A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley

..Bertilak de Hautdesert

'þat forest' 
"Yet it is worth noting that the poet's repeated use of the definite article seems to indicate specific features, while the pointedly demonstrative 'þat forest' of line 1149 is a reminder that all this action is taking place in the demesne of Hautdesert" - Ralph W. V. Elliott.

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - modern translation:  But one thing I would ask of you, do not be offended: since you are lord of the land yonder in which I have stayed with you with honour – may the Being who holds up the heavens and sits on high reward you for it – what is your true name? – and that is all.’ ‘That I shall tell you truly,’ said the other then: ‘I am called Bertilak de Hautdesert in this land'.

It is assumed that Hautdesert was the name of the castle in 'ȝonder londe', where Bertilak was lord. It is more likely in the middle ages that Bertilak would take the name of the area he was originally from (see Castles and constables, below). Bertilak has a topographical name, he is Bertilak de Hautdesert or Bertilak of High-forest, "a forest ful dep". Haut: French, meaning high, and desert: Cistercian/biblical term for forest, which is explained in, "The associations of the forest in the Gawain poem with the Biblical desert or wilderness"  

Bertilak takes his name from the rough uplands of Leek Frith. Hautdesert, as Flosche, Knot and The Knar, is one of the poets topographical references to places in the high moorlands of Cheshire and Staffordshire, High forest near Ludchurch.

HIGH FOREST -  (a) A method of growing timber without coppicing; dense areas of mature woodland referred to by foresters as high forest. High forest is 'over-vert' by some called 'haut-bois', from the French, which signifies high trees/wood. High forest was also grown as shelter for beasts of the forest, such as deer and wild boar, as: Viride, Vert or Green. Whatever grows in the forest, and bears boughs and leaves for the covering and shelter of the deer. Either Over-vert, Haut-bois, high-wood, Timber trees: or Nether-vert, Sou-bois, Under-wood.

HIGH FOREST - (b) Woodland of ancient closed canopy trees preserved within demesne land, mainly in the form of deer park and chase.

'The Gawain Country' By R.V.W. Elliot, - " It is interesting to note that the name of the High Forest, halfway between Ludchurch and Swythamley Park, is not unlike the poet's Hautdesert,"

Between Swythamley and Ludchurch there is still an area called 'High forest', once part of the "Abbott's forrest", the private hunting grounds of the Abbot of Dieulacres. The Abbot used his forest for hunting "Hart, Hind, Buck and Doe", just as in that forest of Hautdesert. Ludchurch, perhaps the poet's inspiration for the Green Chapel, lies only a few hundred yards from High Forest farm. It is hardly surprising therefore, that the name 'Hautdesert' may have been considered another designation of the Green Chapel.

Modern English translation of Gawain's arrival at Bertilak's castle:

The knight had not crossed himself but thrice before he was aware in the wood of a dwelling within a moat, above a glade, on a mound, framed under the boughs of many huge trunks round about the ditches, the finest castle that a knight ever owned, set in a meadow, a park all about, fenced in by a close palisade of spikes, which enclosed many trees for more than two miles around.

The above description of Gawain approaching the castle, confirms that Bertilak's castle is within a high forest, as the poet describes the 'many huge trunks' of mature timber trees. Also, 'many trees for more than two miles around' again, perfectly describes a high forest where trees grew close together, unlike a coppiced wood or more open wood pasture. We are also told that there is 'a park all about' confirming that this area is parked with deer. The high forest was dominated by browsing ungulates such as red, fallow and roe deer and also wild boar. The more open wood pasture was dominated by grazers such as domestic cattle or horses. The deer browsed in open canopy areas of the high forest, and helped to keep these areas/glades open.

Modern examples of oaks in grazed woodland (1) and browsed high forest (2) and the animals which would congregate in these areas:

(1) example of a woodland grazed by livestock (horses and cattle), the Borkener Paradies in Germany, with typical large Oak trees with low branches and wide crowns;

(2) example of a browsed high forest with wild ungulates only (red deer, roe deer, wild boar, moose and European bison) in Bialowieza Primeval Forest in Poland; typical are the tall oak trees with long stem, high branches and narrow crowns - from Trees, Forested landscapes and Grazing Animals: A European Perspective on Grazed Woodlands and Grazed Treescapes - edited by Ian D. Rotherham.

Example (1) describes coppiced woodland/ low forest.

Example (2) describes a high forest where deer and wild boar would be found, as hautdesert.

Deer and wild boar could be hunted in the high forest because they naturally congregated there to browse. Bertilak hunts deer in Hautdesert, 'Hautdesert' = 'High forest'. The Boar hunt too, starts at Hautdesert. The nocturnal Wild boar sleeps most of the day in a day nest in thorn thickets. The trail out of Hautdesert led the hounds to a thorn covered hillside between the knar and the knot, this is where the wild boar, who may have browsed the acorns of the high forest at night, had its nest during the day.

The above describes a fenced in deer park within an area of high forest, the (deer) park 'enclosed many trees for more than two miles around'.

