The Birth of St. George.
The incidents in this, and the other ballad of St. George and the Dragon, are chiefly taken from the old story-book of The Seven Champions of Christendome; which, though now the play-thing of children, was once in high repute. Bishop Hall, in his Satires, published in 1597, ranks
"St. George's sorrell, and his cross of blood,"
among the most popular stories of his time; and an ingenious critic thinks that Spencer himself did not disdain to borrow hints from it[ 1], though I much doubt whether this popular romance were written so early as the Faery Queen.
The author of this book of the Seven Champions was one Richard Johnson, who lived in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, as we collect from his other publications, viz. "The nine worthies of London, 1592," 4to.--"The pleasant walks of Moor fields, 1607," 4to.--"A crown garland of Goulden Roses, gathered, &c. 1612," 8vo.--"The life and death of Rob. Cecill, E. of Salisbury, 1612,"4to.--"The Hist. of Tom of Lincoln," 4to. is also by R. J. who likewise reprinted "Don Flores of Greece," 4to.
The Seven Champions, though written in a wild inflated style, contains some strong Gothic painting, which seems, for the most part, copied from the metrical romances of former ages. At least the story of St. George and the fair Sabra is taken almost verbatim from the old poetical legend of "Syr Bevis of Hampton."
This very antique poem was in great fame in Chaucer's time, and so continued till the introduction of printing, when it ran through several editions, two of which are in black-letter, 4to. "imprinted by Wyllyam Copland," without date, containing great variations.
As a specimen of the poetic powers of this very old rhymist, and as a proof how closely the author of the Seven Champions has followed him, take a description of the dragon slain by Sir Bevis.
"--Whan the dragon, that foule is,
Had a syght of Syr Bevis,
He cast up a loude cry,
As it had thondred in the sky;
He turned his bely towarde the son;
It was greater than any tonne:
His scales was bryghter than the glas,
And harder they were than any bras:
Betwene his shulder and his tayle,
Was forty fote withoute fayle.
He waltred out of his denne,
And Bevis pricked his stede then,
And to hym a spere he thraste
That all to shyvers he it braste:
The dragon then gan Bevis assayle,
And smote Syr Bevis with his tayle:
Then downe went horse and man,
And two rybbes of Bevis brused than."
After a long fight, at length, as the dragon was preparing to fly, Sir Bevis
"Hit him under the wynge,
As he was in his flyenge,
There he was tender without scale,
And Bevis thought to be his bale.
He smote after, as I you say;
With his good sword Morglaye.
Up to the hiltes Morglay rode
Through hart, lyver, bone, and bloude:
To the ground fell the dragon,
Great joye Syr Bevis begon.
Under the scales al on hyght
He smote off his head forth right,
And put it on a spere:" &c. -- Sign. K. iv.
Sir Bevis's dragon is evidently the parent of that in the Seven Champions, see chap. iii. viz. "The dragon no sooner had a sight of him [St. George] but he gave such a terrible peal, as though it had thundered in the elements . . . Betwixt his shoulders and his tail were fifty feet in distance, his scales glistering as bright as silver, but far more hard than brass; his belly of the colour of gold, but bigger than a tun. Thus weltered he from his den, &c. . . . The champion . . . gave the dragon such a thrust with his spear, that it shivered in a thousand pieces: whereat the furious dragon so fiercely smote him with his venomous tail, that down fell man and horse: in which fall, two of St. George's ribs were so bruised, &c.-- At length . . . St. George smote the dragon under the wing, where it was tender without scale, whereby his good sword Ascalon with an easie passage went to the very hilt through both the dragon's heart, liver, bone, and blood. Then St. George cut off the dragon's head, and pitcht it upon the truncheon of a spear," &c.
The History of the Seven Champions, being written just before the decline of books of chivalry, was never, I believe, translated into any foreign language: but "Le Roman de Beuves of Hantonne" was published at Paris in 1502, 4to. Let. Gothique.
The learned Selden tells us, that about the time of the Norman invasion was Bevis famous with the title of Earl of Southampton, whose residence was at Duncton in Wiltshire; but he observes, that the monkish enlargements of his story have made his very existence doubted. See Notes on Poly-Olbion, Song iii.
This hath also been the case of St. George himself; whose martial history is allowed to be apocryphal. But, to prove that there really existed an orthodox saint of this name (although little or nothing, it seems, is known of his genuine story) is the subject of "An Historical and Critical Inquiry into the Existence and Character of Saint George, &c. By the Rev. J. Milner, F.S.A. 1792, 8vo."
The equestrian figure worn by the Knights of the Garter, has been understood to be an emblem of the Christian warrior, in his spiritual armour, vanquishing the old serpent.
But on this subject the inquisitive reader may consult "A Dissertation on the Original of the Equestrian Figure of the George and of the Garter, Ensigns of the most noble Order of that name. Illustrated with copper-plates. By John Pettingal, A M. Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. London, 1753," 4to. This learned and curious work the author of the "Historical and Critical Inquiry" would have done well to have seen.
It cannot be denied, but that the following ballad is for the most part modern: for which reason it would have been thrown to the end of the volume, had not its subject procured it a place here.
LISTEN, lords, in bower and hall,
I sing the wonderous birth
Of brave St. George, whose valorous arm
Rid monsters from the earth.
Distressed ladies to relieve
He travell'd many a day;
In honour of the Christian faith,
Which shall endure for aye.
In Coventry sometime did dwell
A knight of worthy fame,
High steward of this noble realme;
Lord Albert was his name.
He had to wife a princely dame,
Whose beauty did excell:
This virtuous lady, being with child,
In sudden sadness fell:
For thirty nights no sooner sleep
Had clos'd her wakeful eyes,
But, lo! a foul and fearful dream
Her fancy would surprize:
She dreamt a dragon fierce and fell
Conceiv'd within her womb;
Whose mortal fangs her body rent
Ere he to life could come.
