The story of St George

by  David McGrory, courtesy of Coventry City Council

In the words of an ancient poem preserved in Bishop Percy’s, ‘Reliques of Old English Poetry, ‘St. George he was for England.’ Others say not; some say he was the Bishop of Alexandria, a man who gained an awful reputation and died in 362 A.D. The famed historian Gibbon mistakenly identified this St George as the notorious George of Cappadocia, the Archbishop of Alexandria. His record is far from creditable. He was hated for his extortion and greed and was beaten to death by a frenzied mob before being thrown into the sea, not admired and not a dragon in sight.

The second contender was a man called Nestorius or Nestor who was put to death in Lydda in Palestine by the Apollo worshipping Emperor Diocletian. He is believed to have been born in Cappadocia, Turkey and died in Lydda. His parents were Christians and of noble birth and he was believed to have held high rank in the Roman Army. He was first known by his surname, Nestor or Nestorius, and after his Canonization he was called by his baptismal name….George. It has been conjectured that he was sent by Diocletian, with whom he was in high favour on a political mission to Britain where he is said to have spent time at Glastonbury and Caerleon on Usk the base of the 2nd Legion. While here he heard of the of the emperors decree to begin the suppression of Christianity back in Rome. Returning he spoke against the decree and ripped down a proclamation. Not surprisingly after refusing to denounce his own Christian faith he was tortured and beheaded. He died a martyr, admired yes but again not a dragon in sight. He was martyred in 303 and a church in Constantinople was dedicated to St George the Martyr in 330.

This is all that is known, everything else relating to these figures was added later. George has a very complicated and confusing history little or none of it can be proved and back in the 1960s the Vatican demoted George to a local saint.  St George is notable for the many ways he was supposed to have died, including decapitation, roasting, being whipped to death, drowned or crushed to name a few.

Tales of St. George’s encounter with a dragon have been traced back to the sixth century, although some suggest the dragon was a symbol for the devil or the Drakon emblem of King Dacian of the Persians who appears in some stories and was changed in others to Diocletian. Others believe the battle derived from Perseus killing the sea serpent to save the princess said to have taken place near Lydda, Palestine, death place of our second St. George. The first version to reach Western Europe was in 1265 in the ‘The Golden Legend.’ The scene of the fight was laid near Selene, but in medieval times people believed that it also happened at Coventry. The people of England knew of him in Saxon times as he was first mentioned by the Venerable Bede.

Here in the west St. George the warrior became the patron saint of soldiers and the true guardian of Chivalry. William of Malmesbury records in his Gesta Regnum that in 1098 when Robert Duke of Normandy, son of William the Conqueror, was gaining his victories against the Turk and had taken Antioch, a huge army of Saracens, appeared outnumbering them four to one. All seem lost but when the armies met it was said St George was seen leading a heavenly army all in white. This heavenly host swept down, invigorating the Crusaders who defeated the Saracens and drove them off. After the Third Crusade it was said that George appeared to the army of Richard Coeur de Lion at the siege of Acre, after this he was accorded national honours and his cult amongst soldiers and knights really began here. It is said that King Richard I put the red cross of St George on his men but this appears wrong as the English at that time bore a white cross while French Crusaders who fought by their side bore the red cross. The Templers however did wear a Red Cross pattee and the Red Cross became the symbol of the crusader.

 In 1222 the feast day of St. George (April 23) was instituted by the Council of Oxford and up until 1347 England’s patron saint was Edward the Confessor. The problem was the Confessor was a pious king more likely to pray than fight. Edward III (1327–77) however was a fighter and his personal veneration of George and his grandfathers and the crusading miracles meant that in 1330 King Edward chose to make George the patron saint of the chivalric Order of the Garter, he then had the Royal Chapel at Windsor dedicated to him in 1348. George now became the official patron saint of England.

Although both Edward I and Edward II flew Red Cross banners in their wars against the Scots, it was not until the reign of Edward III that the cross became associated with St George. Jean Froissart, the French Chronicler wrote that it was after 1357 when the English commanders in battle called upon St George for aid. In John Speed’s, ‘Historie of Great Britain’ (1611) he states that Edward III significantly, ‘appoynted his souldiers to wear white coats with a red crosse before and behind over their armoure,’ Although apparently when at war with France the use of the red cross was denied as the French were still using it and it would have caused confusion on the battlefield. On 17th June 1386, Richard II ordered his soldiers to wear the Red Cross except when fighting the French.  As battle cries of St George and England led armies into France, it is not surprising that George’s foreign origins were dropped and a new legend created around him, making him the ultimate English chivalric knight, not a foreigner, but born in Coventry.

