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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Cry 'God for Simon, England, and St George'? The First Sighting of England's Patron Saint

Saint George Killing the Dragon
by Bernat Martorell (1434/5)
You might have noticed a theme in recent Features and blogs: banners, battle-flags and heraldry. Continuing along these lines, this post looks at a remarkable event in the story of England's arms: the first appearance of St George's banner on an English battlefield - the standard-bearer being no less than the saint himself. 

The Dover Chronicle records how, at the Battle of Lewes in 1264: ‘there were some in the army at Lewes who saw, clearly, an unknown knight, clad in armour and holding before him an unknown banner, and an archbishop clothed in pontifical garb blessing the baronial army; and they vanished, suddenly, when the battle was done. They were reckoned to be St Thomas the Martyr and St George.’ This, it has been noted, is the first known allusion of this sort to St George,[1] later to become the kingdom’s champion in the Hundred Years War and England’s patron saint.
Why, then, did St George makes his first appearance on the Sussex Downs in 1264? This was a turbulent time in England’s history. Six years earlier, a group of barons had seized power from Henry III, setting up a council to govern in the king’s name.  Henry recovered power briefly but in 1263 Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, led a violent campaign to reimpose conciliar rule. Montfort might have had a dark side (to say the least) but his followers believed him the instrument of God, possessed of a Christ-like willingness to speak and to suffer in a noble cause.
Driven by intense personal piety and the need to encourage his men, Montfort turned to a powerful iconography: that of the crusade. In December 1263, trapped at Southwark between the city gates and the king’s oncoming forces, Montfort had his men signed with the cross front and back.[2] At Lewes, five months later, the earl called upon his men to fight for the kingdom, God, the saints, and mother Church and told them to keep faith. His troops prostrated themselves, stretching out their arms to form a cross.[3] The bishop of Worcester promised for all who fought manfully that day remission of their sins, assuring them that it was glorious to endure torment in the defence of truth. The soldiers then donned crosses on their backs and chests.[4] Montfort and his men were crucesignati. They could fight secure in the knowledge that their struggle earned them merit in the eyes of God and that, if they were to die, then as martyrs they would win a place in Heaven besides the saints themselves.
Battle outside Antioch, BL Yates Thompson 12, f. 29 
This ritual transformation of Montfort and his army into holy warriors had a potent effect – hence the sighting of St George on the battlefield. The vision echoed that of the imperilled soldiers of the First Crusade, at Antioch in 1098. The Gesta Francorum tells how, with the beleaguered crusaders in a state of desperation, there ‘appeared from the mountains a countless host of men on white horses, whose banners were all white.’ The crusaders ‘did not understand what was happening or who these men might be, until they realised that this was the succour sent by Christ, and that the leaders were St George, St Mercurius and St Demetrius.’[5]
By the time that Montfort’s army marched, the First Crusade held a central place in chivalric culture. Its leaders were paragons of knightly prowess, elevated to semi-mythic proportions, their deeds sung across the feasting halls of Europe.[6] In the process, the miraculous appearance of St George and his comrades grew in stature. The Chanson d’Antioche, first put to parchment in the early-thirteenth century, told how the crusaders, battered by enemy blows,
John, duke of Bedford, before St George,
from the Bedford Hours (BL, Add MS. 18850, f.256v
‘saw a company riding proudly down ... [of] more than half a million. They were whiter than the snow that falls at the end of February. St George was out in front at its head with the noble St Maurice, renowned as a stout warrior, and St Demetrius and St Mercurius as standard-bearers ... the bishop of Le Puy restored order: “My lords, there is nothing to be afraid of. These forces are coming to help us. They are the angels sent by God which I told you of yesterday”. When the Turks saw [the reinforcements] they were flung into confusion.’[7]
Like the Christian troops at Antioch, Montfort’s army faced fearful odds but, as the defenders of God and Church, were blessed by divine succour, in the form of the great crusading saint.
In one sense, then – before Henry V at Agincourt and John, duke of Bedford, at Verneuil – Montfort was the first English general to ride out under the banner of St George.

[1] The Song of Lewes, ed. C. L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1963), 85 n.358.
[2] The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs (2 vols., Rolls Series, 1880), ii, 230-31.
[3] Chronica Johannis de Oxenedes, ed. H. Ellis (Rolls Series, 1859), 222.
[4] The Chronicle of William de Rishager of the Barons’ War, ed. J. O. Halliwell (Camden Society, 1840), 30-31.
[5] Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, ed. R. Hill (London, 1962), 69.
[6] See S. A. John, The Creation of a First Crusade Hero: Godfrey of Bouillon in History, Literature and Memory, c.1100-c.1300 (Swansea University PhD thesis, 2012).
[7] The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade, tr. S. Edgington and C. Sweetenham (Farnham, 2011), 313 (358),

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