Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Patron Saint of England

It is always amusing to stop and trace the reason  why at certain times children are called by certain names. Often it is after somebody in a story-book, or a hero, or a king or queen whose memory has gone down through the ages. In the time of Henry I a great many girls were called 'Maud' or Matilda (for it is the same name) after his mother and his daughter and his wife; and then came in—from France and Spain—Eleanors and Blanches, and Catherines and Isabels, and these have never gone out of fashion for long, as the Gladyses and Gwendolines are sure to do.

Again, if you notice, after Charles II's day a whole quantity of new names came in from Germany and Holland. Under the Hanoverians the young ladies were either 'Sophia' or 'Charlotte' or 'Caroline' or 'Harriet'; and their brothers 'George' or 'William' or 'Augustus'. Augustus was perhaps not such a favourite as the rest, and William had, of course, been known since the days of the Conqueror. 'George' was more rarely to be met with, but has become firmly established since the Elector of Hanover succeeded Queen Anne on the English throne.

Now to-day, when I am writing, is St. George's Day, April 23, 1911, and this year will see the coronation of His Majesty King George V, so I think I ought to end this book with a little sketch of St. George, who was adopted long ago as the Patron Saint of England.

There are a great many stories about him, of the horrible things that he suffered, and the wonderful and quite impossible things that he did, and he is often mixed up with (a wholly different) George of Cappadocia, who was a bishop and a heretic. But though our George's sufferings for the Christian faith were exaggerated, and his marvellous deeds a fairy tale, there really did  live once upon a time a man who grew famous as one of the Seven Champions of Christendom, and when you have heard the stories about him you can choose which of them you would like to believe.

Of course you know that he is always spoken of as 'St. George and the Dragon,' almost as if he and the dragon made up one body, as the centaurs of old Greece were composed of a man and horse. But the first tales told of him from very early times make no mention of a dragon at all. George was, they said, born in Asia Minor, and his father, who was a Christian, was put to death for his religion in one of the Roman persecutions. His mother, in terror for the child's life, fled with him to Palestine, and when he was about fifteen or sixteen, he, like many other Christian boys, entered the Roman Army and may have marched under the eagles eastwards to the Euphrates and the Tigris, and have made part of the force which besieged the splendid cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia. At any rate he speedily became known to his generals as a soldier who could be trusted, not only to attack but to defend, which often needs very different qualities; and there was no trained veteran among the legions who could bear cold or heat, hunger or thirst, better than young George. Then came the news that his mother was dead, leaving him a large fortune.

George was now alone in the world, and, feeling suddenly tired of the life he was leading, he bade his comrades farewell, and took ship for the West and the court of the Emperor Diocletian. Here, he thought, he could soon rise to fame, and perhaps some day he would become the governor of a small province or the prefect of a large one. But his hopes were dashed by the breaking out of the persecution against the Christians. The estates of many rich people were seized, and the owners, if not condemned to death, were left to starve. So George divided his money between those who needed it most, and after that he went straight to Diocletian and declared himself a Christian.

Up to this point there is nothing in the story that might not have happened—which indeed did  happen—to hundreds of young men, but the chroniclers of St. George were not content to stop here, and began to invent the marvels that they loved. As St. George refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods he was sentenced to death, after first being tortured. Soldiers, so said the monkish historians, came to his prison to thrust him through with spears, but the moment the spear touched him it snapped in two. He was bound to a wheel which was set about with swords and knives, but an angel came and delivered him, and no wounds were found on his body. A pit of quicklime was powerless to injure his flesh, and, after running about in red-hot iron shoes, the following morning he walked up to the palace unhurt and did homage to Diocletian. The emperor, enraged at the failure of his plans, ordered him to be scourged, and then given poisoned water to drink; but as neither whip nor poison could injure him, his persecutor, in despair, bade an officer cut off his head with a sword, and so St. George obtained his crown of martyrdom.

