Fr Martin Henig writes on the historical, literary, and mythological background behind St George, Patron Saint of England, whose feast day falls on the 23rd of April.
Each of the constituent countries of the British Isles has a patron saint. Scotland has an Apostle, St Andrew; Ireland has St Patrick who though a Roman Britain certainly evangelised in Ireland or at least the north part of it; Wales has in St David one of the very many insular saints of whom there are plenty in every part of our islands. England, however, has opted for an eastern warrior saint, from the Byzantine world who, in all probability, never existed and whose legend owes much to a pagan legendary hero of uncertain credentials. Moreover, although his cult in Britain may go back to the 11th century, he only begins to become a patron saint of England in the late Middle Ages.
George’s best known achievement was killing a dragon. His ancient Greek forebear was Bellerophon who, mounted upon the winged horse Pegasus. speared the fire-breathing monster, the Chimaera. The scene was frequently depicted in Greek and Roman art, and in Late Antiquity it may sometimes have been adopted as alluding metaphorically to Christ’s victory over the forces of evil. Of five mosaics figuring the scene from Britain, from Hinton St Mary and Frampton in Dorset, Lullingstone in Kent, Croughton in Northamptonshire and Boxford in Berkshire the first three certainly have a Christian charge. That from Hinton St Mary being linked with a panel depicting Christ with the Chi-Rho; and that from Frampton, also associated with a Chi-Rho panel. The Lullingstone mosaic contains an inscription which may contain the holy name IESUS in cipher and is in any case in a building which contained a house church. Methodius, a third century bishop of Olympos in Asia Minor identified the Chimaera with the seven-headed dragon of Revelation (Convivium 8, 10 and 11. See Revelation 13,3;19, 19-20). Bellerophon and the Chimaera continued to be popular in the Byzantine world and those who visited the Imagining the Divine exhibition will have seen an openwork ivory panel on loan from the British Museum, while the episode is also depicted on Egyptian textiles, and in the mid Byzantine epic Digenis Acrites Bellerophon is portrayed in an imaginary palace alongside other heroes, both Classical and Biblical while in the 12th century Eustathius in glossing the Iliad calls Bellerophon a ‘killer of evil’.
By then, St George had risen to prominence, though as an equestrian warrior saint, he was not alone having been preceded by an equally legendary St Theodore. The Byzantine empire beset by enemies, mainly Muslim in faith, had great need of saviours and both Theodore and then George were useful champions of the faith. Both, of course, were said to have been martyrs, Theodore at Amaseia and George at Lydda in the Great Persecution. When depicted together they recall the Dioskouroi, thus evoking a second conflation with a classical past.
Although Theodore preceded George, the latter seems to have made greater headway especially in the west where together with other Eastern saints (St Margaret of Antioch for one, an equally improbable dragon slaying saint) George was adopted by Western crusaders. It is possible that a little green jasper gemstone of early 11th century date found at Winchester and apparently showing St George spearing the dragon marks his first appearance in Britain, if indeed it is not St Theodore who is depicted. From the time of the Norman conquest his image is found more widely, and strikingly displayed on tympana above the south doors of churches at Brinsop in Herefordshire and Ruardean in Gloucestershire. The establishment by Robert d’Oilly of a college of secular canons , St George in the Castle, less than a decade after the Norman Conquest marked a key point in the establishment of the cult in England, though at this time he was far from being a patron saint. [The erstwhile St George’s Chapel in George Street founded in 1850 as a chapel-of-ease for the poorer part of our parish, closed at the end of the First World War and demolished in 1935, was a Victorian revival of d’Oilly’s church but the previous existence of this Chapel adds the dedication to St George to Mary Mags!]
William’s right to rule came from the man he regarded as the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king, the half-Norman Edward the Confessor who long continued to be so regarded. He occupies a key place in the 14th-century Wilton diptych, which glorifies Richard II. However, by then St George had found a home in another, grander Royal Castle, Windsor where Edward III founded the Order of the Garter in 1348 after his victory against the French at Crécy in 1346, with George as its patron. Previously he had set his heart on an Order of the Round Table and planned a great circular building for its reception. Although King Arthur was not a saint, he was impeccably British and (at least a little) more historical than St George. However George, proved an ideal symbol for the Lancastrian kings, especially Henry V who saluted him in his rallying cry at the Battle of Agincourt, and from then on he assumed an unassailable position, appearing in Royal insignia, in images such as the painting on the west wall of the church of St Gregory, Norwich or a statue group in painted oak from a chapel above a gate in Coventry where it represented the civic authority crushing discord.
Beyond England, George’s appeal was evident in the warring cities of Italy. There are famous paintings of St George and the dragon by Paolo Uccello and by Raphael for example. Indeed, St George appealed widely throughout Europe wherever there were powerful enemies to be confronted, in Georgia far to the East in quite early times but he is also Patron saint of Portugal, Aragon and Catalunya in the Iberian peninsula, in the Maltese Islands and in Romania.
I have long felt uneasy with a saint who is belligerent certainly with regard to dragons (and I am known in the parish of St Mary Magdalen's, Oxford as a Franciscan supporter of animal rights, which include the rights of dragons, and a pacifist) and in all probability George never existed. There are so many alternative saints. As a Roman archaeologist I would suggest Alban, not a soldier, but an ordinary citizen of Verulamium who was, indeed, executed in the Great Persecution. But there are many other alternatives, amongst them St Cuthbert, St Hilda, St Edmund of East Anglia and, indeed, Edward the Confessor. However I do not want to leave you feeling bereft on 23rd April, for it is, after all, the birthday of William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest of all Englishman, an Anglican too (in all probability) and although not officially a saint, is a worthy recipient of our respect and gratitude.
For further reading:
M.Henig, ‘From Romano-British hero to Patron-Saint of England. The transformations of Bellerophon and his Chimera’, pp.139-152 in G. Carlotta Cianferoni, M. Iozzo and E. Setari (eds), Myth, Allegory, Emblem. The many lives of the Chimaera of Arezzo. Proceedings of the International Colloquium Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum (December 4-5, 2009) (Rome 2112).
M. Henig, ‘A Byzantine intaglio’, pp.689-91 in M. Biddle (ed.), Winchester Studies.8. The Mint and coins and related finds from the excavations 1961-71 (Oxford).
J. Munby, R. Barber and R. Brown, Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor (Woodbridge 2007).
S. Riches, St George, hero, martyr and myth (Stroud 2000).
C. Walter, ‘Saint Theodore and the Dragon’, pp.95-106 in C.Entwistle (ed.), Through a glass brightly Studies in Byzantine and Medieval Art and Archaeology presented to David Buckton (Oxbow Books, Oxford 2003).