Slaying Myths: St George Only Gained Popularity in England in the 15th Century and Richard the Lionheart Had Nothing to Do with It

By Morris, Marc | History Today, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Slaying Myths: St George Only Gained Popularity in England in the 15th Century and Richard the Lionheart Had Nothing to Do with It


Morris, Marc, History Today


As is widely appreciated, St George owes much of his popularity in England to the enthusiasm of Edward III (1312-77). In 1348, when the king established the Order of the Garter, his super-select chivalric club, he picked George as its special patron, at the same time designating his birthplace, Windsor Castle, as the order's spiritual headquarters and rededicating the chapel there (formerly devoted to St Edward) in the saint's honour. Just three years later the king was pleased to refer to St George in his letters as 'the most invincible athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English nation invoke as that of their patron, especially in war'.

This was, it seems, an exaggeration. Recent historical writing, while still giving Edward III full credit for establishing George's cult at court, has questioned the saint's popularity with the English people as a whole. George may have been beloved of Edward and his knights, but it was not until the 15th century, in the wake of the victories of Henry V (13871422), that his cult really began to assume national status. Moreover, while it is clear that Edward was devoted to St George from an early age, it is also apparent that interest in the saint's cult had been intensifying in royal and aristocratic circles for some time before the king's accession.

The cult of St George, which originated in the eastern Mediterranean in the fourth century, transferred to England in two phases. St George was known to the Anglo-Saxons, but only in his original manifestation as an early Christian martyr. To judge from the minimal number of references to him, he was never popular in this guise and some authorities, such as Bede, clearly considered him to be a dubious addition to the saintly canon. By the time of the Norman Conquest, however, George had been reinvented as a Byzantine soldier-saint and his new-found military prowess made him irresistibly popular with the knights of western Christendom, many of whom went east themselves in the course of the First Crusade (1095-99). A quantum leap for George's popularity in the West was his reported apparition in aid of these crusaders during their successful siege of Antioch in 1098; soon after we find some of the earliest images of St George as a knight on tombs and church doorways in England.

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When did he move from the margins to the mainstream? One thing is now certain--the shift had nothing to do with Richard the Lionheart (1157-99). Until recently, any book on the subject of St George would assert that his first flush of popularity in England, if not his introduction to these shores, was due to the devotion of the famous crusader king. Richard, it was reported, had beheld a vision of George during the siege of Acre (118991), rebuilt a church in his honour at Lydda (Lod in modern Israel) and, most significantly, had adopted the saint's emblem--the red cross on a white ground--as England's arms. This tradition, however, was completely discredited 15 years ago by Oliver de Laborderie, who showed Richard's connection with St George to be spurious, a legend invented for political purposes at the Tudor court and accepted and embellished thereafter. Contemporary sources for Richard's reign mention neither visions nor church-building and inform us that the king and his crusaders wore white crosses, not red ones. Apart from the incidental fact that he was married in a church dedicated to St George, Richard has no demonstrable connection with him at all.

As far as can be determined, the earliest interest in St George in royal and aristocratic circles in England was expressed in the middle decades of the 13th century, two generations after Richard's death. In 1245, for example, Henry III (1207-72) paid a certain Henry the Versemaker for writing an account of George's life and a decade later he ordered an image of the saint to be installed over the entrance to the hall at Winchester Castle. …

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