Wednesday, June 4, 2014

England and St. George

By Helena P. Schrader


“Follow your spirit; and upon this charge cry: ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!”
Henry V, Act III, Scene II
By William Shakespeare

God for Harry, England and St. George! Wait a minute. Where did St. George come from? According to my Encyclopedia of Saints, St. George was from Cappadocia or Anatolia in what is now Turkey. He was a high-ranking officer in the Roman army. He slew a dragon in what is now Libya, and he was martyred and buried in Lydda, now Lod in modern-day Israel. That’s all a long ways from England!

Furthermore, St. George is one of the most revered saints is some places even more distant from England — for example Ethiopia (my current place of residence).


  Three depictions of St. George for Ethiopian Church Art.

Yet the Cross of St. George has been a symbol of England possibly since the reign of Richard I, when Richard put his crusade under the protection of St. George and apparently ordered his troops to wear and his ships to fly the Cross of St. George (red cross on a white field). Certainly, Edward III made St. George the patron saint of the Knights of the Garter and used pennants with the cross of St. George during his campaigns in France.

St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle


By the 17th Century, the Cross of St. George was so closely associated with England that the cross of St. George was combined with the crosses of St. Andrew and St. Patrick to create the Union Jack.

But how and why did St. George become England’s patron saint? Nobody really knows but there is clearly a strong “crusader connection.” St. George had his roots in the Eastern Mediterranean, either being born in what is now Turkey or directly in Lydda, now in Israel. And indeed, the legend of him slaying the dragon may have been a classic case of Christians adapting earlier pagan legends, for only a few miles from Lydda, St. George’s last resting place, is Jaffa — the city where according to Greek/Roman legend Perseus slew a sea monster and freed the virgin princess Andromeda.

19th Century Statue Depicting Perseus and Andromeda by PJ Ropes

In any case, St. George's first great appearance (at least in recorded history) was at the Battle of Antioch during the First Crusade. Here he was “seen” fighting beside the crusaders on a white horse — and to this day St. George is always depicted on a white horse at least in Ethiopian art, and apparently most other art based on a quick internet search. The key to St. George’s subsequent popularity therefore maybe that he was a fighting saint, a mounted saint, and hence the kind of saint to appeal to the knightly class. Certainly, he became the patron saint of soldiers, crusaders and more explicitly cavalry/chivalry.

As a fighting man’s saint, and a crusader’s saint, it is clear why Richard I would adopt him as his patron and put his entire crusade under St. George’s protection. The ties between St. George and Richard were undoubtedly reinforced by the fact that one of Richard’s greatest victories in the Holy Land was at Jaffa, a city he largely rebuilt, and less than fifteen miles from Lydda and the shrine of St. George (not to mention being the location of the Perseus/Andromeda legend!).


The Crusader Church of St. George, build on the site of earlier 
Byzantine churches, survives to this day beside a mosque in Lod, Israel.

Given Richard’s popularity in English medieval lore (starting with Robin Hood and regardless of what modern historians think about him as a "bad" king), it is not surprising that later Plantagenet kings wanted to tap into that popularity by adopting symbols associated with Richard I. John, maybe not, but certainly Edward I, who himself undertook a crusade to the Holy Land. Edward I and his equally martial grandson Edward III clearly saw Richard I as a role-model and intentionally used his symbols.

By the time the Tudors came to power, St. George was too much a part of English identity to be expunged. And today, in an age of devolution and growing separatist sentiment, the Cross of St. George — cleaned of the Crosses of St. Andrew and St. Patrick — has again become a popular symbol of England (as opposed to Great Britain or the United Kingdom) among many segments of the English population.


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Helena P. Schrader is the author of both non-fiction history and historical fiction. She is currently working on a series of novels -- not necessarily inter-related -- set in the Age of Chivalry. Read more at: Tales of Chivalry or follow her blogspot: Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

Her most recent release was: St. Louis Knight:


A crusader in search of faith
A lame lady in search of revenge
And a king who would be saint.

St. Louis' Knight takes you to the Holy Land in the mid-13th century -- a world filled with nobles, knights, prophets and assassins.

Buy now on amazon.com.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, an interesting saint indeed. When I was living in Israel, outside Tel Aviv, George was definitely referred to as a local boy, from Lod, the site of the current airport. It also felt strange to go to Yafo- Jaffa - and stare at the rock called Andromeda's.

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