Category Archives: Gawain and the Green Knight

In search of King Arthur in sand-swept Pennard


Image of Pennard Castle

The lonely, sand swept walls of Pennard Castle, Glamorganshire, here showing the twin-towered gatehouse.

To come from the seas,      across sandy shoals,

By boat on the waves     to beach at Pennard

Lets all see a castle     so grand and serene

That folk are at once     all won over with joy!

When I was a knight     in these lands long ago

I came to this place     so proud on my horse

And jousted with jollity     in jaunts with my friends

In front of King Arthur,     the fairest of all,

And lovely Waynor     with her wondrous grey eyes.

With Sir Bors and Sir Lucan,     boystrous and bold,

And also Sir Lancelot     that most skilful at tourney,

I fought in the field     with my lady’s sleeve

As a token of truth     in telling of my love.

The banners all blue     and those others so bright

Did fly in the wind      afloat and a-flutter

With silks all soft blowing     which I myself saw.

By those walls on those cliffs     all those knights made a clatter

As hoof and hard armour     all hammered at once

And cheers rose in chanting     with every man’s challenge

Until at the close     when a champion was called.

But those days are now done,     they have drawn to a close,

Which once bore brave witness     to chivalry wondrous;

The winds which blew banners     have now brought just sand

And that castle I knew     has all crumbled and cracked.

Where Arthur watched from,     those walls are all wracked

That once saw that fighting     in those long-off days

And the land and the village     and all those loyal folk

Have all dwindled and gone     as the sand drowned them all in

its way.

We look upon that fort

So strong in Arthur’s day;

It is sadly now but nought

And his knights all gone away.


About Pennard Castle…

Pennard Castle on the Gower Peninsula is a small stone castle, built on a former ring work castle. It is lightly-built but in a commanding site which safe-guarded access to the land below it, in particular the valley of the Pennard Pill which advances inland from the beach. According to Cathcart-King, it is first mentioned in 1322; the remains today comprise the remnants of a twin-towered gatehouse, a small round mural tower, a larger square tower, a section of wall and the foundations of the great hall. The life of the castle was short, succumbing to the incursion of sand dunes in the fourteenth century which also led to the decline and then desertion of the neighbouring village. In his evocative, if somewhat inaccurate description of the ruins (and their cause) in the 1920s, CWC Oman states, with a somewhat laconic air, “It is a melancholy site, half filled with drifting sand; for though it stands on a rock, the wind has piled it deep with fine detritus from the neighbouring golf links – where may be seen the only signs of life in this rather depressing corner of the peninsula”. 

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Image of King Arthur

Support a new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death)

Arthurians and others with an interest – this blog is written in the style of the fourteenth century alliterative poets.

I am currently crowdfunding my second book through Unbound, in this case the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), written by an unknown hand in c.1400.

If you would like to pledge for your own limited edition copy, with your own name in the back as a supporter, please click here.


More images of Pennard Castle…


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King Arthur comes alive with all of his knights!


Image of King Arthur and his knights

The knights of King Arthur from a fifteenth century manuscript – the Alliterative Morte Arthure captures the speed and thinking of the fourteenth century in one fabulous poetic creation.

Of all of the heroes of the British isles

There is none better known than noble King Arthur

Yet despite his renown and that of his Round Table

Most romances it seems were not written here.

Yet there is one which was worked up near Lincoln

That told of his torments when tackled by Rome;

Of his battle to take on Sir Lucius alone

To reclaim his lands that this man also claimed.

King Arthur’s Death is how many do know it,

A salutary tale of soldierly strength;

A poem that plucks great strings of pure valour,

A song for all folk who seek ancient heroes!

It speaks of his journey, of crossing great seas

To face down that Emperor and force him away;

It tells of the battles between boisterous knights

As the king crossed the continent to fight with Sir Lucius.

