Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a beautiful young maiden. She was a princess, the daughter of the Most Christian Prince of Salade. Some say her name was Bellacornicha, others Lilgurka, but she has gone down in history as St Uncumber. How and why is the subject of my tale.
The story is set in those far off days when good men were Christians (and so were their womenfolk) and bad men were Pagans (and so were their womenfolk). But the good men were not always the strongest, and sometimes the God of the Christians put His people to the test. So it was, and so it went.
The noble Prince of Salade was hard pressed to maintain his country’s independence from the powerful King Coney, and (reminded vaguely of the story of Abraham and Isaac), decided he would sacrifice his best beloved daughter in marriage to the Pagan King. As was only right and proper, no one took the trouble to tell the Princess of her fate until the day before her wedding.
Curiously, when she finally learned what was afoot, the Princess was neither enchanted at the idea of marriage to the Pagan King, nor inspired by religious fervour at the idea of the sacrifice her father was making.
Brought up as a Christian, though, she had nowhere else to turn but to the very God in whose name her father was encumbering her with this unwanted marriage. And so she prayed to Christ, and begged for a miracle that would save her.
God (or – who knows – maybe the Devil) answered her prayers and on the morning of her wedding day she discovered she had begun to sprout a fine beard all over her chin, and a fetching pair of moustaches to match. The beard grew at an extraordinary rate, and by three o’clock in the afternoon (an hour before the time appointed for the ceremony) it was a good foot long. The Princess showed her maids, and the maids told the Matron, and the Matron informed the Major Domo, and the Major Domo called the Prince.
Horrified, the Prince of Salade ordered the Princess’s beard to be cut and her face shaved, but to no avail, the whiskers simple sprouted all the more vigorously. So he ordered her veils to be doubled, no, tripled, and led her to the altar hoping King Coney would not notice.
The Princess and her father processed into the church together. The King and his Pagans had not been keen for the ceremony to take place in a Christian church, but had relented for diplomatic reasons. Likewise the Prince, who had agreed against his righteous Christian principles to the ceremony being conducted jointly by the Bishop of Salade and a Pagan priest.
The Church was crowded with Pagans to the left and Christians to the right. Walking up the aisle the Princess peered as best she could through her veils, which were not quite as thick about her eyes as they were about the lower part of her face. The Pagan men were a wild and hairy looking bunch, but their women were all as tightly veiled as the Princess herself, or more so. King Coney, standing at the altar was tall and broad with a shock of grizzled dark hair, shaggy brows and a full broad black beard in which his teeth gleamed yellowy. His nose, thick, gnarled and purple, pendulated between his tight little eyes and bobbed in time to his breathing.
The moment the Princess and her father reached the altar, King Coney reached and grasped the Princess’s veils, sweeping them from her head, revealing her hirsute countenance to all. The Bishop stepped back in horror, tripped over his own robes and fell, knocking himself unconscious on the stone flags.
The Pagan priest for his part gave the Princess an appraising look, grasped her beard and tugged. When the beard did not come off, he looked at King Coney and smiled. The King smiled too and turned the Princess about to show her off to the Pagans in the congregation. The men leaped to their feet, laughing and cheering and the women, ululating, doffed their veils to reveal, each one, her own flowing beard!
The Princess, the Prince and all the Christian men and women in the congregation were aghast, but at least King Coney had no objection to marrying his bearded bride. Indeed, he seemed to think the Princess had cultivated her whiskers deliberately to please and honour her groom. As nothing was further from the truth, the Princess was deeply distressed, and went through the ceremony in a state of shock.