his own work of the same name, and included excerpts from it in Chapters 15 & 16, Book 5, of his ‘History of the English Church and People’, but he omitted the section describing the miracles attributed to St. George at Lydda. This is not altogether surprising, since Bede’s work, unlike that of Adamnan, was intended to be a factual record concerning places, in which stories of alleged posthumous miracles would have been quite out of place.
Whether or not Bede included any account of St. George in his other famous work, his ‘Martyrology’, is a question of some dispute. Many historians state unequivocally that Bede did record the martyrdom of St. George in this work, under the accepted date of his death, 23rd April, though Joyce Hill, in her paper ‘Saint George before the Conquest’, claims that there was no entry in the space for 23rd April, in the extant manuscript of Bede’s ‘Martyrology’ which is closest to the now lost original. In any case, however, Bede certainly referred to the Saint in his ‘Ephemerides’. The text of this reference is given by Peter Heylyn, who records the following excerpt from the Ephemerides, relating “to the ninth of the May-Calends”:
” Nonadocet Fortunatum, et Achilles junctus. Hac etiam invicto mundum quisangiune temnis Infinita refers Georgi sancta Trophea ”
” This ninth day of Fortunatus tell, And of Achilles, joined together well, And of thee George, who didst the world neglect And holy trophees in thy bloud erect ”
A century or so after Bede, we find a record of St. George’s martyrdom in a ninth century martyrology written in Old English. This record is of especial interest, both as regards its content, and as regards its use of the vernacular. It is a modified version of the famous (or infamous) Acts earlier referred to in Chapter 1, embellished with reference to the posthumous miracles related by Adamnan (Arculf).
Matzke, in his ‘Contributions to the History of the Legend of St. George, with Special reference to the Sources of the French, German and Anglo-Saxon Metrical Versions’, has indicated the existence in the first millenium of two versions of the Acts. The first, which he has termed as apocryphal is the full blooded, long drawn-out version described in Chapter 1, with all its unbelievable details of repeated tortures and resurrections, culminating in the deaths of all 72 of the ‘Kings’, together with their leader Datian. The second version, which Matske terms canonical, is more moderate, and purports to be quasi-historical. There are no preliminary deaths and resurrections, the tortures are toned down, Datian is replaced by Diocletian, and the 72 apocryphal ‘Kings’ are replaced by one consul named Magnentius.
Although it includes names appropriate to the apocryphal version of the Acts, the content of the entry concerning St. George, in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Martyrology largely follows what Matske would call the canonical version, together with some of the details of Adamnan’s account of Arculf’s story of his visit to Lydda. The date of martyrdom for St. George is given as 23rd April. Perhaps the most important feature of this record, as regards the origins of the English cult of the Saint, is the fact that at this very early date, it is written in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. In fact it is judged by J.E. Cross as being ‘the earliest vernacular description of George’s passio in Europe’. This surely indicates that by this date the cult of St. George was already firmly established in specifically English martyrology.
Further evidence of the growth of the English cult of the Saint is to be found in English monastic and cathedral calendars. These of course provide only references and dates: by their nature they do not lend themselves to narrative detail. Two north-country calendars dating from the ninth century, one of them a metrical calendar from York, commemorate the Saint on 23rd April. Many surviving calendar manuscripts from the south of England between the mid-lOth century and the mid- 11th century also commemorate the Saint on this date.
Another important document demonstrating the growing strength of the Anglo-Saxon cult of the Saint is the Life of the Saint George written by Aelfric in Anglo-Saxon, in rhythmic and alliterative prose, at the very end of the millenium, sometime between 992 and 1002. This life was included in Aelfric’s ‘Lives of the Saints’, intended primarily for use in Benedictine monasteries. In substance it follows the story given in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Martyrology, being similar to the ‘canonical’ version of the Acts, though retaining some of the names of the cast from the apocryphal version. According to Hill, there are four extant manuscripts of Aelfric’s Lives of the Saints, with overlapping contents, and the only saints in all four manuscripts are St. George and the two English saints Ethelfrith and Edmund. This linkage with important national saints seems to indicate a growing popularity for St. George, at least in Benedictine circles.
There are also references to St.George in English church liturgies at this period. The wording of most of these are appropriate for any martyr, and as Hill suggests, they generally indicate no particular devotion to St.George on the part of the English. But one such liturgical reference is of an entirely different character from the rest. It is found in the so-called ‘Missal of Robert of Jumieges’, where astonishingly the Saint in actually named in the Canon of the Mass, along with Saints Benedict, Cosmas and Damian, Martin and Gregory. This Missal was written shortly before 1023, and was based on a sacramentary from the Benedictine Abbey at Peterborough. It was presented to Jumieges by Robert, former Abbot at Peterborough, during his tenure as Bishop of London, from 1044 to 1051.
Many may be unaware of the significance of inclusion of the name of a saint in the Canon of the Mass. The Canon is the very heart of the sacrament, and a saint named here has to be of very special significance. Cosmas and Damian, the twin-brother Arab physicians beloved in the East, were so included at a very early date in Canon of the Mass of the Roman liturgy, and the reason for inclusion of St. Benedict in the Canon of the Mass of a Benedictine liturgy is self evident. The inclusion of Saints Martin and Gregory also is not unexpected, the former because he was highly revered by St. Benedict, the latter because he was both a Benedictine and the acclaimed ‘Apostle of the English’. The unexpected name is that of St. George, the Great Martyr of the East. For him to be included here along with the others suggests that his fame in this part of the world must by now have grown quite dramatically, giving him a very special place in the devotions of English Benedictines, and hence in the devotions of English people.
Hill suggests that this may have been due to continental influence through the Benedictine Reform. There is indeed no doubt that by the 9th and 10th centuries a significant cult of St. George had already developed in Europe, especially in German monasteries (see Chapter 7). But there is not sufficient evidence to indicate whether this played a major role in accelerating the growth of the emerging English cult, or whether it merely encouraged an already vigorous indigenous development.
There is no reliable evidence that any churches were dedicated to St. George in pre-Norman England. At Winchester there was a chapel dedicated to him in the 10th century, under Bishop Ethelwold, and his name is included in mid-tenth and mid-eleventh relic lists at both Winchester and Exeter. We have to wait until Norman times however for Georgian church dedications, and more particularly until the return home of the Norman knights and their English men at arms, flushed with the successes of the First Crusade; successes reportedly gained through the miraculous intervention of St. George in some of their most critical hard-fought battles against the Infidels.
The wider significance of the Crusades in promoting the cult o f St. George throughout Christendom has already been discussed in Chapter 4. Here we are concerned with their more specific effect on the cult of the Saint in England. It is often maintained that it was Richard I who brought the cult of St. George to England, on his return from the Third Crusade, though there is little recorded evidence to support this popular view. There is however plenty of recorded evidence pointing to the events of the First Crusade, which preceded Richard by a full century, as providing the stimulus for the English cult of the Saint.