Such was the tale that was told with eagerness among the Christians of the East, but quite another set of stories was accepted in the West, and written down in the holy books, till in the sixteenth century the pope Clement VII commanded them to be left out, and ordered St. George to be set down in the calendar of saints, merely as a holy martyr.

According to this western version George early left his birthplace in Asia Minor and went to Africa, where he settled in a town called Silene. Near Silene was a large pond in which lived a dragon, with fierce eyes that seemed starting out of his head, and a long, thick, scaly tail which could curl itself up in rings and look quite small, when it was not being used to knock over men or houses or something of that sort; and more to be dreaded than his tail was the breath of the monster's nostrils, which poisoned everyone that approached him.

This horrible dragon was equally at home on land or water, and great was the terror of the people of Silene when they beheld the tall reeds that fringed the pond beginning to wave and rustle, for they knew that their enemy was preparing to leave his lair and seek his dinner in the streets of the town. Hastily they swept their children inside their houses and shut their doors tight, but woe be to any man or woman who did not get quickly enough under shelter! It was in vain that the soldiers marched out to destroy him; his breath, or his tail, or his long, iron claws slew those that were foremost, and the others fled madly back to the protection of the town.

At length the King of Silene summoned a council of the wise men, and after much talk it was decided that two sheep should every day be sacrificed to the monster, on condition that he should allow the citizens to go free. Unluckily, the sheep were few and the citizens many, and by and bye there came a day when the sheep were all gone and the reeds on the pond waved and rustled more wildly than ever. Then another council was held by men with white faces and shaking voices, and it was agreed that every evening the names of all the young people belonging to the city should be placed in a bowl, and a child with a bandage over his eyes should pick one. The boy or girl thus chosen was to be the victim of the dragon.

A month passed and thirty children had vanished from the town, when one day the slip of paper drawn from the bowl bore the name of the princess. The king had known all along, of course, that it was likely to happen, and the princess knew it too, but she refused to be sent away to some other country as her father wished, declaring she would stay and take her chance with the rest. So the morning after the fatal lot had been drawn she dressed herself in her royal robes, and with her head held high went forth in the sunshine alone to her doom. But as soon as she drew near to the horrible shaking reeds and there was no one to see, her courage gave way, and she flung herself down on a stone and wept.

For a long while the princess remained thus, when suddenly she sat up and looked about her. What was that noise she heard? Surely it was a horse's tread. And certainly that could be nothing but armour which glistened so brightly in the sun! Had a deliverer indeed come? And as the thought passed through her mind the reeds shook more violently than ever, and something large and heavy began to move among them.

But if the princess saw and shuddered, St. George had seen likewise, and rejoiced. The story of the dragon had reached to the far countries through which he had been travelling, and he instantly understood what lay before him. Yet, would he be in time? For the pond lay near to the weeping girl and he must manage to get behind the dragon before he could strike, close enough for the tail to have no power over him and not so close as to be slain by the poisonous breath.

St. George and the dragon

"St. George rescues the Princess from the horrible Dragon."

It was not easy—dragon-slaying never is—and if it had  been, the name of the dragon would never have been bound up with that of St. George. So he rapidly unwound a scarf that lay about his helmet to keep off the sun, and tied it over his nose and mouth. Then, holding his spear in rest, he galloped up to the monster who, with a roar of anger and triumph, advanced to meet him. But swiftly the knight sprang to one side, thrusting the spear as he did so right down the throat of the dragon. With a bellow that was heard far beyond Silene the creature rolled over, and, though not actually dead, was plainly dying.

'Take off your girdle,' said St. George quickly, 'and pass it from behind over the head of the beast. He cannot harm you now.'

With trembling fingers the princess untied the long, silken cord from her dress and did as the knight bade her, and so they all three crossed the meadows to Silene, where St. George cut off the head of the dragon in the presence of the people, and at his urgent request the king and the whole of his subjects consented to become Christians.

