Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a masterpiece of Middle English literature, which narrowly escaped destruction in the 18th century. Nicholas Mee examines the poem to discover both its secret benefactor and the location in which its drama unfolds.
One of the manuscripts that narrowly escaped the blaze is known to scholars as Cotton Nero A.X. It was the tenth manuscript on shelf ‘A’ of the bookcase beneath the bust of Nero. Its survival was extremely fortuitous, as two of the four poems it contains are acknowledged jewels of late medieval literature and all four are known solely from this one source. Referred to today as Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poems are written in a northern Middle English dialect and are the work of an anonymous poet of the second half of the 14th century. Sir Gawain is a truly remarkable piece of literature by a highly sophisticated poet, deserving of its fame.
It is New Year and the court at Camelot is enjoying its Yuletide celebrations. King Arthur and his knights are about to tuck into a feast when Arthur declares that he will not eat until he has heard a fabulous tale or seen a strange marvel. On cue a mysterious knight enters the hall. He has long green hair flowing into his great green beard and down to his belt. Clothed in green he sits astride a handsome green horse. The huge knight holds a holly branch in one hand and a mighty axe in the other and proceeds to challenge the knights. He will allow one of them to strike off his head and in exchange he will return a similar blow. The knights are reluctant to take up the strange offer so Arthur himself prepares to perform the feat. Propelled by chivalry to spare his king the ordeal, one of his knights, Sir Gawain, gallantly steps forward in his place. Gawain raises the axe and severs the green knight’s head. But to Gawain’s alarm, the green knight retrieves his head from the floor and, holding it by the hair, tells Gawain that he will await him in a year’s time at the Green Chapel where Gawain must receive the return blow.
The year passes and, as the time approaches, Gawain anxiously prepares for his journey in search of the Green Chapel. He travels alone and, in the depths of winter, arrives in a rugged snow covered landscape. On Christmas Eve, just as he is wearying of his journey, he comes upon a beautiful castle. He is welcomed inside and joins the Christmas festivities. For four days the partying continues – then the guests leave. Gawain is also about to depart but the lord of the castle asks him to stay. Gawain explains that he must find the Green Chapel by New Year’s Day if he is to keep his word and complete his quest. The lord replies that the Green Chapel is less than two miles away so Gawain can remain a while longer without fear of breaking his promise. Gawain agrees. The lord then suggests that they should make a bargain to exchange whatever spoils they might win each day but that while he plans to go off hunting Gawain should stay in the castle to recuperate from his exhausting travels. Gawain accepts this unusual arrangement and goes off to bed.
In the morning the lord rises and sets out to hunt deer on the icy terrain. Meanwhile, his lady creeps into Gawain’s bedroom, banters with him seductively and offers herself to him. Gawain resists all temptations but agrees to kiss her as she persuades him that it is just an act of chivalry. In the evening when the lord returns he presents Gawain with the venison that he has caught and Gawain offers him the kiss in return. The following day, the same bargain is struck. Gawain receives two kisses from the lady and the lord succeeds in killing a wild boar, which he gives to Gawain when he returns and receives two kisses. On the third day, while the lord is out fox hunting, the lady wants to exchange a love token with Gawain. She offers him a ring but he declines because it is valuable. Then she offers him her green girdle. Gawain again refuses, but she tells him that it has magical powers. Whoever wears it cannot come to any harm. Gawain realises that this may be useful in his forthcoming ordeal so he accepts the girdle and agrees not to mention it to the lord. The lady also kisses Gawain three times. When the lord returns, Gawain gives him three kisses and in return the lord gives him the pelt of the fox that he has killed.
