Saturday 23 April 2016

St George the Dragon Slayer

“Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” - William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III, 1598 

From History into Legend
Today 23 April, St George's Day, local festivals across the country will re-enact George killing the Dragon. Although, today celebrations of St George will probably be eclipsed by the 400th anniversary of the death of Elizabethan playwright Willliam Shakespeare on 23 April 1616.

George was apparently a soldier in the Roman Army who was tortured and beheaded for refusing to renounce his Christian beliefs during the persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century. Accounts of his martyrdom appeared as early as the 5th century, recording the existence of a shrine at the town of Diospolis (Lydda), where George was both martyred and buried. However, today historians suspect the Passion may have been invented as a result of popular demand for the story of the martyr and are sceptical about the very existence of George.

Archangel Michael slaying the Dragon
The Anglo Saxons were aware of St George as a martyr, but placed no special significance on him. He is mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede and a reference to him is made by St. Adamnan, 7th century Abbot of lona, who is thought to have heard the story from Arcuif, a French bishop who had travelled to the Holy Land.

The story of George and the Dragon was said to have been brought to Europe by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. The Passion of St George was combined with the tale of the dragon slayer and first appeared in Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale, based on the Chronicon of Helinand of Froidmont, and part of the Speculum Maius (The Great Mirror), the encyclopedic compendium of the Middle Ages.

Following the appearance of St George in a vision to Crusaders at the Seige of Antioch (1097-1098) during the First Crusade the monarchs of England seemed to hold a fascination with the East Mediterranean Saint. It is around this time we find some of the earliest images of St George appearing on tombs and above church doors. However, any connection to his popularity being due to the crusader king Richard I (The Lionheart) has recently been dismissed by historians as a legend invented by the Tudor court.

The story of George the Dragon slayer was further popularised in Jacobus de Voragine's 'Golden Legend' in the 13th century. Originally titled the Legenda Sanctorum (Readings of the Saints), the Golden Legend was one of the first books printed in the English language by William Caxton in 1483.

In the mid-13th century Henry III paid for an account to be written of George's life and had an image of the saint placed over the entrance to the hall at Winchester Castle. Yet, Henry's favourite saint was undoubtedly Edward the Confessor as shown when he committed a huge amount of funds to the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey containing a new shrine to which the saint's relics were translated in 1269.

The earliest recorded use of the red Cross of St George is from the last years of Henry's reign which ended in turmoil. When Simon de Montfort led the Second Baron's Revolt, the forces of Henry's son Prince Edward (later Edward I) wore red crosses on a white background on the battlefield at Evesham in 1265. Edward's forces used the device again in the Conquest of Wales. In his two campaigns in Wales, 1276-77 and 1282-83, Edward's men were issued with armbands bearing the red cross of St George. The red dragon has long been the National emblem of Wales; it is tempting to speculate that Edward I was playing out the legend.

When Edward III, grandson of Edward I, formed the Order of the Garter c.1348 he placed it under the patronage of St George. But it is not until the 15th century that the cult of St George began to assume a national identity following the victories of Henry V. In 1415 at the battle of Agincourt in northern France, Henry further advanced the cult by invoking George as the Patron Saint of England. Many believed they saw St George fighting on the English side at the battle.

Dragon Hill, Uffington
The Dragon Slayer
At Uffington in Oxfordshire is an odd shaped hill known as Dragon Hill. This natural conical chalk hill with the top artificially truncated is traditionally the spot where George slew the dragon. There is a stretch of exposed chalk on the top of Dragon Hill where, it is claimed, grass will not grow as this is the spot where the dragon's blood spilled onto the ground. Across a steep sided valley known as The Manger is the famous chalk figure of the Uffington White Horse, dominating the so-named Vale of the White Horse. On higher ground above the chalk figure is the site of Uffington Castle, an early Iron Age hillfort and contender for the site of the Battle of Badon. The ancient trackway running from Dorset to the Wash known as The Ridgeway passes by the northern entrance of the hillfort. A perforated sarsen stone, known as the Blowing Stone, once stood here but was moved about a mile away to Kingston Lisle around 1750.

The Uffington White Horse is nearly four hundred feet in length, said to be of prehistoric origin and related to the Iron Age hillfort. Indeed, deposits from the trenches forming the horse's outline recovered during excavations by the Oxford Archaeological Unit in 1990 have returned Bronze Age dates making it possibly the oldest hill figure in Britain.

Uffington White Horse (or is it a Dragon?)
Other tales claim the horse was cut by King Alfred after defeating the Danes in 871 AD at the battle of Ashdown fought somewhere on the Oxfordshire – Berkshire border. Alfred is said to have called his warriors to battle by making a loud sound through the Blowing Stone. An alternative tradition says the horse was cut by Hengist, leader of the invading Anglo Saxons, in the 5th century.

Writing in his 'Monumenta Britannica' (c.1670) John Aubrey pondered with the idea that Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, might have been buried here.

The Uffington chalk figure has been referred to as a horse since at least the 11th century, said to bear similarity to stylised horses from Celtic Art, as seen on Iron Age coins for example, but it always strikes me as being more feline or serpentine rather than equine. Surely this is an early depiction of the dragon?

The Mythical Centre of England
The Welsh tale of Lludd and Llefelys, preserved in two manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (c.1300–25) and the Red Book of Hergest (c.1375–1425) records that while Lludd was king of the Island of Britain it became infected with three supernatural plagues, or oppressions.