A high forest is also mentioned as Gawain was directed by Bertilak to the green chapel. He was to ride through the frith and go most directly beside the grove. A 'grove' in forest terms, was a collection of trees grown for timber only.


High-forest, is  now the green pasture area in the centre and left (south west) of the photo. Mature Oak trees would have once covered this area 'for more than two miles around', stretching to High-ridge and Swythamley Grange. The slopes to the right (north east) of the photo are Back forest ridge wherein hides, Ludchurch/the Green Chapel.

From 'A History of the ancient parish of Leek, in Staffordshire by John Sleigh', we also have information on the purchase and possession of the Keeper of the forest's house at High Forest, by William Trafford - On the 10th June, the 32nd year of King Henry's reign, 1540 - "And possession was taken in the hee-foreste at the howse of the keeper of the seid forreste". One of the witnesses to the possession document was Thomas Whytney, late Abbot of Dieulacres.

High-forest was also mentioned earlier in 1537: 29 Henry VIII, 16th July. Lease now penes Guy Trafford, esq., for ninety years, at £7. per annun, of seven pastures, called "the Hey (High) and Middle-forests, Hassylwood, and pool, Whettleymore, Hey-rudge (High-ridge), the park-laund, and the Sprynge, all near Swythumley-graunge, to Edward Lodge of Haughmond, Salop, gentylman; subject to an unexpired term of one year on the Hie-forreste to Widow Elyn Fytton, and certain reservations to John Hyggynbotham, Robert Broughe, and William Habline."

Also from Sleigh', William Damport in 1538, confirms that the Abbott's forest was a purlieu, a part of which was a High-forest. The word "ye" was printed in the description below to represent the word "the", y was substituted by early printers for the thorn (þ), the Old and Middle English character.

"in times past ye late Abbots of Dieulencresse had certain purlewes within ye said manor of Leeke, & had in ye same Hart, Hind, Buck, & Doe, & their freeholders of ye said hamlets of Heyton & Rushton where their foresters; by occasion whereoff certain lands lying within ye said hamlet of ye frith do keep ye name until this day, & be called ye Abbott's forrest, of ye which also part is called ye hie forrest (high forest), & part is called ye middle forrest."

High-forest was described as being within a 'purlieu' a private forest of the Abbot of Dieulacres, who could hunt in his own woods, with his servants, for three days a week but not at night. Bertilak of Hautdesert hunted for three days, with his own men, part of his castle garrison, always returning home before nightfall. The second days hunt left from Hautdesert and entered an adjacent frith/forest.



From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Bi a mounte on þe morne meryly he rydes
Into a forest ful dep, þat ferly watz wylde,
Hiȝe hillez on vche a halue, and holtwodez vnder
Of hore okez ful hoge a hundreth togeder;
Þe hasel and þe haȝþorne were harled al samen,
With roȝe raged mosse rayled aywhere,
With mony bryddez vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.

Modern English translation:

By a hill in the morning merrily he rides
into a deep forest, that was exceedingly wild,
High hills on each side, and holt woods below
Of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together;
The hazel and the hawthorn were all entwined together,
With rough ragged moss spread everywhere,
With many unhappy birds on bare twigs,
that piteously there piped for pain of the cold.


The Gawain poet understands that thick wooded forest consisted of hazel and hawthorn intermingling on its edges, with only the mature 'huge' oak of the highwood/high forest at its centre, 'a hundred together'. The poet knew the composition of the 'wild' uncultivated forest.

Forest information below (not Gawain poem refs) from, Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera, unless stated otherwise:-


An area which was covered by Forest Law was known as 'Forest'.

'Wylde', wild

The term wild referred to all animals and plants which existed without being cared for by man, and which had no clear owner. A 'wild' thing was anything which was not obtained by cultivation from seed and tending. For example this included wild oats, wild grass ('Wildheu') and wild animals. Because wild animals and wild plants did not have a clear owner, they were the property of the local lord and subject to Forest Law. To emphasize that these were areas where no one else had any rights, the words 'eremus, 'solitudo' or 'deserto' were often added to the 'forestis nostra'.

'holtwodez' holt woods

'High hills on each side, and holt woods below of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together;'

Holts - Woodlands were managed in four traditional ways: as 'holts', as 'holly hags', as 'wood pastures' and as 'coppices'. Holts were what today would be called high forests. They are managed for their timber, for game preservation and for their contribution to estate landscapes. - from Ancient Woodlands: Their Archaeology and Ecology: a Coincidence of interest, Julien Parsons, Pauline Beswick, Ian D. Rotherham.

Holt, ‘single species wood’ (largest category of examples refers to tree species), not found north of Cheshire and West Yorkshire (Gelling and Cole, p. 233).( the Holt of 'single species wood' were hoar oaks, in the Gawain poem) .

The term holtwood in the Gawain poem refers to the 'highwood', 'grote holt', not the 'underholt', 'underwood'. All derive from the place where the wood is found, as in the term 'Wald'.
'Highwood' was replaced by the term 'timber' in the 16th century.

'Of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together;' - the Gawain poet describes haut desert, a High Forest of oak, in this line.