Yet this is no romance with ladies and courtiers,

This is no story of delicate deeds;

It tells of how kings in long distant times

Had to rally their leaders in loyal command.

Sir Lot and Sir Lancelot put others to flight;

Sir Cador of Cornwall crashes through knights;

Sir Gawain the mighty against his great foes,

Arthur’s great advocate advancing to fame!

But battles abroad cast a cautionary note

And for Arthur he shuddered for all his arms used;

Sir Mordred at home assumed that great kingdom

So Arthur again had to win back his lands.

He does so of course but at great kingly cost:

His once great Round Table was brought to low ruin;

His most loyal knights were all lost in the fight

And so with his sword that king sought his great foe

Alone.

He battled with Mordred

Until he heard him moan;

He killed that man stone dead

But so too his life was gone.


Pledge for this brand new book – and have your name in the back as a supporter!

This post celebrates a new translation I am working on of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), a magnificent poem of the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century written somewhere in Yorkshire or Lincolnshire in about 1400.

Like my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s Death will be published by Unbound and will be richly illustrated with over 30 of my pen-and-ink drawings, based on contemporary mediaeval manuscripts. The book can only happen with your help; if you would like to see it become reality – and have your name in the back for all time as a patron and subscriber, please click here for more information

Different pledge rewards available (see below)

The images below show three of the pledge rewards on offer for supporters of the book – but you can simply pledge for the book on its own. Every pledge received before the book is sent to print, no matter the size, will ensure your name appears in the back of the book.

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King Arthur’s Hall; all roofless and wind-blown


Image of King Arthur's Hall, Cornwall

The remains of King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. The “Hall” is thought to be a Bronze Age ceremonial centre for cremation although some argue that it was a pound for animals.

Into Cornwall I climb seeking comfort from winds

Among lower levels of that lofty moor Bodmin;

Through fields richly-flanked by leaves of fair green

I come up to Blisland by blowing moor’s edge.

In that soft church I sit to regain of my senses

With its vault above me which arches twice vast

And shouts of Agincourt when its arcs were stretched

On shield-bearing angels, their wings wafting high

And sailing in joy over scenes from the centuries.

Rested, I rise onto Gringolet’s saddle

Who carries me slow up ascents to the moor

And there in the blowing wind blasting my body

And sharp-shafting showers that strike to the soul

I see that square building which bold sits in bog-land;

King Arthur’s Hall it is known in Kernow.

Yet no knight knows that place, not to my knowing,

The years have long passed that parsed of its purpose

And my uncle Arthur never nursed in that place

Ideas of adventure to alter his aims

For the season, or Christmas, or sweet holidays.

It is but a pound to pen but some sheep or maybe a place to bury

The dead.

Surrounded by gorse and granite stones

That Hall it must be said

Just now sits square in moors alone,

Its story long unread.

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A new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight!


Image of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Smith of Mythical Britain

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – new translation is being published by crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

On Gringalet again I ride now glorious Spring glows good

With lengthened leaves grown green that long

For coming summer’s sweet sun to soak.

My dallying days with other duties filled

Have caused a gap too great and gaunt;

I plea for pardon for pain so caused

By my bleak absence from this bench

As other realms awry drew me

Turning eyes north by tempting twists.

Now here is nice news I deem to share:

A new book of my legends, from Lancashire loyally –

The Green Knight translated with knowledge anew

And crafted with linocuts carved for your pleasure!

Yet it cannot be without your help offered

Most kind:

Will you help this book be born

By pledging pure to see it be?

Unbound lets books with your seed corn

Be read anew most handsomely.

Please help bring Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to a new audience!

If you would like to support a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated and handsomely-illustrated by Michael Smith, author of this blog, please do pledge your support at the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight page at publisher Unbound

 

 

 

 

 

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In Devon banks down darkest lanes, bench ends beguiling


Bench end showing Death at Abbotsham Church

Death waits at Abbotsham – a reminder to all who sit in churches and elsewhere that their time will come

In different counties different downs roll deep their view to unravel, and so it was in Devonshire I rode on good Le Gringalet in search of things distinctive to pass away my hours.

