Tuesday 3 November 2015

Gawain and St Winefride's Well

In the 14th century Middle English alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur's best knight sets out on his journey for the Green Knight's Chapel on the day after All Saint's Day, the 2nd November. The poem is generally considered a masterpiece of English Medieval literature.

The tale is written in a north-west Staffordshire dialogue, providing a strong argument for the author having been a monk at Dieulacres Abbey just north of Leek. For this reason Luds Church in the Staffordshire Moorlands has long been a favoured location for the Green Knight's Chapel.

Gawain's adventure starts at Christmastide at Camelot, presumably somewhere in Wales, where the best men of the kingdom, the brotherhood of the Round Table, are feasting, a celebration that had continued for fifteen days. On the eve of New Year's day all fell quiet with Arthur unable to eat until he heard the tale of some marvel, as was his custom.

Then an awesome being burst through the hall doors, dressed entirely in green, the same colour as his skin and even his horse. In one hand he held a holly twig, “that is greenest when the groves are bare”, and in the other he held a great axe of green steel and beaten gold.

This Green Knight requested a game for Christmas; any knight may strike a blow on him if he will grant the Green Knight the boon of returning the blow in twelve-month and a day. None of the knights would accept the challenge until Arthur steps up, then Gawain jumps in and agrees to strike a blow on the Green Knight.

Gawain swings his axe and beheads the Green Knight who promptly picks up his head and remounts his steed, and holding his head in his hand charges Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel on New Years day next for the return blow. Then with a wild rush flew out of the hall with sparks flying from his steed's hooves. Arthur and Gawain laughed at that green man but this was truly a marvel among men.

The year soon passes until the time of the Michelmas moon (Hunter's moon) when Gawain thinks of the voyage ahead of him and departing to find the Green Chapel.

Arthur is holding a feast on All-Hallows day (1st November). Yet Gawain lingers in court until the day after before setting out to reach the Green Chapel. On 2nd November Gawain sets off for the realm of Logres on his horse Gringolet. He travels north, then east along the North Wales coast, keeping all the isles of Anglesey on his left side, and fared over the fords by the forelands, to Holy Hede, until he arrived at the wilderness of the Wirral.

On crossing the Dee Gawain appears to have embarked on an Otherworld journey, wandering until Christmas Eve, travelling through many strange, supernatural landscapes, some vividly described, when he arrives at a weird, wild forest where the hazel and hawthorn are entwined together. He finally comes to a clearing through the oaks and sees a pinnacled castle. This is the home of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert where Gawain stays for three days. Bertilak tells Gawain that the Green Chapel is but two miles distant.

Beeston Castle (copyright English Heritage)
Perched on a rocky sandstone crag 350 feet above the Cheshire Plain, just east of Chester, is Beeston Castle, built in the early 13th century by Ranulf, 6th Earl of Chester shortly after his return from the Crusades. The castle may have been the inspiration behind the castle of Sir Bertilak in the tale of the Green Knight.

Gawain visits the Green Chapel on New Years day and stretches his neck to take the blow from the Green Knight.  He feigns the first two blows but on the third the axe merely nicks him on the neck. At the end of the poem it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak.

Stations of the Sun
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain's ordeal is a journey through the solar calendar. In Malory, Gawain is a sun god; his power increases to its height at midday then drops off as the day goes on. In can be no mere coincidence that Gawain's adventure starts at the winter solstice, when the sun is at is weakest, before standing still on the horizon for three days, before slowly increasing in strength, reaching it maximum at the summer solstice in June.

And it is surely beyond further coincidence that Gawain sets off on his adventure to the Green Chapel at the time of Hallowtide (Hallowmas) encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Saints' Eve (Hallowe'en), All Saints' Day (All Hallows') and All Souls' Day from 31st October to 2nd November.

Yet the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is full of pagan motifs carefully given a Christianised mix. Even Gawain's shield bears the pentangle, a talisman protective of the supernatural.

However, many will argue that today the modern Hallowe'en, commencing on the eve of All Hallows Day, is a Christianised celebration of the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year.

Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November; it is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice Samhain is on of the so-called Cross Quarter days of the solar year.

The Beheading Game
One of the few geographical places that can be positively identified in the poem is Holywell in Flintshire, named Holy Hede in the text, which recalls the story of Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh), patron Saint of Wales.

The legend of St. Winefride claims that she was beheaded in the mid-7th century by a local nobleman named Caradoc for denying him her virtue. Her head rolled downhill, and where it stopped, a spring erupted. The Saint herself was miraculously restored to life by her uncle St. Beuno, who placed his niece’s severed head back on to her shoulders and by his prayers raised her to life again. A white scar is said to have encircled the virgin’s neck for the rest of her life. Winefride lived for a further twenty two years as abbess of Gwytherin and has been venerated as a Saint ever since the moment of her death.

After her death Winifred was interred at her abbey at Gwytherin. In 1138 her relics were translated to Shrewsbury to form the basis of an elaborate shrine in the new Abbey. On her way to Shrewsbury Winifred's body was laid to rest overnight at Woolston near Oswestry in Shropshire. Here another spring is said to have sprang up out of the ground. The water is claimed to have healing powers and is today covered by a 15th-century half-timbered cottage.

St Winefride's Well, Holywell
The shrine at Holywell was first mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in 1115; nowhere else in Britain has such a long, unbroken tradition of public pilgrimage survived, even Royalty visited the site. Before leaving on Crusade Richard I visited the site to pray for success and Henry V made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving following his victory at Agincourt in 1415.

In 1862 the holy well was enclosed with a new entrance building and a gatehouse either side of the late 15th Century shrine. In 1985 the wall was removed and the gatehouse converted to a chapel. Here a stained glass window by the entrance doorway shows St Winefride with the scar on her neck.

Stained glass at St. Winefride's Well, Holywell
showing the scar on her neck
Both “Lives” of St Winefride stress the scars that she bore to the end of her life and claim that people came to visit the maiden who had returned to life, and to see the scars that witnessed her restoration. Pictures and statues of her, in accordance with the legend traditionally bear this white scar around her neck showing where her head had been reattached by St Beuno.

The Roman Martyrology lists Winefride under 2nd November commemorating the day of her death. However, today St Winefride’s Day is celebrated on 3rd November as All Souls' Day falls on 2nd November. A second festival is celebrated at Holywell on 22nd June which commemorates her translation.

There are a remarkable number of similarities between the tales of Gawain and Winefride; Gawain starts off on his journey to find the Green Knight's Chapel the day after All Saints day, the 2nd November, otherwise known as All Souls day. He must have arrived at Holy Hede, the place of Winefride's beheading, at the time of her feast.

Winefride is depicted with a scar on her neck; it is precisely the same scar that the Green Knight cuts into Gawain’s neck with his axe. Winefride's story seems curiously tied to Celtic tales of the Beheading Game.

A knight named Caradoc features in the First Continuation of Chretien's Story of the Graal. This is clearly an intrusion into the text with the story heavily reliant on Celtic tradition featuring another version of the beheading game. The knight who beheaded Winefride was also named Caradoc.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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