Knights and Saints
The influence of St Edmund as the patron saint of Anglo Saxon England began to wane under the Normans. He was finally replaced after the English successes under the patronage of St George during the Crusades and victories on the battlefield in France during the Hundred Year's War.
While the veneration of St George as a soldier-saint can be traced back to the 7th century, the first depictions of St George the Dragon Slayer go back only to 10th or 11th century Cappadocia (Central Turkey). A dragon was commonly used to represent the Devil in the Middle Ages. A late legend claims that St. George killed a dragon on the flat topped Dragon Hill at Uffington, Berkshire, where the beast's blood spilled today no grass grows. However, many of the legends associated with St. George lack historical substance and are generally considered fictitious; indeed the slaying of the ‘Dragon’ is one of many stories of the saints preserved in the Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275 after being brought back to Europe by Crusaders in the 12th century.
|St George and the Dragon (Carpaccio, 1502)|
The person typically identified as St. George is an unnamed man martyred in 303 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305) as recorded by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the mid-4th century. This man is commonly thought to have been Georgios Gerontios, a tribune in the Roman Army who refused to renounce his Christian faith and tore down Diocletian's edict of persecution. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured and finally beheaded on the 23rd April 303 in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city in what is now Turkey.
However, the connection of the saint with Nicomedia is inconsistent with the early cult of St George at Lydda in the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina, also claimed to be the place of his birth and his martyrdom, an important cult site to the Crusaders.
The first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great is said to have constructed a basilica over the St George's tomb at Lydda, but this church was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the crusades. Between 1150 and 1170 a cathedral was said to have been built over the tomb by Richard I (the Lionheart) of England only to be destroyed by Saladin in 1191; yet there is little evidence to support this claim.
Richard the Lionheart is said to have received a personal vision of the saint at Acre during the Third Crusade. After these “appearances” St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers and many military orders.
The Cross of St George, was first recorded as the ensign of the Republic of Genoa, before it was used by the crusaders. From the time of the Second Crusade (1147–1149) the red Cross of St George became associated with the Knights Templar, a military order that emerged out of the ruins of Jerusalem after its capture in the First Crusade.
The English king Henry II and the French king Philip II used red and white crosses to identify their respective soldiers during the so-called “Kings' Crusade” of 1187. The red-on-white then became a recognisable symbol of the crusader from about 1190. Indeed, the banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers by the reign of Richard I (1189 – 1199). The flag of England is derived from St George's Cross.
In the 1270's the Red Cross was worn by English soldiers during the reign of Edward I. In 1348 Edward III established a premier order of Knighthood in England, with Saint George as its patron. At the “Battle of Agincourt” in 1415 many of Henry V's English soldiers believed they witnessed Saint George fighting alongside them as they routed the French. Shakespeare recorded the success of St George with Henry V ending his speech before the battle with the famous phrase, “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!”
The Order of the Garter
With such a fine military pedigree it was no surprise that Edward III chose Saint George as the patron saint of his Order of the Garter in 1348, the oldest surviving Order of Chivalry in the world, adopting the red-on-white cross for his Royal Standard. It was around this time that Edward proclaimed St George as Patron Saint of England; significantly, Edward created the Order of the Garter on St George's Day, 23 April.
|Edward III, the Order of the Garter|
Without doubt the creation of the Order of the Garter and the return to chivalry was inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with Edward III, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Edward I, actively promoting himself as the New Arthur. His son Edward, later the Black Prince, was raised on the traditions of Arthurian Romance.
As Edward I had visited Glastonbury in 1278, for the translation of King Arthur's relics to a new marble tomb in front of the high altar, Edward III also visited the Somerset town in 1331 in a intentional act planned to associate his reign to both the Arthurian tradition and the reign of his grandfather.
Edward III’s Somerset itinerary was remarkably similar, but not identical, to that of Edward I, travelling from South Cadbury to Glastonbury. He spent 19 December 1331 at at South Cadbury and Cadbury Castle, the potential site of Camelot, before travelling to Glastonbury between 20 December and 22 December. Finally he moved on to Wells on 23 December, where he spent Christmas. There are no records of any further visits by Edward III to Glastonbury Abbey, though in 1345 he granted permission for one John Blome to search the abbey grounds for the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus and legendary founder of the Abbey, and through the Grail stories an ancestor of Arthur, and guardian of the Holy Grail.
