Wednesday 13 August 2008

The Hawk of May

Lud's Church III

Having identified the location of the Green Chapel as Lud’s Church in the Staffordshire Moorlands in Part 2, who was this Gawain who featured in the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight who has his roots firmly in the earliest stratum of Arthurian legend as Gwalchmai, The Hawk of May.

The Beheading Game
The late 12th Century had seen an explosion of Grail literature, the most famous being the French poet Chrétien de Troyes Le Conte du Graal, or Perceval with pagan undertones which introduced what Chrétien calls simply a ‘graal’, which appears to be a serving dish. Robert de Boron, a late 12th - early 13th Century cleric from Burgundy, was the first author to give the grail a Christian aspect as the vessel used by Christ at the last supper. In his Joseph d’Arimathie the vessel is used to catch the blood from Christ at the crucifixion and is brought to the Vale of Avalon, Glastonbury. It could be tempting to think that the Gawain-poet was simply Christianising the pagan theme of the beheading game, as de Boron had done with the grail stories; after all we have speculated that he was possibly a monk from the nearby Dieulacres Abbey at Leek.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was produced in the late 14th Century, considered a classic of Middle English alliterative verse, found in one unique manuscript although the composition may have been earlier as the subject matter is certainly older, as we have seen in Part II, The Beheading Game, as featured in Bricriu’s Feast, has been dated to the 8th Century. The Gawain-poet puts it firmly in the Arthurian period but makes no attempt to Christianise the tale.

Gawain and the Green Knight (John Howe)
During this eruption of Grail literature the Beheading Game featured in several tales around this time, notably the Livre de Caradoc which seems to be a Breton tale included within the first continuation to Chrétien’s Perceval, which features Sir Caradoc Briefbras (Short-Arm), a Knight of the Round Table. Caradoc is challenged to the Beheading Game by a mysterious stranger. Caradoc decapitates him, but the stranger replaces his head and then reveals that he is Caradoc’s natural father. This early French tale led many to believe that it was the original of the contest included within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but the later tale has similarities to the early Irish Bricriu’s Feast that do not appear in Caradoc.

Bricriu’s Feast features the bravest of all Irish’s warriors; Cu Chulainn who is often compared to Gawain as they have many similarities. It contains two separate versions of the Beheading Game. The longer version is called The Champion’s Bargain, in which Curoi, the shapeshifter, judges a contest of heroism between three warriors, and awards the contest to Cu Chulainn, to which the other two warriors protest. Curoi, disuised as a gigantic churl (bachlach), appears at a feast and stages a similar challenge to that presented by the Green Knight in the court of Arthur.

In the shorter version, considered the more archaic tale, called the Yellow, or Terror, version or sometimes the Uath version. It differs from the Champion’s Bargain in that the warriors must travel to meet the challenger. They meet a man known as Yellow son of Fair, he sends them onto meet a man called Terror son of Great Fear who challenges them to the Beheading Contest beside a lake. The man called Yellow and Terror is considered to be Curoi in his many guises.

Other tales from this period which contain elements of the Beheading Contest are The Mule Without a Bridle, Hunbaut, The Turke and Gowin and The Carle off Carlile and the Perlesvaus. Gawain is the hero of all these tales except, as previously mentioned the Livre de Caradoc and the Old French tale Perlesvaus.

The anonymous Perlesvaus, also known as The High History of the Holy Grail, is an Arthurian romance dating to the early 13th century. It claims to be a continuation of Chrétien unfinished work Perceval, the Story of the Grail, but it has striking differences from other versions. It survives in three manuscripts and two fragments; oddly one of these fragments was found at Wells Cathedral in Somerset, leading to speculation that it had actually been written at Glastonbury. The Glastonbury link is added to by Katharine Maltwood, a fine artist living near Glastonbury, who was commissioned in the 1920’s to create a map to illustrate the High History of the Holy Grail. While studying maps of the area around Glastonbury she discovered what she believed to be a zodiac in the landscape. [1] Maltwood believed that the High History of the Holy Grail had been written by a Knight Templar to convey esoteric information about the Glastonbury Zodiac.

In the Perlesvaus, Lancelot replaces Gawain in the Beheading Contest. Lancelot enters the supernatural, ruined Waste City and is challenged to a Beheading Game. Lancleot arrives at a great palace in the Waste City where people are crying over a young knight, who is wearing red tunic with a gold girdle, and is about to go to his death. He charges Lancelot to cut off his head with the condition that in one year Lancelot return and submit himself to the same act. Lancelot reluctantly agrees and cuts off the knights head. True to his word, in exactly one year, Lancelot returns to the spot. The decapitated knight’s brother greets him, sharpening his axe and calling out that Lancelot's time has come. Lancelot stretches his neck on the chopping block, the knight strikes a blow but misses, and then two damsels rush forth and cry to the knight to spare Lancelot. Lancelot then learns he was the first knight yet to return and keep his word of the promise to the beheading game.

Lancelot had a supernatural upbringing by the Lady of the Lake, who vanished with him while he was an infant, disappearing into the Lake, her domain being the Celtic Otherworld. The Lady of the Lake appears in several of the Arthurian Romances as Niniane, Nimue, Elaine or Viviane, presenting King Arthur with his sword after it was forged in the Otherworld, escorting the dying king to Avalon after the Battle of Camlann, then claiming the sword back after it was cast back into the Lake and finally, she is accused with enchanting Merlin. The Lady of the Lake's origin is undoubtedly based upon an ancient, pagan motif, like Morgan le Fay, and their origins probably derived from the same tradition. She is faery.

The Lady of the Lake gives Excalibur to King Arthur (Alfred Kappes 1880)
Lancelot’s origins are much debated, the French claiming him as their creation as he first appears in the Arthurian legend in 'Le Chevalier de la Charrette', (The Knight of the Cart) one of five Arthurian romances written by Chrétien de Troyes. In the French versions of the Arthurian legend more attention is focused on Lancelot than King Arthur himself. Other have argued that Lancelot’s roots belong firmly in Celtic Mythology. [2

Lancelot succumbs to temptation and is famous for his role as Guinevere’s lover and features in the Breton tale of her abduction depicted on the Archivolt of Modena Cathedral.

