A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley

Sir Gawain and the green knight - a poem dedicated to a Knight of the Order of the garter

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance, describing an adventure of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table and nephew of King Arthur. The poem is considered a masterpiece of English Medieval literature. The priceless 14th century manuscript is now housed in the British Museum. The author of the poem is unknown and usually refererred to as the Gawain poet.

In the poem, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious 'Green Knight' who offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day.

The Gawain poem as transcribed by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and E.V. Gordon can be viewed here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Gawain?rgn=main;view=fulltext

A modern English version of the poem can be viewed here: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/sggk.htm

If you are new to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and would like to learn more, please use the links above. For a poem overview see the first column on the left of this website.

The Gawain poem is unusual in that it mentions specific place names in England and Wales such as Wirral and Anglesey. Descriptions of landscapes are sometimes vivid, where the poet is obviously describing places he is familiar with. The poem is written in the 14th century Middle English dialect of an area where the borders of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire meet. The central point of this location is known as 'Three Shire Heads', where once three boundary stones stood - see 'The Gawain poet's landscapes'.

There are also detailed descriptions of hunting, which suggests that the Gawain poet may have been a forester, a supervisor of the hunt.

Through historical references within the poem, alongside various book and online references, this website aims to identify the person to whom the medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was dedicated. The closing lines of the poem contain a very slightly shortened version of the Knights of the Garter motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense (Middle French: "shame upon him who thinks evil upon it", or "evil to him who evil thinks"). These closing lines are the key to identifying our perfect knight.

Now þat here þe croun of þorne,

He bryng vus to his blysse! AMEN.

HONY SOYT QUI MAL PENCE.

 

Thanks to Dr Ad Putter for much patience, help and advice. Also to Stephen Cooper for providing such a detailed account of the life of Sir John Chandos in his online book, "Sir John Chandos the Perfect Knight".

After reading this page and for further information, please use links on left hand side

Below you can listen to a middle-English dialect introduction of the Gawain poem:-

 

 

A poem written in memory of, “the most famous of knights”, a great Huntsman, warrior and devotee of the Virgin Mary

A new perspective

Piotr Sadowski suggests in 'The Knight on his Quest Symbolic patterns of transition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', that the poem is concerned with birth, life and death, birth into manhood followed by a mature life filled with moral and psychological tests preceding an acceptance of death as part of the human game, as well as the acceptance of death itself.

The Gawain poem was very probably written in memory of Sir John Chandos of Radbourne, Derbyshire, who died on New Years Day. A founding Knight of the Order of the Garter, Chandos was a great warrior, diplomat and Huntsman, a chivalric icon and Marian devotee 'much loved by the King of England' Edward III.

Chandos was considered a perfect knight as Gawain; a contemporary, Walsingham, says he was, 'the most famous of knights'. Knighton says of Chandos that 'he was the most talked about knight of his age'.

According to Froissart, the Barons and Knights of Poitou, regarded him as the 'flower of all Chivalry!'

Sir John Chandos was mortally wounded on Dec 31 1369 during a skirmish at Lussac Bridge and died from his wounds on January 1st 1370, this mirroring  Gawains anticipated death at the hands of the Green Knight, on New Years Day . An Arthurian poem ending on New Years day, being suitably dedicated to one of Edward III's founding Garter Knights who, it appears, had the characteristics of a Gawain. See Froissart's account of the death of Sir John Chandos.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cannot be considered an elegy, although Gawain and King Arthur's court believed that Gawain was going to his death on New Years Day. It is of course an adventure of a perfect knight, as Sir John Chandos was considered during the romantic revival of the 14th century. The Gawain poem is a story of how a true knight would confront death and accept his fate, especially if he were a chosen knight of King Edward III's Order of the Garter.

John Chandos had interests in all the lands Gawain travelled through, including the three great forests of Cheshire. If travelling firstly through Wales, Chandos was Keeper of the park of Llwydcoed in south Wales and in north Wales, he was keeper of the forest of Estyn in Hopedale near Flint, close to the river Dee. Crossing the Dee into Logres/England, Chandos was Keeper and Surveyor of Wirral Forest in Cheshire. Travelling south east you would reach the park of Peckforton, at the base of Beeston castle, where Chandos was Keeper of the Park. Peckforton Park was an appurtenance of Delamere forest, of which he was also Keeper and Surveyor. Travelling east you would reach the Forest of Macclesfield, again Chandos was Keeper and Surveyor of this forest. As you leave Cheshire and enter Derbyshire, the county home of Sir John Chandos, you reach the Chase of Longdendale in the High Peak, where he was Keeper. He was also Chief Forester of the Forest of High Peak and constable of Peak castle, the administrative centre of the forest. All these positions, and more, (see Account of Master John Burnham the Younger, below for full list) Sir John Chandos held for life.

