Hacking the City of London with St George
“Noble dragons don’t have friends. The nearest they can get to the idea is an enemy who is still alive.”
– Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
The signs of St George are all over the City of London, but it’s not just the patron saint who haunts these streets. There are dragons stationed at every major entrance. We couldn’t shake the question: why are dragons guarding the City, holding the shield of St George, when he is supposed to have killed the dragons? It was enough to warrant some hacking!
We were at the largest two, which are at the main routes from Westminster. The City and Westminster have a long history of tension, so this felt significant.
Here’s the route we took. It was a relatively short walk, but there was so much in the space we needed all the time to try and make sense of it.
The story of St George as we know it is taken from the 13th century bestseller, The Golden Legend. St George was a Syrian migrant, drafted into the Roman army. While riding through Libya he happened upon a girl dressed for her wedding, standing by a lake. She was to be offered to the dragon that lived there. The dragon terrorised the nearby city and to keep him at bay the people offered him livestock, and then when that no longer worked they drew lots to offer him their children. This girl was the king’s daughter – though he had protested, the townsfolk insisted he stick to his own rules.
St George fights the dragon but cannot defeat him. Then he (or she?) suggests that the girl gives him / uses her girdle to subdue it. He/she then leads the defeated dragon into the city. Far from being impressed, the people are terrified at the sight of the dragon and beg St George to kill it. This he agrees to do, in exchange for their conversion to Christianity.
The story continues with St George’s later defection from the Roman army on account of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians (this was before Christianity was the official religion of the empire, so they were a marginalised and generally quite economically poor group). St George took a vow of poverty in solidarity and faced torture by the authorities who demanded he acknowledged the pagan gods. A series of miraculous events ensue – all in validation of George – until he finally dies, beheaded, and is venerated as a martyr.
The first dragons we visited were the original on which all the others (except Temple Bar) are based. They were part of the old Coal Exchange, but were moved to the Embankment on its demolition in the 1960s, with half-sized copies erected at the City’s other entrances.
There was something a bit ambivalent about the effect of the sculpture. On the one had the dragon has sharp teeth, claws, and is reared as if to pounce. Or is it playful; hard to tell. Talking of hard, it is very definitely a gendered dragon! The tip of its phallus is represented in a shape like an eye, standing up to Westminster perhaps, always awake and watching? But is that worry we detect in the dragon’s other eyes, or fear, or rage? A subtle swirl, like that in the fish eyes of Embankment’s lampposts. Maybe just a coincidence.
Dragons guard gold, of course, we remembered. And so we pass by, and into the City.
St George enters into English mythology via the Crusades. So we head to Temple Church, the London HQ of the Knights Templar, a religious order founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Lands.
The Knights Templar are the subject of many fantastic conspiracy theories. But the historical origins of the order are in Jerusalem during the first crusade. Knights wanting to fight were concerned about the property they had to leave behind. So the Knights Templar was established, in a mosque on the site of Solomon’s Temple, to protect the assets of those noblemen going to war. With such vast assets suddenly at their disposal they invested, charged interest, and amassed a wealth so great that kings would borrow against their security. With temples all over Europe, they laid the foundations for modern banking.
The knights themselves, however, took a vow of poverty. Opposite Temple Church is a pillar with the symbol of the order sculpted on top. Two knights riding a single horse, rather than one each.
During the third crusade, with the Christian forces waning, St George appeared at the head of the army and led them to victory. So the red cross of the Knight’s Templar and the George Cross became synonymous. It was brought back to London with gusto and has been the official emblem of the City for many hundreds of years.
Standing in the quiet of the courtyard by Temple Church, surrounded by the calm of two Inns of Court, it feels very peaceful, far away from the terror of war. No dragons here, just winged horses. I returned later to discover that Pegasus is the symbol of Inner Temple, the chambers that gave us Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, and various other eminent political figures. Pegasus was key to the defeat of the Chimera, the archetypal hybrid. I wonder what hybrids this space suppresses today. And whether guardian sculptures – part dragon, part St George – count.
