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Was Sir Gawain’s head still displayed in Dover Castle in 1485….?

Arthur-Pyle_Sir_Gawaine_the_Son_of_Lot,_King_of_Orkney

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:

Gawain and Green Knight

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 [1087], 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. . .”

St Govans chapel

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A visual and literary appreciation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Simon Armitage….

lud's church, staffs

 Most people, even if they haven’t read/tried to read, the ancient British poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, will at least know the opening scene. It’s Christmas at Camelot, and King Arthur and his knights are enjoying themselves, feasting and celebrating, when into the hall rides a huge knight who carries a sprig of holly. He is normal enough in every aspect, except for his gigantic size and the fact that he and his horse are emerald-green from head to toe/hoof. He challenges anyone to decapitate him, and Gawain steps up to the challenge. Swinging his sword, he lops the giant’s head, which rolls across the floor. The knights, being rather sozzled, kick it around…until, to their horror, the Green Knight’s body rises and comes across the pick up its head, which it puts back in place on its neck. Then he utters a solemn challenge to Gawain that twelve months hence, he, Gawain, is to find the Green Knight, who will return the decapitating favour. Chivalry demands that Gawain accepts the challenge, and the gist of the long poem that follows covers his journey to find the Green Knight’s lair.

This 600+-years-old alliterative work, written around 1400, is one of the jewels in the crown of British poetry. Originally it had no title, but over the centuries acquired the one we all know now. Alliteration is one of the hallmarks of English poetry, and Simon Armitage, who has written his own updated version of the poem, not only recognises the importance of this “tool”, but incorporates it into his work. Thus his chosen words are in the narrative of the amazing BBC4 documentary which goes by the same title as the poem itself. I have just watched it on BBC iPlayer, and do not know if it is available elsewhere, but if you can watch it, I hope you do.

The film is beautifully filmed during a very soggy English winter, and endeavours to follow the route of Gawain’s quest for the Green Knight. It is full of nature and the scenery, introducing ancient British legends and creatures long gone from our shores. We are reminded, visually, of how very lovely and unique the land is in which modern man still lives. Gawain is a devout Christian in a world filled with the supernatural. He encounters wild men called wodwose, trolls, giants, bears…and the occasional boar. And a very sexy lady who leads him from the straight and narrow into a curtained bed, where she has her evil way with him.

There are some fine set pieces in the film, especially a sequence filmed at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. A wonderful array of authentic medieval food is laid out on a white-clothed trestle table in the hall, with greenery adorning windows, tables and furniture. A large fire flickers and crackles in the hearth, and it is so atmospheric that it captures and holds the attention , lingering long after Gawain has moved on.

The story reaches its climax (it is thought) at Lud’s Church in Staffordshire (see illustration above). The soggy English winter is relentless, and just before this there are scenes higher on the Peaks, where clouds clings to the summit, and figures and scenery are misty shapes.

Be warned that the film is a bit gory when it comes to killing, gutting and skinning a pig, but that was the only part where I had to look away. There is an excellent soundtrack of eerie, otherworldly songs and music. The whole adds up to a staggeringly beautiful documentary, showing how close to paganism medieval Christians actually were. I thoroughly recommend it, especially if you need to be reminded that Britain is unique and can offer far, far more than most of the world. Well, in my opinion. I adore my homeland in all its seasons, and am proud to be part of it.

I mentioned earlier that poet Simon Armitage has written his own version of this ancient poem, complete with updated language and the very necessary alliteration. I have ordered it, because I know, from this documentary, that it must be well worth reading. Thank you, Simon and the BBC for an hour of pure enjoyment and beauty.

Postscript:

I have now received and delved through Simon Armitage’s updated version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and it has lived up to my hopes. Of course, there have been other such updates, but in my opinion they do not compare. As for the original in Middle English, well, it’s beyond me completely. The following describes the startling arrival of the Green Knight at the Christmas feast in Camelot.:-

An oþer noyse ful newe neȝed biliue,
Þat þe lude myȝt haf leue liflode to cach;
For vneþe watz þe noyce not a whyle sesed,
And þe fyrst cource in þe court kyndely serued,
Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster,
On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe;
Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware and so þik,
And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete, [folio 93r]
Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were,
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride;
For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,
And alle his fetures folȝande, in forme þat he hade,
ful clene;
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker-grene.

Hmm, yes. Totally beyond me. Whereas the same passage from Simon Armitage’s book brings it all wonderfully to life for my modern self:-

Because another sound, a new sound, suddenly drew near,
which might signal the king to sample his supper,
for barely had the horns finished blowing their breath
and with starters just spooned to the seated guests,
a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
                    it seemed.
          Amazement seized their minds,
         no soul had ever seen…
         a knight of such a kind –
         entirely emerald green….

So yes, I do recommend this book. Read and enjoy.

Armitage - Gawain

Available in hardback, paperback, kindle and audio.

 

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