An example of a high forest is at Blean, Cantebury and Swale's ancient woodland - This is a managed forest with coppice replacing the natural underwood of the hazel and thorn of the wild uncultivated forest, described by the Gawain poet.

'Extensive areas of the forest are managed as coppice, the stems being cut down every 10-25 years, keeping the woodland in a permanently juvenile state. However, there are also large blocks which are managed far less intensively, if at all, where the trees (mainly oak, but also some beech, birch and hornbeam) are allowed to mature. These areas of older woodland are referred to by foresters as high forest, and are extremely important to a wide range of wildlife that cannot thrive in the more artificial coppice habitat.' see https://www.theblean.co.uk/wildlife-heritage/woodland-management/high-forest/

From Salterns Copse - Chichester Harbour Conservancy - https://www.conservancy.co.uk/learn/downloads/salterns_copse_booklet.pdf

The following information tells us that mature timber trees that are evolved from managed coppicing, consists of only a few trees in a 'compartment' or 12 trees per acre, much less than in high forest where 66-100 trees per acre (90-140 per hectare) are common ('a hundred together').

COPPICE - A method of growing timber by which trees are cut to ground level so that the shoots grow, and which are harvested some years later.

All the trees in a coppice will be cut to ground level with the exception of those stems selected to grow on as ‘standards’; these are young trees of good quality which will be left through successive coppice cuts to produce mature timber trees. There are only a few left in each compartment as they are grown at a density of about 12 per acre (17 per hectare), much less than in high forest where 66-100 trees per acre (90-140 per hectare) are common.

So un-managed High forests are traditionally denser than managed forest, so could be described as 'a hundred together'. Coppiced with standards, described above, is a coppice with large trees scattered throughout the wood. These need to be well spaced out (not together) so that they don't shade the underwood.

HIGH FOREST - A method of growing timber without coppicing.

The two native species in Britain are the Common or Pedunculate Oak and the Sessile Oak. They can be difficult to distinguish,
especially as hybrids (a cross between two types) occur frequently. The growth rate is very slow, with trees taking over 100 years to mature. They can continue to grow for over 400 years, and to heights of over 100 feet. In growing Oak ‘high forest’ the aim is to produce tall straight quality timber of good diameter which can command high prices.

'Þe hasel and þe haȝþorne', the hazel and the hawthorn

In 1537, High forest between Ludchurch and Swythamley was described as pasture, this would have been wood-pasture, comprising of grassland/launde and grove. The high forest of mature oak grown for timber, would have been the 'grove'. In 1537 the high forest is described as (wood) pasture, this infers that the high forest by that time was diminishing in size. Wood pasture was more usually open woodland where grazers such as cattle and sheep would congregate, it would be on the edge of the high forest.

Hazel and hawthorn thrived on the fringes of wood pasture and mature wooded forest, as did the oak saplings which were protected by the thorns from grazing herbivores. Old English proverb - 'the thorn is mother to the oak'.

'High hills on each side, and holt woods below of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together; the hazel and the hawthorn were all entwined together.'

Gawain is on the edge of the wooded forest, this is confirmed as the poet describes the ‘nether vert’, or ‘underwood’. Hazel and hawthorn were found in transitional areas between grassland and woodland, they survived on the edge of the mature wooded forest along with young oak. Lack of light in the partially closed or closed canopy eventually suppressed the hazel and thorn, they would not regenerate in poor light. The scrubland along with the oak would then advance into the grasslands.

The hazel and the oak grew together on the edge of mature wooded forest as both trees had facilitators. The oak had the Jay which planted acorns on the fringes of the thorny scrub, competing species do not have a comparible facilitator.

The analogy between the oak and hazel also seems to apply as regards their establishment. Like oak, hazel seems to have its own facilitator in Central and Western Europe in the form of the nuthatch. Given the ecology of the nuthatch, this also seems to explain why hazel becomes established mainly on the fringes, and much less at great distances in the open field.


Holly - Ilex aquifolium: As the holly is very shade-tolerant it is able to live as an understory species in woodlands where other trees cannot survive; it is especially associated with beech and oak woodlands.

The holly, as brought to court by the Green knight/Bertilak of hautdesert, was the third essential shrub of the underwood along with hazel and thorn. It was essential to the growth and development of the high forest and wood pasture. Vera says in Grazing ecology....., that the earliest regulations in cutting down underwood or brushwood refer most to thornbushes, hazel and holly. Also that hawthorn and holly are a natural and essential phenomenon in wood pastures, and that new oak trees grew in the middle of these, protected from being eaten by livestock. Holly was essential for the regeneration of oak trees.
Holly can be found in very shady areas of mature oak. Holly does not like severe cold despite its connections to winter and Christmas, but survives under the cover of the mature wooded forest where it had nursed the development of the 'huge hoar oaks' of the high forest.

Holly - Ilex aquifolium: The Holly acts as a 'nurse' protecting the young trees from being eaten by horses, cows and deers. After about 40 years, the holly no longer grows up, but the trees continue to grow. Oak or other species of trees, which were first to become established on the periphery of the still young holly scrub, thus eventually grow up above the scrub in the centre. After 80-100 years, the trees in the holly scrub form a closed canopy. - from Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera. (Photo N C Brindley)

'Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare,'

Grove(s)/greuez - A collection of timber trees only - from Forests and chases of England and Wales: a glossary of terms and definitions. The high forest's deciduous oaks were grown for timber as well as for the protection of deer.