Alongside the beheading game in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Gawain-poet adds the twist of the temptation theme, in which Bertilak’s wife attempts to bed him, he resists taking only kisses from her. Many versions of the temptation theme appear in the Arthurian Romances such as the chastity test.

Stories of Gawain were popular amongst Arthurian tales and Grail literature from the 12th to 15th Centuries; he appeared the most frequently as the first knight to symbolise the epitome of courage and chivalry. Chrétien de Troyes said that Gawain’s valour matched his courtesy. In Arthurian tales Gawain was the bravest of knights who would always see the task through, he is comparative to Cu Chulainn in the Ulster Cycle, so the inclusion of Gawain into the poem should be of no surprise to us.

Origins of Gawain
As in most Arthurian tales the influence of Geoffrey of Monmouth can be seen to have had an impact on the modern conception of Gawain the knight. Writing around 1136 Geoffrey produced the greatest story ever told in the "Historia Regum Britanniae" (History of the Kings of Britain) and changed the face of King Arthur forever. Although now considered by many to be little more than a work of fiction, at the time Geoffrey’s opus appeared it was met with approval by most and it was not until the 17th Century that its authenticity was doubted.

Geoffrey claimed that he obtained his source material from Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, whoever he was, “a certain very ancient book written in the British language… which I have taken the trouble to translate into Latin", [3] may well have some truth in it as he did seem to have access to some early traditions. The debate of Geoffrey’s source is beyond the scope of this work but therein lays the problem; much core material was confused in the translation and what he didn’t understand he seemed to ‘correct’ (or amend) by constructing linking passages. The end product is a garbled account that although unreliable does seem to contain some genuine elements of ancient tradition which can be difficult to separate from Geoffrey’s fiction. In an attempt to rectify this a number of welsh texts known as the Bruts [4] were produced up to the end of the 13th Century and the debate goes on to which came first.

In Arthurian studies Geoffrey is used as a demarcation between the two types of Arthur; the Pre-Galfridian warlord of welsh tradition and the Post-Galfridian later medieval version we see as the knight in armour and emperor of Europe. [5

Gawain appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth Latin work as Gualguanus, probably derived from the  Breton, he was the son of Loth king of Lothian and Anna, Arthur’s sister, and had one brother, Mordred, making them Arthur’s nephews. According to Geoffrey, Gawain is killed by his brother Mordred, at the battle of Richborough.

In Geoffrey’s version of the Arthurian legend Loth (or Lot) is King Arthur's brother-in-law and ruler of Lothian, Orkney, and sometimes Norway. According to Geoffrey, Loth is the brother of Urien Rheged and Auguselus of Scotland. His name is probably derived from the kingdom of Lothian. Early in Arthur's reign Loth and other kings of the north rebel against him, though his sons object. Arthur hammers the dissenters decisively at the Battle of Bedegraine. Following Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Loth (Lot) appears in most Arthurian romances as Gawain’s father and his story remains remarkably unchanged.

The later name of Lothian has its base in Goutodin (Gododdin), in itself a late British version of Votadini, the tribe which settled the area around Edinburgh (Din Eidyn). Loth, sometimes called Lot Luwddoc (of the Host) in later versions, is possibly based on the semi-legendary Leudonus, a late 5th century post-Roman ruler of the Gododdin based at Traprain Law and may have been the precursor of Geoffrey’s King Loth. His traditional burial site is said to be at Dunpender Law in East Lothian.

In the Brut y Brenhinedd - the Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain – the redactor confuses Lot Luwddoc with Llew ap Cynfarch, the brother of Urien Rheged, the most powerful king in Northern Britain at that time. Llew ap Cynfarch is a historical character, mentioned in the Northern genealogies, one of six brothers of the dynasty of Cynfarch Oer "The Dismal" King of North Rheged but features about one hundred years after Lot Luwddoc (Leudonus).

At the Battle of Arfderydd [6] in AD 573, Gwenddolew ap Ceidio, the King of Caer-Guendoleu, dies fighting against the opposing forces led by Ebrauc and Dunoting. Having no heir, Caer-Guendoleu passes into the hands of his cousin, Urien Rheged and is ruled by his two brothers; Llew ap Cynfarch and Arawn ap Cynfarch.

In 1155 Robert Wace completes his Roman de Brut, a version of Geoffrey's "History" in French Norman, and calls Gawain by the name Walwein. Wace closely follows Geoffrey’s work keeping the same parentage although his father is now called Lot and has one brother Modret and introduces the “Round Table”. Wace’s Brut was dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II, Glastonbury's generous patron.

Around the end of the 12th Century an English version of Geofffey’s History of the Kings of Britain was produced in one of the finest renderings of the chronicle, important in the development of the Arthurian legend, giving an excellent account of King Arthur as a national hero. Layamon described himself as a humble priest attached to the church at Ernley (Arley Regis), Worcestershire, published his "Brut", c. 1190 as an English translation of Wace into alliterative verse. Although the dating of Layamon’s "Brut" is uncertain, his work is very significant as the first appearance of the Arthurian story in English and accordingly the first appearance of the name Gawain. Layamon traces the history of Britain, from the fall of Troy to the arrival of Brutus in Britain and continues through to the death of Cadwaladr. Layamon freely adapted the Brut of Wace and added material from other sources but retains Gawain’s parentage of Lot and Anna and brother Modred.

Gawain was a prominent character in all five of Chretien de Troyes tales, yet his role was always secondary to the hero of each of the romances, his first major role was in Chretien's last work, The Conte du Graal (Story of the Grail or Perceval). In Eric and Enide Chretien introduced Gawain’s horse Gringolet, [7] who goes on to appear in many more of the romances, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

"The bridle was embossed and bound with bright gold;
So were the furnishings of the fore-harness and the fine skirts.
The crupper and the caparison accorded with the saddle-bows,
And all was arrayed on red with nails of richest gold,
Which glittered and glanced like gleams of the sun."

