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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.

 

How did Henry VII find the tomb of King Arthur…?

King Arthur

King Arthur

 

 The following article is based on books by Chris Barber and David Pykitt, so I do not claim anything as my own work. The books are The Legacy of King Arthur and Journey to Avalon. It is also based on a third book by Chris Barber called King Arthur: The Mystery Unravelled, which contains more about Henry VII and King Arthur. The illustration of St Armel’s tomb is also from one of the books, the rest I found by Googling. I recommend all three works as fascinating reads about the eternally fascinating King Arthur.

According to the above authors, Henry VII knew that he was not only descended from King Arthur, but also the identity that the king assumed, and exactly where he was buried.

These are astonishing claims, because to this day no one else really knows,  so how come Henry VII was au fait with these astonishing details back in the 15th century? I mean, we all know how cunning and secretive Henry was, so he was quite capable of inventing it all, but the inference in the above books is that there was nothing invented at all. Henry was on the level. According to his lights.

Arthur and Bedivere

The thing about Arthur, has always been that when he was “mortally” wounded at his last battle, now thought to be Camlann (the whereabouts of which is not known), he just disappears. We have the story of Sir Bedivere having to be told three times to throw Excalibur into the water to the Lady of the Lake, and that’s…well, the end of it, really. He was last seen being taken away across water to be healed by magic of some sort. Of course, I’m referring to the later romances, not the real Arthur, who was a Dark Age war leader, but even so, the outcome is the same. No one knows what happened to him. Except for Henry Tudor, who, somehow, had all the facts.

Henry - Dodd, Old London Bridge 1745 (2)

Henry VII

Henry was proud of his Welsh roots. At least, he was when he needed his countrymen’s help to usurp the throne of Richard III. After that, he didn’t do much for Wales or the Welsh…except decide to claim King Arthur for himself. Arthur being Welsh too, you understand. Well, that’s my opinion, but I know there are a lot of other theories about the who, where, what and why of the real Arthur.

According to Barber and Pykitt, as far back as the eighteenth century, Arthur was known to be the hereditary leader of the Silures in South Wales, yet the vast majority of modern historians choose to ignore this, placing him anywhere and everywhere except South Wales. Oh, with a passing mention of Caerleon. Hmm, it must be a general failing of modern historians, to ignore obvious truths in order to feed a traditional obsession.

An examination of early Welsh genealogies revealed to Barber and Pykitt that a misinterpretation by academics had mixed up two Arthurs. Gildas, the monk, mentions a charioteer belonging to someone known as “The Bear”. The Celtic word for bear is “arth”, and so it is possible that the name Arthur is a nickname derived from the title Arthwyr. Whatever, the result was that the Welsh Arthrwys, whose title was Arthwyr, to a later century, and thus detaching him from the Arthur of legend and history. Once this mistake was discovered and corrected, the authors were able to locate not only Arthur’s court, the sites of his most of his principal battles and the Isle of Avalon, but even his final resting place in Brittany.

feuilleton-Armel1

In Nennius’s Historia Brittonem Arthur is described as not only a military leader, but a religious one too, which brings me to another important point in the story. Now, apart from the Arthur we all know, there was also a soldier-saint named Arthmael (Bear Prince), or Armel. He is portrayed wearing armour—in his guise as “Miles Fortissimus” (Mighty Warrior).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

St Armel – Church of Our Lady, Merevale

He liberated Brittany from the 6th-century tyranny of Marcus Conomorus. This soldier-saint is known to us now as St Armel (Feast Day tomorrow, 16th August), and his tomb can be seen to this day in Armel’s church at Ploërmel. The stone sarcophagus is empty now, but the identification of the saint’s resting place is definite. There is a gilded casket which is said to contain the saint’s jawbone. The church itself has been rebuilt on the site of the original church, and the tomb incorporated.

St Armel's Tomb

Barber and Pykitt have concluded that after Arthur was deposed and apparently fatally wounded in England, he actually went into exile in Brittany—“Little Britain”, where so many of his countrymen were to be found. Thus arose the story of the Once and Future King, because Arthur didn’t die as such, he simply disappeared, leaving his fate unknown to his countrymen. They, of course, hoped he would return. Then, in Brittany, Arthur became St Armel, the Bear Prince, using all his warrior skills to lead the Bretons to freedom. Crucially, St Armel was also an exiled Welshman, and so Henry would certainly feel an affinity with him, if nothing else. Is this connection rather a great leap? Who can say? After all, the authors’ reasoning concerning so many names that contain “bear” in one form or another, seems perfectly logical.