The following morning Gawain wraps the green girdle around his waist and sets off. Passing amid rugged cliffs, he eventually finds an overgrown cave in a gorge and realises that this must be the Green Chapel. He hears an axe being sharpened in the undergrowth across the gorge. Then the Green Knight appears, hops over a racing stream and confronts Gawain. Gawain bares his neck to receive the blow and the Green Knight swings his axe. But Gawain shrinks back and the Green Knight halts his stroke. Gawain steadies himself and promises not to flinch again. The Green Knight aims for a second stroke but again stops before striking Gawain. He says that as Gawain is now ready he will finally deliver the blow. The third stroke just nicks Gawain’s neck and as his blood springs from the cut he jumps up, thrusts his shield foward and tells the Green Knight that he has accepted the return blow and if the Knight attempts another, then Gawain will certainly defend himself. The Green Knight now explains that he is the lord of the castle and because Gawain was honest on the first two days of their agreement he left him unscathed with his first two blows but because on the third day Gawain kept secret the present of the green girdle he cut him with his third blow. However, he did not remove Gawain’s head because his dishonesty was not due to greed or lust but simply to preserve his life, which is understandable and a much lesser offence. Gawain returns to Arthur’s court and tells his tale. The knights agree that in future they will wear green girdles swathed across their chests in honour of Gawain’s adventure.
In 1330, half a century before the composition of Sir Gawain, King Alfonso XI of Castile (r.1312-50) had instituted the Order of the Band in imitation of the Knights of the Round Table. The insignia of the order was a band worn over the shoulder in the same manner as Gawain’s green girdle. This was the first order of knighthood to be established in medieval Europe and was widely emulated by other European monarchs. Alfonso and his knights launched aggressive campaigns to expand the borders of Castile and in 1343 the English knight, Henry of Grosmont (c.1310-61), fought for Castile in these campaigns. The following year Henry returned to England and the court of Edward III with tales of the chivalrous exploits of the Castilian knights. In 1348 Edward III (r.1327-77) established his own order of knighthood, the Order of the Garter. Each knight was assigned a wooden stall in St George’s Chapel at Windsor where, beneath their pennants and coats of arms, they would hear Mass and take Communion. The king held stall one. This stall is still reserved for the monarch today. In the original investiture Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince (1330-76), held stall two and Henry of Grosmont (from 1351 Duke of Lancaster) held stall three.
The parallels between the Order of the Garter and Sir Gawain’s green girdle are quite clear, but this is confirmed at the very end of the manuscript where a scribe has written:Honi Soit Qui Mal Pense – a variant of the motto of the order: Hony soyt qui mal y pence(‘Shame on him who thinks this evil’). This suggests quite strongly that the patron of the poet was a Knight of the Garter with connections in northern England who flourished during the second half of the 14th century. One man stands out.
John of Gaunt was born on June 24th, 1340. He was the third surviving son of Edward III. His nickname is a reference to his birthplace – Ghent, but during his lifetime it would have been more usual to refer to him by one of his many titles, the first of which, bestowed on him at the age of two, was Earl of Richmond. Gaunt was invested into the Order of the Garter in 1361, in stall 14. He later transferred to stall two in 1377 after the death of his brother Edward the Black Prince. The most famous portrait of Gaunt includes the knotted belt of the order with its motto surrounding his coat of arms.
In 1359 Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont. When Henry died two years later John was invested as the new Duke of Lancaster and through his wife’s inheritance became the greatest landowner in northern England. In 1369, while in her early twenties, Blanche died and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Thirty years later John would be buried beside her. Blanche was lovingly commemorated in Geoffrey Chaucer’s first major literary work, The Book of the Duchess, which was written for John after her death. In it Chaucer plays on Blanche’s name with numerous references to the colour white. At the end of the poem there are cryptic allusions to two of the titles of Gaunt as ‘long castel’ (Lancaster) and ‘ryche hil’ (Richmond).
Many of Gaunt’s early adult years were spent campaigning in France and Spain. In 1370, during these campaigns, he was given the title Lord Bergerac and Roche-sur-Yon and this will be significant later. He fought for Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile and on September 21st, 1371 he took Pedro’s daughter Constance as his second wife.
