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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),

Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Lord Edward and the Leopard of Lewes

The royal arms, depicted
by Matthew Paris
BL Royal 14 C VII f.53)
If you’ve been following our Feature of the Month, you would have seen Nicholas Vincent’s recent article on ‘Leopards, Lions and Dragons: King John’s Banners and Battle Flags’. Here, Nick explained how the ‘three lions’ device – now the ‘three lions on the shirt’ of England – was first used in the heraldry of the Angevin rulers. King John, for instance, was shown on his seal charging into battle carrying a shield decorated with three lions passant gardant.

As Nick has shown elsewhere, though, from as early as the 1230s the Angevin lions were taken for leopards – indeed in 1251 Henry III ordered a set of robes decorated with ‘three small leopards’ front and back.[1] This was, perhaps, a strange development. The lion was the king of beasts and thus a fitting symbol for a ruler. The leopard, on the other hand (as Isidore of Seville explained in his Etymologies) was ‘born of the adultery of a lion and a pard... and from [this] union this degenerate offspring is created, just like a mule.’ The leopard was a mongrel, ignoble creature. Why the Angevins were happy to swap leopards for lions isn't clear (though it's been suggested that this was a reference to their descent from the most famous of leopards, born of adulterous union – William the Bastard).
A pard, shown in 13th century bestiary (BL, Harley MS 4751, f.6)
The leopard image was one that could quickly be turned against the Angevins. In May 1264, Henry III was defeated on the field of battle at Lewes and taken captive, together with his first-born son and heir, the lord Edward. The victor of Lewes was Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, who was to rule England at the head of a council for the next fifteen months. Montfort and his circle were brilliant propagandists and, in an effort to win support for their regime, commissioned a poem celebrating Montfort’s victory. The Song of Lewes was probably written by a friar (the experts in preaching) and makes good use of a well-known technique of medieval sermons: similitude. This was an emotive device. Preachers, wrote Thomas of Chobham in his Summa on the Art of Preaching, ‘should know the natures of animals and also of other things, because there is nothing which moves the hearts of an audience more’.The author of the Song had learned his lessons well, as is clear in his depiction of the lord Edward:
‘Whereunto shall the noble Edward be compared? Perhaps he will be rightly called a leopard.... A lion by pride and fierceness, he is by inconstancy and changeableness a pard, changing his words and promise, cloaking himself by pleasant speech.’
The author might have chosen any number of beasts to describe the heir to the throne. But he picked the very one depicted on the royal flag and shield, with which Edward would have ridden into battle at Lewes. The author played on the ambiguity of the Angevin emblem: Edward shared some characteristics with the lion (courage and pride) but not honour. In order to hammer home his point, the poet invented characteristics for the pard. This mythical beast was known (according to Isidore of Seville) for its swiftness and ability to bring down its prey with a single leap. But here the pard is also faithless – a foil for the poet’s hero, Simon de Montfort, who refuses to abandon his oath to the Provisions of Oxford and would ‘flee neither torment nor death, for the sake of truth’.
An example of Edward I's seal held at Salisbury Cathedral

Ultimately, it was Edward who was to have the last word. At the Battle of Evesham, in 1265, he ordered that Montfort be hunted down and butchered on the battlefield, his corpse dismembered. The great seal of Edward I was to show the three lions/leopards in detail, not only on the king’s shield but also on his horse’s battledress, while elsewhere Edward was depicted before a splendid cloth of state strewn with golden lions/leopards on gules.

[1] N. C. Vincent, ‘The seals of King Henry II and his court’, in Seals and their Context in the Middle Ages, ed. P. Schofield (Oxford, 2015), 7-33, at 18. 

Monday 13 April 2015

Langton by Wragby

David Crook (left) and David Carpenter (right) at
Langton by Wragby
David Carpenter was in Lincoln last week for the Lincoln Record Society’s conference on Magna Carta. On the evening of 7 April, delegates attended a special service in the church at Langton by Wragby, the village where Stephen Langton – the archbishop of Canterbury who helped to negotiate the Charter in 1215 – grew up. David gave an address at the service and David Crook presented to the church a facsimile of the charter held at the British Library that proves Langton’s association with the site. In the photo here, Davids Carpenter and Crook are standing beside the moat of the manor house where Langton grew up.

Friday 10 April 2015

Washington, Baltimore and Lancaster - and the discovery of a de Bohun charter

Nicholas Vincent with David Mao, Deputy Librarian of Congress,
in Washington
The Magna Carta Project’s Principal Investigator, Nicholas Vincent, has been in the USA this week talking about Magna Carta. On 6 April he was in Washington to deliver a public lecture at the Library of Congress, as part of the Library's programme of commemoration following its exhibition of the Lincoln Magna Carta earlier this year. From there Nick went to Baltimore, to visit the archive of Johns Hopkins University. He took the opportunity to look over the papers of Sidney Painter (d.1960), the renowned medievalist whose biography of King John is still widely read. Nick made some interesting discoveries, including an unpublished short story by Painter (not, unfortunately, a long-lost masterpiece), as well as the references written for Norman Cantor, one of the candidates to succeed Painter, by the great medievalists Richard Southern and David Knowles (both the story and the references will appear shortly in a Feature of the Month). 
Nicholas Vincent speaking at Franklin and Marshall College
From Baltimore Nick went to Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) to speak to students, staff and members of the local community at the College’s ‘Common Hour’. Shortly before his talk, a chance enquiry led Nick to the College’s library, where he made a serendipitous discovery: a charter of Henry de Bohun, one of the twenty-five baronial enforcers of Magna Carta, dating from c.1200. The charter’s seal provides the earliest record of the de Bohun arms: a bend between two lions rampant. Watch out for a forthcoming Feature on the charter.