St Armel, a dragon-slayer like St George, was most certainly one of Henry VII’s favourite saints, appearing among the many saints in Henry’s amazing chapel in Westminster Abbey. And Henry, in his determination to establish his links to Arthur, made sure that his firstborn son was not only born in  Winchester, but also christened with the name Arthur. Winchester was the ancient capital of the Kings of Britain, and believed (by Malory) to be the site of Camelot. Whether Henry VII agreed with the latter is debatable. After all, surely he’d have preferred Camelot to be somewhere in Wales. But what the heck, in the 15th century Winchester was where it was at, as the saying goes. It had even possessed the famous Round Table since the time of Edward I. The table that hangs in Winchester was painted as we know it now by Henry VIII, and so after Henry VII would have known it in its green-and-white guise.

It all went awry, of course, because young Arthur, heir to the throne of England, died before his father. So there wasn’t a second King Arthur, just another Henry. And what a Henry. Say no more. Please.

There is a lot of extra detail and explanation in the books, both of which are well worth reading. When Henry and his uncle, Jasper Tudor, fled from Britain in 1471, he believed that he was saved from shipwreck off the coast of Brittany by none other than St Armel. The dragon-slaying Welsh saint always featured prominently throughout Henry’s life, and is represented in his chapel (more a cathedral) at Westminster Abbey.

Henry_VII_Chapel_Canaletto

Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey Canaletto

Of course, Henry spent a long time as a captive in Brittany, hunted unsuccessfully by two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. In Brittany it was known there was a King Arthur and a St Armel, but the connection between the two had apparently not been made. Ploërmel, where St Armel was buried, is not far from some of the places where Henry was held. (See the example of Chateau de Largoët below – and see more of Henry’s early life in Brittany here)

Chateau de Largoet, outside the town of Elven

Chateau de Largoet, outside the town of Elven

If nothing else, Henry was a sharp cookie, and quite capable of putting two and two together to make a total that might be true and that definitely suited him. He would have heard the local tales and memories, so maybe—just maybe—he drew the same conclusions that Barber and Pykitt would all these centuries later, to wit, that the saint and King Arthur were one and the same.

We’ll never know the truth, of course. But one thing we can be sure of with Henry, he went out of his way to claim descent from Arthur, and brandished this claim at every opportunity. His purpose was to imprint the belief that his occupation of the throne was justified. Which it certainly wasn’t, except by conquest. His lineage was, if anything, a hindrance. He had no right to the crown of England, and only won at Bosworth through a fluke (by the name of Sir William Stanley).

Were it not for “Judas” Stanley, Henry and his grand Arthurian claims would have been consigned to history. Hardly remembered at all, in fact. A mere footnote – as the loser on 22nd August 1485.

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Caxton and the Birth of English Printing

caxton 2It is always a pleasure to visit the sumptuous J. Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library located in the Murray Hill section of New York City.  Built in 1906, designed by the esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White, it is breathtakingly beautiful as well as a unique source of medieval riches, housing one of the smallest yet select collection of illuminated manuscripts and medieval art.  Every once in a while, the curators dip into this archival treasure trove and fish out something that makes spending the exorbitant exhibition costs well worth it!  This year, they have given us a tiny but interesting group of printed manuscripts from the late 15th century produced in Ghent and London from the printing press of English merchant and diplomat, William Caxton.  Caxton came twenty years after Johann Gutenberg but apparently wasted no time learning the craft and using his knowledge of English, Latin and French to produce key works of literature, ranging from the Bible to Chaucer and Malory, an early encyclopedia as well as the first illustrated English book, “The Mirror of the World” published in 1481.

In this, of course, he was helped along by those highly intelligent royals – The Plantagenets – starting with Margaret of York (Duchess of Burgundy) who patronized the finest book artists in Europe.  On display is one of her illuminated manuscripts called “Apocalypse” written or translated by the scribe, David Aubert, and published in 1475.

caxton 3William Caxton Lunette, Morgan Library

In 1476, probably encouraged by Margaret,Caxton set up a press at Westminster Abby with illustrious clients such as Earl Rivers and the future Richard the Third.  Sadly, while much emphasis is placed on Margaret’s and Edward IV’s encouragement of Caxton, there is no mention of Richard the Third in the exhibit. As Ricardians know, Richard had a library of his own and was a great champion of the English language as well as a patron of Caxton.  Two books on display – one an unusual Canterbury Tales with woodcuttings and a volume simply called”The Royal Book,” a much-used edition with a leather embossed cover and rubricated lettering, date directly from his reign (1483).

caxtonThe Canterbury Tales, 1483

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most intimate exhibit is a printed indulgence from the workshop of Caxton requesting that Richard Hopton, headmaster of Eton College, be forgiven for promoting war against the Ottomans. Included is the papal seal of Pope Innocent VIII – a blood-red wax replica of what looks like a mitre worn by a bishop. The seal was so carefully broken that it retains a perfect shape.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of this exhibition is Caxton’s work to help stabilize the English language by promoting one dialect – the so-called London dialect – which went on to form the basis of modern English.

The Exhibition last through September 20, 2015.

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