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Royal St. George
Folklore or Fact?

Aerial View of the Uffington White Horse - © Dave Price, used under a Creative Commons Attribution LicenceDid St. George really come to Uffington? The small hillock below the Uffington White Horse has certainly been known as Dragon Hill for longer than anyone can remember. A guardian of treasure, especially treasure resting in tombs, was a common role for Dragons found in myth all over the World. It was a particularly common theme in Saxon mythology, and is the basis of the second half of the well-known epic poem 'Beowulf'. For such a story to have survived in a place-name like Dragon Hill is not so very unusual. In medieval times, for instance, just over the county boundary at Garsington (Oxon), there was a field known as Drakenhorde or 'Dragonís Hoard', and others still exist around the country.

It is not at all clear, however, whether Dragon Hill is in fact a burial mound. There certainly seems little to connect it with Uther Pendragon, only the name and the mere suggestion, made by the antiquarian, John Aubrey, in 1670, that Uther was active here. Historians, Barber & Pykitt, do, however, take this as evidence that Uther died here fighting the Saxons, identifying the battle-site as that mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 506, where a British leader, Natanlaod (alias Uther) was killed. Most historians accept the site as Netley (Hants). The Berkshire area is not lacking in other Arthurian legends: It is said that the White Horse will dance on Dragon Hill when King Arthur, who is not dead but only sleeping, returns to lead his people once more; The Norse smith-god Wayland was said to have forged Excalibur at Waylandís Smithy in Ashbury (See "The Smithy on the Downs"); Sir Gereint supposedly fought with the Sparrow-Hawk Knight at Sparsholt; King Arthwyr kept the Round Table on Tower Hill at Windsor Castle; Sir Lancelot stayed with the Hermit of St. Leonardís near Clewer Green before a joust; and King Arthurís most famous victory over the Saxons at the Siege of Mount Badon may have taken place at Badbury Hill near Great Coxwell. Unfortunately the Grey Wethers in the valley below Ashdown House were not turned to stone by Merlin. They are an unusually large collection of sarsen stones, perfectly natural though not necessarily native to this part of the country. Sarsens are believed to be erratic rocks, brought far across country by long gone glaciers. They were often revered by ancient man. (For an alternative explanation see "Alfred and Ashdown".)

Despite its unusual shape, most experts now acknowledge that Dragon Hill is a natural formation. Alternative legends claim it as the site of a Norman or early Saxon castle besieged by the Danes. It was thus Danish blood and not that of a dragon which left the bare chalk on its top (See "Alfred and Ashdown"). The hill does resemble the motte of a Norman castle, but only three of this type are known from Saxon England, each of which was owned by a Norman immigrant. There is no evidence for a later castle in the area. Another idea has the hill as a platform for a tower, from which the surveyor of the White Horse could inspect the progress of his work.

Some think the hill was some sort of ceremonial mound built by ancient man, similar to Silbury Hill (Wilts): A sacrificial altar used in the worship of the great White Horse perhaps? If not fact, this belief certainly seems to have been current in pre-Saxon times, for in the 10th century the hill was known as Eccles Beorh, that is 'Church Barrow'. The name Eccles is a form of the Latin Ecclesia, brought into British place-names through the Celtic Egles (modern Welsh Eglwys) denoting a late or post-Roman church. They were often built on converted pagan sites

With Dragon Hill as a possible religious ceremonial centre, there has followed much speculation as to whether the White Horse (or dragon) is a representation of the god being worshipped there. Unlike the 18th century White Horses of Wiltshire, the Uffington beast is not so easily identified as an equestrian animal. Hence, our legend tells that it is really a dragon, as suggested by its beak-like mouth. The ancient White Horse name is its best identification. This dates back to at least the 11th century, and it has therefore been suggested that the animal is not the dragon, but St. Georgeís horse, Bayard. Other stories tell of it being King Alfredís horse, cut into the hillside to commemorate his victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown (probably in Compton/East Ilsley or Aldworth/Aston) in AD 871 (See also "Alfred and Ashdown"); Or else it is the Invicta, the White Horse of Kent, carved here when the Joint-Kings Hengist and Horsa pushed their borders forward to cover most of Southern Britain in about AD 442. Would Saxon carvings not look more like the real animal though? Their archaeology shows them to have been skilled craftsmen. Somehow, the creature looks older, and if it is indeed an idol worshipped perhaps by the people of Uffington Castle, some real possibilities begin to emerge.

Uffington Castle is not a castle at all, but can be classed under the general heading of an Iron Age hillfort, probably inhabited by a Celtic tribe known as the Atrebates. The Atrebatesí territory was based around Calleva, now Silchester, just over the county boundary in Hampshire. A bronze horse similar in appearance to that at Uffington was discovered there when the town was excavated in the late 19th century. It may have been a goblet handle. Unlike some other Celtic tribes, the Atrebates are not known to have held one particular god in special favour, though the worship of a horse god is quite possible. The people of Kintyre, at this time, were known as the Epidii: The worshippers of the Celtic horse-goddess, Epona, and a temple probably dedicated to her has been identified at Winchester, within the Atrebatic territory. The lady has lived on into Welsh mythology as Rhiannon, and in Irish myth as Macha. If the White Horse were a god especially associated with the Atrebates, Uffington, close to the borders of two other tribes, would have been the ideal place to display such a tribal emblem.

