God, for Harry, England and St George

Published: 10 years ago Author:

The St George and the Dragon pilgrim badgeThe immortal words attributed to Henry V (1413-22) at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), in Henry V (Act III) by William Shakespeare. St George became popular in England following the Crusades: a vision of him riding with horsemen in white appeared at the Battle of Antioch (1098). By the end of the C14th the feast of St George (23 April) - also the date of Shakespeare's death - was observed as a national holiday, and after Henry V's victory over the French at Agincourt, St George's Day became a major festival, alongside Easter and Christmas. By then George had largely displaced St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund as England's patron saint.

The cult of St George became associated with Windsor, where the Chapel of St George was the ceremonial centre for the Order of the Garter, established by Edward III (1327-77) in 1348. Relics of St George at Windsor included his heart - a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1416, who was a Knight of the Garter - various bones, and later a head (encased in gold): one of at least six heads' of St George known!

The icon of St George in the British Museum collectionSt George's shrine attracted pilgrims, and hence a trade in pilgrims' badges, especially during the C14th and C15th. Several such badges have been found, some silver, copper-alloy or pewter, but few as spectacular as a recent find from Cumbria (LANCUM-4501B2) which was found this month, and recorded with Stuart Noon (Lancashire & Cumbria FLO).

This badge is silver gilt. St George, who is shown bare-headed, but otherwise in full armour, has become detached from the dragon. He stands with his legs apart, his left hand lowered (in a protective stance) and his right hand is raised, holding the remnants of a lance. The dragon lies in submission, with is head slightly raised. Its limbs are shown, as is its curled tail and a single wing. It seem likely George would have stood above the dragon (as on lead-alloy pilgrims' badges of the period) and was originally attached to the dragon either by the (broken) lance running through the tail of the dragon or more likely holding the tail in the open hand, indicated by wear pattern on the left leg.

A small loop at the back of St George suggests the object was attached to cloth (or leather). As a rule most pilgrims' badges are decorated on one face, as only one surface is visible when worn, so this badge is unusual in being decorated on both sides. When compared to badges of other cults, a high proportion of those of St George are made of silver, suggesting higher status use and function beyond that typical of most pilgrim souvenirs.

There is reason to suppose that George was a historical figure. He is believed to have been a Christian of noble birth, from Lod (modern day Israel), during the late C3rd, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army under Diocletian. Following Diocletian's 'Edict against the Christians' (302) George was arrested, and ordered to renounce his faith. He refused, and was tortured before being beheaded at Nicomedia.

St George's crossIn contrast, the legend of 'George and the dragon'- which is celebrated on St George pilgrims' souvenirs - has no credible historical basis. In this tale a dragon was repeatedly bribed from its lair, so that inhabitants of the city of Silene (perhaps modern day Cyrene) could collect water from a spring nearby. First livestock was offered, and then (when no animals could be found) the people themselves drew lots. One day it is the city's princess who draws the short straw, only to be saved by George, who slays the dragon. Thereafter the people of Silene convert to Christianity.

George is not only the patron saint of England, but also Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, India, Iraq, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia and Russia, as well as many cities...

The British Museum has several examples of St George within the collection:

  • Pilgrim badge depicting St George and the dragon (P&E MLA 1913 6-19 38)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, St George fighting the Dragon, a pencil drawing (PD 1954-5-8-13)
  • Icon of St George ( M&ME 1986,6-3,1 and shown above in the text, copyright British Museum Trustees)

Happy St George's Day

Contact: Michael Lewis +44 (0) 207 323 8618

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