Was Sir Gawain’s head still displayed in Dover Castle in 1485….?
One of the greatest of Arthur’s knights was Sir Gawain, hero of (among other legends) the tale of the Green Knight. There is some very interesting information about Gawain here:
I always knew that the Welsh tradition has Gawain (Welsh – Gwalchmai) buried as follows:-
“The grave of Gwalchmai in Peryddon, as a disgrace to men, In Llanbadarn – the grave of Cynon.”
“[John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015]
“The location of Perrydon has caused much debate as it is the name of several rivers; first and foremost Perrydon may have been an alternative name for that great Welsh river the Dee. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions a ‘fluvium Perironis‘ which is rendered as Afon Perrydon in early Welsh translations. The early 12th century Book of Llandaf references a charter which locates Aber Periron in the area of Rockfield near Monmouth, Geoffrey’s home town, where the stream known as Nant Gwern joins the Monnow. This is probably the same Aber Peryddon recorded in the 10th century prophesy Armes Prydain, which was crossed on the journey into Wales.
“Peryddon may also have been an early name for the stream at Sandyhaven Pill in Rhos, Pembrokeshire which runs down from Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn’s Castle) into the estuary at Milford Haven. William of Malmesbury confirms that his grave was discovered in Ros in the late 11th century: “At that time , in a province of Wales called Ros [Rhos] was found the sepulchre of Walwin, the noble nephew of Arthur…..He deservedly shared, with his uncle, the praise of retarding, for many years, the calamity of his failing country. The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come. But the tomb of the other [i.e. Walwin], as I have suggested was found in the time of King William, on the sea coast, fourteen feet long….” – [John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015] “Walwin is the Latin rendering of Gwalchmai. Rhos in Pembrokeshire is probably a reference to St. Govan’s Chapel with whom Gawain is often confused. Saint Govan was a 6th century hermit who lived in a fissure on the side of a cliff near Bosherston, just along on the Pembrokeshire coast from Milford Haven. . .”
Confused? It’s not surprising when so many languages render the same name in vastly different spellings.
Anyway, regarding Gawain/Gwalchmai/Walwyn/Walwin, what I did not know is that he is also supposed to have been buried in a chapel in Dover Castle, where (according to Malory) his head and mantle were on display for some time:-
“And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawaine yielded up the spirit; and then the king let inter him in a chapel within Dover Castle; and there yet all men may see the skull of him, and the same wound is seen that Sir Launcelot gave him in battle.” [Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, Book XXI, Chapter 2. Published by Caxton in 1485]
According to clasmerdin’s blog, “Malory also describes Gawain’s burial at Dover, the hero is interred in a chapel at the castle, and he claims that the skull still showed evidence of the head wound. The medieval castle at Dover has two chapels, no one is sure in which Gawain is supposed to be buried, although some favour the lower chapel. All we can say with any certainty is that from Caxton’s ‘Preface‘ we can only assume a skull was on display at Dover castle, and had been for over a century, and that in his day it was popularly believed to be that of Gawain.”
I only happened upon any of this because I was doing some research which led me to The Journey of Viscount Ramon de Perellós to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. This journey to Ireland commenced in September 1397. See here
A century before Malory, according to Ramon de Perellós:-
“The Earl of March [23-year-old Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl, who was Lieutenant of Ireland and had received the viscount on his arrival in Ireland] had gone to England and leaving there we arrived at Dublin where we embarked to cross to England. And in that city I was most honorably received by the noblemen and clergy. And out of there I crossed the sea and we arrived Wales before a harbor called Holyhead and thence by daily stages we arrived in England, where I found the king [Richard II] in a town called Chester where there is a most beautiful abbey of Benedictine monks where the king was staying; the queen [Isabella of Valois, Richard’s second queen] was also there and I was notably received. And from there by daily stages I crossed the island of England and passing through London I reached the port of Dover where I saw Sir Gawain’s head — for here he died — and also La Cote Mal Taillée for the knight who wore it was so called. And they kept this in the castle for their great chivalry. And there I embarked and crossed to Calais. . .”
So, where was Gawain actually buried? And what happened to the head and mantle at Dover Castle? How long had they been there? If not Gawain’s, whose were they?
And, of course, was there ever a Sir Gawain in the first place? That is something we might never know. Or prove.
Footnote: I have been unable to pinpoint exact when Ramon de Perellós was in Ireland/Chester/Dover. The given date of September 1397 seems specific, and yet according to my research, Richard II did not visit Chester at all in 1397, let alone in September. Richard was in Shrewsbury in January/February 1398, but even then I cannot find that he also went to Chester. Even if he had been there in the September of 1398, the date would not work because Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March had been killed in Ireland in the July. De Perellós would surely have recorded this, and yet he speaks of Mortimer as very much living. Richard was in Chester in 1387 and again in early 1399. If he went there in between those dates, I have not come across a reference.
De Perellós states that Roger Mortimer had returned to England when he, de Perellós, arrived in Ireland. According to Saul, Mortimer was in England for the first half of 1397. He returned to Ireland before the end of July 1397, and then visited England again in January 1398. So Mortimer might indeed have met Ramon de Perellós in September 1397, in Ireland. But that still leaves the impossibility of meeting Richard and Queen Isabella in Chester in that same year. They simply did not go to Chester at all. According to Saul, the furthest north Richard travelled in 1397 was Nottingham. In September he was in Westminster and Kingston-upon-Thames. Very definitely nowhere near Chester.
So, either de Perellós is wrong about the date, or about it having been Chester, which does indeed have the lovely Benedictine abbey—now Chester Cathedral—to which de Perellós refers and where Richard did indeed stay when visiting the town.
If my reasoning for all this is flawed, please tell me. It has no impact anyway upon the story of Gawain’s head being at Dover. I am just curious about where and when the meeting with Richard and his queen actually took place.