Every nation has its own patron saint whom the people love to honour, and who is looked upon not only as their protector in war and peace, but as a model of all that is best and highest and most worthy to be copied in their own lives.
Ever since the days of the Crusades, when our lion-hearted King Richard went to fight the infidels in the Holy Land, the special saint whom England has delighted to honour has been Saint George. "For Saint George and Merrie England" rang out the old battle-cry; and the greatest honour which our kings can bestow—the Order of the Garter—is really the Order of Saint George, and bears upon it the picture of his great adventure. And when you have heard the story of Saint George you will not wonder that England took him for her special saint, and as an example for all her sons to follow.
Saint George was born far away in Cappadocia, in the year 303 a.d. His father and mother were nobles of that country and were also Christians, although they lived under the rule of the heathen Emperor Diocletian.
Saint George's father, who was a soldier, was often away in the service of the emperor. So it was the mother who had most to do with the care and training of their only son. It must have been, then, from her that the boy learned that gentle reverence towards all women, which made him their protector and champion all his life.
When he was seventeen, he too became a soldier like his father, and the shining sword, which he then buckled on, was kept all his life as stainless as his honour. He never drew it in a wrong cause, but held it as a trust given to him to defend the right and protect the weak and helpless.
Now in the same country there was a city called Selem, whose people had once been as happy and prosperous as any in the land, but which was now the most miserable spot in all the world.
The city itself was beautiful with splendid palaces and gay gardens, and the king who ruled there was wise and good. But outside the city wall stretched a grey, sullen-looking lake, half marsh and half stagnant water, and in this gloomy bog there lived a dreadful monster called a dragon. No one knew exactly what he was like, for those who were so unfortunate as to have been near enough to see him plainly had been killed by his fiery breath, which came rolling out from his great yawning throat. He did not seem to walk nor to fly, although he had what looked like wings and huge flat feet, but always moved along with a crawling motion most horribly swift.
Nothing was safe from this terrible monster. One by one the sheep and oxen belonging to the city were devoured by him, and when the people had no more food to give him, he crawled towards the city, and his dreadful fiery breath warned them that he was coming closer and that they would soon be carried off, one by one, and devoured.
In their despair and terror, the king and all the people agreed to cast lots each day; and it was settled that the one on whom the lot fell should be put outside the gates to feed the monster, so that the rest might live in safety. This was done for many days, and the grief and suffering in that city was terrible to behold. But the darkest day of all was when the lot fell upon Cleodolinda, the king's only daughter. She was very beautiful, and the king loved her more than all else beside, so in his anguish he called his people together, and in a trembling voice, his grey head bowed with grief, he spoke to them:
"She is my only child—I cannot give her up. Take rather all my gold and jewels, even the half of my kingdom; only spare my daughter, the one treasure of my heart."
But the people were very angry, and would not listen to the king, for they too had lost their children, and it made them savage and cruel.
"We will not spare the princess," they growled in low threatening tones; "we have given up our own children, and why shouldst thou withhold thine? Didst thou not agree with us to cast the lots? Why shouldst thou make one law for us and another for thyself?"
And they threatened to burn down the palace and kill both the king and Cleodolinda if she was not given up to them at once. Then the king saw there was no hope of deliverance, and he promised that in eight days the princess should be ready for the sacrifice. Those were eight sad days at the palace, for all was dark and hopeless there, and the only person who did not give way to despair was the Princess Cleodolinda herself. She spent her time trying to comfort her father, and told him she had no fear, but rather that she was glad to think she was to die to save his people.
So the fatal day arrived when the monster was to be fed, and the princess came out to meet the crowd stately and calm, dressed in her royal robes as befitted a king's daughter. And when she bade farewell to her father, she went forth alone, and the gates of the city were shut behind her.
Now it happened that at the very time that Cleodolinda went out to meet the dragon, and just as she heard the city gates clang heavily behind her, Saint George came riding past on his way to join his soldiers. His shining armour and great spear were the only bright things in that gloomy place; but the princess did not see him, for her eyes were blinded with tears, and even when he galloped up close to her she did not hear him, for the ground was soft and marshy, and his horse's hoofs made scarcely a sound as he rode past.
Slowly the princess walked along the desolate way towards the sullen grey lake, where the monster was waiting for his meal. The path was strewn with bones, and no grass grew for miles around, for the fiery blast of the dragon's breath withered everything it passed over. Cleodolinda never dreamed that help was near, and started in amazement when she heard a kind voice speaking to her, and looking up, saw through her tears a young knight on horse-back, gazing at her with pitying eyes. She thought that he had the handsomest, kindest face she had ever seen, and the gentlest and most courteous manner, as he leaned towards her, and asked her why she wept, and wherefore she was wandering alone in this dismal place.