The legend of our St George begins at Caludon Castle, the home of Lord Albert. It was said Lord Albert had a beautiful wife who while carrying their first child had a terrible dream concerning the birth. Albert wished to learn the meaning of the dream and visited a yew grove in the great Arden Forest, the home of a ‘wyrd’ woman, an enchantress named Kalyb. Kalyb informed him that his wife would give birth to a fine boy who would bear three red birthmarks, a dragon on his chest, a mark of a garter on his leg and a blood red cross on his arm. Albert’s wife however would die in childbirth. Lord Albert returned to Caludon to find his household in grief, the child had arrived and his lady lay dead. As he grieved that night Kalyb entered Caludon by magic and stole the child away. Albert spent his last years searching for his lost child, dying on foreign shores. All that survives of him is this tale and Coventry’s now gone River Albert.

Visual reconstruction of Caludon Castle

It was said that Kalyb had the child raised in the lore of arms and she grew fond of him. Meanwhile she continued her old practice of stealing babies and butchering them in her cave! At the age of twenty-one George was accomplished in arms and yearned for adventure. Kalyb wished him to stay and tried to tempt him with gifts. First she transported him to a golden castle in which were imprisoned in sleep, St David of Wales, St Patrick of Ireland, St Andrew of Scotland, St Denis of France, St James of Spain and St Anthony of Italy. These she informed him were the six Champions of Christendom. If he stayed he could become the seventh.  George was not tempted.

She showed him seven beautiful white horses, the swiftest was Bayard. George was offered him but refused. She then gave him armour and the magical sword known as Ascalon, which was held by magic…set flat into solid rock. George still refused to stay. Lastly in desperation Kalyb offered him her own magic wand made of yew. George took it and struck it against the rock, which split open revealing Kalyb’s cave full of the remains of her victims…. those she wasn’t quite so fond of. He pushed her inside and with her wand sealed her inside forever. He took Bayard and released Ascalon from the rock, he then released the Champions and together they rode to Coventry. Here they stayed for nine months, honing their skills in combat before riding south to a great plain, in the centre of which stood a golden pillar at the junction of seven roads. 

Having said their farewells each took a road. George took the road for the coast and boarded a ship. He crossed Europe, heading  east; finally arriving in Egypt, where he had heard a fearsome dragon infested a stagnant lake. Its poisonous breath, ‘had many a city slain.’ Its scaled hide, ‘no spear nor sword could pierce.’ Daily it devoured maidens till there was no more to offer except for Sabra, the king’s daughter. The king proclaimed that if anyone could kill the dragon and save his daughter he would be given her hand and half of the kingdom. George was determined to put an end to the beast. The princess was tied to a stake, and the dragon was fast approaching, George arrived in the nick of time, charging Bayard at the beast he drove his lance into the dragon’s open mouth, killing it on the spot. George of course fell in love with the princess, but the king despite his promises was not happy.

George was the toast of the court until the king learned that he intended to take Sabra back to England and make her a Christian. The king thereafter plotted his death. He asked George to prove his love for his daughter by carrying out a task without his horse and sword. He asked George to make the perilous journey to Persia and deliver a letter to its king.

Against all odds George completed the task only to discover that the letter’s message was that the bearer be put to death. George was seized and thrown in a dungeon with two lions. Enraged he tore his chains out of the wall and rammed his fists down the lions’ throats, tearing out their hearts. He escaped by hacking mortar away and loosening stones, then stole a horse and rode off.

Our hero then set off on other adventures, before returning to claim Princess Sabra, who had been promised in his absence to King Almidor of Morocco. George dressed as a hermit and went to the palace where the princess was distributing alms. Sabra instantly recognised him, took him back to the palace and reunited him with Bayard and Ascalon. The couple rode off into the sunset, to Greece where they discovered a great tournament was underway. Here all the Champions of Christendom were present with their ladies. Each had won his trial with sword and lance and all was well until heralds proclaimed a war had been declared against Christianity.