The first plague was a certain race that came called the Coranians; the second was a shriek which came on every May-eve; and the third was provisions of food and drink disappeared from the king's court over night.

Llefelys said the second plague was due to a dragon in Lludd’s kingdom and another dragon of a foreign race is fighting with it. To overcome this plague, Llefelys told Lludd he would need to measure the length and breadth of the Island to find the centre, there dig a pit and place a cauldron filled with the finest mead, covered over by a satin cloth. They would appear as dragons fighting in the air and then tire and fall in the form of pigs into the cauldron, sink in to the mead, drink it and then fall asleep. Lludd would then need to bury them in the strongest part of the island. When Lludd measured the island, Oxford was found to be the exact centre of Britain.

Oxford is less than twenty miles from Dragon Hill at Uffington. But of course, the 'centre' depends what you are measuring and where from; in most cases you would find the centre of any given object by bisecting the longest dimension by the widest, half length by half breadth.

Henry of Huntingdon wrote of the ‘Four Highways’ in his Historia Anglorum (c.1131); “The first runs from west to east and is called the Icknield Way......The fourth, longer than the others, begins in Caithness, and ends in Totnes, that is from the beginning of Cornwall to the end of Scotland.”

Following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth identified the Four Highways as being part of the story of the mythical King Belinus, hence the longest of the Four Highways has been named the 'Belinus Line'.

The Belinus Line - Copyright (c) 2012 Gary Biltcliffe
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century chronicle the "History of the Kings of Britain"  (Historia Regum Britannie c.1136) (HRB Book III, Chap.5), Belinus wore the crown of Loegria, Kambria and Cornubia (England, Wales and Cornwall). After falling out with his brother Brennius, who ruled from Northumberland to Caithness, and driving him across the Channel to Gaul, Belinus ruled the whole island of Albion from sea to sea, and reaffirmed the laws that his father King Dunvallo Molmutius had made; The Molmutine Laws.

In plotting the boundaries of the northern realm known as Brigantia during the 1970s Ragland Phillips noted a grid pattern. He extended this line beyond Brigantia and found a dead straight line extending from the south coast of England to Scotland. He called this alignment the Belinus Line after Geoffrey of Monmouth's mythical roadbuilder.

The Belinus Line runs through important ancient sites such as St Catherine's Hillfort in Hampshire, Beacon Hill, Inkpen Beacon, Dragon Hill at Uffington, The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, Alderley Edge and the Bridestones in Cheshire, Shap (stone circle, now ruined) in Cumbria marking the mid point, on through Arthuret to the coast of Scotland at Durness.

The Michael Line
Many ancient sites associated with the dragon legend are found on the high places in the landscape; many were 'Christianised' by replacing the stone temples with a church. These sites are often situated atop a mound, a rocky knoll or flat-topped hill. The church is typically dedicated either to St Michael or St George, both depicted in Christian iconography as dragon slayers.

In the 1960's the late John Michell noted the similarity between Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump. Both hills have the appearance of being shaped by the hand of man and both have a church dedicated to St Michael perched on the top. In the book The View Over Atlantis (1969) Michell discusses this alignment in detail:

"The St. Michael Line of traditional dragons sites in south-west England (…) is remarkable for its length and accuracy. It appears to be set between two prominent Somerset hills, both dedicated to St. Michael with ruined churches on their summit. These two hills are Glastonbury Tor and 'The Mump' at Burrowbridge some ten miles to the south-west. Both these hills appear to have been artificially shaped so that their axis align with each other, and their orientation, 27 degrees north of east, can be read off a large Ordnance Survey sheet."

Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller extended Michell's alignment through Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor in a straight line for 350 miles to the east coast. They traced an alignment of hill-top shrines dedicated to dragon-slaying saints stretching from St. Michael's Mount near Land's End in Cornwall, through the ancient temple of Avebury at the mid-point, to Hopton-on-sea on the Norfolk coast; the longest east-west line than be drawn across southern Britain.

Seven Barrows at the intersection of the
 Belinus Line and the St Michael Line
Here there be Dragons
At the intersection of the two longest lines that can be drawn across Britain, the Belinus Line and the Michael Line, lies a huge Bronze Age cemetery known as 'Seven Barrows' just inside the Oxfordshire border. The site consists of about thirty prehistoric barrows, some say more, possibly as many as forty. The cemetery is situated along the Lambourn to Kingston Lisle road, barely three miles from Dragon Hill.

Surely it is beyond coincidence that the very place determined as the mythical centre of Britain is the site where St George slew the Dragon.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson 

Further Reading:
Jonathan Good, The Cult of St George in Medieval England, Boydell Press, 2015.
Gary Biltcliffe and Caroline Hoare, The Spine of Albion: An Exploration of Earth Energies and Landscape Mysteries Along the Belinus Line, Sacred Lands Publishing, 2012.
Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller, The Sun and the Serpent, Mythos Press, 1990.
Guy Ragland Phillips, Brigantia: A Mysteriography, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
John Michell, The View Over Atlantis, Sago Press, 1969.
Paul Newman, Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill Figures of Britain, The History Press, 2009.

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  1. Absolutely fascinating, as are all your posts. Have you considered writing a book?


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