A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY - by Noel C. Brindley

The death of a knight of the order of the garter and Sir Gawain's anticipated death on New Years Day

The poem ends on New Year's day. 
From the Gawain poem: 'I pledge myself to you in return for one of your own, if it pleases you, for I must needs go tomorrow, as you know, if you will offer me a man, as you promised, to show me the way to the Green Chapel, as God will allow me to partake of the judgement of my fate on New Year’s Day.’

The following is an abridged version of Froissart's account of the death of John Chandos - Sir John Chandos assembles an expedition to counter French raids into his province of Poitou. Lord Thomas Percy advances before the main body of the English army and encounters a French troop under sir Louis de St. Julien and Carnet le Breton. Percy takes a position on a defensible bridge (Lussac). At the same time, the main English army under sir John Chandos comes up behind the French. As Chandos and the English arrived at a small hillock, about three furlongs from the bridge, the French servants, who were between this hillock and the bridge, saw them, and being much frightened, said, "Come away: let us save ourselves and our horses." They therefore ran off, leaving their masters to shift as well as they could.
When sir John Chandos, with displayed banner, was come up to the French, whom he thought very lightly of, he began from horseback to rail at them, saying, "Do you hear, Frenchmen! you are mischievous men at arms: you make incursions night and day at your pleasure: you take towns and castles in Poitou, of which I am seneschal. You ransom poor people without my leave, as if the country were your own; but, by God, it is not.
Sir Louis and Carnet kept themselves in a close body, as if they were willing to engage. Lord Thomas Percy and the English on the other side of the bridge knew nothing of what had passed, for the bridge was very high in the middle, which prevented them from seeing over it.


Sir John Chandos, who was a strong and bold knight, and cool in all his undertakings, had his banner advanced before him, surrounded by his men, with the scutcheon above his arms. He himself was dressed in a large robe which fell to the ground, blazoned with his arms on white sarcenet, argent, a pile gules; one on his breast, and the other on his back; so that he appeared resolved on some adventurous undertaking; and in this state, with sword in hand, he advanced on foot towards the enemy.

This morning there had been hoar-frost, which had made the ground slippery; so that as he marched he entangled his legs with his robe, which was of the longest, and made a stumble: during which time a squire, called James de St. Martin (a strong expert man), made a thrust at him with his lance, which hit him in the face, below the eye, between the nose and forehead. Sir John Chandos did not see the aim of the stroke, for he had lost the eye on that side five years ago, on the heaths of Bordeaux, at the chase of a stag: what added to this misfortune, sir John had not put down his vizor, so that in stumbling he bore upon the lance, and helped it to enter into him. The lance, which had been struck from a strong arm, hit him so severely that it entered as far as the brain, and then the squire drew it back to him again.
The great pain was too much for sir John, so he fell to the ground, and turned twice over in great agony, like one who had received his death-wound. Indeed, since the blow, he never uttered a word. His people, on seeing this mishap, were like madmen. His uncle, sir Edward Clifford, hastily advanced, and striding over the body (for the French were endeavoring to get possession of it,) defended it most valiantly, and gave such well-directed blows from his sword that none dared to approach him.
The French although victorious, surrendered to the English finding no means of escape before the arrival of the English allies from Poitou.
Sir John Chandos was disarmed very gently by his own servants, laid upon shields and targets, and carried at a foot's pace to Mortemer, the nearest fort to the place where they were. The other barons and knights returned to Poitiers, carrying with them their prisoners. I heard that James Martin, he who had wounded sir John Chandos, suffered so much form his wounds that he died at Poitiers. That gallant knight (Chandos) only survived one day and night.

Chandos's death occurred on the same day as the anticipated death of Sir Gawain at the hands of the Green Knight, on New Years Day, as the following explains, from:  MEMORIALS OF THE MOST NOBLE ORDER OF THE GARTER, FROM ITS FOUNDATION TO THE PRESENT TIME. INCLUDING THE HISTORY OF THE ORDER;
Sir John Chandos - The splendid career of our hero closed on the morning of the 31st December 1369*. (Beltz goes on to give an account of Chandos's career before he writes the following footnote concerning the knight's death).
* Doubts have been suggested concerning the precise date of this event. According to Froissart, the attack upon Saint Savin was made in the night before New-year's eve, —"la nuit devant la nuit de Van, au chef du mois de Janvier,"—the night, therefore, between the 30th and 31st December 1369. The skirmish near Lussac bridge, in which Chandos fell, happened on the following morning, and he died on 1st January 1369-70.

Froissart and Beltz confirm that Chandos survived through the day and knight of the 31st December and died the following day, New Years Day.

Morthermer - the door of the room where Sir John Chandos died on New Years Day, 1370.

Froissart in his chronicles says of Sir John Chandos' death, “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”.

From the Gawain poem when his fellow knights believed Gawain was going to his death - ‘By Christ, it is a pity that you, sir, should be lost, you who are so noble of life! It is, truly, not easy to find his equal on earth'.


It has been a mystery exactly where Sir John Chandos was buried, Froissart says that Chandos was buried at Morthermer castle yet no sign of a Chandos tomb has been found there. The tomb and monument near Lussac attributed to Chandos, appears to pre-date Chandos' death by 250 years, according to 'An account of the tomb of Sir John Chandos' by Samuel Rush Meyrick LL.D. F.S.A. 

Sir James Audley KG, Chandos' closest friend and brother-in-arms, was buried in the church of the Carmelites, founded by Sir John Chandos. At Audley's funeral in 1369, the mourners were led by the Black Prince. - from 'The Barons Audley of Heley Castle And Hulton Abbey' by Thelma W Lancaster.

Why would Chandos too, not be buried in his own church of the Carmelites, alongside his good friend, Audley, this surely was his last resting place.

There was a clear attempt to present the two as brothers-in-arms - not merely as famous knights each in his own right, but as the Roland and Oliver of their day. - For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England, 1066-1500 By Nigel Saul

Dates and days, chronology of 1371 and a possible dating of the poem

If the Gawain poem was written to remember Chandos' death it may have been written in 1371 for performance/reading, during Yule of 1371/72. These seem to be the nearest calendar days to Chandos' death that meet the chronology of the poem during the time of the hunts. In 1371 the missing day of the poem, 28th December would have been on a Sunday and was Holy Innocent's Day (see, Time in the Medieval World - In Search of Lost Time, Ad Putter - Edited By Chris Humphrey, W. M. Ormrod). Holy Innocents day was observed in commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Magi. The infants, known as the Holy Innocents, have been claimed as the first Christian martyrs.

Sunday, 28 December - Holy Innocent's Day, was not included in the Gawain poem. 

Holy Innocent's Day is said to be the unluckiest day of the year. Those who were influenced by this belief refrained from setting out on a journey or from starting a major task - from Time in History By G. J. Whytrow.

Was the omission of the 28th deliberate or a textual corruption? Gawain wanted to continue his journey on the 28th but Bertilak persuaded him to stay three more days. The other guests too, did not leave until Monday, 29th December, the day of the first hunt, although earlier expected to leave upon the 'gray morne' of the 28th.

Hunts were not allowed within the abbot of Dieulacres’ purlieus within Leek Frith, on Sundays. In 1371 Bertilak's hunts would  have to begin on Monday 29th December and could only last for three days within a purlieu. See, section - Bertilak de Hautdesert ('þat forest') also 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#P

The last day of the hunt in 1371 would be on Wednesday, 31st December, appropriately Woden’s day, named after the greatest huntsman of all.

Next page: The 'Wild Hunt', a bringer of storm and death



by Noel C Brindley - May 2012

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