The timber trees would be bare of green leaves in winter, the evergreen holly growing at the oaks base would be more noticeable at this time of year. The poet is confirming that holly grew in an area specifically used for growing timber trees, a 'grove', at hautdesert this was part of the high forest as described by the poet and not coppiced woodland, the low forest. The poet is giving us an early clue as from where the Green knight has come in the line: 'but in his hand he (the green knight) had a bunch of holly, that is greenest when groves are bare'. The Green knight's holly was from a grove, a high forest of timber trees.
It seems, that the holly was also being used as a symbol of the green knight's home. The green knight also holds a battle-axe, specifically a 'denez ax' (Danish axe), as he confronts Gawain at the green chapel. The Danish axe described as: 'a fine example of the use of peacetime agricultural tools as weapons in time of war. Equally at home felling trees or adversaries, the axe evokes a fearsome picture of the woodsman at war.'

The green knight at King Arthur's court carries the symbols of the High forest, the holly and the axe, a clue to his real identity. As we have seen the Holly represents birth and life of the high forest, as it protects and nurses the oak seedlings that grow from within. The Danish Axe represents the death of the oak high forest, as it is used as a felling tool. The analogy between the life and death, of the forest and Gawain's life and anticipated death, would have been clear to medieval foresters. It is possible to speculate that foresters would have been part of the Gawain poets audience.

You can also conclude that the Gawain poet knew so well the ecology of the Western European forest, that he too would have been a forester. Abbey clerks in the 14th century, could also be foresters and constables of royal castles, see 'A contemporary of the Gawain poet'.

Fallow deer with a white buck on the edge of the wooded forest. Bertilak hunted hinds and does, females of the red and fallow deer. The Abbot of Dieulacres used the high forest for hunting "Hart, Hind, Buck and Doe", just as in that forest of Hautdesert. (photo N C Brindley)

The poet says that the oak are Hore/Hoar oak, perhaps from the hoar frost that may have covered the trees in winter. 'Hore' also may have been an early name for the English/pedunculate oak, hoar means grey, the trunks of English oaks are grey. Hoar/hoary could also mean ancient, as the oaks described in the high forest near Ludchurch during the time of King James. 'Hore' can also mean a boundary, see 'The Green Chapel'.



Bertilak's castle landscape is described in the poem:

NADE he sayned hymself, segge, bot þrye,
Er he watz war in þe wod of a won in a mote,
Abof a launde, on a lawe, loken vnder boȝez
Of mony borelych bole aboute bi þe diches:
A castel þe comlokest þat euer knyȝt aȝte,
Pyched on a prayere, a park al aboute,
With a pyked palays pyned ful þik,
Þat vmbeteȝe mony tre mo þen two myle.
translation - The knight had not crossed himself but thrice before he was aware in the wood of a dwelling within a moat, above a glade, on a mound, framed under the boughs of many huge trunks round about the ditches, the finest castle that a knight ever owned, set in a meadow, a park all about, fenced in by a close palisade of spikes, which enclosed many trees for more than two miles around.
'Abof a launde, on a lawe,'
Near Swythamley and High forest was an area, owned by Dieulacres, called Park-launde - In 1537: 29 Henry VIII, 16th July. Lease now penes Guy Trafford, esq., for ninety years, at £7. per annun, of seven pastures, called "the Hey (High) and Middle-forests, Hassylwood, and pool, Whettleymore, Hey-rudge, the park-laund, and the Sprynge, all near Swythumley-graunge,"
park - (1) enclosed area in a forest where deer may be collected (entering via ‘leaps’, q.v.) and ‘parked’ for protection and maintenance; (2) enclosed area outside a forest in which rights of hunting are enjoyed by a lord, area surrounded by a rail, pale or hedge within which beasts of the forest belonged to the franchisee. That a franchise of park could be granted only by the king was reasserted in 1404. Commoners with rights to herbage and pannage could take only that which was surplus to the needs of the game in winter and summer; if there were no such surplus, ‘he that hath the herbage and pawnage cannot put any beasts in the park’; ‘park’ is a contraction of Old English pearroc, now also spelt ‘paddock’.
lawn /launde - enclosed pasture within forest, originally to provide grazing and hay for deer; open grassy space in woodland where deer would naturally congregate; sometimes (e.g. in Duffield Frifth, Derbyshire) launds appear to have been separately paled and used for mowing grass; pasture, forest pasture.
So, park-laund near Swythamley Grange, High-forest and Middle-forest, are confirmed as being areas set aside for hunting deer, and possibly the area of Bertilak's first hunt. The second hunt, the boar hunt, leaves High-forest, Middle-forest and the Park-laund and heads towards the thorn thickets between Knar and Knotbury, see https://hautdesert.webnode.com/the-gawain-poets-landscapes/


Bertilak de Hautdesert was a Purlieu-Hunter/Purlieu-Man

Purlewes/purlieu - areas added to a forest then later disafforested although still subject to some of the forest laws, especially regarding hunting. Also, Purlieus - “a certain territory of ground adjoining unto the forest [which] was once forest-land and afterwards disafforested by the perambulations made for the severing of the new forests from the old." Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest (1598, 4th ed. 1717).

