Salisbury is a city which takes St George's Day very seriously indeed, with an annual day of celebration in the Market Square which starts with a town crier, a procession of dignitaries and the famous Salisbury Giant and Hob Nob, guided walks, shows, kids activities, Morris Dancing and plenty more. It is one of the biggest and most traditional celebrations in England for reasons unknown to even most of the locals, but there is a specific and little known connection between the city and St George.
George was a Roman officer who was tortured by the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to denounce Christ. In 303AD he was beheaded in modern day Palestine, his fame grew with stories of his strength and courage, including his battle with an evil dragon, which is said to have taken place on Dragon Hill in Uffington, although in reality he probably never visited England.
St George was not always the patron saint. Before him it was St Edmund, the Anglo-Saxon King of East Anglia who fought alongside St Alfred, King of Wessex, but by the time of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades in the 12th century, it was George's name being invoked in battle as a rallying cry.
It was Edward III who made him the official patron saint of England when he formed the Order of the Garter of St George in 1350. This is the oldest order of chivalry in Europe, and the most distinguished honour in the country. Myth has it that it was given its name when Edward III was at a ball in 1349 and was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury, when her blue garter slipped down her leg. In order to save her embarrassment he picked it up, attached it to his own leg and said ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, (‘shame on him who thinks evil of this’), a phrase which remains the motto of the Order. Edward IV built St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle in the 15th century which is the private chapel of the Royal Family and the resting place of many of them, including the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Salisbury and St George
Salisbury is a medieval city which is home to a beautiful cathedral, an ancient Doom Painting, Old Sarum and Stonehenge and contains over 600 listed buildings, many of them half-timbered medieval homes, as well as plenty of things to do, making it a popular place on the tourist trail for visitors to the south of England.
In medieval times, Salisbury was part of the Diocese of Windsor and Bishop of Salisbury, Richard Beauchamp, was appointed as the first Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, a position held by all future Salisbury Bishops.
All of the inhabitants of Salisbury were encouraged to go on pilgrimages to St George's in Windsor, where many relics were held, and a close connection between the two cities was formed.
Salisbury was once one of the major trading centres of England for wool produced from the resident Wiltshire Long Horn sheep, who lived on the chalky plains and who had the unique characteristics of shedding naturally (so no need for shearing) and of both males and females having horns.
Salisbury was a very successful trading city, trading wool across the country and Europe, and by the end of the 14th century, the city was also becoming renowned for its cloth production, for a while making Salisbury one of the 10 richest cities in England.
The merchants effectively controlled the city - it was their money which built many of the buildings you can still see today, and each of the merchant trades had their own guilds; weavers, carpenters, tailors, bakers and more.
They all combined in a merchant guild, The Guild of St George, which dominated the city for many years, making laws and byelaws and keeping strict control over the city, forming an enduring association between the saint and the city. There is still some evidence of this today and across the city you can see St George and dragons depicted in architecture as well as several buildings named after him.
The final unique connection between Salisbury and St George is the use of the famous Giant and Hob Nob. They probably both existed from the 1400s and the giant was the emblem of the Tailors Guild, used in festivals and processions. It is thought that the giant may represent St Christopher who was said to be there when St George fought the dragon.
Hob Nob is thought to have belonged to the Guild of St George and may represent the dragon itself. Hob Nob's role was to clear the way for the Giant to walk through the crowds of the processions, biting and nipping at people who got in the way. Both have gone through several incarnations over the centuries, with the originals now in Salisbury Museum and replicas out for current events.
This all goes to explain why Salisbury makes such an effort to celebrate St George's Day, with a day of celebration on the Sunday nearest to 23rd April, St George's Day, and has done for many years.
St George's Day in Salisbury
The whole day is focused around the Guildhall (once the secular home of the Guild of St. George) and the Market Square next to it. Events start at the Guildhall, where crowds gather to listen to the Town Crier in his full traditional outfit, ringing his bell and shouting, 'Oyez Oyez' to get people's attention, watched by the Mayor and local councillors in their bright red robes and tricorn hats standing on the steps next to him. They then all process through Fish Row and the Market Square, joined by the giant, Hob Nob, Morris Dancers and assorted musicians and performers. It makes a colourful and highly entertaining spectacle, with the crowds waving their St. George's flags along the route.
