Monday 18 December 2017

Dover Castle: Gawain's Skull

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 9 

“And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawaine yielded up the spirit; and then the king let inter him in a chapel within Dover Castle; and there yet all men may see the skull of him, and the same wound is seen that Sir Launcelot gave him in battle.”  [Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Book  XXI, Chp 2]

The Foremost Knight
As Gwalchmai (Welsh = 'Hawk of May', or more probably 'Hawk of the Plains') along with Cei and Bedwyr, he is one of Arthur's earliest companions, in later Arthurian romance he is known as Sir Gawain, the foremost of the Knights of the Round Table.

In Culhwch and Olwen, the earliest Arthurian tale, Culhwch invokes Gwalchmei son of Gwyar “because he never came home without the quest he had gone to seek. He was the best of walkers and the best of riders. He was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son, and his first cousin.”

To Geoffrey of Monmouth he is Gualguanus, son of Lot of Lothian, son of Arthur's sister Anna, in French Arthurian Romance he is known as Gauvin, and in English he is the hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the only knight of the Round Table to accept the Green Knight's challenge in the beheading contest.

Around 1470 Thomas Malory completed his great summation of the Arthurian legend retelling the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur to his death. Malory's opus was printed by William Caxton in 1485 and named  Le Morte d'Arthur, the title taken from the last book of Malory's work.

In Caxton's preface he argues for the existence of Arthur in citing several evidences; his sepulture in the monastery of Glastonbury; in the abbey of Westminster, at Saint Edward’s shrine, the print of his seal in red wax; at Winchester, the Round Table; in the castle of Dover is Cradok’s mantle and Gawain’s skull.

The Scalacronica, written by Thomas Grey of Heaton, a soldier in the Anglo-Scottish wars in the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, imprisoned by the Scots in Edinburgh Castle after being captured in an ambush in October 1355, is a chronicle documenting the history of Britain from 1066 to 1363. In his chronicle, one of the few early chronicles written by a layman, Grey tells us that Cradock's chastity testing mantle could be seen at Glastonbury. Grey emphasises the head wound suffered by Gawain, which ultimately causes his death at Dover, is inflicted fighting the Roman Emperor and Lancelot is not implicated in his death.

A century before Malory, Raimon de Perillos, left an account of a journey he took from Avignon to Dublin at the end of the 14th century, and tells us that the mantle and Gawain's skull could both be viewed in Dover, as confirmed by Malory.

Malory also describes Gawain's burial at Dover, the hero is interred in a chapel at the castle, and he claims that the skull still showed evidence of the head wound. The medieval castle at Dover has two chapels, no one is sure in which Gawain is supposed to be buried, although some favour the lower chapel. All we can say with any certainty is that from Caxton's 'Preface' we can only assume a skull was on display at Dover castle, and had been for over a century, that in his day was popularly believed to be that of Gawain.

Dover Castle
Dover Castle
Dover has an impressive medieval Castle, built on a chalk hill, typical of the south-east coast of England. The hill has been reconfigured many times over the centuries as witnessed by the many earthworks, ditches and mounds,  but the castle was founded in the 12th century, most of that seen today being built during the reign of Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet Kings of England. The castle is the largest in the country and, owing to its strategically significant defensive position, known as “Key to England”.

The Castle towers over Dover Harbour on the Eastern Hights, overlooking the sea and protecting England's southeastern coast. Defensive structures have been built on this hill since before the time of the Romans. It is believed that the castle’s massive ramparts and ditches may have originated in an Iron Age hillfort. At the centre, on a Bronze Age mound, are the Roman lighthouse and Anglo-Saxon church.

The Roman lighthouse, or Pharos, has been dated to around 46-50 AD, being constructed shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, making the lighthouse the oldest building in England. A second Roman lighthouse stood at Bredenstone (after the lost village of Braddon) on the Western Heights but little remains today. The two lighthouses would have stood at 80ft high with fire beacons on top acting as navigational aids for ships coming from Gaul.

St Mary-in-Castro and Roman lighthouse
In the 2nd century the Romans built a large fort in the valley below the heights called Portus Dubris, or Dubrae, which eventually became the Port of Dover. The port was used by the Classis Britannica, the Roman fleet in British waters, to guard the harbour and the crossing from Gaul. In the early 3rd century the fort was abandoned and the Classis Britannica left Dover never to return. Later that century, in response to the ever increasing Saxon raids, the Romans returned to construct a series of coastal defences and a new “Fort of the Saxon Shore” constructed at the port around 270 AD.

The Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro (Latin 'in castra') stands right beside the Pharos which was used as the church bell-tower. Eadbald of Kent is recorded as building a church at Dover 'within the castle' in the 7th century. However, the site of Eadbald's church is uncertain; historians debate whether this refers to within the Saxon burh on the Eastern Heights, or within the ruins of old Roman fortifications in the valley below. Yet, the large, late-Saxon cemetery around the present church within the castle is suggestive of the existence of an earlier church constructed around 600 AD. The present Saxon church was built on the Eastern Heights around 1,000 AD, possibly on the foundations of the earlier church.

During the 18th century a network of tunnels was constructed under the castle grounds to house the large number of troops barracked at Dover to defend against a feared Napoleonic invasion. In the First World War the castle was used as a Naval signal station to control the harbour. In the Second World War the Napoleonic tunnels were brought back into use as a Naval command centre controlling operations in the Channel. In the 1940s the tunnels were extended to serve as both a hospital and an operational headquarters in preparation for the 1944 invasion of Europe.

Malory's Tale
In Malory, Gawain's brothers Gaheris and Gareth are slain when Guinevere is rescued from the stake, unwittingly by Lancelot, for which reason Gawain vows vengeance on Lancelot, thus beginning the final downfall of the Round Table. Gawain persuades King Arthur to declare war on Lancelot and they pursue him across the Channel.

