Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Three Knights of Saint John

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Cause of our joy.”

Foulques of Anjou, the fourth Christian King of Jerusalem, held with a wavering hand the weighty sceptre of Godfrey of Bouillon. He had, however, fortified Bersabee, a city on the limits of his kingdom, and confided the custody of it to those brave soldiers of the cross – those devoted men, whom the strength of Christian charity had converted into Hospitallers of the Holy City, and had become armed monks in 1104, for the defense of the holy sepulchre and Christian pilgrims. Religious knights, they carried the cross at the hilts of their swords; wore hair shirts under their coats of mail, and their great figures are indelibly fixed in our chronicles and are carved in our churches. They were called the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem.

Four leagues from Bersabee was situated the first stronghold of the Saracens, Ascalon, then occupied by a large army with whom daily skirmishes, combats, ambuscades, and surprises, had to be encountered.

In the year 1131, the epoch at which the events we are about to narrate took place, there were among the crusaders at Bersabee three knights of great renown, brothers, of the house of Eppe, who, at the command of the Holy See, had quitted their delightful seat two leagues from Laon, to come to the assistance of the Christians in the East, and had distinguished themselves by surprising feats of arms. Their proved courage, fervent faith, their ardour, and their well-known valour, frequently obtained for them these distinctions, which are eagerly sought for by men of courage; the advanced post in a battle – the favour of repelling a formidable attack – the honour of commanding a dangerous sally.

One day the sentinels on the watch-tower of the Christian garrison suddenly sounded an alarm, spreading dismay in Bersabee. A large detachment of Saracens had left Ascalon and were rapidly advancing towards the town. The three knights were immediately charged with the care of a sally to intercept and cut off the enemy, so as to prevent them from laying siege to the town, which of all things was most dreaded by the Christians in that country, situated as they were, as encamped pilgrims. The encounter was prompt, and, as is the custom of the Orientals, impetuous. But the Franks, as they are called in the East, did not shrink before the scimitars of the heathens. But, after sustaining the first shock, they charged, and becoming the assailants, drove the Saracens to the gates of Ascalon. With men whom Islamism keeps in a wild state, who has no other tactics but perfidy and stratagems. The crusaders, carried on by their ardour, traversed a ravine in which an ambush was concealed, and from which, as they passed, there rushed forth a fresh reinforcement of Saracens, who attacked them from behind. Human strength, despite valiant hearts, is circumscribed. At the end of an unequal contest, the three knights stood alone over the corpses of their massacred companions, and almost before they were aware of their position, found themselves prisoners, disarmed and tied with cords, and thus ignominiously led into Ascalon. The infidels, furious at the dear price they had paid for their victory, overwhelmed them with insults, and would have taken their lives, but that they expected a heavy ransom for such noble knights.

No one, however, remained on the field to tell the Christians at Bersabee of the fate of the three knights, and it was therefore concluded that they had perished with the rest.

Skirmishes still being of daily occurrence, it was not considered prudent to leave the prisoners at Ascalon. An officer, who was going for a reinforcement from Cairo, deemed the best present he could offer the sultan would be three noble Christian warriors. Admiring their handsome features, their imposing stature, and wondrous strength, and delighted with the recital of their great deeds of arms, the sultan felt flattered by so noble a present. He received them most graciously, and his dragoman announced to them, that it was in their power to make their condition much better than it had ever been.

The knights understood the hint, but answered not.

A week was allowed to pass, during which time the captives were surrounded by every luxury, and were even scarcely subjected to any surveillance. After which time, the sultan, throwing off all disguise, told them he was prepared to admit them into the number of his favourites, and to give them the highest position in his army, if they would renounce Christianity and embrace the doctrines of Mahomed. Here arose a war more formidable to a simple warrior, than that carried on with lance, axe, or sword; a combat of simple intelligence against all-powerful brute force. The knights drew back at this proposal, and all crossed themselves. They were neither theologians or disputants, but they had a firm faith and deep sense of honour. They replied, that as Christians and knights, their hearts, as well as arms, were devoted to the service of Jesus Christ; that conquering or conquered, triumphing or fallen, they hoped never to forfeit their God or their honour.