The military pilgrimage of the First Crusade reinforced the recognition of Jerusalem as the centre of the world, in medieval Christendom. Knight and commoner alike, the Crusaders streamed in their tens of thousands across Europe, to the liberation of the Holy Places. Many among them were from Normandy and England, and English ships played a vital role in the final stages of the liberation of Jerusalem. As they approached their destination the English and Norman soldiers encountered many manifestations of the cult of St. George, including the church built in his honour by Constantine the Great in Constantinople. There they heard stories of miraculous healings attributed to the intercession of the saint. They reached the Bosphorus, known then as the ‘Arm of St. George’, and passed Tyre, where Egytian tradition says that St. George was martyred. They reached Lydda, where even more compelling tradition records that he was born and buried, with its church dedicated to St. George and reputed to have been built originally by Constantine the Great.
The miraculous interventions of St. George and his saintly companions at the battles of Antioch and Jerusalem, after the Crusaders fought their way from Constantinople to the Syrian coast, have already been described in Chapter 4. Here it suffices to add that the English and Norman participants in these battles, just like their Frankish companions, were fully convinced that St. George had appeared to them from the mountains, mounted on his white horse, to spur them on to victory. It is especially significant in the context of this chapter that respected English chroniclers of the period, quoted in Chapter 4, gave full credence to the accounts of the returning Crusaders.
William of Malmesbury, who died around 1143, was virtually a contemporary of the events of the first Crusade. Matthew Paris died around a century later, in 1259. They were sober, reliable chroniclers,and their accounts, quoted in Chapter 4, show that already by the end of the 12th century the story of the miraculous intervention of St. George at Antioch was firmly established in the hearts and minds of the English people.
Evidence for this is not however confined to the accounts of the chroniclers. The intervention of St. George at the Battle of Antioch is also clearly and explicitly depicted in an expressive carving on the stone tympanum of an old church dedicated to St. George at Fordington, a parish of modern Dorchester in Dorset. After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the Anglo-Saxons had abandoned the low-lying sites of Roman towns such as Dorchester, and had established settlements on adjacent hills, such as that on which Fordington stands. A church on this site was mentioned in King Alfred’s will, and although its dedication was not stated, some writers record that it stood within the Hundred of St. George in Saxon times. Although guide books to the present church describe it as 13th-14th century, some experts judge it to be much older.
The tympanum is formed of six large stones sculptured in relief and bearing traces of colour. St. George is shown on horseback, with a discus around his head, carrying a lance with which he is impaling the enemy. An unusually shaped banneret adorns this lance: it is emblazoned with a cross, and bears three long forks which stream back behind the Saint. On his left are two armed figures apparently kneeling in prayer: these may be Crusaders, or perhaps even Seljuk Turks praying for mercy. On his right are the Seljuk enemies prostrate before his lance. The arms and armour in this relief carving, with conical nasal helmets, and long kite-shaped shields, are reminiscent of those found in the Bayeux Tapestry, indicating that the tympanum itself almost certainly dates from the late 11th or early 12th century. Inside the church, the capital of one of the Norman columns carries intricate carving in patterns which are certainly neither Norman nor Gothic in origin, but which are distinctly reminiscent of Eastern art. The stone itself is said to be of a type foreign to this country, and it has been suggested that this capital might have been brought back from the ruined church of St. George in Lydda.
A much more modern feature of the interior is an attractive memorial plague to the dead of the second World War, surmounted by a St. George and Dragon in golden metalwork: a reminder that a thousand years after his intervention against the infidels at Antioch, St. George is still seen as a defender of human liberty against tyranny.
There are reliable historical records,linking Fordington with the First Crusade. The Lord of the Manor in which Fordington stood was the Norman Count of Eu, who owed allegiance to Robert of Normandy, William the Conqueror’s eldest son. The Count of Eu accompanied Robert on his expedition to the Holy Land in the First Crusade, and took with him his vassal Baron William Belet. Among his various properties, William Belet had tenure of 3 hides in Frorae Belet within the Hundred of St. George, which included the parish of Fordington itself (the Frome is the river which runs just below Fordington Hill). It is understandable that with the approval of the Count of Eu and the Duke of Normandy, he should have decided to commemorate one of the central events of their victorious Crusade in this ancient church in his personal domain.
There is a similar Norman Tympanum at Damerham in Hampshire, and the same theme is apparently shown on the capitals of the chancel arch at Wakerly in Northamptonshire, though nothing is known about the provenance of these carvings. Yet another record of St. George at Antioch is in a wall painting in a 12th century church at Hardham in Sussex, which also shows prostrate figures beneath the figure of the saint. The cult of the saint in this country was thus well established in the 12th century, not only in written records, but also in the stones and fabric of religious imagery which served to instruct and entertain all churchgoers; knight, clerk and commoner alike.
Just when this devotion to St. George grew beyond a popular cult, to become a national dedication, is far from clear. His name was added to the English calendar of Saints for April 23rd in the year 1220, in the reign of King Henry III, and two years later the Synod of Oxford decreed that this day should be observed as a national feast day. The first physical evidence of the Saint’s role as national protector however was the use of his cross on the flag flown on the masts of English sailing vessels. The earliest known examples of this practice are the flags shown on both military and merchant ships, on 13th century borough seals of the towns of Faversham, Ipswich, Lydd, and Lyme Regis, which are illustrated by Pedrick in his book entitled ‘Borough Seals of the Gothic Period’. The seal of Lyme Regis
is of especial interest, showing not only the flag of St George, but also two banner flags, one charged with the arms of England, the other displaying quarterly the arms of Castile and Leon. To quote Pedrick: “the flag charged with the royal arms of England alludes to Edward I, whilst that blazoning the arms of Leonand Castile points to the fact that the revenues of the port were included in the dowry of his queen”. The flag of St. George on this Lyme Regis seal, is in the form of a banneret with a three-forked end: the same unusual design as that found in the banneret carried on St. George’s lance in the tympanum on the church of St. George at Fordington.
Lyme Regis lies only thirty miles west of Fordington, so one might reasonably speculate about the possibility of some connection between these two unusual examples of the banner of St. George, simply on grounds of proximity. Such a possibility becomes however a probability, perhaps even a near certainty, when we find in the Domesday Book that in addition to his Fordington holding, Baron Belet had tenure of one third of Lyme Regis. So it seems highly probable that the eventual adoption of St. George as national patron of the English people stemmed directly from the dedication of the little church of St. George in Fordington, just off the coast from which small ships wearing his flag sailed out in the 13th century; precursors of the ships of the modern British navy, which today sail the oceans of the world under the White Ensign, still displaying the red cross of St. George.