Bertilak as custodian of a medieval castle, would be entrusted with the supervision of nearby forests.

The laws concerning hunting by a Purlieu-man in his Purlieus, perfectly match Bertilak's manner of hunting. The abbot of Dieulacres was entrusted with the supervision of his forest and was also a Purlieu-Man, as mentioned above.

From, Manwood's Treatise of the Forest Laws


113. Therefore, that a Purlieu-Man may the better remember in what manner he may hunt in his Purlieu, he must observe,

1. That he begin the Chase in his own Purlieu.

2. That he do not forestall, &c. (prevent Deer re-entering the forest (royal forest) from which they came).

3. That before his Dogs enter the Forest, he call them back. ('Rechate' (Gawain) 'Rechase' (Manwood)).

4. That he do not follow his dogs into the Forest, except they fasten on the Deer first, and are then drawn into the Forest, and the Deer killed there.

5. That he do not hunt with any more in Company, than with his own servants.

6. That he do not kill a Deer out of season.

When and how often a Purlieu-Man may hunt, &c.

114. But a Purlieu-Man must not hunt at all times and seasons, nor in what manner he will; for then the Purlieus would soon destroy the Forests; for which Reason the ancient Usage and Policy of the Forest-Laws have always prohibited these Men to hunt contrary to any of the following Rules.

115. 1. A Purlieu-Man must not hunt in his own Purlieu in the Night-time; this is prohibited by the 13th Article of Assisa de Woodstock; that is, He must not hunt there after the setting of the Sun, nor until the rising of the same; and the reason is, because the King's Wild Beasts may not be disturbed in their feeding in the Forest;

2. He must not hunt on the Sunday, for that is a Day appointed for the Rest both of Man and Beast, and for the Service of God, and not for Sports;

3. He must not hunt in Fence-Month, because of disquieting the Deer which are then ready to fawn, or for fear of killing the young fawns which are not able to run.

4. He must not hunt oftener than three Days in a Week, lest, by often hunting, he disquiet the Beasts in the Forest, or fright them from their pasture or Places where they usually frequent;

5. He must not hunt in the Purlieu with any other Company but his own Servants, because his Interest in hunting is only a Conditional Licence of Profit, which goes strictly to him to whom 'tis given, and not to any other; may justify for himself and his Servants; but he who hath a Licence or Interest for Pleasure, cannot justify for his Servants, though he may for himself; but he who must justify for his Servants, cannot justify for any other Person. Besides, the Laws of the Forest do not allow a multitude of People to assemble themselves together to hunt in the Purlieus, because that is likewise Ad terrorem of the Beasts in the Forest.

6, 7, 8, 9, various other laws concerning forestalling, not hunting in a Purlieu within 40 days of the King's hunt in an adjacent forest in case the King's deer have taken to hiding within the Purlieu, Foresters serving a Warrant in the Forest, etc.

10. He may not hunt a Deer out of Season, though 'tis found in his own Purlieu, because they are not able then to run, and are worth nothing when caught; and therefore he must not hunt a Deer of Antler in the Winter, nor Does in the Summer.

The above suggests that Bertilak de Hautdesert was a Purlieu-Hunter, who might only hunt with his own servants for just three days a week in his own woods in a purlieu. He could not hunt on a Sunday, in fence month, out of season, or at night.


How far a Purlieu-Man may pursue his Chase in Hunting

50. But if the Owner of Lands beginneth the Hunting in his own Lands, where he hath a lawful Interest and Property in the Beasts so long as they are there; then by reason of that Property, he may pursue his Hunting through any Man's Woods or Lands, so far as he doth not enter into any Forest, Chase, Park or Warren, which are Places priviliged by the Law, that no Man may enter but the Owner.

51. And if he kill the Beast in another Man's Land, and out of such priviliged Place, he may take and carry away the same by reason of the first Property, in respect of the Soil where it was when he first began hunting.


Bertilak's Hunt compared to the Purlieu Hunt

A Purlieu-Man must not hunt in his own Purlieu at Night-time 

Bertilak and his men were always up and dressed and ready for the hunt at, or just before, daybreak as though the rising of the sun was the signal to begin the chase. They always returned home to the castle before nightfall.

Gawain Poem - the Deer Hunt

By þat any daylyȝt lemed vpon erþe
He with his haþeles on hyȝe horsses weren.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (A & W) translation:
By the time that any daylight shone upon the earth,
he and his men were on great horses.

Tolkein translation: When daylight was opened yet dimly on earth,  he and his huntsmen were up on their high horses.

Such a sowme he þer slowe bi þat þe sunne heldet,
Of dos and of oþer dere, to deme were wonder.

translation: He had killed there such a quantity
of does and other deer by the time the sun went down, it would be
wonderful to assess.