Arthur leaves England and the Queen in the care of Sir Mordred. Lancelot's barons advise him to defend his lands against Arthur, but he first tries to make a peace treaty. Arthur is inclined to agree, but Gawain still refuses, so Arthur's forces lay siege to the city of Benewick. Gawain challenges Lancelot to one-on-one combat, and in the battle, Lancelot wounds Gawain, who then spends three weeks recovering and then challenges Lancelot all over again. And again, Lancelot wounds Gawain severely but refuses to kill him at such a disadvantage.

While Arthur is in France pursuing Lancelot, Mordred has circulated false letters claiming that Arthur is dead, declaring himself the King of England. Mordred then attempts to marry Guinevere, but she flees and locks herself in the Tower of London. Arthur receives word of Mordred's treachery, and sails to England. Upon their return, Arthur's armies immediately encounter the rebellious forces of Mordred at Dover.

In the battle, the head wound Gawain received at Lancelot's hands at Benewick, has not healed and worsens. After burying his dead soldiers, Arthur finds Gawain in a great boat, lying more than half dead. Before his death, Gawain writes a letter to Lancelot pleading for forgiveness and to pray at his tomb, and to come to Arthur's aid. Gawain is buried in the castle chapel, where his skull, displaying the head wound, was kept for many years.

Arthur's men push Mordred's army back to Salisbury Plain, where the two armies agree to meet in battle on the Monday after Trinity Sunday. The night before the battle, Arthur dreams that he's tied to a wheel that plunges into black water full of serpents and beasts. Gawain appears to Arthur and tells him that he will die the next day if he engages in battle with Mordred.

Malory's source for his last two books is the English Stanzaic Morte Arthure, itself a condensation of the French prose romance La Mort Artu. The Romances differ slightly in the account of the wound that kills Gawain but essentially they are following the Brut tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth with Mordred usurping the throne while Arthur is on campaign in Europe, although both Wace and Geoffrey state that Arthur landed at Richborough on his return to Britain.

The Didot Perceval has Arthur land in Britain without naming the shore. Gawain attempts to disembark with twenty thousand men. Both sides throw pikes, stones, lances, and darts against the other. Gwawain’s helmet is not laced on and a Saxon, one of Mordred’s men, strikes him a blow to the head with an oar and kills him. All the twenty thousand men perish, including Bedwyr and Kay (Cei).

The English Stanzaic Morte Arthur has Gawain fight two single combats with Lancelot, in the second of which he receives the fatal head wound. Some time following the battle with Lancelot, King Arthur hears of Mordred’s rebellion and sets sail for Britain. Arthur and his men land at Dover where Mordred and his army await him. Gawain begins to fight against Mordred’s forces, but without a helmet on his head. As in the Didot Perceval, Gawain is stuck on the head with an oar. Here the handle of the oar hits the old wound from the battle with Lancelot, and Gawain dies. Gawain is buried in the choir of the chapel in a nearby castle. In the Le Morte d'Arthur Malory essentially follows the same tale, except he doesn't mention the oar stroke.

Gawain's Grave
Welsh tradition claims a different location altogether for the grave of Gwalchmai (Gawain). The 10th century Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves) records the site of his grave such:

“The grave of Gwalchmai in Peryddon,
as a disgrace to men,
In Llanbadarn – the grave of Cynon.”
- [John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015]

The location of Perrydon has caused much debate as it is the name of several rivers; first and foremost Perrydon may have been an alternative name for that great Welsh river the Dee. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions a 'fluvium Perironis' which is rendered as Afon Perrydon in early Welsh translations. The early 12th century Book of Llandaf references a charter which locates Aber Periron in the area of Rockfield near Monmouth, Geoffrey's home town, where the stream known as Nant Gwern joins the Monnow. This is probably the same Aber Peryddon recorded in the 10th century prophesy Armes Prydain, which was crossed on the journey into Wales.

St Govan's Chapel
Peryddon may also have been an early name for the stream at Sandyhaven Pill in Rhos, Pembrokeshire which runs down from Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn's Castle) into the estuary at Milford Haven. William of Malmesbury confirms that his grave was discovered in Ros in the late 11th century:

“At that time [1087], in a province of Wales called Ros [Rhos] was found the sepulchre of Walwin, the noble nephew of Arthur.....He deservedly shared, with his uncle, the praise of retarding, for many years, the calamity of his failing country. The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come. But the tomb of the other [i.e. Walwin], as I have suggested was found in the time of King William, on the sea coast, fourteen feet long....” - [John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015]

Walwin is the Latin rendering of Gwalchmai. Rhos in Pembrokeshire is probably a reference to St. Govan's Chapel with whom Gawain is often confused. Saint Govan was a 6th century hermit who lived in a fissure on the side of a cliff near Bosherston, just along on the Pembrokeshire coast from Milford Haven.

Wherever Gawain was buried, a skull believed to be his was on display at Dover Castle for over a hundred years. Today the skull has long gone and no one seems to know of its current whereabouts.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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  1. Did you read what William Cobbett wrote about Dover, and the whole nexus of fortifications on the south coast?

    I'd recommend the whole relevant sections of Rural Rides as I largely agree with their analysis of why the fortifications were added to in the 19th century, against an invasion that never took place.

    1. Thanks for the link.
      Cobbett's comments are interesting:
      “This is, perhaps, the only set of fortifications in the world ever famed for mere hiding. There is no appearance of any intention to annoy an enemy. It is a parcel of holes made in a hill, to hide Englishmen from Frenchmen.”
      I enjoyed the photos on your Dry-Valleys website.
      Best wishes,


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