Kestrel's Nest

Saint George

This was originally written as a toast to St George for a St George's Day lunch at a club in Oxford whose name I will not mention in order to spare their blushes. The sources are mostly the Dictionary of National Biography. But I would like to thank the Local Studies Department of Oxford Central Library for their help in tracking down some obscure references to the Council of Oxford in 1222. The verses come from G.K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn.

A short verse from G.K. Chesterton:

St George he was for England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail,
It isn’t safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.

Those who would seek to write a book on the life of St George would end up with a very slim volume indeed. All that can be said with any certainty is that he was probably a soldier in the Roman army and that he was probably martyred for his beliefs during the persecutions under the emperor Diocletian. The year 303 is usually given for his death, as that was when those persecutions were at their height. The rest is myth and legend. He does appear to have had an association with the town of Lydda in Palestine and this is usually given as the place of his martyrdom. That he was a Prince of Cappadocia seems unlikely since at the time Cappadocia didn’t appear to have Princes, being a Roman province. The trouble is that early chroniclers thrashing around for information on him that wasn’t there seem to have got him mixed up with one George of Cappadocia who was a bishop under the emperor Constantius and an Arian heretic and who was born in Lydda. By all accounts this other George was a thoroughly nasty piece of work; so nasty that on the death of his protector Constantius he was torn limb from limb by a rioting mob. As for the dragon it so happens that Lydda was the supposed site of the mythical rescue of Andromeda by Perseus from a sea monster. Maybe the tale got a bit embroidered and Christianised and what better than to attribute a local famous rescue to the local famous saint. Even in those days they had to have an eye on the tourist trade!
A bit more Chesterton:

St George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon’s meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn’t give him beans.

As an oft-repeated story and traveller’s tale the legend of the warrior saint who slew the dragon seems to have been well known from the sixth century onwards. The first written version that appears to have survived is in the Chronicle of Arculf, which was set down about the year 680. Arculf was a monk who, more by ill luck than judgement, wandered about the eastern Mediterranean in the early years of Islamic rule. By a remarkably bad piece of navigation he managed to get himself shipwrecked off Iona. How exactly you manage to get from the Levant to Iona I am not entirely clear, but an age that built the Titanic and the Torrey Canyon has no right to be critical. When the Abbot there had rescued him and patched him up, Arculf told him the story of his travels. The Abbot when he had five minutes to spare wrote it all down. Eventually a copy of the Abbot’s treatise reached Jarrow where the Venerable Bede did a sort of précis of it. This précis became the standard guidebook to the Holy Land. It’s not exactly a first hand account and I dare say a few errors got in there like transposing the story from Lydda to Libya but it became the basis for all the embroidering of the story that followed.

The saint became popular with the Crusaders when a soldier who was no doubt high on hashish or some other Levantine concoction swore that he saw the saint fighting at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. He may have been mistaken, there were a lot of people wandering about with red crosses on at the time, but the Crusaders won the fight so everyone said it must have been him. It was probably from this occasion that the red cross on a white ground became associated with the saint.
A final bit of Chesterton:

St George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With the battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn’t safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.

Now we come to the Council of Oxford in 1222 when St George was reputed to have been made patron of England and that his feast day of 23rd April was to be celebrated as a national holiday. The chroniclers don’t agree. Some say this but others only say he was recorded as a secondary saint whose day was to be revered but not celebrated. Unfortunately we don’t have the Council Minutes to go by. The reasons for the difference are probably to be found in the politics of the time. The Council of Oxford was a Church assembly for the Province of Canterbury held at Osney Abbey. Osney was chosen for its central position and the fact that it had plenty of spare rooms due to being used as a hostel for students at the University. There’s nothing new in running conferences out of term! In the chair was Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the chap who had fought a running battle with King John who opposed his appointment to the see as he regarded him, with some justification, as a French stooge. The official reason for the council was to ratify the decisions of the Lateran Council held in 1218 but while they were all together it was felt prudent to clear away a lot of other matters that had been hanging about for a while. As a result a number of trials were held during the Council. The most notorious of these was of one Haggai of Oxford, a former deacon of the church, who had fallen in love with a Jewish girl, been converted to Judaism, and married the girl. Now if he had kept quiet and lain low he might have got away with it but far from this he went about trying to proselytise others. Even at his trial on April 17th 1222 he tried to argue against the new law and the false prophet Jesus and made many blasphemies against Jesus and Mary. The Council found him guilty and handed him over to the Sheriff Falkes de Breauté for execution. The Sheriff after expressing his regret that the miscreant would go to Hell without his paramour, dragged him off and had him put to death by burning alive. The trial was important as it became the common-law precedent for the execution of heretics and it is celebrated (if that is the right word) by a plaque on the remains of Osney abbey which the owner, Bill Munsey, will no doubt direct you to if asked. As a result the bishop of Lincoln threatened excommunication on any Christian who had any familiar relations with Jews or even sold them provisions. Several mayors including that of Oxford set up an immediate boycott. All the Jews would no doubt have starved but they sent a petition to the regent Hubert de Burgh who threatened imprisonment on any who refused the necessities of life. The Jews were too useful to the Exchequer. The boycott was lifted. The Council insisted that all Jews should wear a strip of yellow taffeta in the shape of the tablets of the Law. Sound familiar? Remember England did it first! There was a further trial on 15th May of four impostors who claimed to be the Messiah, a disciple and two Marys. These also were handed over to Sheriff Falkes who burnt the men and had the women bricked up alive in the walls of Osney Abbey. He seems to have gone about his work with gusto. This Falkes was an even nastier piece of work than George of Cappadocia. His biography in the DNB makes your average SS storm trooper look like an Andrex puppy. He had his comeuppance two years later when he became involved in a plot against the regent Hubert. He only avoided death when he turned up before the regent in full crusader gear pleading his work in the late wars with France and claiming he was only acting under orders. (Where have I heard that before?) He was banished from the realm and headed for the Holy Land. However he only got as far as France where he was arrested for his part in the French wars and dragged before the king. He again pleaded that he was only obeying orders and appealed to the Pope. He spent the next few months being bounced backwards and forwards between the Pope and King of France before he died somewhat unregretted and probably of poison in 1225.

However, back to the Council of Oxford. The decision to make St George patron of England supposedly took place in the June of 1222. The symbolism would have been striking. No doubt Archbishop Langton regarded himself as St George, the Church as the Princess and King John as the dragon. The symbolism would not have been lost on John either but by this time he was dead. However the point was not missed by his successors and there was a decided coolness towards the Saint on the part of the monarchy. It was not until the reign of Edward III when the Saint was made patron of the Order of the Garter that he enjoyed a revival. By this time the symbolism had been reversed. Edward was St George, the Princess the Kingdom of France and the dragon the current King of France. About this time the French adopted St Denis.

From that time Saint George became more and more popular achieving an unequalled height when the Hanoverian dynasty arrived with a series of kings called George. In the reign of George III he appeared in full glory on the coinage when Pistrucci’s design became the norm for the reverse of the sovereigns to this day.

Original text: © KP Church 1998
Amendments to text: © Angela Grant (Kestrel) 2004