However, there are stronger reasons for suggesting the White Horse dates from Iron Age Celtic times, and particularly for connecting it with the Atrebates. Some time around 50 bc the Atrebates started minting a series of coins featuring a horse which looks remarkably similar to that carved into the hillside at Uffington. It has the same slender body, the same spindly disjointed legs, the same bulbous eye and spiky beak! The coins have been found all over the Atrebatic territory, some even in the Vale of the White Horse.

These were the arguments, as they stood, for the likely age of the White Horse, up until mid 1995. It was then believed to be some 2,000 years old. However, recent investigation by the Oxford Archaeological Unit has shown up a quite different story. Previously lost files from the old Ministry of Works have showed the unit that a small unofficial excavation of the White Horse took place not long after the Second World War. This revealed that the animal was not merely a design etched into the natural chalk, but was formed by trenches deliberately dug into the brown hillside and filled with chalk deposits. This was an unexpected breakthrough which revealed that the White Horse ought to be receptive to the newly developed technique of Optical Stimulated Luminescence (OSL), which can reveal the date of the last exposure to sunlight of buried soils. Armed with this new approach the unit undertook a minimalist excavation of Berkshireís best known landmark. Their endeavours have shown the White Horse to have been constructed around 1057 bc: thatís about 3,000 years ago! The beast is a lot older than anyone ever dreamt. It does not date form the Iron Age, but the late Bronze Age.

We must, therefore, alter slightly our view of the horseís relationship with Iron Age man. For it was not their coin designs or similar Celtic artwork which inspired the hill figure, but the other way around. They may have worshipped the animal or associated it with one of their gods, but they were honouring a wondrous feature of the landscape which had been their since beyond memory, just like today. Perhaps the god worshipped there also had its origins in the Bronze Age.

Supernatural powers are still associated with the White Horse, and it is possible that they live on from this period when the beast was thought to be an all powerful god. It is said that the horse climbs down from its hillside at night to feed at the Manger, the slopes immediately below it. It also drinks from the springs known as the Woolstone Wells, with its ever unseen foal. The springs were formed by a foot-fall from the horse. Every hundred years the White Horse gallops across the sky to be reshod by Wayland at his Smithy (Ashbury). This apparently last happened in about 1920! (See also "The Smithy on the Downs"). If you stand on the horseís eye, close your eyes, turn around three times and make a wish, your wish will come true!

It may be that celebrations associated with the periodic cleaning of the White Horse were also originally part of the ceremonial worship of the animal. For many centuries the 'Scouring of the White Horse' took place every seven years (a magical number). Local people would gather on the hill, clean the horse so that it shone white once more, then retire to Uffington Castle for a fair and festivities. This last took place in 1857. It is possible that such a cleaning or re-cutting is the basis of the popular King Alfred version of the horseís origins. At the same time that they recovered soil samples for their OSL analysis, the Oxford Archaeological Unit also excavated part of Uffington Castle, and revealed further evidence for a long established festive centre here. Unfortunately, they found no signs that, like other hillforts, it was re-occupied in the Arthurian period, as our story suggests, but they were able to show that during the Roman period, though unoccupied, there was considerable activity at the castle. This suggested to the excavators that there was perhaps an, as yet unlocated, temple within the bounds of the hillfort like that at Lowbury Hill, or more famous examples such as Maidenís Castle (Dors). Alternatively, as suggested above, Dragon Hill may have been an open air shrine, while the castle was used for a periodic festival, just like the scouring activities of later years. Further, Uffington Castle was shown, like the horse, to be much older than previously thought, possibly being built as early as the seventh century bc!

Earthworks such as Uffington Castle are similarly associated with the only other known ancient hill figures in Britain: the Cerne Abbas Giant (Dors) and the, now re-cut, Westbury White Horse (Wilts). The Cerne Abbas Giant also underwent ritual recuttings, and the so called Frying-Pan Earthwork above his head was even associated with the May Day Festivities. These were originally connected with the Celtic festival of Beltane: The day dedicated to the solar god, Beli, when bonfires were lit to welcome in the Summer and encourage the Sunís warmth.

