The life of a Cistercian clerk, forester, soldier and castle constable - a contemporary of the Gawain poet.
The poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, had a detailed knowledge of, hunting, courtly behaviour, castles and armour. He was a religious man and believed to have links to Cistercian abbeys, particularly Dieulacres in his dialect area, where he may have been a clerk.
How was an abbey clerk able to obtain first hand knowledge of hunting, castles, courtly behaviour and armour?
I have discovered that all of the above skills/trades/professions were accessible to a Cistercian abbey clerk, in the mid to late 14th century.
The following is a short history of an abbey clerk living at the same time, and in the same area described in the Gawain poem. This man's career as an abbey clerk had spanned at least 25 years.
Our multi-skilled abbey clerk is first mentioned in 1347 - John le Clerc de Brundelegh is mentioned in the Recognizance Rolls of Chester, making a recognizance (payment) along with his cousin William de Praers, to Master Thomas de Bynyngton, rector of the church of Astebury on September 19th, 1347. Astbury church is in Cheshire, 10 miles from Swythamley.
In 1351 John le Clerc was under-forester to Richard Done, Master Forester of Delamere in Cheshire: July 30th 1351 – Richard Done, forester of Mara (Delamere), Hugh de Frodesham, John le Clerc, Robert Hikkeden, Robert son of Richard son of Philip, and Thomas son of Robert de Frodesham, under-foresters, warrant for a pardon to, for the death of Robert Cosyn, killed by them in the execution of their office.*
From Ormerod's History of Cheshire vol. II: killing of Robert Cosyn, taken in the act of slaying one of the deer, and having refused to surrender.
Eight years later in 1359 John le Clerc, was chosen to go with the Black Prince to the war as an archer of the county of Chester. Foresters were asked to serve, using the weapons they used in the forest, they would generally be archers:-
Order to John de Delves, lieutenant of the justice of Cestre, London. and Master John de Brunham, chamberlain there, — on information from the abbot of Cumbermere that a certain John le Clerc of Brundelegh, his servant, who has been chosen to go with the prince to the war as one of the archers of the county of Cestre, has so many enemies among the said archers that he has grave fears for his (life) if he be detailed to go in their company, - to remove the said John from the list of archers, if the said information is true, and release him from going with the prince. - Register of Edward, the Black Prince, Preserved in the Public Record Office: Palatinate of Chester, A.D. 1351-1365. p.353
The abbot had many enemies locally and may have wanted his clerk, a chosen archer, to stay and help defend/attack those enemies. On 13th June, 1360, the abbot of Cumbermere was accused of leading an attack by a “great array”, on the Cheshire property of his enemy, Sir Robert Fouleshurst.
John le Clerc must have avoided the abbot's conflict, as in November 1361 he was made constable of Beeston castle by the Earl of Chester. Such prestigious positions were given as rewards for good service overseas, usually in the wars against the French. John le Clerc was ordered to reside in the castle and be the receiver of the issues of the lands and tenemants (collect rents, oversee the estate's woodlands, etc.) of St. Pierre/Sancto Petro lands.
Apart from having a new home, a Royal Castle, John was paid £4 a year and allowed to take turf from Peckforton moss for fuel**.John had become a lord of a royal castle, and as with Bertilak, John le Clerc de Brundelegh had a wife, a lady of the castle, Beatrix Bressey. Through Beatrix he inherited Bressey/Brassey lands at Wistaston, Cheshire. Hugh de Malbanc, Lord of Alstonefield who was originally a Bressey, had held Wistaston in the 12th century.
(John de St. Pierre had sold his lands to the Black Prince in 1353 for £1000. As part of the settlement he was also given lands in Anglesey worth over £110 pounds a year, and was made keeper of Beaumaris castle.)
The administrative centre for the land surrounding the castle in 1361, was the castle itself. Beeston castle had the Black Prince's Peckforton deer park at its base, now in the hands of Chandos as Keeper. In 1354 the hunting lodge at Peckforton was moved to Eddisbury Hill, for the use of the Master Forester of Delamere, Richard Done. Beeston castle in 1361 may then have acted as the hunting lodge for Peckforton deer park.
Castle constables, were usually foresters who administered the surrounding land/forest and supervised the hunt. - see page 'Bertilak de Hautdesert'.
The constable would have needed military experience and undoubtedly had a knowledge of armour. The Constable would have had a number of people who worked beneath him. He would expect to take charge of a castle garrison, whose members would vary in status, and could include, knights, men-at-arms, archers, and engineers.
Perhaps it was a part of the garrison that went hunting with Bertilak ('his men'). The knights and the men-at-arms would have had servants to help them.