In the earlier tales Gawain may have been the perfect knight, however, by the middle of the 13th Century the French writers of the medieval romances, his name had evolved to Gauvain and knights such as Lancelot, Tristan, Perceval and Galahad (now his brother) replace him as the hero.

By the time of the Post-Vulgate romances (such as the Suite du Merlin and the Prose Tristan c.1240-1250), Gawain/Gauvain was portrayed as a murderous villain, a ruthless and treacherous knight, the anti-hero.

By the time Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur, first printing in 1485, as the definitive English Arthurian romance which embraced many earlier French and Welsh tradtitions, Lot has joined a second rebellion in which he was killed at Listinoire by King Pellinore during the Battle of Terrabil and his son Gawain’s fall from grace was complete when he is struck down by his brother Sir Gareth of Orkney. And Lancleot has now achieved the status of ‘the best knight in the world'.

Origins of Gwalchmei
Whatever Geoffrey’s sources may have been we can be certain he did not invent Gualguanus/Gawain as he appears in early welsh literature as Gwalchmei. If Geoffrey did not invent the figure initially known as Gwalchmei, then were do we find his provenance?

In the Bruts, Geoffrey’s Gualguanus is rendered by the name Gwalchmai by the redactors but becomes two different characters; the 'boy' Gwalchmai who is Arthur’s nephew and distinct from another character 'Gwalchmai vab Gwyar' who is substituted for Gualguanus in his later appearances. As we have seen above this name appears in the early Triads which are independent of and pre-date Geoffrey. This clear division of the two characters by the redactors of the Bruts suggests the possibility that Gwalchmai vab Gwyar was a traditional Welsh heroic figure. [8] This may be the same figure referred to in the Stanzas of the Graves, and by William of Malmesbury.

Gwalchmai appears in four Arthurian tales in early welsh literature, pre-dating Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, as Arthur’s nephew in perhaps the earliest being Culhwch and Olwen, surviving in just two 14th Century manuscripts: a complete version in the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and a fragmented version in the White Book of Rhydderch (Llfyr Gwyn Rhydderch), linguistic evidence suggests it took its present form securely from the 11th century but it is possibly older and generally accepted as previous to Geoffrey of Monmouth's fable. Lady Charlotte Guest included the tale in her translation of the Mabinogion.

In the tale Arthur agrees to help Culhwch in his quest for Olwen and enlists six of his finest warriors to help. Most of the tale is taken up with the adventures of tasks that Arthur and his warriors must complete before Culhwch can win Olwen’s hand. The longest episode is the hunt for the boar Twrch Trwyth which certainly has antecedents in Celtic tradition and considered an archaic tale before its inclusion in Culhwch. Gwalchmai is mentioned as one of the six warriors and is given a brother, Gwalhauet mab Gwyar, the origin of the Galahad of the romances.

As stated above, Gwalchmai appears in the early Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) [9], a collection of triadic sayings recounting people, events, or places. They were probably designed as mnemonic structures for recollection of stories by the bards. Bits and pieces appear in all of the early manuscripts including the Peniarth Manuscript, the White Book of Rhyderrch, the Red Book of Hergest and the Black Book of Caermarthen (Llyfr Ddu CaerFyrddin). Gwalchmai appears thus:

Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain:
Gwalchmai son of Gwyar,
and Llachau son of Arthur,
and Rhiwallawn Broom-Hair.

Three Sprightly Steeds of the Island of Britain:
Grey, horse of Alser son of Maelgwn,
And Long-Necked Chestnut, horse of Cai
and Roan Cloven-Hoof, horse of Iddon son of Ynyr Gwent

Three Bestowed Horses of the Island of Britain:
Slender-Hard, horse of Gwalchmai,
and Thick-Mane, horse of Gweddw,
... horse of Drudwas son of Tryffin,
and Chestnut Long-Neck, horse of Cai.


Three Men of the Island of Britain who were most courteous to Guests and Strangers:
Gwalchmai son of Gwyar,
and Cadwy son of Gereint,
and Cadrieith (Fine Speech) (son of) Saidi.

Three Fearless Men of the Island of Britain:
The first was Gwalchmai son of Gwyar,
the second was Llachau son of Arthur,
and the third was Peredur son of Earl Efrog.

Although the Triads in their current form are dated to the last quarter of the 13th Century, Rachel Bromwich, whose study is the definitive standard on the subject, asserts that while none of the Triads in their current form is much older than the 9th century, it is evident that at least some of them contain characters and events of the British heroic age of the 6th and 7th centuries and independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Gwalchmai also appears in the Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) from The Black Book of Carmarthen. Also known as The Graves of the Warriors of Britain, the earliest manuscript containing them dates to the 13th Century the stanzas themselves may well date to the ninth or tenth century. Some may even refer to older traditions:

The grave of Gwalchmai is in Peryddon,
Where the ninth wave flows
[11] The grave of Cynon is in Llan Badarn.

Gwalchmai is also listed as one of the 24 Knights of Arthur’s Court. This is dated to the late 15th Century but some of the verses are fresh adaptions of older entries in the Triads. Browmich states that the extent to which this group of triads obviously draws on older material as out of the 24 names, two thirds belong exclusively to Welsh tradition prior to being used by the redactors of the Bruts to render names in Geoffrey’s work:

Three Golden-Tongued Knights were in Arthur’s Court:

Gwalchmai son of Llew son of Cynfarch, and Drudwas son of Tryffin, and Eliwlod son of Madog son of Uthur: and there was neither king nor lord to whom those came who did not listen to them; and whatever quest they sought, they wished for and obtained it, either willingly or unwillingly.

As we have seen, there is overwhelming evidence that 'Gualguanus/Walwen/Gauvin/Gawain' existed as 'Gwalchmai' in the Welsh tradition prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth and the medieval romances. Further, as we saw in Part II he is mentioned in 1125 by William of Malmesbuy in his De Rebus Gestis Anglorum, again prior to Geoffrey. Chrétien even maintained the name of his horse, Gringolet and the supernatural element attached to him persisted throughout the romances.

