Reliques of Ancient English Poetry
collected by Thomas Percy
and edited by
D. L. Ashliman
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 weïrd lady of the woods
He purpos'd to repaire.
To the weïrd 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 it's 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, rouzing up his wonted might,
He treads th' unhallow'd mosse.
Beneath a pendant craggry 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 0 commend me to my lord,
When I am laid in grave.
0 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 Albret'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 damsells 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 cross 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 we could not tell;
For lying on the ground,
In deep and magic slumbers laid,
The nurses there we found."
"0 grief on grief!" lord Albret 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 litttle son was bred.
There the weïrd lady of the woods
Had borne him far away,
And train'd him up in feates of armes,
And every martial play.
Of Hector's deeds did Homer sing;
And of the sack of stately Troy,
What griefs fair Helena did bring,
Which was sir Paris' only joy:
And by my pen I will recite
St. George's deeds, and English knight.
Against the Sarazens so rude
Fought he full long and many a day,
Where many gyants he subdu'd,
In honour of the Christian way:
And after many adventures past
To Egypt land he came at last.
Now, as the story plain doth tell,
Within that countrey there did rest
A dreadful dragon fierce and fell,
Whereby they were full sore opprest;
Who by his poisonous breath each day,
Did many of the city slay.
The grief whereof did grow so great
Throughout the limits of the land,
That they their wise-men did intreat
To shew their cunning out of hand;
What way they might this fiend destroy,
That did the countrey thus annoy.
The wise-men all before the king
This answer fram'd incontinent;
The dragon none to death might bring
By any means they could invent:
His skin more hard than brass was found,
That sword nor spear could pierce nor wound.
When this the people understood,
They cryed out most piteouslye,
The dragon's breath infects their blood,
That every day in heaps they dye:
Among them such a plague it bred,
The living scarce could bury the dead.
No means there were, as they could hear,
For to appease the dragon's rage,
But to present some virgin clear,
Whose blood his fury might asswage;
Each day he would a maiden eat,
For to allay his hunger great.
This thing by art the wise-men found,
Which truly must observed be;
Wherefore throughout the city round
A virgin pure of good degree
Was by the king's commission still
Taken up to serve the dragon's will.
Thus did the dragon every day
Untimely crop some virgin flowr,
Till all the maids were worn away,
And none were left him to devour:
Saving the king's fair daughter bright,
Her father's only heart's delight.
Then came the officers to the king
That heavy message to declare,
Which did his heart with sorrow sting;
"She is," quoth he, "my kingdom's heir:
0 let us all be poisoned here,
Ere she should die, that is my dear."
Then rose the people presently,
And to the king in rage they went;
They said his daughter dear should dye,
The dragon's fury to prevent:
"Our daughters all are dead," quoth they,
And have been made the dragon's prey:
And by their blood we rescued were,
And thou hast sav'd thy life thereby;
And now in sooth it is but faire,
For us thy daughter so should die."
"0 save my daughter," said the king;
And let ME feel the dragon's' sting."
Then fell fair Sabra on her knee,
And to her father dear did say,
"0 father, strive not thus for me,
But let me be the dragon's prey;
It may be, for my sake alone
This plague upon the land was thrown.
Tis better I should dye," she said,
Than all your subjects perish quite;
Perhaps the dragon here was laid,
For my offence to work his spite:
And after he hath suckt my gore,
Your land shall feel the grief no more."
"What hast thou done, my daughter dear,
For to deserve this heavy scourge ?
It is my fault, as may appear,
Which makes the gods our state to purge;
Then ought I die, to stint the strife,
And to preserve thy happy life."
Like mad-men, all the people cried,
"Thy death to us can do no good;
Our safety only doth abide
In making her the dragon's food."
"Lo! here I am, I come," quoth she,
"Therefore do what you will with me."
"Nay stay, dear daughter," quoth the queen,
"And as thou art a virgin bright,
That hast for vertue famous been,
So let me cloath thee all in white;
And crown thy head with flowers sweet,
An ornament for virgins meet."
And when she was attired so,
According to her mother's mind,
Unto the stake then did she go;
To which her tender limbs they bind
And being bound to stake a thrall
She bade farewell unto them all.
"Farewell, my father dear," quoth she,
"And my sweet mother meek and mild;
Take you no thought nor weep for me,
For you may have another child:
Since for my.country's good I dye,
Death I receive most willinglye."
The king and queen and all their train
With weeping eyes went then. their way,
And let their daughter there remain,
To be the hungry dragon's prey:
But as she did there weeping lye,
Behold St. George came riding by.
And seeing there a lady bright
So rudely tyed unto a stake,
As well became a valiant knight,
He straight to her his way did take
"Tell me, sweet maiden," then quoth he,
"What caitif thus abuseth thee?