Cleodolinda told him in a few words the whole sad story, and pointed with trembling hand towards the distant marsh, where already a dark form might be seen crawling slowly out of the grey water.
"See, there he comes!" she cried, in sudden terror. "Ride fast, kind knight, and escape while there is time, for if the monster finds thee here, he will kill thee."
"And dost thou think I would ride off in safety, and leave thee to perish?" asked Saint George.
"Thou canst do nothing," answered the princess, wringing her hands; "for nought can prevail against this terrible dragon. Thou wilt but perish needlessly in trying to save me, so, I pray thee, fly while there is time."
"God forbid that I should act in so cowardly a manner," answered Saint George. "I will fight this hideous creature, and, by God's help and the strength of my good sword, I will conquer him and deliver thee."
And while he was still speaking, the air was filled with a horrible choking smoke, and the dragon came swiftly towards them, half-crawling and half-flying, his eyes gleaming, and his mouth opened wide to devour them.
With a swift prayer for help, Saint George made the sign of the cross, and grasping his great spear firmly, spurred his horse and rode straight at the monster. The combat was a long and terrible one, and the princess, as she watched from behind a sheltering tree, trembled for the safety of the brave knight, and gave up all for lost.
But at last Saint George made a swift forward rush, and drove his spear right down the great throat of the monster, and out at the back of his head, pinning him securely to the ground. Then he called to the princess to give him her girdle, and this he tied to each end of the spear, so that it seemed like a great bridle, and with it Cleodolinda led the vanquished dragon back towards the city.
Inside the city gates all the people had been weeping and wailing over the fate of the princess, which they feared might any day be their own, and they dared not look out or open the gates until the monster had had time to carry off his victim. So their terror and dismay was great indeed when the news spread like wildfire that some one had seen the great monster come crawling towards the town, instead of returning to his home in the dismal swamp.
They all crowded, trembling with fear, around the watch-tower upon the walls, to see if the dragon was really on his way to attack the city; and when they saw the great dark mass moving slowly towards them they thought that the end was come, for they could not see Saint George nor the princess, and did not know that she was leading the dragon a vanquished prisoner.
So it was all in vain for a long time that Saint George thundered at the city gates, and demanded that they should be opened. Even when the people saw that the princess was safe and that a knight was with her, while the monster lay quiet at their feet as if half-dead, they still hesitated to open the gates, so great was their terror and astonishment.
But when they were quite sure that the dragon was bound and could do them no harm, they threw open the gates, and every one crowded to see the wonderful sight, still half-doubting if it could be true, and looking with fear upon the great beast which the princess led by her girdle fastened to the spear of Saint George.
Then the king came in haste from his palace to meet his daughter, and never was a morning of sorrow turned into such a day of joy.
Saint George and the Princess Cleodolinda led the dragon into the market-place, followed by the wondering crowd; and there Saint George drew his sword and cut off the head of the hideous monster. Then were the people sure that they were indeed delivered from their great enemy for ever, and they burst forth into wild rejoicings. They would have given all they possessed to Saint George in their joy and gratitude; but he told them that the only reward he desired was that they should believe in the true God, and be baptized Christians. It was not difficult to believe in the God who had helped Saint George to do this great deed, and very soon the king and the princess and all the people were baptized as Saint George desired.
Then the king presented the brave knight with great treasures of gold and jewels, but all these Saint George gave to the poor and went his way; keeping nought for himself but his own good sword and spear, ready to defend the right and protect the weak as he had served the princess in her need.
But when he returned to his own city he found that the emperor had written a proclamation against the Christians, and it was put up in all the market-places and upon the doors of the temples, and all who were Christians were hiding in terror, and dared not show themselves openly.
Then Saint George was filled with righteous anger, and tore down the proclamations in all the public places, and trampled them under foot. He was seized immediately by the guards and carried before the proconsul, who ordered him to be tortured and then put to death.
But nothing could shake the courage of this brave knight, and through all the tortures he bore himself as a gallant Christian should, and met his death with such bravery and calm joy that even his enemies were amazed at his courage.
And so through the many dark ages that followed, when the weak were oppressed and women needed a knight's strong arm to protect them, men remembered Saint George, and the very thought of him nerved their arms and made their courage firm. And boys learned from him that it was a knightly thing to protect the weak, and to guard all maidens from harm; and that a pure heart, a firm trust in good and true courage could meet and overcome any monster, however terrible and strong.
And of all nations it befits us most that our men and boys should be brave and courteous; for Saint George is our own patron saint, the model of all that an English knight should be.