Whatever the reason for Gawain’s diminishing popularity with the later French romancers he seemed to maintain an element of supernatural mystery about him; in L'Âtre Périlleux (The Perilous Cemetary), the woman of the cemetery said that Gawain's mother was faery and in other tales he is said to have knowledge of healing and knew herbs, a reference usually reserved for enchanters and sorcerers.

Morgan le Fay (Frederick Sandys 1864)
Some writers revealed how in a duel Gawain's strength was revitalised at noon when the sun reached its peak, but his strength gradually diminished as each hour past noon. According to Malory, Gawain's strength originated in the city where he was born. He would be at his most lethal, when he was fighting at noon, the time of his birth, when his opponent would begin to feel weary. However, if his opponent managed to last until afternoon, Gawain's level of strength would be dramatically diminished, and he would tire rapidly.

Among all the Romances, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the only one with a completely green character, the Green Knight, and the only one tying Morgan le Fay to his transformation.

Geoffrey’s Breton name for him, 'Gualguanus' and the Norman French form 'Gwalchgwyn' are probably derived from the same root of the old Welsh name, meaning 'white hawk', composed of the elements gwalch = hawk and gwyn = white. White generally referring to ‘otherworldly’.

The Hawk of May
The etymology of Gwalchmai as an ancient Welsh personal name has been the source of considerable debate. Gwalchmai appears in Celtic myth as the name of a sun god, composed of the elements Gwalch = Hawk and Mai = May. However, the old translation of 'Hawk of May' is questionable, although it is generally accepted that the first syllable of the name Gwalch means 'hawk', the origin of the second element being more obscure, both mei and mai as May remains troubling, the second element may mean either "from the plain" or refer to the month of “May”. John Koch has suggested the name could be derived from a Brythonic original *Wolcos Magesos, "Wolf/Errant Warrior of the Plain" [12]

In Welsh tradition Gwalchmai, is the son of Gwyar. We cannot be certain whether Gwyar is his father or mother; in the Triads it is usual to use the patronymic, i.e. the father’s name but it is not unheard of to use the matronymic (the mother’s). Gwyar therefore seems a confused name; Geoffrey refers to Lot's wife as Anna. Gwyar has another child, a brother to Gwalchmai, who appears in Culhwch; Gwalhauet mab Gwyar, the precursor of Galahad. Galahad does not have an obvious parallel in Celtic literatures, a suggested etymology for his name could be ‘Battle Hawk’ from the elements: gwalch = hawk, and cad = battle. Galahad has also been depicted as a sun-god in Celtic mythology. [13]

As we have seen above, following Geoffrey’s account, Gawain’s father is retained as Lot throughout the romances. Geoffrey may have been following a northern tradition in identifying Gawain’s father as Lot, a Lothian king possibly based on Luwddoc (of the Host) based on the semi-legendary Leudonus and as we have seen in the Bruts this became confused with Llew ap Cynfarch. The redactor of the Bruts uses the Welsh names Arawn, Urien and Lleu to replace Geoffrey’s Anguselus, Urianus and Loth. [14

Whatever we accept as the correct etymology of the name Gwalchmai we can be certain he was associated with a father who becomes confused with characters with names such as Luw/Leu/Llew.

Gwyar seems to have been some kind of heroic title meaning literally 'Blood', therefore if we accept Gwyar, as the mother of Gwalchmai, she may have originated a Celtic war goddess, perhaps like the Morrigan, meaning “war frenzy = blood shed”.

If Gwyar was Gwalchmai’s mother in welsh tradition why did Geoffrey substitute Anna?

* * *

1. It is debatable whether the Glastonbury Zodiac actually exists at all and amongst those that concede it might argue that Katherine Maltwood merely re-discovered it as in 1582 Queen Elizabeth’s magician John Dee had stated when describing the Glastonbury countryside; “the starres which agree with their reproductions on the ground do lye onlie on the celestial path of the Sonne, moon and planets, with the notable exception of Orion and Hercules….all the greater starres of Sagittarius fall in the hinde quarters of the horse, while Altair, Tarazed and Alschain from Aquilla do fall on its cheste…thus is astrologie and astronomie carefullie and exactly married and measured in a scientific reconstruction of the heavens which shews that the ancients understode all which today the lerned know to be factes.”
2. R S Loomis - Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, John Rhys – The Hibbert Lectures.
3. The Prologue to The Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth
4. A Brut is a Welsh word for a history, or chronicle, of Britain starting with the legendary founder Brutus, who had given his name to the island, and then named the island for himself and ending with the death of King Arthur (following Geoffrey) - "Brut" becoming "Britannia" in Latin. It was used to describe the two chronicles of Wace and Layaman, the latter the first version of Geoffrey’s work in early Middle English, and the Welsh Bruts such as Brut y Brenhinedd (the Chronicle of the Kings) and Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes).
5. The term 'Galfridian' is from the Latin name of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridus Monemutensis). Literature which is considered Galfridian, or post-Galfridian, written after Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136. Pre-Galfridian literature is pre-Geoffrey and therefore considered to be free of his influence.
6. 573 - Gwenddolew ap Ceidio, King of Caer-Guendoleu died at Battle of Arfderydd (Ann Cam). Arderydd / Armterid / Atterith = modern Arthuret, near Longtown in Cumbria.
7. D.D.R. Owen suggested that that the French name Gringolet derived from either the Welsh gwyn calet ("white-hardy"), or ceincaled ("handsome-hardy").
8. Rachel Bromwich, The Character of the Early Welsh Tradition, , p127 n 3, in Studies in Early British History, 1959, N K Chadwick et al.
9. Rachel Bromwich, Trioeddd Ynys Prydein, 3rd Edition, UWP, 2006
10. Bromwich states that there is confusion over the name of this horse and its owner which differs in various manuscripts. The Black Book of Carmarthen version gives it as Kein Caled march Gwalchmai =  Hard Back(-ed) horse of Gwalchmai. This is the original of Gringolet, Gawain’s horse in the Romances as we have seen introduced by Chretein in his tale Eric and Enide.
11. "the ninth wave": in Celtic myth, particularly Irish myth, the ninth wave is a symbolic boundary between this world and the Otherworld.
12. John Koch - The Celtic Lands, p.267, 1996
13. John Rhys – Studies in the Arthurian Legend.
14. Rachel Bromwich, The Character of the Early Welsh Tradition, p127 n 3, in Studies in Early British History, 1959, N K Chadwick et al.

