Little is known of St. Giles (Aegidus in Latin records) except that he may have been born a wealthy aristocratic Greek. When his parents died, Giles used his fortune to help the poor. He became a worker of miracles, and to avoid followers and adulation, he left Greece c. 683 for France where he lived as a hermit in a cave in the deep forests by River Rhône, the mouth of which was guarded by a thick thorn bush. He lived a lifestyle so impoverished that, legend says, God sent a hind to him to nourish him with her milk.
One day after he had lived there for several years in meditation, a royal hunting party chased the hind into Giles’ cave. One hunter shot an arrow into the thorn bush hoping to hit the deer, but hit Giles in the leg instead, crippling him (Some legends have it that the arrow pierced his hand or his arm as he held onto the deer to protect her). The king sent doctors to care for the Saint’s wound, and though Giles begged to be left alone, the king came often to see him.
From this his fame as sage and miracle worker spread, and would-be followers gathered near the cave. The French king, because of his admiration, built the Monastery of Saint Gilles du Gard at the end of the 11th Century for these followers on the pilgrimage route from Arles to St. James of Compostela in the north of Spain. Giles became its first Abbot, establishing his own discipline there. A small town grew up around the Monastery. When Giles died, his grave became a shrine and place of pilgrimage; the Monastery later became a Benedictine house.
The combination of the town, monastery, shrine and pilgrims led to many handicapped beggars hoping for alms; this and Giles’ insistence that he wished to live outside the walls of the city, and his own damaged leg [or hand/arm], led to the patronage of beggars, and to cripples since begging was the only source of income for many. Hospitals and safe houses for the poor, crippled, and leprous were constructed in England and Scotland, and were built so that cripples could reach them easily. On their passage to Tyburn for execution, convicts were allowed to stop at Saint Giles’ ‘Leper’ Hospital where they were presented with a bowl of ale called ‘Saint Giles’ Bowl’ “..thereof to drink at their pleasure, as their last refreshing in this life.” It was certainly only on such a journey that many would have taken refreshment from a ‘leper’ house! Once in Scotland during the 17th Century his relics were stolen from a church and a great riot occurred.
In Spain, shepherds consider Giles the protector of rams. It was formerly the custom to wash the rams and colour their wool a bright shade on Giles’ feast day, tie lighted candles to their horns, and bring the animals down the mountain paths to the chapels and churches to have them blessed. Among the Basques, the shepherds come down from the Pyrenees on 1st September, attired in full costume, sheepskin coats, staves, and crooks, to attend Mass with their best rams, an event that marks the beginning of autumn festivals, marked by processions and dancing in the fields.
St. Giles is known as one of the ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’ – a group of saints invoked with special confidence because they proved themselves efficacious helpers in adversity and difficulties. Though each has a separate feast or memorial day, the group was collectively venerated on 8th August. However, this feast was dropped and suppressed in the 1969 reform of the calendar.