In the same period of English history, the flag of St. George was carried in land battles alongside those of St. Edmund and St. Edward, as evidenced by an entry in Th. Wright’s “Roll of arms of the Princes, Barons and Knights who attended King Edward I to the siege of Caerlaverock in 1300”, listed by Wagner in “A Catalogue of English Mediaeval Rolls of arms”:
Puis fist le rois porter a mont Son baniers le Seint Eymont La Seint George, e la Seint Edwart
Pictorial art of the same period also carried the same theme. One of the earliest representations of the Saint in English religious art is found in a 13th century manuscript illumination in a Book of Hours now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 231.
This shows St. George dressed in armour, holding a lance and bearing a shield, each of which displays his armorial bearing, ‘Argent a cross Gules’. His white surcoat is similarly adorned. Standing with him is a knight also dressed in armour, whose banner, shield and surcoat carry the Royal Arms of England differenced by a label which indicates that the wearer was closely related to the king. He is generally identified as Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster (1245-1296), whose sobriquet, Crouchback, is probably a corruption of Crossback, meaning Crusader: a good reason for him, a Crusader, to be associated with St. George, the Protector of Crusaders. The date attributed to this illumination by Wagner is 1295.
By happy coincidence, a variant of this illumination, probably by the same artist, has been preserved in Walter de Milemete’s tract De Nobilitatibus. Sapientis. et Prudentis Reaum (Christchurch, Oxford, MS92, f.3); a tract of advice on kingship for the newly crowned King, who was a 14 year old boy when he came to the throne in 1327. In this illumination the figure of Edmund Crouchback is replaced by the crowned figure of Edward III wearing the royal arms unlabelled, while St. George presents to the King a shield bearing the same royal arms.
These two illuminations most aptly complement the evidence of Th. Wright’s Roll of Arms at Caerlaverock, as to the standing and reputation of St. George among members of the Plantagenet Royal family around the turn of the century. Over the next half century, that standing and reputation strengthened and spread, and it is therefore not surprising that in 1348 St. George was made Patron Saint of Edward III’s newly instituted Order of Chivalry, the ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’. A few years later, in 1352, he was explicitly acknowledged as the Patron Saint of the English People, in a patent granted by Edward III to the Dean and Canons of the Chapel of St. Stephen at Westminster, and to the Dean and Canons of the Chapel of St. George at Windsor, discharging them from the payment of Tithes. Ashmole records the relevant words of the patent, Pat de Anno 25 E3 p.2.m.l2:
Beatus Georgius invictissimus Christi athleta, cuius nomen & patrocinia GENS ANGLICANA veluti Patroni sui singularis, in expeditione prefertium Militari invocat etc implorat, instinctu divino ut credimus excitati
“Blessed George, the most invincible soldier of Christ, whose name and protection as their unique Patron is invoked and implored by the ENGLISH PEOPLE on the battlefield
Further evidence of Edward Ill’s recognition of St. George as Patron Saint of England is the incorporation of a figure of the Saint on the 7th and 8th of his Great Royal Seals, those which were used between 1350 and 1377. In his classic work on ‘English Seals’ Harvey Bloom quotes from an article by St. John Hope in the journal ‘Ancestor’, as follows: “The seventh seal (the most artistic of the whole series) represents the king enthroned in his robes of estate. The throne is surmounted by a canopy, in the centre of which the effigy of the Holy Mother with the infant Christ appears, and these are again seen on the right hand of the canopy, while the figure of St. George occupies a corresponding situation on the left”. Royal Seals of similar design, incorporating the figure of St. George, were used by Edward’s successor, Richard II (1377-1399), and still later by Edward IV (1461-1483).
Henceforth there could be no question as to the patronal status of St. George in England, though explicit written declarations are few, and it is not until the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) that we find a royal declaration of St. George as Patron Saint of the Realm written in the English language. This is found in the title of Henry’s Statutes of the Order of St. George named the Garter, in the words:
The blessed Martyr St. George, Patron of the right noble Realm of England
Long before the time of Henry VIII, however, there was de facto acknowledgement of St. George as National Patron of England on the battlefield, in the pageantry of heraldry and tournament, and in Brotherhoods and Guilds of St. George throughout the country. Invocation of their patron saint on the battlefield by English soldiers is well attested in contemporary chronicles of the campaigns of Edward III and his famous son the Black Prince, which were fought to establish his claim to the crown of France. Froissart chronicles innumerable occasions when they and their leaders called upon the Saint. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340 Edward declared “I have long wanted to fight them. We will do so, if it pleases God and St. George”. At Crecy, in 1346, the Marshals of England sent their men forward “in the name of God and St. George”, and at the siege of Breteuil, in 1356, the English soldiers shouted “St. George! Loyalty and Navarre, Loyalty”.
Still later, in the Black Prince’s Poitiers campaign that followed that siege, Froissart records how the English shouted: “St. George, Guyenne! the more to confuse the enemy”. It was then that Sir John Chandos made this great and memorable remark to the Black Prince “Ride forward, sir, victory is yours! Today you will hold God in your hand. Let us make for your adversary, the King of France, that’s where the real business lies. I know he is too brave to run away, so he can be ours, with the help of God and St. George, but only if we can tackle him. You said just now that you would show how well you can fight”. These words fired the Prince, and he answered: ‘come on, John, come on. You won’t see me hanging back. It’s forward now. Then he called to his banner bearer ‘Advance, banner, in the name of God and St. George!’… Later there followed a great melee, in which many were unhorsed. French knights and squires fighting in groups raised their cry of ‘Montjoie Saint Denis’ while the English shouted ‘St. George! Guyenne’.
Geoffrey le Baker records similar episodes in the Black Prince’s campaign of 1356, when the English soldiers met the army of the Dauphin of Vienne. In one encounter between the French and English armies “Both sides met boldly, roaring out the names of St. George and St. Denis in the hope that they would sway the battle in their favour The capital de Buch with the Prince …. suddenly burst out of hiding, signalling his presence to our men with the noble banner of St. George.
Thirty years later, the Grandes Chroniques of France (Brit. Library Cotton Nero E ii, pt 2 and Royal 20c.viii), recorded the same events, and carried illuminations by an artist who imagined the different scenes therein described.
In the royal wardrobe accounts of 1345 to 1349, around the time of the battle of Crècy, a charge was made for 80 penoncells of the arms of St. George for King’s Edward’s ship, and for 800 others for men at arms (Archaelogica XXXI, 119). It is probable that up to that time display of the cross of St. George as the English national symbol was largely confined to flags and banners and pennons. In the second half of the century, however, the cross was being displayed on the clothing of men at arms, as indicated by Ordinances of King Richard II, according to which every man of the English army invading Scotland was ordered to wear a “signe of the arms of St. George”. It was also declared that enemy soldiers “who do bear the same crosse or token of St. George, even if they be prisoners”, would incur the death penalty.