There is a very informative online book, The Perfect Knight, Sir John Chandos, by Stephen Cooper. This book tells the story of Sir John Chandos, the Derbyshire knight who served the Black Prince. You can read it here: http://www.chivalryandwar.co.uk/Resource/Chandos.pdf

Sir John Chandos at the battle of Najera 1367 from - Medieval Warlords, Tim Newark, illustrated by Angus McBride.

Along with Sir James Audley, Sir John Chandos was the closest friend and advisor to the Earl of Chester, the Black Prince. He had advised and protected the Prince during the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. He was later to do the same for the Prince's brother, John of Gaunt, at the battle of Najera.

Account of Master John de Burnham the Younger, Chamberlain of Chester, by Booth and Carr - Chandos was the prince's devoted friend, and the most famous of his companions in arms. He visited Chester during the state visit of 1353 (and witnessed the charter granted to the community of the county, C53/162,m. 11), and again in 1354 (B.P.R.,iv. 136). His main connection with the county of Cheshire came through the newly-created, well-fee'd, but largely sinecure offices that he was given in the aftermath of the 1353 visit. He was appointed steward of the manor of Macclesfield. with Robert de Legh of Adlington, the elder, as his deputy, and also keeper and surveyor of the three forests of Cheshire (the letters for which do not survive, but see the grant of his expenses on 19 Sept. 1353 in B.P.R., iii. 122-23). As far as the forest office was concerned, it meant that the riding foresters of the three forests were regarded as his deputies.
He was granted the demesnes of Drakelow manor, plus £40 annual rent from Rudheath, in 1357 (ibid., 231, 267). On 13 September 1358, during the prince's second visit to Cheshire, he was appointed steward of the lordship, and keeper of the chase of Longdendale, keeper of the forest of Estyn in Hopedale, and keeper of the parks of Peckforton (next to Beeston Castle) and Llwydcoed, all for life, with an annual fee of 100 marks and 2d. a day for the office in Longdendale (ibid., 314). As with the 1353 offices, he acted through deputies. Early in 1363, he granted £20 a year for life out of the issues of Drakelow to his esquire, Richard de Hampton, probably a Cheshire man (ibid., 473).

As mentioned, Sir John Chandos was given by the Earl of Chester, the position of Keeper and Surveyor of the forests of Wirral, Macclesfield and Delamere (refs. Booth & Carr and H. J. Hewitt, The Black Prince's expedition). The chief royal official was the Keeper/Warden a supervisory forest officer. As he was often an eminent and preoccupied magnate, his powers were frequently exercised by a deputy. He supervised the foresters and under-foresters, who personally went about preserving the forest and game and apprehending offenders against the law.

Sir John Chandos also held high positions in France. He was made the viscount of Saint-Sauveur in the Cotentin and created the kings lieutenant of France and the vice chamberlain of the royal household, constable of Aquitaine and seneschal of Poitou. He became the constable of Guyenne in 1362.

Froissart poured praises on Sir John Chandos throughout his chronicles and of his death wrote:
“God have mercy on this soul! for never since a hundred years did there exist among the English one more courteous, nor fuller of every virtue and good quality than him”.
also
“He was so much beloved by the king of England and his court, that they would have believed what he should have said in preference to all others”.
If Froissart is to be believed, Chandos's truthfulness must have been tested at some point. Was Gawain's test a reference to this?
The man obviously demanded a great respect, from friend or foe, which was reflected at the time of his death. It was believed by many Frenchmen, that if he had survived, he would have been the only one who could have brokered a peace between England and France as he had the great respect of both sides.

Froissart's descriptions of Sir John could be of a Sir Gawain or a Bertilak. Froissart describes how, when Chandos was appointed ‘regent and lieutenant of the King of England’ in 1361:-

'[He] kept a noble and great establishment; and he had the means of doing it; for the King of England, who loved him much, wished it should be so. He was certainly worthy of it; for he was a sweet-tempered knight, courteous, benign, amiable, liberal, courageous, prudent and loyal in all affairs, and bore himself valiantly on every occasion: there was none more beloved and esteemed by the knights and ladies of his time.'

Gawain Poem: For I am well aware, indeed, you are Sir Gawain, whom all the world honours;
wherever you ride, your honour, your courtesy is graciously praised by lords, by ladies, by all who live.