Here is a most green of counties, a shire of verdant vibrancy in normal times yet cast brown by our long winter, spent as it was indoors before flame and fire avoiding of the freeze without. Never had I seen this county thus before yet clear it was before me now – and cold.

No ruby red, no cream upon the scone nor cheese crusty set upon my trencher. So into darker fields Le Gringalet led me towards two old parishes I thought I knew me well, named Abbotsham and High Bickington. What changes here since last I rode with Arthur in warmer days, wafting through lands and away on our hunting!

Abbotsham now by Appledore is closer, accreted such by dwellings that its once famed views of Torridge’s effluxion have now but eased below the eaves of roof tops many. Yet that church still it stands though starkly, so afflicted as it is by the varied violations of Victorian scrapers. But inside, what wares to while away the surface of your eyes!

This church, most charmless and cheap from outside yet once within giveth of its gifts with generosity unbounded: a bevy of bench-ends becoming and becalming at one and the same time. Look here at Death, his scythe he settles on we see. And there a workman wrapped forever in a woven bracket carved from wood. On another, Our Lord laughed at by later vandals is defaced upon the cross while too another bench blows mischief at some bounder riding backwards on his bay.

Bench ends are here distinctive while high above old faces beam, fragile survivors of all the worst of favours that those in Victoria’s reign could through upon their fame…

So let us move inland now to Old Devon where country folk, changed though they have, speak calmly as in all centuries they have and as, with God’s grace, they shall in future do. Let us ride out to High Bickington, remote and blowy on its rising ground bold standing in its grip of green damp grasping.

Here is a church much as I remembered it! A church charming and cheery despite the cheese of green decay which now impregnates its stones. In this church silent you can sit and hear the wind, a-feared as God Himself intended by the howling of the wind which did in centuries past cast down the spire of Norwich on St Maurus day.

In this damp room of sanctuary sleepy let settle your eyes in the gloom and touch those things my fingers brushed in centuries gone by. A sad remnant of a decorated carving – a rood screen perhaps long gone? Glass glistening and gold in places growing older and more faint by the years as Godless and unholy men predate the world without.

Yet more bench ends beckon and these beguile as well they should. Chanting singers sweetly sound in silence, four in a row; on another a Landsckecht, loosely ribboned loiters ready to work for whosoever wafts coin his way. Headless creatures hunted by the horrid in puritan times are hacked to faceless now, their forms only faring better through lack of subsequent protrusion. And finally, chance a man from China? No – this praying penitent points palms upwards as pigtail pony-like points back; a headdress of more humble times harks in the silence of the stones and tiles.

Let us leave these places now to sleep some more and centuries see out. It saddens me to think them sentinels of a silent age but still they stand and stoutly too, carrying their message to newer people long after I have left these lands and am but dust upon the earth.

In fields which still to me are there

from times when last I walked

I visited them once again to stare

And still to me they talked

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Up in the roof space, an old face looks down at Abbotsham

Bench end Abbotsham

At Abbotsham, one of a number of such designs in other churches in Devon – a man bent double for all time

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Primitive face carvings on a bench end at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of the font at Abbotsham

Wonderfully carved fluted font at Abbotsham, Devon

Image of Death on a bench end at Abbotsham

Death at Abbotsham – the scythe had long since gone although parts of it remain if you look carefully

Image of Death on bench end at Abbotsham church

Here you can see the fuller bench end at Abbotsham, showing the design above Death.