When Henry V came to the throne in the year 1413, most of the French possessions seized by his great-grandfather Edward III and his grandfather, the Black Prince, had been frittered away. Once more the battle for their re-possession was renewed, in the name of God and St. George. Henry was a very devout man, and before he sailed for France he prayed to St. John of Beverley, to Jesus, Mary and St. George, while from the rigging of his ship there flew a large representation of the Blessed Virgin together with standards showing St. George in combat with the infidel, and St. Edward, his hand raised in blessing. Our Saint was invoked time and again during the terrible siege of Harfleur, the principal gateway to Normandy, and during the great march towards Calais which followed the surrender of Harfleur.
The climax of the campaign was the famous battle of Agincourt, where the vastly outnumbered English army inflicted a crushing defeat on the flower of France. Soon after dawn on that fateful St. Crispin’s day Henry heard mass in his tent. After he emerged, at 6 am, the hour of prime, he mounted a grey palfrey, and commanded the royal banner with the arms of Our Lady, the Trinity and St. George to be unfurled over his head. For three hours the massed English and French armies confronted one another. Then Henry cried battle, with the words: Banner Avaunt! In the name of Jesus, Mary and St.George. As the men at arms surged forward, with the cross of St. George blazoned on their surcoats, some claimed to have seen a vision of St. George in the sky over the battlefield. When the day’s terrible carnage was over, and the French had surrendered, some 8000 of their great army were dead. Once again St. George of England had prevailed over St. Denis of France.
Henry returned home in splendid triumph, and was given a hero’s welcome unsurpassed in the history of the realm. When he reached London on 23rd November 1415,he crossed the Thames by London Bridge, and after passing through the City gates, found a magnificent spectacle before him. An enormous bridge had been erected across the way, fringed with white and jasper hangings, and crowned with a tapestried crimson pavilion. Inside the pavilion a choir of hundreds of boys and girls was assembled, wearing laurels and golden wings. They sang a triumphal song to an organ accompaniment, while towering above them there stood a 20 ft high armed and helmeted figure of St. George, wearing a pearl-studded laurel wreath. The conquering hero had returned home to be greeted by the saintly patron of his realm, his personal protector and true inspirer of his victory, St. George of England.
Following the victory at Agincourt, St. George’s day was by the King’s desire prolonged into a Festum Duplex, a Double Festival for a holiday from toil. This was formally promulgated by a Canon of Convocation of the Province of Canterbury, with a preamble which said (translated from the Latin);
The faithful of the English nation, although obliged to worship God in all his Saints, yet ought more particularly to praise him with high acclamation, to sound forth his praises and to give him reverence and signal honour, in the person of his most glorious Martyr Saint George, as Patron and Protector of the said Nation.
Both Henry and the fruits of his victory were, alas, short-lived. But the fame of his patron grew apace, fostered nationwide by Brotherhoods and City Guilds and church foundations dedicated to his patronage, many of which has already been in existence since the reign of Edward III. The greatest of the Brotherhoods was the ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’ which Edward had established in 1348. In less exalted circles than this great Order of Chivalry, however, Guilds and Societies of St. George sprang up in towns and cities great and small, to harness the swell of genuine popular devotion for the Patron Saint of the people of England.
Medieval Guilds were in many respects the forerunners of today’s Clubs and Friendly Societies. Those with a religious bias generally started off with the simple intent of maintaining local devotion to a particular saint. Some of these remained quite humble associations of local folk, quietly pursuing their chosen devotion. Others in the course of time became very prestigious societies, membership of which was eagerly sought by social climbers, and readily accepted by those already in the higher ranks of society.
A typical example of the humbler kind was the Guild of St. George the Martyr established in Bishop’s Lynn in the year 1376. Its primary purpose was to ‘found’ a priest to serve at the altar of St. George in the church of St. Margaret at Lynn, for the worship of God and the Holy Martyr.In the ordinances of the Guild it was prescribed that candles and torches should be found, to be burned during services and burials, to hold special services for deceased brothers and sisters, masses for the souls of the dead, and to provide help for poor members. Guild regulations governed the timing and frequency of meetings, and the general observances of these meetings. As with most such Guilds, there was provision insisting that the affairs of the Guild should not be disclosed to non-members. The Guild was intended for local membership, and no provision for ‘outside’ members was made in the ordinances.
Those St. George Guilds which fall in the second, more prestigious category, also started with similar intentions, but due perhaps to their foundation in large cities, such as Chichester, Leicester, Coventry and Norwich, they developed quite rapidly into important fraternities whose membership was eagerly sought. The most famous of all was the Guild of St. George founded in Norwich in 1385. Its devotions were observed at an altar dedicated to St. George in Norwich Cathedral, and its original Ordinances were very similar to those of the Bishops Lynn Guild, though if anything were somewhat simpler. But it grew rapidly in power and prestige, and in 1416, under Henry V, it was granted a charter in which it was incorporated under the name of “The Alderman, Masters, Brethren, and Sisters of the Fraternity and Gild of ST. GEORGE in NORWICH”.
This charter1 5 elaborately described its constitution, duties and functions. It was to be governed by one Alderman, 4 masters and a 24 strong assembly or common council. It was given permission to wear a common livery, to hold an annual feast, and to have a common seal, to sue and be sued. The charter implied a close association between the Guild and the City of Norwich, declaring that the Prior, Mayor and Sheriffs of the City, as well as the Alderman of the Guild, had power to expel or remove members of the Guild for bad behaviour.
Evidently the relationship between this powerful Guild and the City of Norwich was not entirely smooth in the years following the grant of the charter, and their differences had to be resolved by litigation. The settlement ruled that the City Mayor should ex officio be Alderman of the Guild for the year following his discharge from his mayoralty. It was also agreed that members of the common council of the City may be members of the Guild, but on condition that, like members of the Guild council, they were liable to be responsible for the ‘charge of the feast’. The Alderman and common council could choose other men and women of the city, besides the aldermen and common council of the city, to be members of the Guild, “But no man dwelling out of the city was to be chosen for the future, unless he were a knight, squire, or some notable gentleman”
Blomfield records that “this company increased so, as to be able to lend the city £100 or £150 when they wanted, and was of such reputation, as to have the following great persons members of it in Henry the Fifth and Sixth’s time”. His long list of “great persons” includes: Sir Brian Stapleton, Sir John Fastolf, Sir Henry Inglosse, Sir John Clifton, Sir Thomas Erpingham and many other knights: The Bishop and the suffragan Bishop of Norwich and many other notable clerics: The noble Lord William de la Pool Earl of Suffolk: William Paston, the King’s Chief Justice and other notable lawyers: and many other “notable gentlemen”. In all there were 264 members in the year 1450. Membership lists in later years make it clear that there was no lessening in pride of membership. Such names as Thomas Duke of Norfolk in 1555, Philip Earl of Surrey in 1564, the Lord Hunsdon in 1565, and the Lord Cobham in 1566, testify to the continuing prestige attached to membership of the Guild. The membership of Sir John Fastolf in Henry VI’s reign is especially interesting, since he was also a member of the Order of St. George named the Garter.