* * *

Tuesday 12 August 2008

The Green Knight's Chapel

Lud's Church II

It is notoriously difficult to positively identify geographical sites from Arthurian literature: there are allusions in the landscape from Cornwall to Scotland; but one site that does seem to fit is Lud’s Church as the location of the Green Chapel from the late 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight
Gawain is King Arthur's nephew and a Knight of the Round Table who appears early in the development of the Arthurian legend. Gawain is a major character in the Arthurian section of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, where he is a superior warrior and potential heir to the throne until he is tragically struck down by Mordred's forces.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a late 14th-century verse romance, 2,530 lines long surviving in only one manuscript, written by an anonymous author usually referred to as the Pearl-Poet, (or the Gawain poet) because it is found in the same manuscript as other works Patience, Cleanness, and Pearl. Another unattached poem, St. Erkenwald, may also be by the same poet. The author was a well read man and he’s moral consciousness of sin, guilt, penance, and forgiveness suggest he was probably a cleric, possibly a monk from nearby Dieulacres Abbey, just North of Leek; the dialect suggests a North Staffordshire location.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features the beheading game, which became popular in French Arthurian literature around the time of Chretien's Perceval and a similar version features in Livre de Caradoc, but the tale has its roots in much earlier Irish tale Bricriu's Feast. The poem also has elements of the chastity test which featured in the tradition of Arthurian literature in tales such as Robert Biket’s Lai du Cor (Lay of the Horn, ca. 1250-1300). Another, later version of the tale is The Boy and the Mantle, in which a magical item is brought to the Arthur’s court which can only be used by a woman who is faithful to her husband.

Bricriu's Feast appears in early Irish Knights of the Red Branch literature, part of the Ulster Cycle, and has been dated to the early 8th Century, by far outdating any French grail literature so we can be certain the beheading theme has its roots firmly in Celtic mythology.

In brief Bricriu’s Feast is a series of episodes describing various tests of valour which the three bravest warriors, Cu Chulainn, Conall and Loegaire, have to undergo to determine who is most worthy to receive the Champions portion at a feast prepared by Briciu of the Poison tongue:

Cu Chulainn, Conall and Loegaire were the most courageous fighters in Ireland so to decide which of these was the greatest and who would take the Champion's Portion at Bricriu's Feast. To determine who was the greatest warrior a giant named Uath, termed a Bachlach, challenged them into a beheading game. Each warrior in turn would be allowed to behead the giant, but face his axe the next day. Conall and Loegaire did not accept this challenge but Cú Chulainn did and beheaded the giant. The giant stood up and retrieved his head and left. The next day, the giant returned with his axe and demanded that Cú Chulainn kept to his word. Cú Chulainn placed his head on the chopping block but twice the Bachlach could not behead because his neck was too short and the chopping block too small. On the third attempt he swung his axe but brought it down on Cú Chulainn’s neck but blunt side down. He declared Cú Chulainn was the bravest of the warriors then disappeared. The bachlach turns into Cu Roi in disguise who had come to fulfil his promise to Cú Chulainn [1]

Cu Roi appears in several Irish Tales as a semi-supernatural figure, scorcer and shapeshifter, most frequently in the guise of a giant or herdsman. He helped the Ulstermen on a raid of the Underworld.

The beheading game would later reappear in the tale of the Arthurian legend as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and has many similarities with Bricriu’s Feast and Morgan le Fay, the scorcer, is substituted in the English tale in place of Cu Roi.

The poem is set in the days of King Arthur at the New Year's feast at Camelot:

The feast is interrupted by a huge green knight who challenges any member of the court to deal him a blow that is to be returned at his home, the Green Chapel, twelve months later. Sir Gawain beheads the knight, who picking up his head reminds Gawain of their agreement and leaves. At Michaelmas, Gawain sets off for the Green Chapel. He journeys through North Wales, through the Wirral to the North Midlands. On Christmas Eve, he is invited by Sir Bertilak to stay at his castle which is near the Green Chapel. Sir Bertilak and Gawain agree to tell each other each evening what they have gained during the day. Sir Bertilak goes hunting and Gawain has to resist the temptations of the seductive Lady Bertilak. On the third day, Bertilak has only managed to catch a fox while hunting, so gives Gawain the pelt. Gawain does not present the lady's gift, a magic green girdle which makes him invulnerable. On New Year’s day, Gawain rides to the chapel to meet the green knight who takes two swings with the axe but only nicks Gawain. On the third swing he cannot cut off Gawain's head because of the magic girdle. The knight reveals to him that he is Sir Bertilak and that the whole episode was planned by Morgan le Fay.

The tale gives graphic detail of the butchering of a deer caught while out hunting. The poem also contains pagan elements with reference to the annual cycle of death and rebirth and the three attempted axe cuts may be referring to the triple death associated with merlin or druids, the Celtic obsession for the number three.

The Green Chapel has been identified as Lud’s Church because of the poet’s use of dialect words and rare topographical terms used in the poem appear in place-names all very local to the Roaches and this area of the Staffordshire Moorlands [2]There is further evidence in the poem:

…..Then the lord quoth, laughing, "Now must ye needs stay, for I will show you your goal, the Green Chapel, ere your term be at an end, have ye no fear! But ye can take your ease, friend, in your bed, till the fourth day, and go forth on the first of the year and come to that place at mid-morn to do as ye will. Dwell here till New Year's Day, and then rise and set forth, and ye shall be set in the way; 'tis not two miles hence.

Then the knight spurred Gringalet, and rode adown the path close in by a bank beside a grove. So he rode through the rough thicket, right into the dale, and there he halted, for it seemed him wild enough. No sign of a chapel could he see, but high and burnt banks on either side and rough rugged crags with great stones above…..