Image of bench end at Abbotsham church showing instruments of the Passion

This image shows craftsmens’ tools carved into a bench end at Abbotsham. These may be connected to the Passion

Image of a bench end at Abbotsham church

Interesting curved forms on a bench end at Abbotsham

Image showing Norman door at High Bickington

The ancient Norman doorway at High Bickington Church, Devon

Image of early bench end at High Bickington Church

This bench end appears to have been cut into pieces – there are two other portions elsewhere in the church

Image of defaced bench end at High Bickington

A damaged bench end, probably defaced in the Puritan period at High Bickington

Image of Another animal bench end at High Bickington

Another damaged animal, headless.

Singers on a bench end at High Bickington

This image shows four singers. The “feathers” emerging from their mouths represent singing.

image of Landscknecht bench end at High Bickington

An image of a renaissance German mercenary or landsknecht. It is interesting that the person who carved this must have travelled abroad.

image of mediaeval carving at High Bickington

This fragment is all that remains of a much larger earlier piece. Nothing else remains at the church

image of The font, High Bickington

This wonderful font has an attractive ropework base and classic early mediaeval decoration.

image of man in pigtail on bench end at High Bickington

This image is said to represent someone from China but in fact the headdress is late mediaeval.

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At the home of the joggled lintel: Conisborough Castle revisited


Conisborough Castle - Joggled lintel above the main door

What is it about travelling, reader, that makes of the mind to float like the Orford Merman, lost among the brown and briney waves? In my quest to find the quoins of the door to my escape I query at times why ceaseless disappointment never dissuades me from my search. Each castle I find, casts new barbs at my calm: each church and chancel disturbs me as I try to chart my true way home. And here, so, I am brought to Conisborough where once I dined on coney meat and now just the carping of the pigeons serves to capture past times…

Lurk long in the land of Yorkshire and soon you come to Conisborough. It’s keep is like a beacon brightly burning above the hillside and yet… When last I lingered here such sport was to be found in several parks that a lord could stay all year and never tire of the hunting. Not now though, for all around are dwellings and dowdy views I dare not describe in depth for fear of offence.

But let me tell you how it once was to me as in the household of the de Warennes I did discover the delights of that great place. Ascent to the great bailey was by a barbican tall and bold: a narrow defile among high walls, a death-trap for the dim-witted. And those high walls were bright as snowberries being built of York stone to shine for miles, lighting the way for the weary traveller…

Inside, I will take you, the inner ward wakens the soul, awash with sounds of the denizens within. In the bailey the kitchen staff cook in cauldrons round while stablemen stoutly stand to groom the lord’s horses. And here you too could wait while through the long day the wallowing shadow of the Donjon turns round the realm like a rouncey on slow parade.

Ghosts all now, of course, those gentlemen and guards have gone the way of history. But let us not leave here, alighting instead the steps to the stone sentinel, this great keep, one of the most remarkable in the kingdom. These stairs are new, I perceive, pitched differently to the practice when I last walked here but nevertheless, and notwithstanding, they nudge you upwards to the great door.

In standing there, before entering, eye if you will the excellent masonry: a joggled lintel jiggling jauntily above your head – moving but static; moving and ecstatic. These stones stir the soul, perched perilously in position as they have done these last seven centuries since. And thence inside, an empty chamber now but one which once chanced to cheer you as the Lord John de Warenne chuckled with his friends a welcome. At least that was so when I last saddled up this way in a distant summer in 1340…

This astounding stone stump is as complex as it is comforting. Buttressed all about by bold bastions six, it dazzles the dozy dreamer, being visible for miles.You are impressed at first sight, your innocent imagination imbued with visions of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: the castle as culture, a carapace of kings. But back inside to be becalmed by the beauty of it: that welcoming chamber again makes you ghasp with its gawping fireplace with joggled lintels more.