Inventories of the possessions of the Guild also make interesting reading. That of 1468 includes
a precious relique, an angell silver and gilt, berying the arme of Seynt George, ye which was given to the seid fraternite by Sir John Fastolf Knyght. A chesipele of green damask embroidered with gold, having the arms of St. George a seal of silver of the commonalty of the gild, graven with an image of St. George A scarlet gown for the George, with blue garters. A coat armour for the George beaten with silver, banners of the same work, with the arms of St. George, for the trumpets. A banner with St. George’s image, another with his arms.
The “George” here referred to was the chosen member of the Guild who played the part of the Saint in the yearly procession on the Feast Day of St. George. This was clearly a great occasion, as indicated by the following quotations from Blomefield’s footnotes:
1471, Ordered every alderman to send a priest with a cope to the procession, in all 24. 1472, The aldermen to attend in scarlet gowns and hoods, and the commoners in long gowns. 1534, Philip Foreman to be the George this year, and to have £10 for his labour and finding apparel. 1535, the Gild obtained a lease for 99 years, of the great hall in the palace, with the buttery and pantry at its north end of the said hall, with the kitchen and other offices next there, for the keeping of the feast of St. George yearly and six days before the feast and six after. 1537, Bought for the apparel of the George and Margaret, eight yards tawny, and four yards crimson velvet. Every man was to have a hood of sanguine and red, and wear it at the feast.
The ‘Margaret’ referred to here was St. Margaret of Antioch, who like St. George, was often depicted with a dragon, and who always accompanied St. George in the Norwich procession. In 1549, the tide of the Reformation caught up with the ancient customs and festivities of the Guild, and an order came down from Edward VI’s commissioners prohibiting the use of the armour and other trappings of the George and of St. Margaret. These, and other prohibited effects, were sold off to various members of the Guild. When Queen Mary came to the throne there was a temporary reprieve, and we read that in 1556 “a gown of crimson velvet pirled with gold, was bought for the George”. After Mary’s death, however, objection to the parading of ‘images’ of saints returned with even stronger emphasis, and in 1558, under Queen Elizabeth I, it was ordered that that “ther shall be neyther George nor Margett, but for pastime the DRAGON to come in and show himself as in other years.”
After the death of Queen Elizabeth there was some renewal of the old customs, at least until the Commonwealth prevailed. There was another revival after the Restoration, and in 1704 the company of St. George, as it was now called, was wealthy enough to give many rich presents to the City Mayor, including a new sword of state made of wood, and having the dragon’s head carved on it, ‘scabberds’ of red and black velvet, and a new staff with a silver head of St. George and the dragon, the arms of the company, on a pedestal of silver, to be carried by the company’s beadle before the Alderman of the company.
Some years later, however, the Guild fell on hard times, and in 1731 it made an arrangement to deliver up to the City of Norwich all its charters, books, records and other goods, provided the city would pay its debts of £236 15s Id. In the words of Blomefield, writing in 1745, “Thus was this ancient company disused, or laid aside, and their goods surrendered to the city committee, as they now remain”. Among the goods listed in the inventory at the time they were delivered to the City was ‘Snap the Dragon’, the famous wickerwork dragon painted green and gold who used to appear in the great Norwich procession on St. George’s Day, carried by a man who wore a skirt and held a string by which the long jaws were pulled apart. It was the delight of youngsters to throw their caps at the Dragon, and if he caught one of them, it had to be redeemed with a copper coin.
The Dragon still continued to come in and show himself in procession with the civic dignitaries on St. John’s Eve, until eventually that celebration also was abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1837,and Snap was relegated to Norwich Castle Museum, where he can still be seen. In 1990 he appeared in London in a procession arranged to honour the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
The growth of devotion to St. George in medieval times was of course not confined to secular bodies such as the Orders of Chivalry and the Guilds. It also flourished mightily in church dedications and church art. It has been estimated that more than 200 churches in England bear the name of St. George, more than half of them dating from Pre-Reformation times, though the writer is unaware of any reliable listing. Only a few of the churches dedicated to the Saint, whether pre- or post- reformation, retain evidence today of a special devotion to the Saint, beyond the occasional stained glass window with his image. But the few exceptional ones more than compensate for this lack, through the richness of their historic and artistic associations with t h e English cult of St. George.
The church of St. George at Fordington, which as we saw earlier played a key role in the evolution of the cult of the Saint in this country, is one of these few. Its artistic content is relatively simple, but its historical significance is unique, and the church as a whole is a small gem in the English crown of St. George. It is truly fitting as the birthplace of the cult and patronage of St. George in our heritage.
In an entirely different category, however, there is another English church dedicated to the Saint, which played a major role in the later development of his cult and patronage, and which is without doubt the greatest monument to St. George, both artistically and historically, in the whole of Christendom.
This is the ‘Chapel of St. George at Windsor’, not a subordinate chapel of some great church or cathedral, but a truly great church in its own right. Set within a complex of cloisters and ecclesiastical buildings which occupies about one third of the vast area of Windsor Castle, it might better be termed a ‘cathedral’ than a chapel, and indeed that is what it used to be called by George III and his entourage in the 18th century.
Although the Royal Free Chapel of St. George was founded at the same time as the Order of St. George named the Garter, it would be quite wrong to see it as merely an adjunct to that Order. As Bond rightly points out, the Chapel “served two separate but parallel institutions, each of which had been founded in 1348 by King Edward III. Firstly, there was a community or college of clergy, the Dean and Canons of Windsor, established to pray for the Sovereign, his family and for all the faithful departed. Secondly there was the Most Noble Order of the Garter, an order of chivalry subsequently to become the most renowned in Christendom. The canons and the knights shared the same chapel, but whereas the canons and their deputies celebrated the normal services of the church daily, the knights came together once a year, to enjoy a three day festival which, “… might combine jousting and feasting with elaborate prayer and ritual”. The two institutions, the College of St. George and the Order of St. George, represented the religious and secular aspects of royal and national devotion to the Saint, as complementary to each other as are the two sides of a golden sovereign bearing the effigy of St. George on one side, and the effigy of the King on the other. The letters patent governing the College of St. George laid down an establishment of 25 canons and other priests under a dean. There was already a small establishment of chaplains at Windsor, serving the spiritual needs of the king’s household, and in 1240 Henry III had built for them a small chapel dedicated to St Edward the Confessor, located where the ‘Albert Memorial’ chapel now stands. Edward III refitted this chapel in 1350 with a new roof, new stained glass windows, and stalls for the knights of the Order: it was then re-dedicated “to the honour of God Almighty, and of his mother, the glorious Virgin Mary, and of St. George the Martyr and Edward the Confessor”
Despite the tripartite dedication, St. George soon became the chief patron of both the College and the Order.