But what, you will ask, has all this to do with England? And why should St. George be our Patron Saint? Well, that is another story.

According to this tale, it was the old city of Coventry which gave birth to our national hero, who was born with the mark of a dragon on his breast. As a baby he was stolen away by a witch, and hidden in the woods till he was fourteen, when he besought his captor to tell him who he was and how he came there. For some time she resisted all his pleadings; she loved him dearly and feared that if the youth discovered that he was the son of a great noble he would never be content to stay with her in the forest, but would ride away in search of adventures and perhaps lose his life. However, after working some spells she found that she had no power to keep him, and very unwillingly she answered his questions and then took him to a castle of brass, where the Six Champions of Christendom were held captive.

Can you tell me their names? If not, I  must tell you.

The Six Champions St. George found in the brazen castle, of whom he was to make the Seventh, were St. Denis of France, St. James (or St. Iago) of Spain, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. David of Wales. In the stables stood seven horses—the strongest and cleverest in the world—and seven suits of armour against which every weapon would fall harmless. The heart of St. George beat high as he looked at these things, then he buckled on the armour and mounted the steed pointed out by the witch, and with his six companions rode away from the castle.

The Seven Champions soon parted company and went in search of their different adventures. This story also tells how St. George slew the Egyptian dragon and delivered the princess, and goes on to say what happened afterwards. A black king, named Almidor, so runs the tale, had fallen in love with the Princess Sabra, who refused even to look at him. Mad with jealousy at hearing that St. George had slain the dragon—for he dreaded lest the king should give his daughter in marriage to her deliverer—he first tried to kill the young man by force, and failing, resolved to compass his death by poison. Fiercely his rage burned within him as he stood by and beheld the rewards and gifts heaped on the youth by the grateful father, though the honour most prized by the victor was the spurs of knighthood, but he did not see the princess bestow a magic diamond on St. George as soon as the ceremony was over and they were alone. Scarcely had the ring been placed on his finger when Almidor entered, bearing a wine cup, which he offered with fair words to the new-made knight. St. George was thirsty and tired with the day's excitement, and eagerly stretched out his hand for the cup, when the princess observed all the light fade out of the diamond and a cloud come over it. At once she knew the meaning of these signs, for her nurse had taught her magic, and how to detect poison. Her shriek of horror caused St. George to let fall the cup and reached the ears of her father, who came running to see what was the matter; but so much love did he bear Almidor that he would not believe he had been guilty of so black a deed and told his daughter she had been dreaming.

Though this attempt also had failed, the black king did not give up hope; and the more clearly did he perceive that the princess' heart was given to St. George, the more determined was he to obtain her for himself. So he visited the king her father, in his private rooms, and told him, with tears, that he had discovered a plot concocted by the princess and the foreign knight to fly together to England, where Sabra would forsake the faith of her country and be baptised. And once again Almidor gained his ends. The king listened to his words and was further persuaded to play the old trick, and to send George to the Persian court with a letter, containing a request to the King of Persia instantly to put the bearer to death. He further persuaded the young man to leave behind his invincible sword Ascalon, and his trusty horse, and to ride instead a palfrey from the king's stables.

After all, the Egyptian monarch need not have troubled himself to commit a crime, for St. George had scarcely passed through the city gates when he beheld a procession in honour of the Prophet Mahomet. This was a sight no Christian knight could endure, and, dashing into the midst of the worshippers, he tore down the banners they carried and trampled on them.

In the uproar that followed many of the Persians fell beneath the sword of St. George, but alas! it was not Ascalon which he carried, and his enemies were too much for him. Overpowered at last, he was dragged before the King of Persia, who heaped reproaches on his head, and then ordered him to be tortured in all manner of dreadful ways. But St. George boldly answered that the royal blood of England flowed in his veins, and he claimed the right to challenge the king to single combat. Likewise, he said, he had come there as ambassador from the King of Egypt, and on that account, too, he demanded protection. Then, drawing from under his corselet the blood-stained letter, he held it out.