Leaving the tranquility of the Temple we head North to the chaotic bustle of The Strand and the dragon at Temple Bar, outside the Royal Courts of Justice.
It’s an imposing creature, rejected as the template for the other boundary markers in favour of the Coal Exchange design on account of how fierce it looks. Temple Bar used to be the arched gateway to the City of London at its Western edge. The reigning monarch does not have automatic access to the City, and must be met at Temple Bar by the Lord Mayor in order to be escorted within. In the late 19th century the arch was moved out of the way because it was holding up traffic. In its place is a towering homage to Queen Victoria, with the prowling dragon on top.
The stone monument has four sides. Facing South is Queen Victoria, and North, Prince Albert. Flanking them are carved images under the headings Art, Science, War, and Peace. Underneath are bronze bas reliefs. On the South side a depiction of Victoria’s visit to Guildhall, following her coronation in 1837. Her carriage and military entourage is met, head on, by a cabal of robed men on horseback. A man kneels offering her a scroll. The block on which he kneels has ‘Edward our founder’ etched on one side, and ‘Victoria our friend’ on another. On the North side the relief depicts Victoria travelling to St Paul’s in 1872, this time unhindered, with people kneeling as she passed. The entire sculpture was commissioned in 1880, with Victoria ascending to the height of her reign – a grandeur arguably greater than any other British monarch, but with power now well tempered by Parliament. This, we felt, was a forceful homage to the Empress.
However, the fierce black metal dragon faces East towards Westminster. We felt that for all the grandeur and imagery of the pillar that supported it, the fact it sat on the top and is postured so menacingly gave it the final word! A dragon still guarding its treasure from the kings.
So we wondered again about St George, and whether he was really the symbol of the City of London, or whether he had been replaced by the dragon.
Along the way we had talked about different ways to read the St George story. The girl whose girdle subdues the dragon, for example, and the city who are desperate to kill it. Is it easier to destroy our monsters than to live with them tamed? Or the conversion to Christianity George required of the city. At a time when Christians were a marginalised group, conversion was a defection from imperial allegiance. There is a symbolism in the slaying of the dragon as a rejection of Empire. We wondered whether St George was useful to the City as an anti-imperial figure.
There is some historical evidence for this. During the Middle Ages St George became the patron saint of sharing the spoils of war – influenced, perhaps, by the community ethic of the Knights Templar. English kings would pledge their allegiance to St George in order to keep legitimacy; just as St George would not tolerate the dragon, symbol of hoarding gold, the nobility would not tolerate a hoarding king.
Given the status of the City of London today – the global finance capital, famed for the wealth it refuses to share – the symbol of St George and the horse-sharing Knights seem like symbols of an ancient time. But that may be more to do with how the world has changed around it. The nobility, the wealthy, still invest and receive their share(s), the City still safeguards their assets, and St George still protects them from taxation.
But back at Temple Bar there was another feature we noticed – you can’t help but notice! The Stand’s sprawling Gothic-Revivalist fantasy castle that houses the Royal Courts of Justice and towers above both Victoria and the dragon. It felt signifiant that at the boundary mark between London’s two centres of power, The City and Westminster, stands the nation’s arbiter of justice. Given the current national political tussle, and a growing rejection of austerity in favour of higher taxes on the rich, and on corporations – which inevitably focusses on the City – the question of economic justice is live.
We noticed that the Temple Bar dragon’s right claw is positioned differently over the shield of St George compared to the other guardian dragons. In his more aggressive, leery pose, he appears to be sweeping the shield aside. Is St George really the symbol of the City or its it the dragon? Perhaps, perhaps, when faced with justice, the city reveals its teeth. The rest of London has changed around the City. Gone are the absolutist days of the Monarchy against which the City must protect its liberty with the shield of St George. Now the democratic State makes a case for shared wealth. And the dragon rises up from behind it.
At the end of the Hack, just by coincidence, we were standing directly underneath the flight path for the Queen’s birthday flyby. The Temple Bar dragon stands on a tribute to a queen, but was, for a moment, overshadowed by a tribute to a Queen. A reminder that symbols, even ones in broze and stone, are never quite dead.