The Seven Champions is a subject that has caught my curiosity for a long time, ever since - many years ago now - I first saw 'Seven Champions' molly dancers and wondered where their name came from. They had 7 dancers dressed as men and one dressed as a woman.
This is a far more recent clip of the side - Seven Champions tend to be the side that define molly dancing for me - perhaps because they were one of the first molly revival sides (and perhaps because they were the first molly side I ever saw). More men here (this is actually a 'revival' revival side) , but still the man in drag - which to my mind is still definitive. Molly sides, as the name implies, should always have at least one person in drag. Notice that molly dancers are the only member of the morris family to dance without sticks. (in one sense, molly is probably not morris at all, as its roots lie in parodies of social dances, but modern molly borrows a lot of concepts and culture from modern morris, so I'm counting it in for now)
But why the name?
The Seven Champions, as I was to eventually discover, years later, are "The Seven Champions of Christendom" :
St George of England
St Dennis of France
St Patrick of Ireland
St Andrew of Scotland
St David of Wales
St James of Spain
St Anthony of Italy (or Portugal)
These characters have crept into a couple of folk traditions. There have been occasional (but not many) versions of mumming plays that use them - see http://www.folkplay.info/Texts/78hu16sw.
Also from Papa Stour in the Shetlands, a sword dance.
This dance dates back at least as far as 1788, but has links with Northumbrian Sword dances.
It has to be said that Papa Stour is probably an outlier in many ways. A small island with a small population, though it must have been familiar to Sir Walter Scott as he describes the dance in his novel 'The Pirate'. It may even be that the mention in the novel is part of what helped the tradition to survive.
I'm sure I've come across a least one other reference to the Seven Champions in a folk context (they also appear in ballads), but I can't track down the reference I'm looking for.
The earliest known occurrence of these characters is in a novel by Richard Johnson in 1596, which was adapted as a stage play by John Kirke in 1638. There was more than one edition of the book and various chapbooks covering parts of the novel or related stories.
It seems likely that the popularity of the book caused the characters to spread out into popular culture of the time and to become (albeit in a very small way) a part of the folk tradition.
However, it's also possible that both novel and tradition drew on other sources.
A more modern version of the novel (but still old enough to be out of copyright) is available at Project Gutenberg - The Seven Champions of Christendom. It's been downloaded a mere sixteen times and one of those is me.
I'm reading it at the moment and it's actually quite fun. It deserves a wider readership.
It's a romance in the original meaning. All the characters are noble knights in the best Arthurian tradition. (This novel isn't set in Arthur's court, but he'd have taken on any of the Seven Champions in an instant) They can hew the heads of monsters with a single stroke of their swords. They meet enchantresses, good fairies, save maidens from danger, travel to exotic cities with walls of silver and streets of tin. They eat magical banquets with wondrous foods and seek adventure in the best fashion.
The descriptive text is colourful and as vivid as a computer game.
I read Mallory's 'Morte d'Arthur' and gave up half way through from boredom.
'Seven Champions' is far more fun. It has no historical accuracy whatever, plays fast and loose with geography (though a real place name does creep in on occasion when it sounds exotic enough - Saint George visits Timbuktu), and doesn't take itself too seriously.
If you want to read a fairy tale set in the days when men were real men, princesses were real princesses and small green things from Alpha Centuri were real small green things from Alpha Centauri (I may be lying about this last bit), then go and read Seven Champions.
(but remember that it was originally written over 400 years ago and will thus not always be politically correct)