Gawain Poem - the Boar Hunt

Þe douthe dressed to þe wod, er any day sprenged, to chace;

The company went on their way to the wood, before any daylight dawned, to the chase;
(Bertilak and his men wanted to be ready to hunt as soon as any daylight broke).

He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.

He sounded the recheat, and rode through thick bushes, pursuing this wild boar until the sun was setting.

Gawain Poem - the Fox Hunt

In rede rudede vpon rak rises þe sunne,
And ful clere costez þe clowdes of þe welkyn.
Hunteres vnhardeled bi a holt syde,
Rocheres roungen bi rys for rurde of her hornes;

The sun rises red, its redness reflected upon a bank of cloud, and in its full
brightness drives the clouds from the sky. Huntsmen unleashed [their
hounds] by the side of a wood; rocky banks rang in the wood with the
noise of their horns.

On þis maner bi þe mountes quyle myd-ouer-vnder,

translation: The above term 'myd-ouer-vnder', if referring to daylight hunting in a Purlieu, could mean the middle 'myd' of the allotted time for hunting, after daybreak 'ouer' but before nightfall 'vnder', therefore, the middle of the day. The term 'myd-ouer-vnder' however, could possibly mean, all day, the middle of the day-the afternoon-and the morning.

And þenne þay helden to home, for hit watz nieȝ nyȝt,
Strakande ful stoutly in hor store hornez.

Then they make for home, for it was nearly night, sounding loudly
on their powerful horns.


That a Purlieu-Man do not hunt with any more in Company, than with his own servants

Gawain Poem - The day of the first hunt

Ful erly bifore þe day þe folk vprysen,
Gestes þat go wolde hor gromez þay calden,
And þay busken vp bilyue blonkkez to sadel,

translation: Very early before the day dawned the people got up. Guests that would go called their servants, and they hasten up immediately to saddle horses,

The guests were leaving so would play no part in the hunt, only Gawain was asked to stay longer but was not invited to join Bertilak in the chase . 

By þat any daylyȝt lemed vpon erþe

He with his haxþeles on hyȝe horsses weren.

translation: By the time that any daylight shone upon the earth,
he and his men were on great horses.

Bertilak is only hunting with his own men/servants.

A Purlieu-Man must not hunt oftener than three Days in a Week, lest, by often hunting, he disquiet the Beasts in the Forest, or fright them from their pasture or Places where they usually frequent;

In the Gawain poem there are only three days hunting, first day for Deer, second day for Wild Boar and the third day for the Fox.

A Purlieu-Man must begin the Chase in his own Purlieu.

A Purlieu-Man could only initiate a hunt from his own land but was allowed to enter an adjacent frith (another man's land) to follow his quarry. The poem suggests that the scent of the boar was picked up in Bertilak's land, Hautdesert, but the animal was not tracked down until the chase had entered into an adjacent frith, at a carr side, where we are told, there was a 'flosche/flash in that frith'. The term, 'that frith', implies that it was not Bertilak's frith but that one belonging to someone else.

If Hautdesert was in the abbot of Dieulacres' Leek-Frith, Flosche, Knot and Knar were in the adjacent Alstonefield/Malbanc Frith. The lords of Malbanc frith in the latter half of the 14th century were the Audleys, possible patrons of the Gawain poem.

A Purlieu-Man may not hunt a Deer out of Season, though 'tis found in his own Purlieu, because they are not able then to run, and are worth nothing when caught; and therefore he must not hunt a Deer of Antler in the Winter, nor Does in the Summer. (A Purlieu-Man's interest in hunting is only a Conditional Licence of Profit).

Gawain Poem - the Deer Hunt

Þay let þe herttez haf þe gate, with þe hyȝe hedes,
Þe breme bukkez also with hor brode paumez;
For þe fre lorde hade defende in fermysoun tyme
Þat þer schulde no mon meue to þe male dere.

translation: Then they allowed the stags with the high heads to pass, also the wild bucks with their broad antlers; for the
noble lord had forbidden that any man should rouse any male deer in the close-season.


Hunting seasons for Bertilak's quarry: Hind and Doe - Holy Rood day, Sept 14th to Candlemass, Feb 2nd. Boar - Christmas to Candlemass, Feb 2nd. Fox - Christmas day to Lady day, March 25th.


Legends of the Moorlands and Forest in Staffordshire (1860) (extract)

During the reign of James II Sir William de Lacy visited the cavern of Lud Church. Sir William describes the landscape and gives a description of the head forester in the Legend of Lud Church. The Legend of Lud Church describes a Lollards meeting conducted by Walter de Lud-auk in the early 1400s. During the meeting the Grandaughter of Lud-auk was killed by law officers attempting to arrest the Lollards.

As mentioned previously the Keeper (head forester) of the forest's house was in the High-forest; "And possession was taken in the hee-foreste at the howse of the keeper of the seid forreste". During the early 1400s, (before 1415) the head forester was Henrich Montair, a man devoted to the interests of the Lollards. He was described as striking and of gigantic stature and strength with a curly black beard. He was clad in a coarse dress of Lincoln green; his legs were protected by strong buskins (a knee or calf-length boot) of deer-skin. In his belt was a heavy broadsword, a huntsman's horn, and a long dagger. At his feet lay a cross bow and a sheaf of arrows.