This reply astonished the sultan, who ordered the knights to be reconducted from his presence, while at the same time he resolved to try other means to shake their constancy. For several successive days he exhausted all his arts in vain. The three brother knights were resolute in their faith.

They were then treated with less indulgence, and the most skillful men in Cairo were sent by the sultan to win them over. But they also failed in their purpose. Maddened by the obstinate coolness of the knights, these men easily obtained that they should be placed in the vilest dungeons of the prison, that their food should be of the worst description, and that they should be loaded with chains. Thus the captivity of the Knights of Saint John became daily more intolerable. In this state they endured a slow martyrdom of two years’ duration. Their courage and cheerfulness did not, however, forsake them. When men expected to find them gloomy and sad, they found them singing or chaunting some holy hymn. When brought before the sultan, as they were at long intervals, they appeared with serene brows and smiling visages.

The infidel was puzzled by this enigma; this wonderful perseverence of the followers of Christ astounded him; and the more the knights refused his offers, the greater was his desire to win to his cause such devoted men. He knew that they opposed to him, and the wiles of Satan, prayer – the most powerful of the Christian arms. The knights frequently and fervently besought of God the grace He so willingly accords of ever loving and serving Him. They asked this gift by the name so terrible to the enemy of mankind. They implored the intercession of our Common Mother, who never abandons her children. Children of Mary, knights of Christ, captives for His cause, and living in the fear of God, they suffered with patience, when the sultan determined to make one more, and last, effort to gain them to his service.

He had a daughter called Ismeria. She was young and beautiful, and was famed for her learning and wit. Often had he conversed with her of his Christian captives, and complained of their continued resistance of his favour.

“Father,” said she, “I think the wise men you employed to persuade them have not acted prudently. If I might venture to ask for an interview with them, I think I might make some impression on them.” She said this from curiosity to see the noble knights, in whose praise she had heard so much spoken.

“Well, daughter,” replied the sultan, “I grant your request. Tomorrow you shall see the prisoners. You shall be conducted to their prison. May your efforts be crowned with success; you will achieve the greatest triumph in bringing them into the service of the Prophet. I am not apprehensive of your winning the heart of one of these noble knights, for I should, indeed, be proud of such a son-in-law.”

The princess went the next morning to the prison most tastefully arrayed. She had learned some French from an European slave. Careful not to inform them of the mission on which her father had sent her, she announced to them that she had long wished to see them, from the noble deeds she had heard related of them, and from a desire to save them; for seeing they were not ransomed, and continued firm in the Christian faith, the people demanded that they should be put to death.

They replied that the messengers charged by them with the commission to announce their captivity in France had doubtless met with some accident on the way, so that their relatives must believe them to be dead, and that they should not be able to get their ransom unless one of them were permitted to go to Europe.

This, however, was not what the sultan wanted. They added, that as to denying their faith, they trusted too much in the goodness of God to fear he would allow them to dishonour Him and their knighthood. They then thanked the princess for her kind sympathy and attention, and expresses the great pleasure it gave them to hear her speak their own language.

Ismeria, touched with compassion for men with such noble sentiments, then commenced her task of bringing them over to the religion of her father which would be the only means of ensuring then safety. She spoke with such simple candour, that the knights, on their part, became moved with pity for the poor girl, whose soul was a slave to such fatal errors. After having asked her whether any person in her suite understood French, and heard her reply in the negative, they said that, with her permission, they would explain to her the nature and hopes of the Christian religion.