The chapter seal, which is thought to be contemporary with the foundation of the college, shows King Edward kneeing before St. George, and royal letters patent issued less than a year after the foundation refer to the king’s “chapel of St. George, Windsor”. When the dedication is mentioned in college rolls of account, only the name of St. George is stated. Our Lady’s name is often coupled with that of St. George in latters patent in the time of Edward IV, but St. Edward’s name is rarely included St. George was clearly the main focus of devotion from the outset.
The old chapel must have been a lovely building, judging from the slender arcading of its northern wall, which now flanks the Dean’s Cloister, and its fine west front, which, with its original entrance doorway, now forms the east end of the present St. George’s chapel, behind the altar. Details of its interior can only be gleaned from written records, mainly those dealing with College accounts and inventories. One interesting item among the furnishings of the Chapel was a large wooden statue of St. George, clad in armour, which stood before the high altar. This was installed in 1351, and it is recorded that the carpentry work for its erection cost 4 shillings. In 1388 its arms were repaired by a goldsmith , and in 1416 all of its armour was repaired and cleaned by John Frobisher of Gascony for 20 shillings.
The many privileges granted to the College by the charter of Edward III were jealously guarded by the Dean and Canons. For example, the execution of all writs against members of the College had under the charter been granted to the bailiffs of the College, but in 1455 Henry Este, of the King’s wardrobe, had the temerity to deliver a writ to one of the canons. The Chapter ordered Este to appear before them under pain of excommunication. After he came and humbly admitted his fault, he was received into grace, having done penance by offering a candle weighing 11 lbs, in honour of Almighty God and the Virgin his Mother, and of St. George, and saying five pater nosters, five aves and one credo on bended knee before the statue of St. George in St. George’s Chapel.
In addition to the large statue of St. George, the old Chapel contained an image of Our Lady in silver gilt, weighing over a hundredweight, which King Henry III himself had given to the Chapel in 1240. It also held a precious relic, the heart of St. George, which the Emperor Sigismund, brother-in-law to King Richard II, presented to the Chapel upon his election to the Order of St.George in 1417. Towards the end of the 14th century, the structure of the building became unsafe, and in 1390 Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous poet, was appointed Clerk of the Works, “bidden to do all such things as be needful to repair the chapel in our castle of Windsor, which is threatened with ruin and in danger of falling to the ground”. Chaucer’s repair work lasted for another eighty years, but by 1478 the chapel was again in such an advanced state of disrepair that King Edward IV decided to replace it by a new and much more ambitious chapel. He may to some degree have been inspired by envy of the lovely College Chapel at Eton, just across the river, which had been built by his rival and predecessor, Henry VI.
The magnificent St.George’s Chapel which today stands at Windsor Castle was the outcome of Edward IVs ambition. It was built over the period of a half century, spanning the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and well into the reign of Henry VIII, at the very peak of the architectural achievement of the middle ages. The culmination of this vast enterprise was the insertion of the superb stone vaults over the nave and choir, lining the heavy oak ceilings which had already for many years protected the chapel from the elements: this final act was completed in 1528,the 19th year of the reign of Henry VIII, by stonemasons John Hylmer and William Vertue.
During his reign Henry VIII was to exhibit his delight in the patronage of St. George in many other ways, as in the use of a golden Bulla seal carrying the image of the Saint, and in his issue of golden coins with the same image, the famous ‘George Nobles’ of his realm. But none of these could match in beauty and pride the achievement of the great stone vaults which finally crowned the Chapel of St. George at Windsor Castle. Henry took great personal pride in this final achievement, for there on the beautifully painted vault at the crossing his dominion is displayed. In the centre is the Royal shield encircled by the garter of the Order of St. George, setting the precedent for the pattern of Royal Arms for future generations.
It is surrounded by four other painted coats of arms: the uppermost displays the shield of St. George: the other four display the arms of three great royal potentates of Europe who were then members of the Order: the Emperor Charles V, King Francis I of France, and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria: in turn, these are surrounded by the garter encircled arms of the 16 English members of the Order.
Superlatives are inadequate to describe this great work. Both externally and internally the architecture is superb: viewed from without, its delicate flying buttresses and pinnacles are a delight to the eye: viewed from within, its soaring columns and magnificent vaulted ceilings are breathtaking. The interior is made all the more splendid by the intricate painting on the ceilings, and by the rich colours of the great stained glass windows, and of the banners which hang over the stalls of the knights of the Order of St. George named the Garter.
Inside the Chapel there are no individual representations of St. George which can match the great Valencia Altarpiece in the Victoris and Albert Museum, or Nottke’s great group of Georgian statuary in Stockholm’s Storkyrkan. Here it is the Chapel building itself which is his great memorial, though reminders of the Saint are nevertheless scattered throughout the interior, in the delicate carvings of the passion of St. George on the carved Popeys of the choir stalls, which alternate with scenes of the passion of Christ; in the garter ‘Georges’ in the Choir clerestory (south) window; and in the repeated displays of the Cross of St. George in the intricacies of the painted bosses and panels on the ceilings and in the stained glass windows.
In the west window of the Deanery chapel, visible from the Dean’s cloister, there is a recently discovered and restored St. George with Dragon, a very fine piece of 15th century stained glass which was earlier in a house in the Canon’s cloister. Within the chapel vestry (formerly the chapter house) there is an imaginative life-sized canvas painting of King Edward III, commissioned in 1615, displaying an unusually designed garter brooch pinned to the garment beneath his ermine cloak, in which the garter encircles a mounted figure of St. George with the Dragon. And in the Albert Memorial Chapel, on the site of Edward Ill’s original Chapel of St. George, there is a very elegant St. George in the delicate foliage of Gilbert’s Clarence memorial
In the Aerary building adjacent to the Chapel the ancient archives of the ‘Order of St. George named the Garter’ are preserved, among them the famous ‘Black Book’, a richly illuminated manuscript register bound in black leather, compiled in 1534. One of the illuminations shows Henry VIII surrounded by the Knights of the Order, all wearing the Collar of the Order bearing the ‘George’ depicting a mounted St. George with the Dragon.
There is another English church of St. George, similarly associated with the Order of St. George named the Garter, which surprisingly was built well before the present St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. This is St. George’s church in Stamford, Lincolnshire, which is today a small market town sitting astride the Great North Road. In medieval times Stamford was a very important city, with its great castle and its impressive walled fortifications. It housed many substantial religious houses, ranking with Oxford and Cambridge as a seat of religious and academic learning. Richard II chose the religious house of Greyfriars in Stamford, in 1385 , as the burial place for his mother, widow of the Black Prince, and he built a magnificent chapel there over her remains. Stamford was also important politically, being the seat of the Council of Parliament, the effective capital city of the kingdom, on many occasions in the 14th century.