The mayor gives a brief speech and then the market square opens up with assorted stalls, rides, food vendors and a large beer tent. Morris dancers perform at regular intervals throughout the day, there are puppet shows, story tellers and craft activities for kids and the whole square is filled with activity. Free guided walks are conducted by Blue Badge guides who take groups through the city showing them all of the sites connected with St George, and the impressive Guildhall oak court room is used to put the dragon on trial in entertaining plays.
Crowds fill the square for much of the day as there is so much on, although you will always find some baffled looking visitors wondering what on earth is going on around them in this rather cheery display of traditional English eccentricity.
Sites in Salisbury connected to St George
The Guildhall - the original Guildhall (which burnt down in 1780) was where the Guild of St. George met in a secular space to make their laws and kept tight control over the city. Read more about the Salisbury Guildhall >>
St. Thomas's Church - This was rebuilt in 1450 with money from the wool trade and has a Chapel dedicated to the brothers of St. George (where the organ now is). Once used as a vestry it has now been resurrected with a new altar and re-dedicated. The church contains a magnificent Doom painting was paid for by the merchants and which has the devil portrayed as a dragon. Read more about the Doom Painting >>
St Thomas's also has a stained glass window done in 1920s depicting St. George, and is the only place in the UK where he is seen with a purple dragon as they are normally grey, green, or black. The window is a war memorial and shows St. George killing the evil dragon, the recent enemy in World War I - Germany. St. George is wearing plate armour which didn’t actually come in until the 14th century; he should be in Roman military uniform like St Michael who is next to him on the window (see photo above).
Salisbury Cathedral - The west front of Salisbury cathedral is covered in statues and just above the west door you can see St. George with a very Disneyesque dragon around his feet. The statue is Victorian and dates from the 1860s and portrays St. George as an early medieval crusader. Read more about Salisbury Cathedral >>
Old George Mall - The Old George Mall dates back to the 14th century when it was the Old George Inn, built in 1320. It was a focal point of the city and visitors included William Shakespeare, who apparently rehearsed 'As You Like It' in the gardens, Oliver Cromwell spent a night there in 1645, Samuel Pepys in 1668 and Charles Dickens in 1844. One of the beams supporting the beautiful half-timbered building is original and has a commemorative plaque on it. If you visit the Boston Tea Party you can go upstairs to see all of the medieval timber work, carvings, and plenty of dragons.
The George and Dragon Pub - built from ships timbers in 1530 as a brothel known as the Silent Woman because it is said a lady had her tongue cut out in one of the courting rooms, it was renamed the George and Dragon in the 17th century when it became a coaching inn. It is a popular pub in the city which is surprisingly large inside and has a beer garden on the river.
The Milford Hill Mural
City planners violated Salisbury in the 1970s with the creation of a dual carriageway which cut right through the city, with whole streets and buildings removed. The ring-road as it is known may make it easy to get around the place, but it is an abomination to look at.
That being said, people have tried to improve it, and one such instance are the murals in Milford Street. Both walls of the underpass have been filled with murals created by local artist Fred Fieber. One side depicts the buildings which were once there before the city planners got their hands on them, the other side shows historical events in the city, including the tradition of the Giant and Hob Nob out in the Guildhall Square. It shows them in 1977, their last outing before being retired to the museum and replaced with the modern versions.
St George's Church Harnham
Built in the early 12th century on the site of a Saxon Church, St. George's is in Harnham, one of the small villages which was once outside Salisbury but now forms part of it. It still retains some Norman features such as the nave and windows and has a 13th century wall painting.
There are plenty of other buildings around Salisbury where you will find dragons as ornamentation. The historic Odeon, once a wealthy merchant's home, is covered with dragons and wyverns on its Pugin frontage, Cross Keys House near the Guildhall is also covered with them and you will easily find them in other locations around the city, including a Victorian terracotta dragon above the Timpsons building near the library.