The princess not only consented to this proposal, but even manifested a lively curiosity to know the real truths of Christianity from men so noble and sincere. Such a desire was doubtless the first grace manifested to her. The eldest of the knights then related to her what he had learned from the Church, of the creation of man, his fall, and its consequence; the promised redemption, its accomplishment by our Blessed Saviour, his passion and death; the reconciliation of God with man, and the exaltation of woman-kind through the Blessed Virgin Mary. He explained the Trinity and Unity of God, and the other sacred mysteries of religion, and then spoke of the eternal recompense promised to the elect. The clearness and beauty of his words astonished his brothers, who were neither clerks nor preachers. In their humility they thought not of the saying of our Blessed Lord: ” When you shall bear testimony of me, do not meditate before how you shall answer. For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay.”

The princess was deeply affected by this discourse, and promised to return the next day. She delighted her father by informing him that she hoped that a favourable result would attend her conferences, if she were allowed to continue them. In the night she had a dream, in which she fancied she saw our Blessed Lady watching over her. This tended much to assure her of the truth of the Christian faith. The subject of the second day’s interview was the Blessed Virgin Mary, the fountain of grace. The knights gave such a glowing description of their sweet Protectress, and narrated such beautiful legends of her, that the princess, desirous of honouring this heavenly Queen, begged the knights to make a figure of our Lady. The brothers were not artists; but, anxious to please, promised they would do their best if they were provided with a piece of wood and tools.

In an hour everything was ready, and they began by invoking her assistance whose figure they wished to represent. They worked for several days to bring the block of wood into a little shape. But what was their astonishment on awaking one morning to find the image perfectly completed in the highest style of art! This beautiful image had surely been the work of angels during the night. Protestants may say that one of the knights was perhaps a somnambulist, and that he worked at his task during the night! Well, this will only be a different form of the miracle.

The good knights impatiently waited for the appearance of the princess. On seeing the figure of the Mother of God, she fell on her knees in ecstasy before it; and her delight became still greater on perceiving that the statue resembled, in every particular, the vision with which she had been favoured. She tenderly kissed the feet of the image, and the captives called it our Lady of Liesse on account of the joy it caused in their prison.

In the following night the princess had a second vision. She seemed to see our Blessed Lady in the same form as the image, who told her to deliver the Christian knights, and fly with them to France, where, after having spent a holy and pure life, she should receive an imperishable crown of glory in heaven. The princess hesitated not about what she should do. At daybreak she went to the knights, told them of her vision, and promised to perform all it had enjoined. The knights, struck with delight and admiration, fell on their knees, and returned thanks to God and our Blessed Lady for their delivery; and faithfully promised, on the honour of their knighthood, to take the princess, at the peril of their lives, with them to France, and place her where she should most desire.

The next night was fixed upon for their departure.

As soon as her attendants had retired, Ismeria collected her jewels and precious stones, and went to the prison. The guards were asleep; she entered with precaution, struck off the captives’ chains, and, accompanied by the knights who carried in triumph their dearest treasure, the image of our Lady of Liesse, gained the city gates, which to their joy they found open. On reaching the borders of the Nile, the little troop had an evidence of the visible protection of Mary. By the faint light of the stars they perceived a boat, with a single rower in it, making towards them.

He offered to ferry them over the river; and when he had done so, to their great astonishment, the man and his little bark disappeared. For this intervention of their Divine Protectress, they returned their hearty thanks.

Here we pause to make a sacrifice to the scruples of our times, ere we relate a still more wonderful miracle. But if it be not true, how shall we explain the various monuments which relate to it? It has been shown that Homer never lived, because there remain no other traces of him but his works. But the history of the fact we are about to record has been written on stone and marble; and its truth has been acknowledged for centuries. Still we say to our readers they are free to disbelieve in this case; if human prudence believes itself to be gifted with sufficient light, it may doubt such things as are not of faith. Having said this, with the reader’s indulgence, we will pursue our narrative.