The church of St. George at Stamford was one of the very earliest churches in England to be dedicated to the Saint, possibly dating from before the First Crusade. The earliest extant record is dated 2 July 1244, when “Ralph the parson of St. George in Stamford” was given permission to build a new aisle. Poole states that the original ‘small and low’ 13th century church was burnt down and was rebuilt in the 14th century to somewhat loftier proportions. In the 15th century it was greatly enlarged, mainly at the expense of William Bruges (1375-1450), the first Garter King of Arms. It seems that some time in the 1440’s Bruges conceived the ambitious idea of creating at Stamford a new Chapel of St. George, apparently intended to play some role in an establishment for a college of Heralds. His personal devotion to St. George is clearly depicted in the famous picture in the ‘Bruges’ Book’ which shows him kneeling before the Saint. (Plate ).
The precise date of the rebuilding is not clear, but the structure of the church must have been finished before Bruges died, for he stipulated in his will that he was to be buried “in the myddel of the quere”, and he left assets explicitly intended for the “Complishyng and endyng” of the church, itemising the leading of the roof, glazing of the windows, tiling the floor, and providing a rood loft, desks and pews. This was a full generation before Edward IV initiated in 1478 the building of the great new Chapel of St. George which now stands at Windsor. Bruges also instructed that chapels of Our Lady and St. George within the church were to be enclosed by use of deal boarding with tabernacle work above.
The chancel of the re-built church had an East window of five lights, with three four-light windows down each side. The first printed record of the content of the glass in these windows is found in Richard Butcher’s ‘Survey and Antiquity of the Town of Stamford’, (cited by Hugh Stanford London in his “Life of William Bruges”). Although his book was not published until 1717, Butcher dates its “Epistle Dedicatory” at 1 January 1646. He writes: “In the upper Window of the Quire of St. George’s Church are portrayed kneeling (as in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor before the picture of that Saint Edward III, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Henry Duke of Lancaster, all in their Robes of the Order of the Garter, and in the Windows on each side of the said Quire are portrayed according to the first Institution, the first Knights of that Order that were made kneeling in their Garter Robes upon their Surcoates of Arms”
In November 1736 the antiquarian William Stukeley, who was rector of All Saint’s Stamford from 1729 to 1745, recorded:
The glass of the Quire being put up by William Bruges Esq., first Garter King of Arms, a great benefactor, and as it may be said founder of this church. It consists of the effigies of the founders and first Knights, companions of the most noble order of the Garter. One knight is represented in effigy in each of the windows of the quire, toward the bottom of the light, kneeling in posture of prayer, in armor of their proper coat. Over it the blue mantle with the star upon it. They all look toward the high altar.
Today, alas, only fragments of that glass remain in the church, but fortunately several sets of drawings of the subjects were made in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the glass was removed and destroyed. The earliest of these was the renowned ‘Dugdale Book of Draughts’, a collection of paintings made in 1640 and 1641 by William Sedgwick and annotated by William Dugdale, and now owned by the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham. A later set of drawings was found among a collection of notes made by Ashmole for his famous account of the order of the Garter,and now in the Bodleian Library: these were apparently copies of the Dugdale Draughts, but they include some items currently missing from these Draughts, notably the central figure of St.George. The third was a set of coloured drawings made by the antiquary Ralph Thoresby in 1716, bound up in a Commonplace Book collected by Stukely, now in the library of the Wiltshire Archaelogical Society in Devizes.
There are, not surprisingly, some inconsistencies between the three sets of drawings, but when pieced together they give a pretty reliable picture of the original windows. Each light had two panels of glass, in which the background consisted of lozenge quarries of white glass, each with a garter in yellow stain, bearing the motto of the Order. Of the many hundreds of such quarries originally painted, only a few survive in otherwise plain windows of the church, and even some of these may be copies. The upper row of panels depicted episodes in the martyrdom of St. George, corresponding to events in manuscript Passions of the Saint. The lower panels showed the figures of the original members of the Order, including King Edward III, with St. George in the centre of the east window, while Bruges as donor, with his wife and daughters, was in the westernmost light on the north side. The badge of the Order was shown on the left shoulders of the figures in the south windows, but most of the drawings show simply a roundel of the red cross: in only two cases do they show the cross within a Garter, as in the example from Dugdale’s draughts. It is of course possible that in the original glass the garters were shown in all of the badges, but were omitted from rapidly executed ‘on site’ sketches which were later worked up into finished drawings.
Butcher’s account of the windows might to be taken to mean that they were in some sense replicas of windows in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, but in fact there are no such windows in the Edward IV chapel, which was already in use when he was writing. There may perhaps have been such windows in the earlier Garter chapel of Edward III, but it is more likely that the Stamford windows were intended as an artistic portrayal of the live scene in the Chapel of St. George at Windsor during formal high mass, with the knights of the Order kneeling and facing the altar. In any case, Bruges’ new church of St. George’s at Stamford, in its full glory, must have been a very impressive memorial to the Order and to the Saint. It is very sad that in later centuries vandals destroyed the beauty of this great memorial. What stands today is still a very lovely church, but it is been largely stripped of the decoration which meant so much to those who designed and built it.
Ironically, the destruction was not carried out by the iconoclasts of the Reformation or of the Puritan Commonwealth. Just as they spared the glass and other decorations of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, so the iconoclasts spared those of St. George’s Church at Stamford. The culprits were 18th century incumbents intent on improving the lighting of the church, and local tradesmen intent on earning an ‘honest’ penny. In 1736 Stukely wrote in his diary:
“It was observed with great regret what miserable havoc is made daily in the painted glass of the churches of the town, particularly St. Johns and St. Georges, where the most painted glass is left. At St. George’s they have destroyed wholly several entire windows within three years past. First they pull the glass down under a notion that it darkens the church. Then they are forced to get a great curtain to cover the window from the sun. The true secret is, next to the indolence of the inhabitants, the glaziers get the profit of putting up new glass.”
Quite apart from the distressing vandalism of this story, it seems to typify an indifference to ancient traditions and culture which overtook English society in the 18th century. Rees relates how the builders of the early 18th century London church of St. George’s Bloomsbury placed on its top a statue of King George I. They were obviously more interested in Hanoverian Kings than in Christian Saints, and this event inspired a nice little piece of satirical verse from Horace Walpole:
When Henry the Eighth left the Pope in the lurch,
The people of England made him ‘Head of the Church’
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people,
Instead of the Church made him ‘Head of the Steeple'”
Perhaps inspired by this pseudo-elevation from kinghood to sainthood, later Hanoverian kings played a part in the so-called ‘Romantic Revival’, which manifested itself in ‘restoration’ and imitation of ‘Gothic’ buildings and the external trappings of medieval Chivalry. After King George III moved his family home to Windsor, he became deeply involved in the renovation of Windsor Castle and St. George’s Chapel. This activity paused during the illness of his later years, but was vigorously taken up again by his successor George IV, who enlarged and restored St. George’s Hall, the grand meeting place of the Knights of the ‘Order of the Garter’ within Windsor Castle.
