St. George, Italy, late 17th — early 18th Century.
Paul Kingsnorth, at the Abbey of Misrule, considers the appropriateness of St. George as England’s patron and has some good words for the dragon.
Back in the day, I was rooting for the dragon. It was a thing that some of us did back in the prehistoric nineties. Among the young, crusty eco-activists of yore, the myth of St George, patron saint of England, was another old story that needed to be turned on its head. As we battled to stop yet another square mile of English soil being concreted over for a motorway extension, superstore, housing estate, airport runway or whatever other embodiment of Progress was ‘necessary’ this week, we would hold up the dragon, not the saint, as our guiding light. This armoured human dealing out death to this innocent, wild creature: wasn’t it so appropriate that he would be the patron saint of this most modern and destructive of nations? The dragon, on the other hand was the icon of wildness, of untamed nature resisting the onslaught. Why couldn’t he be our saint instead?
As it happens, the dragon was once the symbol of England, back when St George was nowhere to be found. On Senlac Hill in 1066, Harold Godwinson, the last English king, was said to have fought William the Bastard’s Norman invaders under two banners: the dragon of Wessex, and the ‘fighting man’. The latter is still a mystery, and an intriguing one (I’ve often idly wondered if it looked anything like this.) But the dragon – or wyrm, to use the Old English – still flies on the official flag of Wessex today.
The king was defeated that day, of course – a story I wrote once – and the England which once flew the banner of the dragon now flies the banner of its slayer. But it always seemed to me, even when I was writing books about the state of England, that the English don’t care much for their patron saint. Perhaps we don’t care for any saints, and maybe that’s what haunts us. We wrecked most of their shrines during the Reformation, after all, and what did our national church replace them with? Ah yes: Helter Skelters.