The eyes of the Persian king sparkled as he read it.

'So!' he cried, turning to the knight, standing tall and straight before him. 'The game which you thought to play here, you have played in Egypt already! Know you that the letter you have brought bids me put you to death without delay? And by the Prophet, I will do it!'

As he spoke, he signed to his guards, who bore St. George away to a dungeon, the knight marvelling all the while at the treachery which had befallen him, and wondering when he should again see the face of the Princess Sabra.

After letting loose two hungry lions into St. George's dungeon, which the knight instantly strangled, the king desired that his captive should be left alone and given barely enough food to keep him alive, for he had changed his mind about killing him. For seven years St. George lay there, and all that time the only pleasant thing he had to think about was the princess as she appeared to him during their stolen talks in the garden.

If he had but known what had happened to her, he would have slain himself from misery.

Day by day Princess Sabra grew thinner and weaker, and could hardly be persuaded to eat and drink or to leave her rooms opening on the river Nile. At length her father, who in spite of what he had done loved his daughter dearly, resolved to rouse her at all costs, and, putting on an air of sternness which he was far from feeling, told her that it was quite plain the English knight had forgotten her for some other maiden, and that by his orders preparations were even now being made for her marriage with Almidor, the black King of Morocco.

The poor girl did not attempt to oppose him. She was so ill and unhappy that she really did not care what became of her, and only murmured in reply that though she might be the wife of Almidor, her heart would always belong to the Champion of England. Perhaps the king did not hear her words. At any rate he pretended not to do so. The wedding festivities were hurried on, and in a few days the Princess Sabra was the wife of Almidor.

Seven years were past, and St. George still lay in his Persian dungeon, when one night a frightful storm broke out, which caused the men in the city to quake with fear. Almost alone of the people, the unfortunate captive was indifferent to the noise of falling towers and the hissing of thunderbolts—if one fell into his dungeon and put an end to him, so much the better! At times the floor seemed to rock beneath him, and once he heard a rattle in the walls, but it was too dark to see anything except for the vivid lightning. When morning dawned the tempest died away, and the knight sat up and looked about him. In one corner some stones had fallen down, and among them lay a sort of iron pickaxe covered with rust. It must have been left in a niche on the other side by some workmen of former days, and forgotten.

At this sight hope, which he had thought to be long dead, revived in his heart. Without losing a moment he fell to work, and though from weakness he was often obliged to pause and rest, in the course of a few days he had, by aid of the pickaxe, hewn a hole in the loosened masonry big enough to pass through. Then he waited till night came.

When everything was quiet St. George crept through his hole, and found himself in a passage leading into a large court which formed part of the palace. Before venturing out of the shadow he listened carefully, so as to make sure in which direction he had better turn, for having been cast into the dungeon the very evening of his arrival in the Persian city, he only knew the road by which he had come. For awhile all was silent, but at last he heard voices on the other side of the courtyard, and stole cautiously in that direction. He soon gathered from the talk that in two or three hours the King of Persia was setting out on a hunting expedition, and that the horses were being watered and got ready. Rushing in, he laid about him with the pickaxe so vigorously that the grooms, taken by surprise, one after another fell before him. As soon as all were dead, St. George put on a suit of armour and a sword that hung in the furnishing room, and, mounting the strongest horse he could find in the stable, rode boldly to the nearest gate.

'Open, porter, in the king's name,' cried he. 'Know you not that St. George of England has escaped from his dungeon, and that the whole city is seeking him? It is thought he may have fled this way, and if you have let him pass, your head will answer for it.'

'Not so! not so! my lord,' answered the porter, fumbling at the lock with shaking fingers. 'I swear by the Prophet—' but St. George never knew what he swore, for he was galloping westwards.