………Then he drew in his horse and looked around to seek the chapel, but he saw none and thought it strange. Then he saw as it were a mound on a level space of land by a bank beside the stream where it ran swiftly, the water bubbled within as if boiling. The knight turned his steed to the mound, and lighted down and tied the rein to the branch of a linden; and he turned to the mound and walked round it, questioning with himself what it might be. It had a hole at the end and at either side, and was overgrown with clumps of grass, and it was hollow within as an old cave or the crevice of a crag; he knew not what it might be……” [3]

High banks on either side:
the valley of the Black Brook between the north side of Back Forest ridge and Gradbach Hill,

Rough rugged crags with great stones above:
this fits the general location of the area, the Roaches perfectly,

a bank beside the stream where it ran swiftly, the water bubbled within as if boiling:
The confluence of the River Dane and the Black Brook runs swiftly and appear to bubble over rocks,

The mound:
Lud’s Church is on the spur of the hill, not easily seen amongst the vegetation but appearing as a mound from the path

had a hole at the end and at either side:
Lud’s Church has openings at both ends,

was overgrown with clumps of grass:
Lud’s Church is overgrown with clumps of grass and vegetation clinging to its rocky sides,

it was hollow within as an old cave or the crevice of a crag:
Lud’s Church is hollow inside like a cave or the crevice of a crag and is in fact marked on OS maps as a cave,

'tis not two miles:
Swythamley Hall is less than two miles from Lud’s Church.

Gwalchmei: the Hawk of MayIn Welsh Arthurian literature, Gawain is considered synonymous with the native champion Gwalchmei ap Gwyar, who appears in the Welsh Triads and in Culhwch and Olwen, an 11th century Arthurian tale but probably much earlier, making him along with Cai and Bedwyr amongst the earliest characters associated with Arthur. Here Gwalchmei, like Gawain, is Arthur's nephew and one of his chief warriors; Arthur sends him and five other champions with Culhwch to find Olwen.

It has been said that the the sun only shines directly into Lud's Church at midday on the summer solstice. But the poem refers to an event on New Years day, so it is referring to an event around the winter solstice, which would, however, appear directly opposite the summer alignment.
Gwalchmei may have originated as a Sun God of Celtic myth; in the later Romances Gawain is shown to have the extraordinary ability to grow stronger towards midday before waning in the afternoon; his might triples by noon, but fades as the sun sets. Gwalchmai has been translated as the Hawk of May.

Also contained in the early Arthurian story Culhwch and Olwen, is Gwynn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld, who abducted a maiden called Creiddylad after she eloped with Gwythr ap Greidawl, Gwyn's long-time rival. King Arthur settles the feud by arranging for the two to battle every May Day until Doomsday, Gwyn and Gwythr's fight, which began on May Day, represented the contest between summer and winter. This sounds very similar to Gwalchmei as the Hawk of May waxing and waning with the power of the sun and may demonstrate his origin in the pantheon of Celtic gods.

Knight’s Lowe
Knight’s Lowe in the grounds of Swythamley Hall has been suggested as a possible site of Gawain’s grave. However, William of Malmesbury said that the tomb of Walwen (Latinised version of Gawain) was discovered on the sea-shore, in a certain province of Wales called Rhos, which is understood to be that still known by the same name, in the county of Pembroke, where there is a district called in Welsh Castell Gwalchmai [4] and in English Walwyn's Castle.

At that time [1066-87] in the province of Wales known as Ros was found the tomb of Walwen [Gawain], who was the by no means degenerate nephew of Arthur through his sister. He ruled in that part of Britain which is still called Walweitha and was a warrior most famous for his courage; but he was driven from his rule by the brother and the nephew of Hengist, though he made them pay dearly for his exile. He shared deservedly in his uncle’s praise, because for several years he postponed the collapse of his tottering homeland.

However, the tomb of Arthur is nowhere to be found—that man whose second coming has been hymned in the dirges of old. Yet the sepulcher of Walwen…is fourteen feet long. It is said by some that Walwen’s body was cast from a shipwreck after he had been wounded by his enemies, while others say that he was murdered by his fellow citizens at a public feast. [5]

Walwyn's Castle was built within an Iron Age hillfort at the head of a long narrow valley running north for 3 miles from the Cleddau estuary, Rhos, in the modern day waterway of Milford Haven. Built on an inland promontory formed by the divergence of the valley, the roughly triangular site had steep slopes on two of its three sides and steep rampart on the third. It was later re-fortified by as a Norman motte and bailey.

In the Stanzas of the Graves a similar locality is indicated:

"The grave of Gwalchmai is in Pyton,
Where the ninth wave flows." [6]

Maybe Gawain was beheaded after all, Caxton, in his preface to Malory's Morte Darthur, writes:

"In the castle Dover, ye may see Gawaine's skull"

1. Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1936
2. A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, “Landscape and Geography" - R Elliott pp. 105–117, DS Brewer; 1997.
3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - prose by Jessie L. Weston, used for ease of reading.
4. Gwalchmai was the original name from Welsh tradition which appears in some of the earliest welsh literature such a s Culwch ac Olwen before the French romancers changed it to Gawain.
5. William of Malmesbury: De rebus gestis regum Anglorum. (Book 3, chapter 287) in Arthur’s Britain, E K Chambers.
6. Pyton is considered to be Perditon, or Perrydon, in South Wales.


Sunday 10 August 2008

A Mysterious Corner of Staffordshire


Lud’s Church can be found just beyond The Roaches, north of Leek in North Staffordshire in an area known as Back Forest. This sudden land upheaval is the start of the Pennines with open views across the Cheshire plain to the west. The natural cleft known as Lud's Church, or Ludchurch, is over 100 yards in length and over 20 yards high, created by a massive landslip in the hillside above the river Dane. This whole area of the Staffordshire Moorlands has a tale to tell.