It is certain that Gaunt offered his patronage to Chaucer (1343/4-1400), but might he also have given his patronage to a poet writing in a northern dialect? There are good reasons to suppose that he would. One of Gaunt’s favourite castles was Tutbury, in Staffordshire – the home of John’s first wife Blanche and her father Henry of Grosmont. He and his second wife visited often from the 1370s and John set up a guild for the northern minstrels and established an annual festival at Tutbury where musicians competed to be King of the Minstrels for a year. This festival is well documented and continued until the 18th century. It seems reasonable to suppose that Gaunt would not have been averse to hearing a good tale well told in his court.
There is also a connection between Gaunt and the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which hints that it might have been written in his honour. Gaunt’s birthday, June 24th, was an important feast day on which the nativity of John the Baptist was celebrated. This was a popular summer festival in the Middle Ages and the preparations for the celebrations are recorded in Gaunt’s register. John the Baptist’s head was famously served up on a silver platter to Herod’s daughter Salome. A whimsical beheading story might have appealed to John who shared his birthday with the Baptist. It might also be significant that the Christmas festivities in the poem are centred around St John’s Day – December 27th.
If Gaunt was the patron of the poem then it should be possible to connect him to the sites of the action within it.
Sir Gawain offers the modern reader a number of mysteries. The story takes place in the castle inhabited by the lord who later reveals himself to be the Green Knight and reaches its dramatic climax at the Green Chapel. It would be in keeping with medieval literary practice if the drama took place in the domain of the patron of the poem.
Gawain journeys from Arthur’s court through North Wales, crosses the river Dee and reaches the Wirral. He then travels on to a rocky and desolate region in his search for the Green Chapel. The natural conclusion is that he arrives in the north-west Midlands of England, where the dialect of the poem has been located and where the rugged terrain of the nearby Pennines fits the scenery that it describes.
Eventually Gawain reaches a castle. Later we learn that the district is surrounded by harsh and precipitous scenery and is a great area for hunting. Peak Castle in Castleton, Derbyshire, fits the bill perfectly. This was the grand hunting lodge for the Royal Forest of High Peak. In the Middle Ages the royal forests were not simply wooded areas but had their own legal system and were governed by strict laws designed to prevent any cultivation of the land and to maintain the areas as undeveloped wildernesses overflowing with game. Strict laws punished poaching. High Peak was one of the favourite hunting grounds for the medieval English kings; its landscape was teeming with deer, as well as wolves and wild boar.
Today Peak Castle is a ruin. The keep shines like a broken tooth standing proud against the skyline above the town of Castleton on top of a steep triangular crag. On one side there is a precipitous drop into Cavedale. On the other is a steep narrow gorge.
In the poem Gawain finds the castle by chance and, as luck would have it, stumbles on the main entrance. He is confronted by the barbican on a mound surrounded by wooden palisades. The castle is enclosed by a double ditch and there is a deep moat. Beyond the barbican Gawain sees the keep and other towers of the castle shining brightly through the trees. Then he passes through the gate and across the drawbridge, where he is greeted by squires who stable his horse and welcome him in.
Today tourists reach Peak Castle up a steep path that zig-zags from the town below, but in the Middle Ages this was not the main entrance. When the castle was in use the main entrance was across the drawbridge that spanned the gorge next to the castle keep. Over the drawbridge from the castle were outbuildings enclosed by a wooden palisade with a gateway defended by a barbican tower. This area was protected by a ditch that can still clearly be seen on the hillside today. Also still visible is the track that leads away up the hill and beyond to the south. This would have been the route by which the poet describes Gawain’s approach to the castle.
So who owned Peak Castle in the second half of the 14th century? Edward III’s wife was Philippa of Hainault. On August 14th, 1369 Phillipa succumbed to the plague and her titles and estates reverted to the king. The estates included the Royal Forest of the High Peak. When Gaunt returned from his overseas campaigns he ceded the earldom of Richmond in Yorkshire to his father in order for the king to re-grant it to the Duke of Brittany as part of the price of his adherence to the Plantagenet cause. Gaunt was compensated with the lordship of High Peak and with it Peak Castle and royal estates in Yorkshire. The transaction was completed on June 5th, 1372. We can be sure that the royal family made use of their northern hunting lodge. In 1374 Gaunt’s 18-year-old son, the future Henry IV (r. 1399-1413), is recorded as having visited the Derbyshire village of Tideswell, the administrative centre of High Peak. While he was in Tideswell, Henry bought a greyhound from Benedick Tatton, probably for the purpose of hunting in the Royal Forest.
