Saint George, the Dragon Slayer

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about numismatics and archaeology, please visit the Curator’s blog, Ancient Worlds.

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Myths and legends are filled with tales of fabulous beasts and tales of the bravery of larger-than-life heroes. The quests of knights to find treasure and slay dragons fill medieval grimoires and children’s storybooks alike.

Some of these legends have been told, lost and forgotten over the centuries, but some have been preserved, in the retelling, both verbal and written, and in the images adorning historical and archaeological material objects, from Greek vases to Egyptian coffins, we can decipher stories of gods, heroes and monsters. But one of the most common ways of transmitting symbols, narratives and ideas, from ancient to modern times, is through coins.

For St. George’s day, here is a look at how currency has shaped the idea of Saint George, the Dragon Slayer within the popular imagination.

Saint George, the Dragon Slayer

The image that adorns the reverse of the Sovereign has its origins back in Graeco-Roman culture, when the figure of a mounted hero, with lance, was used on both coins and reliefs, as an imperial sign of power.

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Reverse 1817 gold Sovereign. Money gallery, Manchester Museum)

The cult of the third-century Christian martyr, George of Cappadocia, was established following the First Crusade in 1098, with a shrine at Lydda, where, in Greek mythology, Perseus rescued Andromeda from a sea serpent.

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Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the serpent at Lydda. Campanian Red-figure Bell-krater (Acc. No.: 183.97) Available at: University of Canterbury, New Zealand

By the thirteenth century, Saint George had become a Dragon Slayer, emblazoned with the red cross of a crusader – a legend across medieval Europe. In England the chivalric cult of St. George, saw him elevated to national patron saint, with the foundation of the Order of the Garter in 1348; its insignia containing the badge or jewel of St. George slaying the dragon.

The image of St. George that first appeared on the Sovereign in 1817 was designed by the Italian gem engraver Benedetto Pistrucci, who it has been suggested was inspired by the friezes of processions of humans and animals on Parthenon Marbles that Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, brought to England in the early 1800s.

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Metope from the Parthenon, on display at the British Museum. Photo: Sarah Scott

The Sovereign first came into circulation during the Tudor period, in reign of Henry VII, and represented more a political message of stability than to fulfil any commercial or domestic need. Benedetto Pistrucci’s design was more dramatic than coins that had gone before. Although the Pistrucci reverse continues, there have been several commemorative issues that have featured other designs, including depictions of St. George;

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2005 Sovereign Reverse. Available from: Royal Mint

In 2005, a new reverse design was introduced on The Sovereign. It was designed by Timothy Noad and is a modern interpretation of St. George and the dragon.

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2012 Sovereign Reverse – The Diamond Jubilee Sovereign. Available from: Royal Mint

2012 was the year of Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and to commemorate this special occasion a new St. George and the dragon reverse was commissioned.

‘I have chosen to opt for a Romantic version of the St George and the dragon theme – a medieval knight of Arthurian legend rather than a classical hero. I have given the dragon a more threatening attitude and size, so that it represents a real menace and not a weak foe.” – Paul Day

Saint George, war and the battlefield

Saint George has had associations with the battlefields of the Crusades, and an intrinsic connection with the warrior-heroes of Greek myths. The war-torn twentieth century has seen some changes in this relationship.

The outbreak of the First World War saw the government urge the public to hand in their gold sovereigns, with the precious metal to be used to support the Bank of England’s reserves and fund Britain’s war effort. The Government issued two Treasury Notes, which would be used in place of gold Sovereigns. The Sovereign never regained its place in domestic circulation; when the Royal Mint began producing these coins again, it was as a bullion coin.

Manchester Museum also holds some intriguing archives connecting the George and Dragon image to World War I.

Pencil designs on paper, which Edward Carter Preston submitted in the competition for the design for the British War Medal (ecp349) Manchester Museum

The numismatics archive revealed these drawings by Edward Carter Preston, which he submitted in the competition for the design of the British War Medal in 1919. He was unsuccessful, so these designs were never minted. The successful  artist was William McMillan.

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William McMillan’s successful design for the British War Medal, 1919. Available from: The Illustrated First World War 

McMillan’s design also incorporates the iconography of St. George, and his associations with Power and Virtue overcoming Evil. Or, as McMillan himself stated, “… the horseman is an allegory for the physical and mental strength which achieves victory over Prussianism.”

In McMillan’s design, St. George’s dragon has been replaced by an eagle shield representing the Central Powers – the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary – which is being trampled on by England’s national patron, St. George.

So, the imagery has come full circle, just as with the ancient Greeks, the process of minting and distribution was an opportunity to transmit narratives and ideas, and a way of creating new, larger than life heroes.

Michelle Scott

With grateful thanks to Phyliss Stoddart for the archival research on Edward Carter Preston.

To find out more about numismatics and archaeology at Manchester Museum, please read the Curator’s blog, ‘Ancient Worlds‘ – ancientworldsmanchester.wordpress.com

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