Following the A53 to Buxton road, the Roaches and Hen Cloud dominate the landscape as you cross Blackshaw Moor leaving the North Staffordshire market town of Leek, The Queen of the Moorlands. With the early morning sun shining on these massive gritstone outcrops they look like something out of Monument Valley in Arizona. This a magnificent drive across high moorland following the line of an old Roman road to the spa town of Buxton, but today we are going to Lud’s Church which is tucked away  in Back Forestbehind the rock formations of The Roaches. During the summer you can park at Tittesworth Reservoir and jump on the bus to the Roaches as parking is limited.

Leek’s Double Sunset
Recorded as 'Lec' in the Domesday Book, Leek is a market town in a bend in the River Churnet. The double sunset must be one of Leek’s best kept secrets and a detailed account of the double sunset can be found in Dr. Robert Plot's book, 'The Natural History of Staffordshire', published in 1686 [1] Plot described how on midsummer's day the sun could be seen from a Leek churchyard to set behind a hill called the Cloud. It would then reappear and set again on the more distant horizon of the Cheshire plain. The churchyard contains two crosses; a 10th century Saxon cross and a Norse style 11th century cross. The double sunset even has a local beer named after it.

The Roaches
This superb escarpment of pink gritstone rises to a height of 1,657ft, named from the French 'Roche' (Rock) has magnificent views over Tittesworth Reservoir and the Cheshire plain. Geographically this area features on White Peak maps but this area of the Staffordshire Moorlands is geologically Dark Peak, with gritstone, heather and peat. This high ground from the Roaches, Ramshaw Rocks to Axe Edge, provides the watershed for many famous Peak District rivers, Dove, Hamps, Manifold, Churnet, Dane and the Wye all rise here. Alongside the road here past the Five Clouds outcrops there is a derelict cottage that was sold in July 2008 for £120,000 and that is without any services, land or planning permission! 

The Roaches was once part of the Swythamley Estate, owned by the Brocklehurst family, who established a private zoo here, from which Wallabies escaped (or released) in the 1930’s and a recent sighting near Hangingstone in 2007 indicates they have sirvived in the wild. Peregrine falcons have nested here for the first time in a hundred years. [2]

Hen Cloud
Hen Cloud at 1345ft high, is a solitary outlier from the Roaches , popular with climbers. The name may be derived from Herne Clud, Herne being the ancient Celtic hunter god, Cernunnos, lord of the woodlands, with Clud a Celtic word meaning 'rock'. He is found throughout Celtic lands and folklore as the guardian of the portal leading to the Otherworld.

As you walk up to the Roaches the first thing you come to is Rockhall Cottage, built into the overhanging rocks of the lower tier, a climbers' cottage rebuilt in memory of Don Whillans, a cult figure from the 1950s working-class rock climbing revolution. A legend says that, years before, this had been called Doxey Cottage which some say was named after the daughter of Bowyer of the Rocks, the highwayman and his wife Bess. Their daughter was rumoured to have been carried off by ‘strange men’ one day. Bess died, her heart broken. The ghost – the ‘singing woman of the Roaches’ who walks the ridge on dark nights – is said to be the spirit of her daughter. Some say Doxey pool was named after her.

Doxey Pool
Continuing up the roughly cut steps to the upper tier walking along the ridge you soon come to the dark, waters of bottomless Doxey Pool sitting on top of the Roaches, claimed to be higher than any other in the area. Doxey Pool is said to be home to the mermaid Jenny Greenteeth who lures travellers to a watery grave. In 1949, Mrs Florence Pettit visited this pool for an early morning dip with a friend, and saw:

‘a great thing rose up from the middle of the lake . . . 25 to 30 feet tall . . . and those eyes were extremely malevolent…..’

Water spirits are a common feature of the folklore of most pools and lakes and not far from here is the The mermaid of Black Mere on Morridge (see below).

Lud’s Church
After descending the main ridge to Roach End, cross the road then through the stile and continue along the permissive path along the Back Forest Ridge. Lud's Church is an huge natural chasm in the rock on the hillside above Gradbach, on the north side of the ridge, formed by a landslip which has let a cleft which is over 20 yards high in places and over 100 yards long, though in some places only a couple of yards wide. This chasm can be very muddy in wet weather.

The place has many myths and legends associated with it, most famously Gawain and the Green Knight, were it is said that here the hero of the Arthurian romance slew the Green Knight, symbolic of death, rebirth and fertility.

Fairies have also been associated with Lud’s Church;  “One lived in Thor's Cave, and a whole clan were to be found in the cavern beneath Ludchurch.” Lud’s Church has also associated with Robin Hood and his merry men.

A more recent, addition to the folklore of Lud's Church is that it was used as a refuge for the Luddite movement of the early 19th Century. Workers, upset by wage reductions and the use of unskilled workers, started to break into factories at night to destroy the new machinery that the employers were using. It is known that the Luddites were operating in this area at the time and were wanted criminals who if caught were often hanged.

The Lollards
The Lollards, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt, were critics of the established church. Founded by John Wycliffe, in the 1370s they quickly found themselves victims of persecution from the church and the monarchy. In the early 15th Century the Lollard’s were persecuted for their religious beliefs after Henry IV legitimised the burning of heretics. It has been suggested, that if not for Luddites, then Lud's Church may have been named after Walter de Lud-Auk, a 'Lollard', who was captured here at one of their meetings. His grand-daughter Alice de Lud-Auk, said the possess one of the most beautiful voices ever heard, used to sing at their meetings in Lud’s Church but was killed here from a stray gunshot after a scuffle with the authorities. At one time a white wooden statue known as 'Lady Lud' stood in a high rocky cleft above the chasm said to commemorate the death of Alice.

Lady Lud
Day trippers were charged a fee to visit Lud’s Church and hear Philip Brocklehurst’s legend of the Lady of Lud and see the figure of a lady clad in white nestling in the rocks of Lud’s Church and were led to believe it depicted Alice de Lud-Auk, the girl with the ‘unearthly voice’ who was shot and died here.