Many were his adventures before he reached the country of Barbary, where few Christian knights had been before him. For this reason St. George went there, thinking thus to gain honour denied to other men. Near the borders of the kingdom he paused to speak with a hermit, who, he thought, might be able to tell him somewhat of the customs of that strange land, and the name of the city whose distant towers he saw.

'Those towers and walls,' answered the hermit, 'surround the city of Tripoli, wherein is the palace of Almidor, the black King of Morocco.'

'Ah! you know him?' he added, as St. George started and muttered something under his breath.

'Know him?' said the knight grimly. 'I owe him a debt which I shall hasten to pay! It is thanks to him that I am here to-day, and that I have lost my bride, the Princess Sabra.'

'Princess Sabra! But she is Queen of Barbary, and has been these seven years and more,' replied the hermit. 'Tell me, I pray you, how these things came to pass?' Then St. George sat down and told his tale, and in the end besought the hermit to lend him his garments, and to take care of his horse and armour till he returned to claim them.

It was in this guise the knight approached the walls of Tripoli, and found a hundred pilgrims kneeling before the palace gate. 'What do you here, my friends?' he asked in surprise, and the pilgrims answered:

'During seven years the Queen of Barbary has given us alms every day for the sake of one St. George of England, long since dead, whom she loved above all the knights in the world.'

'And when does she give them to you?' inquired St. George, whose voice so trembled with joy that he could hardly speak.

'At sunset; and till then we pray on our knees for the good fortune of the English knight.'

'I will kneel with you,' said he.

As the sun was sinking the queen left the palace and moved slowly towards the gate. At the sight of her St. George could have wept, so changed was she, yet still how beautiful. Black robes were wound about her; her hair had more in it of silver than of gold, and her eyelids were red as are the eyelids of those who have wept so much that they can weep no longer. Passing down the row of pilgrims she held out her alms to each, but when she came to St. George she stopped short, and seemed as though she would have fallen. Then, with a mighty effort, she continued her way till she had come to the end of the row, after which she beckoned St. George aside and questioned him as to who he was and how he came there.

It did not take long for St. George to tell the story of the black king's treachery, or to hear how Sabra had always feared and hated him.

'Take me away, I pray you,' she entreated, 'for he is now at the hunt, and before he returns I shall be safe on the road to England. See, hidden in that stable is the horse you were forced to leave, and your good sword Ascalon. I will mount behind you, and follow you wheresoever you go. For if he finds you here, he will slay you, and me also.'

Therefore, within an hour St. George was riding through the city gates with Sabra the queen, seated behind him. Many adventures were still in store for them before the shores of England came in sight. But not for long was he suffered to rest. As happened to the six other Champions, his help was sought from the ends of the world, and the remainder of his life was spent in warring in Europe and in Asia. In this warfare he grew old and weary, till his heart drew him back to his native city, Coventry, set in the green of Warwickshire. Right glad were the people to behold him, and a doleful story they had to tell of a dragon that none could kill, which laid waste their lands.

Old though he was in years, the heart of St. George burned as bravely as ever, as he rode forth to meet the dragon. Fierce was the fight and long, yet in the end the knight forced the monster on his back and thrust him through and through with his lance. But with his dying breath, the dragon cast his tail around the Champion, and darted stings into every part of his body, so that he was wounded even unto death. As the tail unloosed again, he staggered, and for a moment it seemed as though he would have fallen; yet he rallied, and, gathering up all his strength, he cut off the dragon's head, and, mounting his horse with an effort, carried it back to Coventry, a trail of blood marking his track. As he reached the gate a roar of welcome greeted him, but he scarcely heard it, and, swaying, would have fallen to the ground in his last agony, had it not been for the arms stretched out to catch him.

Thus he died, and on account of his mighty deeds the king ordered that April 23, the day of his burial, should be named St. George's Day, and that a royal procession should evermore be held upon it, in memory of the Patron Saint of England.