This was the Golden Age of Glastonbury Abbey, a site of pilgrimage for the cults of King Arthur, whose bones were discovered there in 1191, and Joseph of Arimathea, whose bones were not.
King Arthur's Round Tables
At the end of the “Round Table” festival at Windsor Castle in January in 1343, Edward III announced his intention to found an Order of the Round Table with three hundred knights with St George as their Patron, with a corresponding building and chapel, "in the same manner and estate as the Lord Arthur, formerly King of England".
The Round Table is King Arthur's famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his famous Knights would gather. The Table has no head, so that everyone who sits there has equal status. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention this round table in his Arthurian epic The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae), and there is no mention of it in the early Welsh texts.
The Round Table was first described in the Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace in 1155, a chronicle based on Geoffrey's earlier work. The symbolism of the Round Table developed during the Arthurian Romances and came to represent the chivalric order of the Knights of the Round Table.
During the Middle Ages, festivals called “Round Tables” were celebrated throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur's court; the earliest known was held in Cyprus around 1220. These aristocratic festivals consisted of tournaments with jousting knights performing Arthurian roles, concluding in a great feast.
|The Round Table in the Great Hall, Winchester|
The iconic Round Table hanging in the Great Hall seems to have influenced Thomas Malory's identification of Winchester as the site of Camelot. Malory composed his Le Morte D'Arthur while in Newgate Prison, London, between March 1469 and March 1470 and published by William Caxton in July 1485. In 1934 the headmaster of Winchester College W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in the library of Winchester College that is closer to Malory's original than Caxton's printed edition.
It would appear that Caxton did not use the Winchester manuscript in preparing his printed text. Caxton divided Malory's original work of four sections into twenty-one books of roughly equal length and omitted the colophons found of the tales containing autobiographical information about the author, including Malory's reference to himself as the “knyght presoner”.
The legs were removed from the Winchester table in 1348 and the top hung on the castle wall as a symbol of the chivalric concept of the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table. Two centuries later Henry VIII had the table repainted with himself in Arthur's seat above a Tudor Rose.
By 1348, Edward III had abandoned his earlier plan for an Order of the Round Table consisting of 300 knights, and announced the creation of the Order of the Garter, with an exclusive membership limited to just 25 Knights, with the first places reserved for those commanders who had helped him to win the Crécy campaign; the exact same number of places around the Winchester Round Table.
The Garter and the Motto
Today, the official seat of the Most Noble Order of the Garter sits at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where its chapters have assembled since its creation by Edward III in 1348. The Sovereign and the Prince of Wales being permanent members, together with 24 Companion Knights.
The Garter Knights wear a mantle made from dark blue velvet fastened with blue and gold rope strings. Upon their shoulders the Knights wear the badge of the cross of St. George upon a shield encircled with the Garter.
The origins of the Order’s blue garter and motto, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (Shame on Him Who Thinks Evil of It), are uncertain but shares much with the 14th century English Arthurian work “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
In this anonymous chivalric romance Gawain resists the temptations of the Lady of the Castle of Hautdesert, accepting only kisses from her. On the third day after resisting her further advances she presents Gawain with a magic green girdle that will protect him from being slain. With his forthcoming duel with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, Gawain takes the girdle but does not pass it on to the lord of Castle Hautdesert (Bertilak), with whom he has an agreement that whatever each of them wins during the day they will exchange that evening. Gawain's dishonesty is his sin.
When it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak and that the attempted seductions were a test of Gawain's worthiness, the knight is shaken with guilt, but Bertilak praises him for never giving into sexual temptation by the Lady of Hautdesert
Bertilak invites Gawain to return to the castle but Gawain refuses and sets off for Camelot, wearing the girdle for his shame. On arrival he tells Arthur the story who then decides that all the knights of the Round Table will wear a belt of green as a badge of honour in support of Gawain and proclaiming as their motto “Honi Soyt Qui Mal Pense” (Shamed be the One who Thinks Evil).
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
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