There is a reproduction painting of an old picture postcard in the dining room at nearby Gradbach Youth Hostel showing a strange statue perched on one of the walls of Lud's Church. It was noted after a visit to Lud's Church in the 1930s, there was what looked like the figurehead from the ship Swythamley fixed to the rock just inside the entrance, apparently placed there by Brocklehurst, the land owner from Sythamley Hall, around 1862, which looked very similar to the female in the Gradbach youth hostel painting.

The Back Forest Ridge

Situated on the Staffordshire side of the River Dane, Swythamley Hall stands in a fine park and was originally a medieval hunting lodge belonging to the nearby Abbey of Dieulacres. Swythamley has been identified as Hautdesert, the castle of the Green Knight of the classic medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and nearby Lud's Church as the knight's 'Green Chapel'. It is often suggested that the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a monk at Dieulacres Abbey.

In a patch of woodland to the north of Swythamley, just across the A54 road, lies Cleulow Cross, a 9th century cross shaft thought to be of Scandinavian craftsmanship. Nothing is known of its origin or purpose, but it may have been a boundary marker. Also in the grounds is Knight’s Lowe bearing another old cross, possibly marking an old burial mound.

Dieulacres Abbey
Dieulacres Abbey was a Cistercian monastery established by Ranulf, Earl of Chester at Poulton in Cheshire. It moved to the present site in the valley of the river Churnet, to the north-west of Leek in Staffordshire in 1214, possibly in part as a result from raids at the former site by the Welsh.

By the 14th century, Dieulacres Abbey had become a great landowner in Staffordshire and often behaved as such. In the later Middle Ages the Abbot maintained armed bands ‘desiring to perpetrate maintenance in his marshes and oppress the people’. In 1380 it was claimed that a group had beheaded John de Warton at Leek at the command of Abbot William, and by the beginning of Henry I’s reign (1100-1135), the county was reportedly in a disturbed state, with bands, including monks from Dieulacres, stealing and breaking the peace. Such a reputation must have caused numbers to fall: in 1377 there were just seven monks and at the time of the Dissolution there were only thirteen. Now derelict the few visible remains of the Abbey have been incorported into the buildings at Abbey Farm,

Hanging stone
The Hanging Stone sits on the end of the Back Forest ridge above Swythamley bearing a plaque to Colonel Brocklehurst, who was killed in Burma in 1942. The Brocklehurst's certainly had much influence on this area, one of them even accompanied Shackleton to the Antarctic.

Hanging stone marks the end of the ridge running from Hen Cloud and offers a vista from Morrdige to Alderley Edge. (left)

The Mermaid of Morridge
Leaving Leek on the A53, turn right at the Moss Rose pub (now closed) and follow the road to Morridge, there is The Black Mere, also known as the BlakeMere or the Mermaid's Pool, nearby is a suitably named pub. The Black Mere is very similar to Doxey Pool, being another bottomless dark pool on the moors between Buxton and Leek, at a similar elevation and part of the high ground extending south from Axe Edge. Merryton Low is the highest point on Morridge at 1,604 feet. There are excellent views from here and superb views are also gained at the trig point on Royledge across the Roaches to the Cheshire plain and Alderley Edge.

It is said that cattle refused to drink the waters of the Black Mere, fish could not live there and birds never flew nearby. Black Mere’s mermaid was supposed, like the siren, rose from its depths at midnight and lured the young to their deaths. Legend say that on Easter Eve, a young man who sees the mermaid will be granted riches for one year. But he will be so infatuated with her beauty that he will be drawn to throw himself into the pool to be with her forever.

Alderley Edge
Alderley Edge is about 5 miles to the northwest of Macclesfield, just south east of Wilmslow, situated at the base of a steep sandstone ridge known as The Edge overlooking the Cheshire Plain. Copper and lead mining are known to have taken place in the past at Alderley Edge in the Bronze Age and Roman times and continued from the 1690s to the 1920s. Several ancient gold bars have been found at Alderley Edge.

There are several local legends, the most famous being The Iron Gates, the exact location is unknown, but they are supposed to lie somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well. There are several versions of this legend but a letter published in the Manchester Mail in 1805 from a reader claiming to be the "Perambulator" stated that he knew the location of the Iron Gates:

Tradition says that a farmer from Mobberley was taking a milk white horse to sell at the market in Macclesfield. Whilst walking along the Edge, he reached a spot known locally as "Thieves Hole." Suddenly an old man clad in a grey and flowing garment stopped him. The old man offered the farmer a sum of money for his horse but the farmer refused, saying he could get a better price at the market. The old man told the farmer that he would be at this spot again that evening when the farmer returned, not having found a purchaser for the horse. The farmer failed to sell the horse and, cursing his luck, made the journey back home along the Edge. At the same point, the old man appeared again, offering the farmer the money, which this time was accepted. The old man told the farmer to follow him with the horse. As they approached an area just past Stormy Point, the old man banged on the ground with his stick and, to the farmer’s shock, the rock opened up to reveal a set of Iron Gates. The old man beckoned the farmer to follow him through the gates into a large cavern. In the cavern, the farmer saw countless men and white horses, all asleep. The old man explained that all these sleeping warriors were ready to awake and fight should England fall into danger. The farmer was shown back to the gates and stepped outside back onto the path. Immediately the gates slammed shut and the rock face returned to its previous state.”

Further variations say that the Wizard was Merlin and the sleeping men were King Arthur and his knights. There is a restaurant on The Edge aptly named "The Wizard Inn".

Lud's Church series is Copyright © 2008-2009 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Dr. Plot and the Amazing Double Sunset.
2. For up to date information visit the Roaches website
3. Roaches Tea Rooms
4. Hen Cloud Cottage
5. Doug Pickford, Staffordshire: Its Magic and Mystery, Sigma Leisure, 1994.

* * *

I have walked across this landscape in North Staffordshire many times and find the legendary atmosphere around the Roaches totally captivating.

But I'm not convinced that Lud's Church is named after Luddites or Lollards.

In the following pages I propose to totally reject the suggestion that Lud’s Church is named after The Luddites, a group of modern day anti-technologists, who followed the teachings of the so called Ned Ludd, an opponent of technology in all its forms, and that it is named after an ancient cult from the dawn of time.