And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 23. april 2013

The Knight and the Virgin - St. George and Edward the Confessor in late medieval England

For thou emongst those Saints, whom thou doest see,
Shalt be a Saint, and thine owne nations frend
And Patrone: thou Saint George shalt called bee,
Saint George of mery England, the signe of victoree.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser (book 1, canto X)

April 23 was the feastday of St. George and the medieval section of twitter was all ablaze on this occasion, which is only natural since George occupies a very interesting role in the religious life of the Middle Ages, particularly the later centuries. Despite his enduring popularity, the historicity of St. George is highly dubious. He is reported to have died a martyr c.303 in Palestine - i.e. about the time of the persecutions of Diocletian - and he was allegedly a soldier of the Roman army who turned his back on soldiery once he converted to Christianity. This is a common trope in early Christian hagiography, and saints who committed this renuciation were very popular since the Roman army at that time was the ultimate symbol of Roman paganry. This was also the case with saints Christopher and Sebastian, saints whose historicity is as dubious as that of George and who retained a widespread popularity throughout the medieval centuries.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

There are already many interesting blogposts on the subject of St.George on the Internet - in particular by A Clerk of Oxford which can be found here and here, and the British Library manuscript blog - and the topic is too complex and rich for me to go into great detail. Consequently, in this blogpost I aim to compare the standing in England of a knight and a virgin, namely St. George and St. Edward the Confessor.

The Beginning: the 12th Century

Saint George

The story of Saint George taming a dragon to save a virgin is well known and needs no elaborate retelling here. It is an old story and it became widely disseminated through Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea from the mid-13th-century, a compilation of saints' legends which engendered many localised adaptations both in England and France throughout the Later Middle Ages.

George had been a part of the religious consciousness of England since the 7th and 8th centuries through martyrologies - such as Bede's - and Ælfric of Eynsham's Old English prose rendition. It was, however, not until the 12th century the popularity of George really flourished in England, and the reason for this was the Crusades.

In the 12th century, as a consequence of the Crusade Movement, there was a shift in the saint paradigm of Western Europe. While the preceding centuries had seen the genesis of several royal martyr cults throughout Europe - Edmund in England, Olaf in Norway and Ladislas in Hungary, for instance - the new ideal was the chivalric holy king who embraced asceticism and gave himself to the Church. This ideal paradigm shift was a consequence of two contemporary strands of conflict: first of all the militant religiosity following the first crusade, secondly the conflicts between the secular and spiritual powers. From these strands of conflict emerged the chivalric saint, an ascetic, monkish saint modelled on the legend of Alexis of Odessa and which may very well have served as an driving force in the establishment of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. This chivalric ideal mixed with the Byzantine iconography of Saint George - and also other warrior saints - and the result was that George evolved into an equestrian and a dragonslayer. Although his legend clearly stated the dragonslayer aspect from the beginning of his cult, it was not until now this became a part of the representations in art. It is therefore no wonder that the purportedly earliest representation of George in English art is a wall painting from the 12th century showing him as a lancener.

From St. Botolph, Hardham, with thanks to Damien Kempf

Edward the Confessor

Roughly at the time of George's entry into English iconography, Edward the Confessor (d.1066) was himself on the verge of becoming a saint. I have expounded the genesis of his cult in greater detail elsewhere so I will be very brief on the matter here.

In 1138 Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster Abbey, wrote the first purely hagiographical account of Edward the Confessor's life and miracles. The work was presented to the papal legate in England, but due to insufficient support from the English church the motion was denied. In 1161, however, the canonisation of Edward was again requested by the English clergy, and this time the unity of the church was satisfactory to the Pope. The hagiography which set the tone for later renditions of Edward's legend was composed by Aelred of Rievaulx in 1163, but he based his work to a great extent on Osbert's piece, although he decided on some interesting omissions. One of these was a reference to the legend of Alexis Odessa - paragon of the chivalric sainthood - and another omission is a reference to Edward the Confessor as an athlete of God.

The epithet "athlete of God" was already an old topos of Christian literary iconography by the 12th century, but it did receive a new burgeoning during this period. For instance, a new hagiography written for Saint Oswald of Northumbria referred to him in the same manner. Although Frank Barlow argues that these elements omitted by Aelred of Rievaulx were not Osbert's inclusions, they nonetheless point to a desire by someone to align the old Anglo-Saxon king with the modern sensibilities of the 12th century. However, since Osbert's text was merely the foundation for the main text rather than the main text itself, these aspects did not become a part of the Confessor's iconography, but were rather left as waste themes.

Edward the Confessor and Edward Martyr, from MS Royal 2 B VI (13th century)

The Consummation: the 14th Century

The Knight

During the rule of Henry III the cult of Edward the Confessor reached its summit. Even after Henry's death, the cult of the Confessor was fairly popular - albeit with some competition from Thomas Becket - but in the course of Edward I's reign the devotional focus of the royal family started slowly to shift towards a more martial agenda. Since Edward the Confessor was lauded as a Solomonic peacemaker, he was not the right saint to turn to for aid against enemies, and Edward I displayed the banner of St. George - among others - at the siege of Caerlaverock in 1300. Furthermore, Edward I embraced the Arthurian mythology, and in an attempt to subdue the Welsh he proclaimed Arthur a saint. The implication of this was of course that Arthur as a saint would be dead and not sleeping on Avalon preparing for the final battle. The chronicler Peter Langtoft (d.c.1305) pursued this idea by weaving the arthurian mythology into the lineage of the English kings.