The ‘Romantic Revival’ continued through the Victorian era, and well into the 20th century, as Mark Girouard has so elegantly described in his book ‘The Return to Camelot’. Among other things this led to a rather mannered but enthusiastic revival of interest in St. George, in upper and middle class society. One quite charming example of this was the production in London, in 1912, of a quite charming children’s play called ‘Where The Rainbow Ends’. In this play St. George appears on the stage to give aid and support to a family of children who were being cheated and persecuted by their Wicked Uncle. It was a tremendous success as a Christmas treat for children in the writer’s youth, and perhaps played some part in stimulating his ‘Search for St. George’, as recorded in this book.
‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ drew Christmas audiences of happy children even up to the 1950’s, but apart from that very little of the ‘romantic revival’ of interest in chivalry and in St. George survived the horrors of the first world war, and the disillusion of the returning heroes in the depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Half a century later, however, there still remain in England many reminders of the old English cult of the Saint, in local customs and traditions. Some of these are still re-enacted in local festivities and Mummer’s plays which take place in many country districts at holiday times. Some derive from Voragine’s Golden Legend story: others derive from English Romances about St. George, such as the legend of the Red Cross Knight in the First Book of Spencer’s 16th century ‘Faerie Queen’, or Richard Johnstone’s 18th century ‘History of the Seven Champions of Christendom’.
Spencer’s Red Cross Knight, who was involved in so many tortuous and incredible adventures in the kingdom of Gloriana’s Court was without doubt intended to represent St. George, but he was never explicitly so described. Johnstone’s Knight was not only explicitly St. George, Patron Saint of England; he was also an English Knight, son of the Earl of Coventry, who was High Steward of England. Like Spencer’s Red Cross Knight, he went through an incredible sequence of adventures, including battles overseas with the wicked Turkish and Moroccan infidels, and culminating in his victorious combat with the famous dragon of Dunsmore, which ended with his own death. The most popular mummer’s shows are those based on St. George’s battles with the Turkish or Moroccan infidels. Mummers in Surrey and Sussex have their own special version of this, in which the Saint fights and wounds a Turkish Knight. He introduces himself with the words:
Here comes I, St. George, a knight of courage bold, If any Saracen is near, I’ll make his blood run cold. I fought the evil dragon and brought him to the slaughter, and that is how I won the King of Egypt’s daughter.
In this version he wears a traditional helmet, but in variants in other counties he sometimes appears in a top hat! In the Cornish village of Padstow St. George gets mixed up with old pagan fertility rites, and his horse gets mixed up with the old figure of the Hobby Horse, locally called ‘Obby ‘Oss. He is called in with the words
O where is St. George, O where is he, O ?
He is in his longboat upon the salt sea, O.
And for to fetch the summer home, the summer and the May O
For summer is a come, O, and the winter is agone, O
In addition to these folk memories of the medieval cult of St. George, we also retain some faded remnants of the glorious legendary exploits of the Saint which were portrayed in brilliant colours on the walls of medieval churches. Most of the wall paintings in English churches were covered with whitewash either by the iconoclasts of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, or by the equally destructive vandals and innovators of the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century that process of destruction has been partly reversed, as art historians and antiquaries labour to restore, as far as is possible, the treasures of past centuries.
Many quite beautiful St. George’s are among those that have been restored through careful removal of the whitewash, exposing the figures that once instructed and entertained church-goers in earlier centuries. These include excellent wall paintings at Pickering (Yorks), Dartford (Kent), Kidlington (near Oxford), and Little Kimble (Bucks). Although its colours have long since faded, the latter is a particularly good example.
Fine though these paintings are, however, they are but dim ghosts of the brilliantly painted pictures which once entranced our forebears, and their faded beauty somehow seems to enhance the sense of loss of the magic which they once conveyed.
But it would be wrong to conclude this chapter on a note of despair and regret for past glories. St. George is by no means vanished from our scene. His flag still flies over the towers of our English churches on St. George’s Day and on many other feast days and national occasions. Despite the widely reported ‘demotion’ of St. George in the Universal Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, the 18th century proclamation of the Saint as Protector of the Kingdom of England, by Pope Benedict XIV, still remains in force, and his feast day on 23rd April is still observed in a special mass in the English Calendar.
Quite recently an impressive wooden statue of St. George was carved by Septimus Waugh, for the Catholic church at Dulverton in Somerset. This is thought to be the first statue of the Saint to have been commissioned for an English church since the Reformation.
Within the White and Red Ensigns, and the Union Jack, the flag of St. George still flies over British ships and British public buildings. It is displayed in the arms of some of our greatest cities, including the City of London, York, Durham and Bristol, and it still proliferates beyond the seas, despite the transformation of Empire into Commonwealth. Six of the 12 Canadian provinces include either the Flag of England or the Union Jack (or both) in their arms,
as also do many of the one-time colonies. Even one of the American States, Hawaii, includes the Union Jack in its arms, a reminder of British influence in the period between its discovery by Captain Cook in 1778, and its annexation by the USA in 1898.
There are also several active and vigorous English societies associated with the cult of the Saint. The Royal Society of St. George is a flourishing association, with many local branches, of men and women who are proud of our English heritage, and of its links with St. George. The Society of the Friends of St. George’s Windsor Castle, supported by many hundreds of British and overseas members, does Trojan work for the preservation of this great monument to St. George, not only as regards the fabric of the Chapel, but also through the extremely high quality of learned papers published in its annual report, many of them devoted to the history and development of the cult of the Saint. This Society also organises many meetings on topical social matters, in its conference centre at St. George’s House, within the precincts of the Chapel.
Finally, we can point to one outstanding example of renewal of the old pride in the St. George of our English forefathers, which was initiated during the second World War: the award of George Cross, the greatest accolade for gallantry and devotion to duty that can be bestowed upon a civilian citizen of this country. This award has become a hallmark for the qualities of personal bravery and self-sacrifice which characterised St. George, and which inspired his followers over the Christian centuries.
King George VI was a quiet, devoted family man, and in his younger days he was an ardent admirer and supporter of the Boy Scout movement, whose Patron Saint has always been St. George. So it is not surprising that the figure depicted on the George Cross which bears his name is not that of the king himself, but that of St. George, portrayed in the famous design attributed to Benedetto Pistrucci, a design familiar to all who have preserved one of the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ crown coins, or have acquired one of the English sovereigns or half sovereigns of the last one and a half centuries This design has also been widely used on British and Commonwealth postage stamps.
Throughout the last half century the George Cross has been presented for outstanding gallantry to brave men and women, and even to one heroic community, the people and island of Malta. They received it for their outstanding heroism and devotion during the ferocity of the Nazi onslaught upon that tiny island, and there is no better way to conclude this chapter than to reproduce here the citation which accompanied that award
The Governor, Malta
To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history,
George R. I
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