Peak Castle fits the poem in the following respects: it is in the area of the country identified with the dialect of the poem; it is situated in wild countryside that matches the description; it was a grandiose hunting lodge, which ties in with the hunting that takes place in the poem; and it was owned by a senior member of the Order of the Garter who patronised poets and minstrels. Furthermore an archaeological reconstruction of the castle seems to fit the poem’s description very well. But, if we are to take this identification seriously, then we must also find the site of the Green Chapel.
A number of contenders for the site of the Green Chapel have been suggested over the years. One candidate is Wetton Mill Cave in the Manifold Valley in Staffordshire. But the most popular suggestion is Lud’s Church, an overgrown crevasse in the rugged hills known as the Roaches on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. Lud’s Church is a very interesting and evocative place, thought to have been used as an open air chapel by Lollards in the late 14th century. However there are problems with identifying either of these sites with the Green Chapel. Neither is close to a castle, yet according to the poem the Green Chapel is less than two miles from one.
By contrast we do not have to look far to find a significant cave associated with Peak Castle. This is Peak Cavern and it is situated at the bottom of the steep narrow gorge once spanned by the castle’s drawbridge. Like the castle, the cave still belongs to the Duchy of Lancaster. Its entrance has a high domed roof similar to the nave of a church and is reputed to be the largest cave entrance in Britain. At the bottom of the gorge a stream races past the entrance to the cave. With the dimensions of a chapel and with the entrance overgrown with grass, trees and bushes, it answers very well to the description of the Green Chapel.
Gawain describes the Green Chapel as an evil place and the most accursed church that he has ever seen. He imagines that it is the sort of place where the Green Knight would say his devilish devotions and concludes that the devil has tricked him into agreeing to this meeting. Peak Cavern has been associated with the devil for many centuries. It is referred to as the Devil’s Hole or Devil’s Cave and is now marketed to tourists as the ‘Devil’s Arsehole’.
The Green Knight appears out of the undergrowth, vaults the stream with his axe and confronts Gawain. Just in front of Peak Cavern is a small clearing next to the stream that precisely matches the description and would have been a great site for the Green Knight to wield his axe and behead Gawain. Of course Gawain only receives a nick on his neck and lives to tell his tale. But before he departs for Arthur’s court he asks the Green Knight to reveal his name. The Green Knight then admits that he is the lord of the castle and gives his name as: ‘Bercilak de Hautdesert’.
In keeping with the conventions of late medieval literature this name is probably a veiled reference to the patron of the poem, in the style of Chaucer’s allusions in The Book of the Duchess. I think that the cryptic puzzle can be cracked. Hautdesert is a pun. It can be interpreted as ‘highly deserving’, but it also means ‘High Wilderness’. ‘Desert’ was a term used for the royal forests. Within another nearby royal forest, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, there remains a place that is still called Beau Desert, i.e. ‘beautiful wilderness’. Hautdesert or High Wilderness would certainly be an apt name for the Royal Forest of the High Peak. Could Bercilak de Hautdesert be a cryptic reference to two of Gaunt’s titles: Lord Bergerac of High Peak?
By the standards of medieval wordplay, Bercilak with a hard ‘c’ is not too far from Bergerac with a hard ‘g’. More convincing is Hautdesert, which is a perfect fit for the Royal Forest of High Peak. Pulling together all the clues it is easy to imagine the poem’s first recital during John of Gaunt’s Christmas festivities at his noble hunting lodge, Peak Castle.
- J.J. Anderson (Editor), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight/Pearl/Cleanness/Patience(Everyman’s Library,1996)
- Simon Armitage (trans), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber and Faber, 2009)
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight audiobook narrated by Bill Wallis (AudioGo, 2007)
- W.R.J Barron, Trawthe and Treason: The Sin of Gawain Reconsidered (Manchester University Press, 1980)