The Cult of St George in Medieval England

Robert Bartlett is intrigued by how England came to embrace a fictional character as its patron saint

November 5, 2009

God for Harry, England and St George! - by Shakespeare's time, and indeed by that of Henry V, it was clear that St George stood for the English monarchy and the English nation.

But how had this come about? In some ways it was an improbable development. Unlike Patrick and David, the patron saints of Ireland and Wales, respectively, George had not preached the Gospel in the land that revered him. He could not even lay claim to an ancient tradition that his relics had come to his adopted country, as in the case of Andrew and Scotland.

In fact, George began as an entirely fictional martyr saint in the eastern Mediterranean region in the 5th century, the account of whose sufferings was so fantastical (he is executed and miraculously resurrected three times) that it was included in the earliest papal condemnation of apocryphal literature. Yet by the later Middle Ages he was widely regarded as "special protector and advocate of the kingdom of England". The heart of Jonathan Good's book is a detailed analysis of the way that the kings and commoners of England came to embrace St George as their own.

Unlike many things attributed to the influence of the Crusades, the rise of the cult of St George really does seem to be explained by Western crusaders encountering this popular eastern saint and making him their own patron. He appeared on the battlefield to help them, and the dragon-slaying elaboration of his story could easily be incorporated into a narrative of the struggle of good and evil.

It was a crusader king, Edward I, who first decreed that his troops should wear the red cross of St George on their uniform. But George was not always and everywhere the king's friend, and one of the strengths of Good's book is the way he distinguishes George as saint of the king and saint of the nation ("nation" being a term he accepts and defends as appropriate for the Middle Ages).

It was possible for opponents of the king to invoke George, and he supposedly appeared to support the baronial rebels at the battle of Lewes, but eventually George took shape as saint of both monarchy and nation, eclipsing other contenders for that role (notably Edward the Confessor). Successful warrior kings, such as Edward III and Henry V, were strong devotees.

George appears on the Great Seal in 1360, first gives his name to a royal prince in 1477 and makes it to the coinage in 1526 (the "George Noble"). He figures in many wall paintings and stained-glass windows (usefully inventoried here in an appendix). He was patron of the Order of the Garter and of numerous churches and guilds.

Church dedications present particularly complex historical questions, since studies of their patterns have to start from the extensive but antiquated work of Frances Arnold-Foster published in 1899. Arnold-Foster lists 120 pre-Reformation churches dedicated to George; Good finds that only of these can be confirmed by contemporary documentation, and that at least another 26 can be added to the list. Nicholas Orme's work has shown the weaknesses of Arnold-Foster's methods, and this book confirms them.

Good's study is book-ended by a section discussing the origins of the cult and the issue of nationalism, and another tracing the figure of St George down to the present-day football stadium. These are thinner and more derivative than the central chapters, but the core of the book is a well-researched and clearly written account of how England adopted its improbable national saint.

The Cult of St George in Medieval England

By Jonathan Good

The Boydell Press 230pp, £50.00

ISBN 9781843834694

Published 16 July 2009

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