The above description of a head forester's attire during the early 15th century must have been much the same as a forester of the latter half of the 14th century, a man clad all in Lincoln green.

The forest near Ludchurch is described by Sir William de Lacy: "A narrow but well-beaten path wound along through the forest, which in some places was so extremely dense, that all view of the sky was precluded ("a forest ful dep"). The forest appeared to be several miles in extent, and abounded in fine and ancient trees."

In the Legend of Lud Church the forest was described as being large and dense "and the cavern so well concealed, that all search (for it) was bootless."


Sir Bertilak, a possible reference to St Bertilah/Bertelin, who chose a solitary life of prayer in the Staffordshire Moorlands

"If Sir Bertilak of the high desert isn't a reference to St Bertila, then coincidence is too far stretched." Jamie Chadwick (April 1994) - Hagiographer & scholar of ancient Northern European languages.

J. Chadwick also tells us that after the conquest Archbishop Lanfrac supressed the cults of English Saints, St Bertila was then referred to as St Bertram, his cult is based around Alstonfield in the Staffordshire Moors.


Anglo-Saxon Mercia: some facts and some legends - BBC news Stoke and Staffordshire: St Bertelin (also known as Bertram) has the most colourful legend of all. Supposedly a member of the Mercian royal family, he returned from a visit to Ireland with a princess he loved. She went into labour as they journeyed through a forest, so he set out to look for food. When he returned, she and the baby were dead, having been attacked by wolves. His grief made him vow to become a hermit, and he set up on a site that is now in Stafford at St Mary's Church. Later he moved to an even more remote spot, at Ilam (three and a half miles from Alstonefield) in the Staffordshire Moorlands, where his shrine is today, and where people still come on pilgrimage to pray at his tomb.

Did he exist? No one really knows. There is no definite evidence - but if he did not, why does his name have such a strong hold across this area? He is even the patron saint of Stafford. 

St Bertelin and Green martyrdom - There were three forms of martyrdom in the Old Church of Britain. Red martyrdom involved being put to death for being a Christian. White martyrdom was to leave all you knew and loved and to set out to preach
the gospel in unknown parts of the world where it had not been heard before. Green martyrdom meant going alone to a place of great wildness and barrenness, there to lead a solitary life of prayer, fasting and meditation.
Bertelin had chosen the "desert" of Celtic (and Anglo-Saxon) green martyrdom where souls were hard won from their violent past.
Ref.: The Spiritual Traveller By Martin Palmer, Nigel Palmer.
St Bertelin and Cheshire - St Bertelin was a Staffordshire Saint with connections to Cheshire. There was an Augustinian Priory at Runcorn later moved to Norton, this was dedicated to St Bertelin and St Mary. It is thought that the dedication to St Bertelin was because a Saxon church, already dedicated to the Saint, once existed on the site. John of Gaunt was patron of the then newly formed abbey, which the Augustinian priory at Norton had become, in 1391.
The church at Barthomley was also dedicated to St Bertelin, it was once the parish church of a large area of south-east Cheshire, near the Staffordshire border. Barthomley is near Crewe (Monks Coppenhall) and Wistaston. It seems likely that before a church at Audley in Staffordshire was built, Audley had been in the parish of St Bertelin of Barthomley, Cheshire (see, The Audleys).
Castles and constables

In 'A Companion to the Gawain Poet' it is speculated that Bertilak's castle may have been a romanticised description of Beeston Castle in Cheshire with its magnificent, strong Barbican "that knight never gazed upon a better barbican". 

Beeston Castle. Cheshire (photo N C Brindley)

Beeston was on the edge of the medieval Delamere forest towering 350ft above the Cheshire plain, it would have been hard to miss on a journey from North Wales, through Cheshire. Also called "Castle de Rupe", Castle of the Rock, in its full form and painted white, as it would have been in the middle-ages, this impressive castle would have shimmered and shone on its high hill on the Cheshire plain. At its base was Peckforton deer park, an appurtenace of the Delamere Forest, its Keeper was Sir John Chandos.

Beeston castle (photo N C Brindley)

Beeston castle and Dieulacres abbey were both built by Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester. Beeston was built after Ranulf returned from Crusading in Egypt and it has been observed that the castle has similarities to some Crusader castles. Beeston also had connections to the Cistercian Abbey of Combermere, mother house of Ranulf's Dieulacres Abbey. Monks from Combermere repaired the castle in the early 14th century and a clerk of the Abbot was made constable of Beeston in 1361. 

Whether Beeston (above) was Bertilak's castle or not, is uncertain. However, the castle's associations with its constables, foresters and huntsmen, may lead to a better understanding of Bertilak's role, as Lord of a 14th century castle.

Beeston was a royal castle and during Sir John Chandos' lifetime, it was owned by the Black Prince, Earl of Chester, a Knight of the Order of the Garter.  The Prince was generally on the move, pre-occupied by the wars in France and Spain so he appointed constables in his absence. The constables would be important personages, in effect, Lords of the castle and its surrounding land while the Prince was away.