It seems clear therefore that the White Horse is late Bronze Age in date, but how does this relate to the George and Dragon story? It has, in fact, been suggested that sacred pagan hills associated with Beli, the Celtic Solar God (representing the curative powers of the Sunís heat) who may have had his origins in the Bronze Age, had their dedications transferred to the Archangel St. Michael by the early Christians. This is especially noted along a supposed ley line running between Cornwall and Suffolk. It faces the Rising Sun at Beltane, and travels through St. Michaelís Mount (Cornw) and the churches of St. Michael on Brent Tor (Dev), and Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor (Som) as well as places associated with St. George, like Ogbourne St. George (Wilts). In Berkshire, it passes a little way south of Dragon Hill, but does touch the parish church of St. Michael in Lambourn, a Celtic Christian (or possibly earlier pagan) foundation shown by its circular enclosure still visible in the street plan. The legend of St. Michael is the predecessor of that of St. George, who was his earthly counterpart. St. Michael defeated the Devil, who was often illustrated in the guise of a dragon. At Uffington we may have Beli/St. Michael/St. George, representing the Sun, slaying the Devil/Dragon, representing the Night, in order to rescue the beautiful maiden, representing the Earth; or perhaps, more likely, St. Michael/St. George defeating the Devil/Beli, as Christianity struggles to overcome the old religion.

For the Celts, sun-deities were closely associated with horses. Perhaps, like Apollo, whom he was later identified with, Beli was thought to ride the Sun across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Indeed, a Celtic model horse and wagon, carrying a gilded sun-disc, of similar date to the Uffington White Horse, was found at Trundholm in Denmark. Excavations at Beliís shrine at Sainte-Sabine (Burgundy) have revealed large numbers of offerings to the god in the shape of small clay horse figurines. George is a translation of the Greek meaning "Tiller of the Soil", so the saint may have been linked with Solar Beli because he awoke the earth after its winter rest. It is worth noting that St. George too was associated with horses (apart from that which he rode), as at his well at Llan San Sior, near Abergele (Clwyd), where such animals were still sacrificed until relatively recent times. So, at Uffington, it seems that the great White Horse hill figure is Beliís symbol carved into the hillside.

One British legend states that St. George was a friend of the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century, and travelled with him to Britain to visit the Emperorís mother, St. Helen, possibly at Abingdon where she was supposed to have lived (See "Holy Abingdon"). They sailed across what later became known as St. Georgeís Channel and stopped first at Glastonbury (Somerset) to pray at the tomb of St. Georgeís ancestor St. Joseph of Arimathea. The more widespread story, however, tells how St. George was born in Coventry (Warks) nearly two hundred years later. He was the son of a nobleman named Albert. His mother had died giving birth to him, and during his fatherís subsequent grief, baby George was stolen away by an enchantress named Calyb. St. George grew up in this enchantressís charge, and when he became a man, she gave him armour and a shield, and a horse named Bayard on which to find his fortune. However, in order that he would not discover his true identity, St. Georgeís shield bore no arms, and, when he asked for a sword with which to defend himself, the enchantress told him he must find his own. St. George travelled to Glastonbury (Somerset) with six knights that he had released from Calybís spell. Here he was asked to defend the famous Abbey against a wicked knight who had sworn to take one of the Abbeyís greatest treasures from them: the sword, Meribah, with which St. Peter had struck off Malchusí ear in the garden. It had been brought to Glastonbury by St. Joseph of Arimathea many centuries before. St. George defeated the evil knight of course, and was given Meribah as a reward. During the battle he was wounded in such a way that the blood ran down his blank shield, first sideways and then from top to bottom, forming the red cross of Christ which he bore ever since!

The real St. George is something of a mystery himself, but he certainly wasnít British; and though he was known to generations of Uffington folk as "King Gaarge", there is no evidence of Royal blood either. He appears to have lived in the Middle East in the 3rd century AD, possibly being born in Cappadocia in Palestine. Little else is clear. He was probably a tribune (commander) in the Roman Army, and may have saved a number of Christians from persecution. He was subsequently converted to Christianity himself, and was martyred at Lydda during the Diocletian persecution of AD 303. He would not succumb to torture, poison, being cut to pieces by spiked wheels or cast into boiling lead, so he was dragged through the streets before having his head cut off. There was no dragon to speak of. This part of the story, usually set in Sylene in Libya, is believed to have been confused with the tale of Perseus and the Kraken. In ancient Greek myth, Perseus saved Andromeda from this huge sea-monster at Joppa, only a few miles from Lydda!

St. George became popular with 11th century English Crusaders who discovered his tomb at Lydda. He was seen as a unifying force, being neither Saxon nor Norman, and he eventually replaced St. Edward the Confessor as patron saint of England during the 14th and 15th centuries. Besieged at Calais in 1349, King Edward III is said to have invoked St. Georgeís name in a rally cry which so inspired his troops that they soon routed the French. Edward afterwards founded the Most Noble Order of the Garter at Windsor, with St. George as its patron and his Windsor Chapel as its home. The Royal chapel held two of St. Georgeís fingers, part of his skull and part of his arm encased in a jewel encrusted silver arm reliquary. In 1416, however, it acquired another, much greater, relic of the warrior-saint. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund visited Windsor to celebrate St. Georgeís feast day at the Royal Chapel dedicated to him. Here he was presented with the Order of the Garter and, in return, he left behind him St. Georgeís heart which he had obtained while on crusade in the Holy Land. Thenceforth the saintís popularity increased to the position he holds today. the relics rested in St. Georgeís Chapel and were a great attraction to pilgrims until ejected at the reformation.

Next: Places associated with the Legend
Back to: The Legend of St. George in Berkshire


 

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