Beeston castle constable, John le Clerc, would have had to be prepared to take charge of knights at his castle, he would also need to know how to treat important guests, after all he was the representative of the Earl of Chester, the Black Prince. Etiquette in conduct and the art of conversation, table manners, and courtly behavior, would have all been important to John le Clerc as a Royal Castle Constable.
I believe the above shows, that it was indeed possible to write with authority on the subjects covered by the Gawain poet. An unusual set of circumstances plus the ongoing wars against France, enabled a Cistercian abbey clerk, to experience, forestership, soldiering, and (due to his military service) the keeping of a Royal castle and its associations with courtly behaviour.
I have no evidence that John le Clerc de Brundelegh was the Gawain poet but his career may have mirrored the poets, whom he could have known. I have not come across any documents written by John le Clerc to be able to compare him to the Gawain poet.
Further career - Also see https://www.icmacentre.ac.uk/soldier/database/som.php
John le Clerk de Brundelegh's coat of arms were the scallop shells of Santiago de Compostella in north-west Spain. As a religious man he must have made a pilgrimage, specifically to the shrine of St. James. It is possible to speculate that John le Clerc de Brundelegh had been on the Iberian campaign in the middle to late 1360’s and it was during this campaign that he was allowed to bear arms and adopted St. James’ Scallop shell as his emblem.
For the scallop shows in a coat of arms,
That, of the bearers line,
Some one in former days hath been
To Santiago's shrine.
Robert Southey (1774 –1843) - The Pilgrim to Compostella
The scallop was not a badge for all pilgrimages and in fact three medieval popes, Alexander III, Gregory IX & Clement V, in their bulls granted a faculty to the Archbishop of Compostella that they may excommunicate any who sells these shells to pilgrims other than in the city of Santiago. That the scallop belonged exclusively to the Compostella pilgrim, is certain, according to Southey.
John le clerc de Brundelegh's coat of arms (image: N C Brindley)
As a soldier John de Brundelegh could have served with Sir John Chandos or Sir Hugh Calveley at the battle of Najera, Spain, in 1367.
John's Grandson's Huchen (little Hugh) and William served under their captain, Sir Hugh Calveley in 1380, at the seige of Nantes. It is interesting that the Cheshireman/Cestrian Sir Hugh Calveley, has been likened to the Green Knight, his tomb effigy is over 7ft in length. Sir Hugh Calveley was a giant and in charge of the Free Companies under Sir John Chandos at the battle of Auray and also Najera. Calveley was a noteable Captain of the Hundred Years War.
Farmer - In 1372 John le Clerc was described as farming at Delamere, a royal forest and hunting ground for the Earl of Chester (Black Prince). He farmed the herbage (pastureland), agistment (grazing land for a fee) and pannage (turning out of domestic pigs in a wood or forest to forage) at Delamere, Cheshire.***
In 1385, John de Brundelegh had dropped the "le Clerc" from his name and was living (probably in his retirement) at Wistaston, east of Nantwich, he was then known as John de Brundelegh of Wistaston.
Connections to Dieulacres abbey - Willam de Praers, John's cousin, (common ancestor, Roger de Praers - Ormerod) farmed Combermere's Wincle Grange in the 1350s, just one mile from Swythamley. John de Brundelegh at the time was a clerk in the service of the abbot of Combermere, mother-house of Dieulacres. By the 1450s, John's descendants were living at Wyldgoose House and Farm, Bradnop, very close to Lowe Hill, and less than two and a half miles from Dieulacres abbey. The Earl's Way, thought to be the route the Gawain poet took through Cheshire and Staffordshire, passed through Bradnop, next to Wyldgoose farm (see Bradnop and map/ British History online).
The Brundelegh's continued to flourish in Gawain poet country in the north Staffordshire moorlands until the Industrial Revolution.
* from Appendix II. to the thirty-sixth report of the deputy keeper of the public records, No. 1. - Welsh Records: Recognizance Rolls of Chester. This John le Clerc is highly likely to be John le Clerc de Brundelegh, clerk of the abbot of Combermere. William de Praers, a cousin and neighbour of John, was given the wardship of Richard Done, Master Forester of Delamere - see Chester Rolls for 1325, June 14th. William would have held the hereditary position until Richard had come of age. William de Praers, lived at Baddiley Hall, one and a half miles from Brundelegh township. William farmed Combermere abbey's Baddiley Grange and also Wincle Grange, near Swythamley. It may well have been his older cousin's, associations with the abbot of Combermere and the Master forester of Delamere, that enabled John le clerc de Brundelegh to become an abbey clerk and also a forester.
** Cheshire Recognizance Rolls 67 and George Ormerod's History of Cheshire Vol. II p.336.
*** Booth and Carr - Account of Master John de Burnham the younger, Chamberlain of Chester, of the revenues
of the counties of Chester and Flint, 1361-62.