The only woodcut to be published in the 1590 and 1596 editions of The Faerie Queene is this woodcut of St George, which appeared facing the opening of Book II. It had been used by the printer of The Faerie Queene, John Wolfe, in earlier publications.
George was far from unknown in Ireland. An annual celebration of the saint, complete with procession and dragon, occurred in Dublin until the 1570s. In Munster, a curious artifact of the Desmond lordship —a rare example of something that actually remains— is a sixteenth-century Desmond coat of arms carved on whale-bone, now housed in the National Museum of Ireland. It shows a mounted horseman spearing a dragon. The carving appears to have been tampered with (exactly when is uncertain), so that the mounted horseman has been turned into an image of St George.
The hero of Book I of The Faerie Queene, the book of Holiness, is Red Crosse Knight, who becomes St George by fighting against the Dragon in canto xi. St George is the patron saint of England, and the Dragon bears signs that would indicate its identity as Satan (“that old dragon” of the Book of Revelation). It also has features that would indicate topical references to Pope Gregory XIII (whose emblem was a dragon), Spain, and Ireland all wrapped into one. Its black and red scales are compared to an army’s shields, for example (black and red were the colors of the Castillian, i.e., Spanish monarchy), it has “sail”-like wings (shades of the Spanish Armada, which was dispersed by the English and a storm, and which crashed in part on Irish shores) and its tail is wrapped in “boughts and knots” and pointed with a double sting: the words evoke the Irish bonnaught (Irish buanacht), a term for the predatory biletting by mercenary soldiers that squeezed the country and that New English administrators tried to reform or eliminate. When the giant Dragon is slain, it is measured “To proue how many acres he did spred of land” (FQ I.xii.11.9). Accordingly, the downfall of the noble house of Desmond led to its attainder, including the forfeiture, measurement and plantation of its land by opportunists such as Spenser.
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012): 219.
Thomas Herron, “An Exhibit in Ireland.” Spenser Review 33.2 (Summer 2002), 41-4.
—, Spenser’s Irish Work: Poetry, Plantation and Colonial Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007): 136-7.
Belinda Humfrey, “dragons.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 223-4.
Robert Kellogg, “Red Cross Knight.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 587-8.
Hugh MacLachlan, “George, St.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 329-30.
Paul J. Voss, “The Faerie Queene 1590-1596: the Case of Saint George.” Ben Jonson Journal 3 (1996), 59-73.