Today, I have not one, but two female saints to tell you about. There is absolutely no evidence that either of them existed, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story.
Firstly, I want to tell you about Saint Margaret of Antioch, who was supposedly martyred in the year 304. Margaret was an extremely popular saint in medieval England. This was because, before she died, she promised that she would forgive any sin, and assist anyone in times of trouble, but particularly women in childbirth. This was providing that they read, or had read to them, the details of her life. So there are quite a lot of copies of her legend. Some are written on long strips of parchment, which were fastened around the bellies of women in labour.
She is often pictured, as above, in the act of hitting a devil on the head with a hammer. But she is also the only female dragon slaying saint that I have come across. Margaret was the beautiful daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch. When she became a Christian, she was denounced by her father and adopted by a nurse. Whilst tending sheep for her stepmother, she was spotted by a Roman governor called Olybrius. He wanted her for his wife, if she was a free woman, or his concubine if she was a slave. He also wanted her to renounce her faith. Obviously, she refused, and he had her arrested and thrown in prison. Then, he had her body beaten with rods and her flesh torn with metal combs. When she still refused, she was returned to prison.
There, she was visited by two devils. The first, in the form of a dragon, swallowed Margaret whole. But the cross she was carrying irritated its insides so much that it exploded, and the saint was free. The second devil appeared in the form of a man. Margaret grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground and then stood on his neck saying:
“Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman”
The devil was pretty embarrassed about it and, eventually, the earth swallowed him up. I can’t tell you about Margaret, without showing you this fantastic image of her riding the dragon. The picture below belongs to the Wellcome Collection, who have been extremely useful to me it the last year as they have generously uploaded some fantastic images to Wikimedia Commons. It’s a brilliant dragon, covered in flowers and with at least three pendulous breasts. Honestly, Wellcome aren’t paying me, but I wanted to return the favour by telling you that they have a brilliant cafe, an amazing shop and some really fascinating exhibitions. Check them out if you’re visiting London, they’re just near Euston Square tube station.
But, back to Margaret. The next day, she was tortured again. She was burned, and then thrown into a pot of water. But God intervened and lifted her out of the water. The man whose job it was to finally chop off her head refused to do it. Margaret told her he must and also that she forgave all her torturers, giving the speech that I mentioned at the top of this article. He beheaded her and then fell down dead. As is often the case with early martyrdom tales, many witnesses were instantly converted. Five thousand people became Christian and were immediately beheaded as well. Even by the tenth century, there were people who were quite sceptical about her existence, particularly the dragon part.
If you look at the picture at the top, with Margaret and the devil, you might notice that she has a bit of a five o’clock shadow around the chin. But that’s nothing compared with our second saint. Today is also the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis, who is known in Britain as Saint Uncumber. Her saint’s day, along with Margaret’s, was dropped from the calendar in 1969 on the grounds that she never existed. Their stories start in a remarkably similar way. Saint Uncumber was born in Portugal and was the daughter of a nobleman. She was promised in marriage to a pagan king. As she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to God for help. She prayed that she could be made repulsive so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted an enormous beard. Her father was so angry that he had her crucified.
She is often pictured with one shoe off and a fiddler at her feet. This is also rather odd. It illustrates a story connected with one of her statues. It seems that a poor fiddler came to play a tune to her image. The Statue was so pleased by this that she let one of her golden shoes fall to the ground as a gift to the musician. The fiddler was immediately accused of theft and was sentenced to death. He begged to be asked to play in front of the statue again. This time, in front of an audience, the statue kicked off her other shoe.
It is thought that her totally fictitious life story came about because of a mistake. In the east, representations of the crucifixion tend to show Jesus in a full length tunic. In the west, people looked at the long dress and immediately saw a woman. They just made up a story that fitted with what they thought they were looking at.
Saint Uncumber is the patron saint of women who want to be freed (disencumbered) from abusive husbands. Both are wonderful stories about independently minded women, so I think, even if they are made up, they’re worth hanging on to.