On hearing this the champions mounted their horses and headed back to their homelands to raise armies.

Finally, the war ended and peace reigned. The Champions chose George to rule the east. As King of Egypt, Emperor of Morocco and Sultan of Persia. George ruled for many years, but yearning for home, he left trusted friends as regents and headed for Coventry. Legend here splits and two stories survive regarding his return, one states that while abroad he heard that the people of Coventry were being terrorised by a dragon which had come out of a huge cavern (traditionally below Priory Row/Hill Top). George returned, fought a savage battle with the great beast and killed it, but he himself had received a venomous sting from it and he died. It was said, ‘the whole country, from the King to the shepherd, mourned for him for the space of a month.’ The King afterwards ordered a solemn procession to be kept in his Court on the 23rd April (St George’s Day) in remembrance of this Christian Champion. George was solemnly buried in the ancient city of Coventry; and the King also ordained by consent of the whole kingdom that the patron of the land should be named St George, who had fought so many battles for the honour of Christendom.

The other story says George’s enthronement in the East delayed his return to England and he sent Sabra ahead, back to Coventry, where she awaited his arrival. Meanwhile it was said the Earl of Coventry became enamoured of her charms, and tried to make her marry him. On her refusal he had her imprisoned, and after a second refusal he ordered her to be burnt at the stake. On the day fixed for her execution George arrived back in Coventry and in a bloody combat he slew the wicked Earl and received the acclaim of King, clergy, and citizens. He and the princess now settled and had children; one legend says one was Sir Guy of Warwick. George however was called again to defend the faith and headed east.

While away we are told in an ancient poem written by a certain Edward King that the people of Coventry were terrorised by a fearsome dragon which had its lair in Quinton Pool. This beast came down to the city every day and clawed at Cheylesmore Gate demanding a maiden for his morning meal. The citizens waited in terror, so it was said, ‘behind this little gate, in fear and trembling, until the dragon came raging down, and then they opened the door, hastily thrust out the doomed and shrieking maiden, and banged it too in the dragon’s face..’ At last George heard of the beast and returned, ‘unto his native place,’ and quickly put an end to the terrible monster. Then as the story says: from Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry:

Therein with his dear love he lived,

And fortune did his nuptials grace;

They many years of joy did see,

And led their lives at Coventry

George we are told, through these tales, had three sons and died in Coventry on April 23 and was laid to rest in great state here. It is said the colour he favoured was true blue and as the native bluebell came into flower around his day, people for centuries after wore the bluebell as his emblem on St George’s Day. Another flower thought to mark Coventry as St George’s home was the Coventry Bell, described in the 16th century by the herbalist Gerard as being of a, ‘blew’ purple colour and grew abundantly around Coventry. Red roses of course don’t naturally bloom in April.

St. George’s feast appears to have been conducted here in the Middle Ages with much display; Kings celebrated the saint’s day in his native in Coventry. There was a shrine to George in the great priory church of St. Mary with his statue (probably our wooden Peeping Tom grasping a silver shield reliquary. It was described in the inventory of the priory as, ‘an Image of Saynt George, with a bone of his, in [a] sheld [of] silver.’ The shield may be the one that ended up in St Mary’s Hall. It, like the huge and ornate gold and silver chalice kept in the hall, bearing George and the dragon are now long gone. Early in the fifteenth century, a fraternity was formed called the Guild of St. George, which met at St. George’s Chapel, partially built over the river in Gosford Street. A small oak image of George slaying the dragon survives from here and is in the Herbert. The once large and important procession called, ‘Riding the George’ took place on St. George’s Day in the city with George as the central character. Later it was incorporated into the Godiva processions and George rode behind Godiva dressed in armour from St. Mary’s Hall which once also housed his shield and has two images of him in glass and in the tapestry.

At Lillington in Warwickshire, it is strangely said George was buried with an oak stake through his heart. The stake grew into the once famed Lillington Oak, which also was claimed to be the centre of England. In the grounds of Caludon Castle, once stood another ancient oak, called ‘St George’s Tree, no doubt this now gone tree had its own legend attached. Maybe George planted it….so begins legends.

This article is copied from Coventry City Council’s Website.

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