Sir John Chandos shows a true knight's magnanimity

Froissart tells us that during the Battle of Poitiers, Sir John Chandos never left the Black Prince's side and seeing the van of the French wholly discomfitted, he advised the Prince to ride directly and attack the French King's battail or line. Immediately after this action the chatelain of Amposte (chatelain, commander of a castle; Amposta, a fortress in Catalonia), a chief captain of the Cardinal Perigort de Talleyrand, was taken prisoner. The prince was informed that the cardinal's men were on the field against him, the which was not pertaining to the right order of arms, for men of the church that cometh and goeth for treaty of peace ought not by reason to bear harness nor to fight for neither of the parties; they ought to be indifferent: and because these men had done so, the prince was displeased with the cardinal, and therefore he sent unto him his nephew the lord Robert of Duras dead: and the chatelain of Amposte was taken, and the prince would have had his head stricken off, because he was pertaining to the cardinal, but then the lord Chandos said: 'Sir, suffer for a season: intend to a greater matter: and peradventure the cardinal will make such excuse that ye shall be content.'

The Black Prince wanted the chatelain of Amposte beheaded to show his displeasure at the cardinal, but Sir John saved him. The chatelain of Amposte was one of the Cardinal's knights and according to the order of arms, should NOT have taken part in the battle. Chandos, in victory, had shown a true knight's magnanimity towards an enemy who had departed from the code of chivalry. Sir John forgave the chatelain's mistake, as the Green Knight forgave Gawain for his one departure from perfect chivalry and knighthood.

Froissart's physical description of Chandos
'Among the knights, Sir John Chandos shewed his ability, valorously fighting with his battle-axe: he gave such desperate blows, that all avoided him; for he was of great stature and strength, well made in all his limbs.'

There are many links to Sir John in the Gawain poem, apart from his foresterships, that are hard to ignore as being mere coincidence.

Please go to next page: Hunter, negotiator and lover of music

 

Refs: The Household and military Retinue of Edward the Black Prince by Dr David Green -Account of Master John de Burnham the Younger, Chamberlain of Chester, by Booth and Carr  - The Black Prince By Richard Barber, p.187 - Froissarts Chronicles

  

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Poem overview

During a New Year’s Eve feast at King Arthur’s court, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, pays the court an unexpected visit. He challenges the group’s leader or any other brave representative to a game. The Green Knight says that he will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year to receive a blow in return. Stunned, Arthur hesitates to respond, but when the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. As soon as Arthur grips the Green Knight’s axe, Sir Gawain leaps up and asks to take the challenge himself. He takes hold of the axe and, in one deadly blow, cuts off the knight’s head. To the amazement of the court, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. Before riding away, the head reiterates the terms of the pact, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. After the Green Knight leaves, the company goes back to its festival, but Gawain is uneasy.

Time passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain prepares to leave Camelot and find the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales, traveling through the wilderness of northwest Britain. Gawain encounters all sorts of beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, he prays to find a place to hear Mass, then looks up to see a castle shimmering in the distance. The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For sport, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) strikes a deal with Gawain: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, and when he returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind at the castle. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.

The first day, the lord hunts a herd of does, while Gawain sleeps late in his bedchambers. On the morning of the first day, the lord’s wife sneaks into Gawain’s chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she steals one kiss from him. That evening, when the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, Gawain kisses him, since he has won one kiss from the lady. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. The lady again enters Gawain’s chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. That evening Gawain gives the host the two kisses in exchange for the boar’s head.

The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She also asks him for a love token, such as a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her, until the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is no ordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims, but possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Intrigued, Gawain accepts the cloth, but when it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives the three kisses but does not mention the lady’s green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won that day, and they all go to bed happy, but weighed down with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.

New Year’s Day arrives, and Gawain dons his armor, including the girdle, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain decides to give up the quest. Gawain refuses, determined to meet his fate head-on. Eventually, he comes to a kind of crevice in a rock, visible through the tall grasses. He hears the whirring of a grindstone, confirming his suspicion that this strange cavern is in fact the Green Chapel. Gawain calls out, and the Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight, who proceeds to feign two blows. On the third feint, the Green Knight nicks Gawain’s neck, barely drawing blood. Angered, Gawain shouts that their contract has been met, but the Green Knight merely laughs.

The Green Knight reveals his name, Bertilak, and explains that he is the lord of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. Because Gawain did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak drew blood on his third blow.

Nevertheless, Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight, without equal in all the land. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Faye, Gawain’s aunt and King Arthur’s half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his original errand and used her magic to change Bertilak’s appearance. Relieved to be alive but extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth, Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur’s court, where all the knights join Gawain, wearing girdles on their arms to show their support. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/summary.html

by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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