Two important castles in Gawain Poet country during the 14th century, were royal castles and consequently, run by constables. These were Beeston castle in Cheshire on the edge of Delamere forest and Peak/Peveril castle (below) in High Peak Forest, Derbyshire, where Sir John Chandos was constable.

By taking an example of Beeston's castle constables of the second half of the 14th century, from Welsh Recognizance Rolls etc., we can see that the constables retain the names of the places they were from and not the castle. Bertilak was of Hautdesert, most likely a reference to the land/place he was from, and not the name of the castle. In 1358, the Constable and Keeper of Beeston Castle in Cheshire, was 'Robert de Haughton', in 1361 it was, 'John de Brundelegh', a clerk of Combermere, and from 1363 until his death, Sir Alan Cheyne. Both Robert de Haughton and John de Brundelegh were ordered to resided at Beeston castle with the office of receiver of the surrounding lands, which once belonged to the "Sancto Petro"/St. Pierre/St. Peter family. John de St. Pierre sold his lands to the Black Prince and moved to Anglesey where he was made constable of Beaumaris castle. Although now belonging to the Black Prince, Earl of Chester, the land surrounding Beeston castle was still referred to as St Pierre lands. Interestingly, the porter (gatekeeper) of the castle in the Gawain poem refers to St. Peter, 'Ȝe, Peter,' quoþ þe porter, as he tells Gawain that he is welcome to stay at the castle. Beeston castle was known in the Gawain poet's day as the 'castle of the rock', "rock" also being a reference to St. Peter, Christ says, "... you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. — Gospel of St. Matthew 16:18. An obvious quote from a gatekeeper, may have also been a poet's clue to the identity of a castle to which he was familiar, a castle of "the rock" within St. Peter/St. Pierre/Sancto Petro lands.

As already stated, neither Robert nor John named themselves after the castle but retained the names of the local townships they were from, Haughton and Brundelegh in Cheshire, just a few miles from Beeston castle. Gawain at the Green Chapel explains that the castle where he stayed was in 'ȝonder londe', (not 2 miles away). Bertilak tells us that he is of Hautdesert in 'þis londe', the land therefore of the Green Chapel on the edge of a grove, a high forest. The edge of High-forest/Hautdesert is next to Back forest and is only 250 metres from Ludchurch. Ludchurch, believed to be the Green Chapel, is within Back forest ridge, (Norse, back: hillside - Old Norse, bakki: river bank, slope) on the boundary of Leek Frith. If you crossed the boundary (Black Brook) you would be entering Alstonefield/Malbanc Frith, the area of the Boar hunt, land owned by the Audley family in the late 14th century- see section: The Audleys

Castle constable, supervisor of the Hunt

The castle constable also had to look after the Earl's guests and supervise the hunt. The constable was usually a forester, the forester (whether castle constable or not) was usually a huntsman.

There was an association between castle constables and foresters - Constable officer, peace-officer, from Latin comes stabuli, ‘Count of the Stable’, a dignitary of the Roman empire transferred to the Frankish courts; later office-holders so-called included custodians of castles, often entrusted with the supervision of nearby forests. From, Forests and Chases in England and Wales, c. 1000 to c. 1850  - A Glossary of Terms and Definitions: https://info.sjc.ox.ac.uk/forests/glossary.htm

To confirm the above association between forester and constable, Sir John Chandos was Chief Forester of High Peak Forest in Derbyshire, he was also constable of the forests administrative centre, Peak/Peveril Castle. (Stephen Cooper)

The foresters facilitated the lord's hunt when he visited the chase, and they aided his huntsmen when these came for their regular cull of deer. Medieval crime and social control By Barbara Hanawalt

If not the owner of the castle, Bertilak would  be his Earl's/Princes/Lords, representative, a constable and forester as John, Lord Chandos at High Peak.


Historian Richard Holmes, describes the importance of castle constables in an article for NOVA online https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/trebuchet/castle.html: The lord and lady were at the top of the tree. However, the single most important figure in the daily life of a castle was the constable. His job was to look after the castle, because the lord was not usually at home. In England, during the period we're talking about, many castles were royal castles. Clearly, the king (or Prince in Beeston's case) could only be at any one place at any one time. And medieval English kings were always on the move. They moved from place to place.

So the constable was the person whose job it was to look after the castle in the lord's absence. He had a number of people who worked beneath him. There was the garrison, whose members vary in status, including knights, men-at-arms, archers, and engineers. You also had grooms, watchmen, porters, cooks, and scullions, who did all the washing up in the kitchen.

Constables could have been local people with a long-standing personal or family relationship with the lord and his family.
If you were the constable or the constable's lady, then you would have had a private room. You would have had a nice suite of private rooms. But for most other people at the castle, life was pretty communal.


Refs: Ormerod's History of Cheshire and David Green's, Household and Military retinue of the Black Prince. -  Appendix II to the thirty sixth report of the Deputy Keeper of the public records No. 1. - Welsh records: Recognizance Rolls of Chester.

Sir John Chandos, The Perfect Knight By Stephen Cooper.

Next page: The Green Chapel



by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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