This shift gained momentum further into the 14th century. Edward II had three banners of Saint George made in 1322, and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and cousin of Edward II, is shown standing beside the saint in Douce Hours (1320s), as shown here. When Edward III came to power in 1327 he had already had a long-standing devotion to the chivalric George, and this, together with the military climate of his reign, makes it no wonder that he came to conclude the devotional shift towards George. In 1348 Edward founded the Order of the Garter which worshipped Saint George as its patron, and kept its headquarter at Windsor Castle. Interestingly, the chapel dedicated to Edward the Confessor was rededicated to George and the Virgin, and a statue of the knight-saint was erected at the altar in February of 1351. August 13 the same year, Saint George was proclaimed the blessed George, the most invincible athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English race invoke as that of their patron, in war especially (according to the Patent Rolls). This was the consummation of the shift that had begun in the 1290s.

It is of course interesting to note that George is here referred to in almost the same way as Edward the Confessor in Osbert of Clare's hagiography of 1138. This shows how enduring the topos of
athleta Christi really was, but although both these instances point to the same ideological current, they are probably not directly linked. Osbert's vita had been surpassed by that of Aelred of Rievaulx and there no reason to think that the formulation of George as an athlete of Christ was done to outshine Edward the Confessor. Edward as an athlete of God was a waste theme of his hagiographical image, not something that had survived into the 14th century.

Edward III from MS Stowe 594, a garter book from c.1430-40

The Virgin

By 1351 Edward the Confessor had become eclipsed by a different type of saint, one better suited to the military pursuits of the English king. However, Edward the Confessor does not wane into irrelevance in this period, and although strongly devoted to the cult of Saint George, Edward III had not forgotten his namesake saint. During a fight against the French at Calais in 1349, he is reported by Thomas Walsingham to have cried out
Ha Sant Edward, Ha Sant George. Furthermore, when the Order of the Garter had been founded the year before it had not solely been dedicated to Saint George, but, as Samantha Riches puts it, "under the joint patronage of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and St Edward the Confessor as well as St George". Nonetheless, despite Edward III's vestigial loyalty to the Confessor, this appears to have changed somewhat dramatically when the Saint Edward chapel at Windsor underwent a rededication. Whether this in fact does signal a dramatic shift in devotional loyalty, can not be ascertained, and the trajectory towards this conclusion may be less sudden than we may believe from the source materials. After all, we do not know the thought processes of Edward III.

However, Samantha Riches argues that the patronage invoked in the Patent Rolls pertains not to George as patron and protector of England, but as that of the English king. Furthermore, Saint George often appeared together with the Confessor. The figure erected in the newly rededicated chapel at Windsor was flanked by a figure of Edward, while an image of George from c.1360 at Heydor depicts both the knight-saint and the two royal saints Edward the Confessor and Edmund. It is therefore obvious that we cannot speak of an eclipse of Edward's cult, especially since it may have thrived very well in other echelons of society than in the king's inner circle. This, however, remains conjecture as we have, to my knowledge, to few sources to make assertions. Nonetheless, given the Confessor's renaissance in the 1390s it is evident that he was not completely outshone by Saint George.

George receiving his armour from the Virgin, from MS Yates Thompson 13, book of hours of the Sarum Use, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. With thanks to A Clerk of Oxford

The Lancaster Years: the 15th century
Despite the widespread effect of Richard's devotion to the Confessor, Edward's primacy proved short-lived following the coup by Henry Bolingbroke. The Confessor remained a relatively important saint in the 15th century - testified to by the inclusion of his life in the legendaries of the period - but he came nowhere near the ubiquitous devotion towards Saint George which was sustained throughout the period thanks to the Hundred Years War. Even after the war had ended and turmoil began to brew on English soil, Saint George's position remained strong and unparalleled.

From Church of the Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, donated in 1471 by John Walker

Concluding remarks

In this blogpost we have seen briefly the parallel courses of the cults of George and Edward the Confessor in England throughout the Later Middle Ages. There are interesting similarities and equally interesting differences which all serve to demonstrate the complex set of parallel strands which comprise the landscape of medieval religiosity. They were both virgin saints, but one was a knight and the other a peacemaker. They both were referred to as athletes of God/Christ, but for one this became a waste theme, for the other it became a key aspect of his iconography. They both endured and left a considerable impact on the cultural landscape of medieval England, but they did so to different degrees. Both saints deserve a comprehensive study of their cults, but until that has been undertaken, this may serve as a superficial primer.


Barlow, Frank, Edward the Confessor, University of California Press, 1984
Bloch, Marc (ed.), “La Vie de S. Edouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare,” Analecta Bollandiana 41, 1923
Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford, 2004

Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy rulers and blessed princesses: dynastic cults in Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Nairn, Ian, Pevsner, Nikolaus,
Sussex, printed in The Buildings of England series, 1965: 234 (according to wikipedia).

Ormrod, Mark, "The Personal Religion of Edward III", printed in Speculum, vol 64, n. 4 1989

Prestwich, Michael,
Edward I, Yale University Press, 1997

Prestwich, Michael,
Plantagenet England 1226-1360, Oxford University Press, 2005

Riches, Samantha, St George - Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton Publishing, 2000

Riley, H. T. (ed.),
Thomae Walsingham, quondam monachi S. Albani, historia Anglicana, 2 vols., pt 1 of Chronica monasterii S. Albani, Rolls Series, 28 (1863–4)

Summerson, Henry, ‘George (
d. c.303?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn

Vauchez, Andrè,
Sainthood in the later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Wright, Thomas,
The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft, London 1866

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