And, lo! by Christ his cross I vow,
Which here is figured on my breast,
I will revenge it on his brow,
And break my lance upon his chest:"
And speaking thus whereas he stood,
The dragon issued from the wood.
The lady that did first espy
The dreadful dragon coming so,
Unto St. George aloud did cry,
And willed him away to go;
"Here comes that cursed fiend," quoth she;
"That soon will make an end of me."
St. George then looking round about,
The fiery dragon soon espy'd,
And like a knight of courage stout,
Against him did most fiercely ride;
And with such blows he did him greet,
he fell beneath his horse's feet.
For with his launce that was so strong,
As he came gaping in his face,
In at his mouth he thrust along;
For he could pierce no other place:
And thus within the lady's view
This mighty dragon straight he slew.
The savour of his poisoned breath
Could do this holy knight no harm.
Thus he the lady sav'd from death,
And home he led her by the arm;
Which when king Ptolemy did see,
There was great mirth and melody.
When as that valiant champion there
Had slain the dragon in the field,
To court he brought the lady fair,
Which to their hearts much joy did yield.
He in the court of Egypt staid
Till he most falsely was betray'd.
That lady dearly lov'd the knight,
He counted her his only joy;
But when their love was brought to light
It turn'd unto their great annoy:
Th' Morocco king was in the court,
Who to the orchard did resort,
Dayly to take the pleasant air,
For pleasure sake he us'd to walk,
Under a wall he oft did hear
St. George with lady Sabra talk:
Their love he shew'd unto the king,
Which to St. George great woe did bring.
Those kings together did devise
To make the Christian knight away,
With letters him in curteous wise
They straightway sent to Persia:
But wrote to the sophy him to kill,
And treacherously his blood to spill.
Thus they for good did him reward
With evil, and most subtilly
By much vile meanes they had regard
To work his death most cruelly;
Who, as through Persia land he rode,
With zeal destroy'd each idol god.
For which offence he straight was thrown
Into a dungeon dark and deep;
Where, when he thought his wrongs upon,
He bitterly did wail and weep:
Yet like a knight of courage stout,
At length his way he digged out.
Three grooms of the king of Persia
By night this valiant champion slew,
Though he had fasted many a day;
And then away from thence he flew
On the best steed the sophy had;
Which when he knew he was full mad.
Towards Christendom he made his flight,
But met a gyant by the way,
With whom in combat he did fight
Most valiantly a summer's day:
Who yet, for all his bats of steel,
Was forc'd the sting of death to feel.
Back o'er the seas with many bands
Of warlike souldiers soon he past,
Vowing upon those heathen lands
To work revenge; which at the last,
Ere thrice three years were gone and spent,
He wrought unto his heart's content.
Save onely Egypt land he spar'd
For Sabra bright her only sake,
And, ere for her he had regard,
He meant a tryal kind to make:
Mean while the king o'ercome in field
Unto Saint George did quickly yield.
Then straight Morocco's king he slew,
And took fair Sabra to his wife,
But meant to try if she were true
Ere with her he would lead his life:
And, tho' he had her in his train,
She did a virgin pure remain.
Toward England then that lovely dame
The brave St. George conducted strait,
An eunuch also with them came,
Who did upon the lady wait;
These three from Egypt went alone.
Now mark St. George's valour shown.
When as they in a forest were,
The lady did desire to rest;
Mean while St. George to kill a deer,
For their repast did think it best:
Leaving her with the eunuch there,
Whilst he did go to kill the deer.
But lo! all in his absence came
Two hungry lyons fierce and fell,
And tore the eunuch on the same
in pieces small, the truth to tell;
Down by the lady then they laid,
Whereby they shew'd, she was a maid.
But when he came from hunting back,
And did behold this heavy chance,
Then for his lovely virgin's sake
His courage strait he did advance,
And came into the lions' sight,
Who ran at him with all their might.
Their rage did him no whit dismay,
Who, like a stout and valiant knight,
Did both the hungry lyons slay
Within the lady Sabra's sight:
Who all this while sad and demure
There stood most like a virgin pure.
Now when St. George did surely know
This lady was a virgin true,
His heart was glad, that erst was woe,
And all his love did soon renew:
He set her on a palfrey steed,
And towards England came with speed.
Where being in short space arriv'd
Unto his native dwelling-place;
Therein with his dear love he livd,
And fortune did his nuptials grace:
They many years of joy did see,
And led their lives at Coventry.
Although both the ballads above identify Saint George with the English town of Coventry (whose other legendary inhabitant Lady Godiva is famous for different reasons), other sources, notably the account in The Golden Legend, give as Saint George's birthplace Cappadocia, a historic region in present-day Turkey.
Revised September 12, 2012.