The princess and the three knights hastened onwards till daybreak. Their fatigue, the fear of pursuit, or some unpleasant encounter, induced them to seek shelter and repose in a wood of palm-trees. Despite her uneasiness and the thought of her father, whom she loved, Ismeria soon fell asleep by the side of the holy image. The knights proposed to keep watch in turn, but in vain did the first watcher combat sleep; he was soon laid by the side of his companions. Never could they, or Ismeria, give any account of the time that elapsed during their repose. What was their astonishment on waking to find themselves surrounded not by palm-trees, but by such as grow in the north of France; to see between the branches glimpses of spires and turrets different from those of Egypt, and to breathe a cooler air than that of Africa. They rubbed their eyes, believing themselves still under the influence of a dream, for often had they dreamt of their dear country. But the princess reassured them of the reality of their position by the strange emotions which the air and climate of the north, and the heavens covered with clouds unknown to Egypt, caused in her. They found the image a few paces from them, near to a fountain, of which they seemed to have some recollection. Soon a shepherd passed near them driving his flock. He was dressed in the European costume. The knights calling him, he came, and replied in their own language. They fancied they had seen him before. They asked in what country they were?

“You are,” said the shepherd, “in Laon, near the borders of Champagne. This wood and fountain are in the domains of three noble knights of Eppe, who went to the Holy Land under our Lady’s banner The shepherd here made the sign of the cross, then continued: “We are told that it is how three years since the knights went to God. But from your appearance, gentlemen, it would seem that you came from the crusade. Perhaps you can tell us something of our poor masters, for though this lady is evidently a foreigner, I see by the cross you bear you are good Christians.”

The shepherd here seeing the image of our Lady of Liesse, fell on his knees before it, much struck at its beauty. The knights, who had hitherto been kept silent by their surprise, and the emotions which were rising in their breasts, imitated him; and shedding sweet tears of gratitude, thanked our Lady, most fervently, for this new and astounding mark of protection. Their sufferings, and the length of their beards, had so disguised them, that they could not easily be recognized. But as soon, as they declared who they were, the shepherd hastened to spread abroad the news of so wonderful a return. All the villagers eagerly repaired to the fountain, where they found their noble lords, and conducted them and the princess with great rejoicings to the castle of Marchais, one of the mansions belonging to the knights. Their mother, who still lived, nearly died of joy at the sight of her three lost sons returned to gladden her widowhood. She cordially welcomed the Egyptian princess, who had been the instrument employed by the Almighty to set them free. She under-took to prepare her for holy baptism. It was also determined to erect on the spot to which it had been so wonderfully translated, a church for the image of our Lady of Liesse. Ismeria earnestly begged to be allowed to devote her jewels and precious stones towards this great work of thanksgiving.

As soon as she had been baptized, she sent a message to her father, to announce to him the wonders Mary had wrought in her behalf, to assure him of her safety and happiness, and to entreat him to become a Christian.

The church of our Lady of Liesse was immediately founded. To satisfy the devotion of the people, who eagerly crowded from all parts to see and venerate this now miraculous image, it was placed in a temporary chapel, near the fountain, until the church was finished. The Bishop of Laon, Bartholomew de Vir, a most holy prelate, baptized the Egyptian princess, the eldest, of the knights of Eppe being her godfather. She received the name of Mary at the holy font; and her piety increased so rapidly, that she shortly afterwards begged to be received into a convent, to spend her days in holy chastity, and devote herself entirely to the service of the Almighty.

The church destined for the holy image was completed; and shortly afterwards, a town called Liesse surrounded it, and it became a celebrated pilgrimage. We cannot here undertake the task of enumerating the acts of power and goodness by which our Lady has rendered this shrine so famous. Here has She healed many a wound, relieved many a heart, and sustained many feeble souls. The waters of the fountain have cured the disorders of those who have confidently used them, relying on the powerful assistance of Mary. Let the incredulous smile at this assertion. Perhaps they may one day be happy to have recourse to them. May Mary pardon and assist them!

At the outbreak of the revolution in 1793, the treasury of our Lady’s church at Liesse was very great. This was plundered by the “friends of liberty, toleration, and respect for the rights of property;” but the richest gift of all, the intercession and favour of Mary, still remains in her sanctuary.