All woe-begone, and sad was she;
She nourisht constant woe:
Yet strove to hide it from her lord,
Lest he should sorrow know.
In vain she strove; her tender lord,
Who watch'd her slightest look,
Discover'd soon her secret pain,
And soon that pain partook.
And when to him the fearful cause
She, weeping, did impart,
With kindest speech he strove to heal
The anguish of her heart.
"Be comforted, my lady dear,
Those pearly drops refrain;
Betide me weal, betide me woe,
I'll try to ease thy pain.
"And for this foul and fearful dream,
That causeth all thy woe,
Trust me, I'll travel far away
But I'll the meaning knowe."
Then giving many a fond embrace,
And shedding many a teare,
To the weird lady of the woods,
He purpos'd to repaire.
To the weird lady of the woods,
Full long and many a day,
Thro' lonely shades and thickets rough
He winds his weary way.
At length he reach'd a dreary dell
With dismal yews o'erhung;
Where cypress spred its mournful boughs,
And pois'nous nightshade sprung.
No chearful gleams here pierc'd the gloom,
He hears no chearful sound;
But shrill night-ravens' yelling scream,
And serpents hissing round.
The shriek of fiends and damned ghosts
Ran howling thro' his ear:
A chilling horror froze his heart,
Tho' all unus'd to fear.
Three times he strives to win his way,
And pierce those sickly dews:
Three times to bear his trembling corse
His knocking knees refuse.
At length upon his beating breast
He signs the holy crosse;
And, routing up his wonted might,
He treads th' unhallow'd mosse.
Beneath a pendant craggy cliff,
All vaulted like a grave,
And opening in the solid rock,
He found the inchanted cave.
An iron gate clos'd up the mouth,
All hideous and forlorne;
And, fasten'd by a silver chain,
Near hung a brazed horne.
Then offering up a secret prayer,
Three times he blowes amaine:
Three times a deepe and hollow sound
Did answer him againe.
"Sir knight, thy lady beares a son,
Who, like a dragon bright,
Shall prove most dreadful to his foes,
And terrible in fight.
"His name advanc'd in future times
On banners shall be worn:
But, lo! thy lady's life must passe
Before he can be born."
All sore opprest with fear and doubt
Long time Lord Albert stood;
At length he winds his doubtful way
Back thro' the dreary wood.
Eager to clasp his lovely dame
Then fast he travels back:
But when he reach'd his castle-gate,
His gate was hung with black.
In every court and hall he found
A sullen silence reigne:
Save where, amid the lonely towers,
He heard her maidens 'plaine;
And bitterly lament and weep,
With many a grievous grone
Then sore his bleeding heart misgave,
His lady's life was gone.
With faultering step he enters in,
Yet half affraid to goe;
With trembling voice asks why they grieve,
Yet fears the cause to knowe.
"Three times the sun hath rose and set;"
They said, then stopt to weep:
"Since heaven hath laid thy lady deare
In death's eternal sleep.
"For, ah! in travel sore she fell,
So sore that she must dye;
Unless some shrewd and cunning leech
Could ease her presentlye.
"But when a cunning leech was fet,
Too soon declared he,
She, or her babe must lose its life;
Both saved could not be."
"Now take my life," thy lady said,
"My little infant save:
And O commend me to my lord,
When I am laid in grave.
"O tell him how that precious babe
Cost him a tender wife:
And teach my son to lisp her name,
Who died to save his life.
"Then calling still upon thy name,
And praying still for thee;
Without repining or complaint,
Her gentle soul did flee."
What tongue can paint Lord Albert's woe,
The bitter tears he shed,
The bitter pangs that wrung his heart,
To find his lady dead?
He beat his breast: he tore his hair;
And shedding many a tear,
At length he askt to see his son;
The son that cost so dear.
New sorrowe seiz'd the damsels all:
At length they faultering say;
"Alas! my lord, how shall we tell?
Thy son is stoln away.
"Fair as the sweetest flower of spring,
Such was his infant mien:
And on his little body stampt
Three wonderous marks were seen:
"A blood-red crosse was on his arm;
A dragon on his breast;
A little garter all of gold
Was round his leg exprest.
"Three carefull nurses we provide
Our little lord to keep:
One gave him sucke, one gave him food,
And one did lull to sleep.
"But, lo! all in the dead of night,
We heard a fearful sound:
Loud thunder clapt; the castle shook;
And lightning flasht around.
"Dead with affright at first we lay;
But rousing up anon,
We ran to see our little lord:
Our little lord was gone!
"But how or where wecould not tell;
For lying on the ground,
In deep and magic slumbers laid,
The nurses there we found."
"O grief on grief!" Lord Albert said:
No more his tongue cou'd say,
When falling in a deadly swoone,
Long time he lifeless lay.
At length restor'd to life and sense
He nourisht endless woe,
No future joy his heart could taste,
No future comfort know.
So withers on the mountain top
A fair and stately oake,
Whose vigorous arms are torne away
By some rude thunder-stroke.
At length his castle irksome grew,
He loathes his wonted home;
His native country he forsakes,
In foreign lands to roame.
There up and downe he wandered far,
Clad in a palmer's gown
Till his brown locks grew white as wool,
His beard as thistle down.
At length, all wearied, down in death
He laid his reverend head.
Meantime amid the lonely wilds
His little son was bred.
There the weird lady of the woods
Had borne him far away,
And train'd him up in feats of armes,
And every martial play.
1. Mr. Wharton. Vid. Observations on the Fairy Queen, 2 vols. 1762, 12mo. passim.