Then, fellow traveller, ascend to the Lord’s room above to listen as I once did to his lilting voice. His private chamber charms you with its chapel, a wash-basin to water as you will, and views over hunting hills and high banks. That chapel is indeed cheering with its fine vaulting, piscina and cupboard for the chalice. This small room is where our Mighty Lord, He that lives above us, loiters in your spirit, glowing like a spark above dark waters…

And then you climb further, by invitation, inclining inside the walls as the steps lead you to the light, like a lamp at the end of a tunnel. Athwart that tower take time to be entranced by vistas vast and velvety if, by chance, you can imagine what was once to be seen beyond what’s there now… Yet there is one more treat for the traveller of turrets bold: a pigeon coop fashioned in a buttress for the private predeliction of the Lord Warenne, now long gone

It is said that mighty kings earn wealth by grace

and keep it with a hand of stone.

But I know too that here’s the case:

Such work cannot be done alone.

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Centuries of silence find their voice at Strethall in Essex


Strethall Church in Essex

Strethall Church, Essex: a lonely survivor on a windswept ridge

In wind-swept uplands, just west of Saffron Walden and north of Wendens Ambo, lies a small village once home to thane and freeman, serf and reeve and now but home to none. Strethall by name, the hall on the street, now sleeps silent as pestilence and plague have played among its stones and worms turn bodies into the dusts of time.

Yet not always was it thus and, as it was told to me so I shall tell to you: the story of a village near the Icknield Way whose proud past has slipped away among the whispering winds of these wasted fields…

The king lay at Camelot on New Year’s Day so I, in search of adventure, took le Gringalet and headed north to the Royston Ridge before passing on that ridgeway past the windmill at Great Chishill and past Chrishall again, home – as it has been related – to John de la Pole, an old friend of mine.

Here, in olden times, the road wended west to Great Chesterford if you will but now, with the passage of time, old Roman roads have long since lost their significance and Strethall is but a backwater in the book of time… You need to look hard to find it today.

But as a young knight, I remember a different place. Once, on this high peak – 400 feet above the datum is high in these parts – Strethall was a vibrant village, vehement and vocal. 

Strethall then was already an ancient settlement, in existence long before my time and serving Roman and local alike. And when I last visited the place, it still supported fields, oxen, pigs in the woodland and more sheep than I could count; notwithstanding a mill upon the ridge. Alas, nothing of this part now remains.

Talking with a friendly local, I was informed that when pestilence and plague blew around the place in the 1340s, the village suffered badly; so much so that not one household lived to tell the tale. Today, just the church – St Mary the Virgin – stands lonely on the bluff with just a few barns and a farmhouse for company.

Yet the church, despite its isolation, is eloquent in its solitude. The tower, simply constructed of flints, is bound by iron to strengthen it against the high winds which blow up in these parts. Apart from the iron straps and some later crenellations, I’d say the place is much as I remember it when William and Alwig – and later Hugh – held the lands for the abbot in 1086.

But when you enter the church, if you can scale away the accretions of the years, old stones still sing. The chancel arch is surely, in its simplicity, one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon interior arches in a small church anywhere on these islands. Primitive in execution yes, but finely worked notwithstanding.

And then there is the wonderful font, unusual and large. I recall this from a visit I made in the 1100s so I can vouch for its age too. The roof however is fairly modern; I would place it, reader, to between 1400 and 1500, trussed with cambered tie-beams and stoutly made from oak. Not perhaps one of the most magnificent of roofs but somehow fitting to this place.

Look elsewhere and you will find a thirteenth century piscina, some delightful Fifteenth Century brass work and some pews dating, I should say, to what you would call the later middle ages.

I am told by our local friend that this church was on the verge of losing its status as an independent parish in recent years but the locals from the nearby village of Catmere End (which would, it seems, be where a new resurgent community built itself after the Black Death) protested and independence was preserved.

So much so, it seems, that just this Christmas this small church, capable of holding 70 in moderate comfort was packed to bursting when nearly 130 worshippers descended on it to give grace to God at Christmas time.

Reader, should you seek solace in small things, look to Strethall for your guidance. Despite the monstrous predations of an uncaring world, people in small places can wield plenty of power.

The original owners of these lands may now have gone away. But in their spirit and in their deeds they still live on today.

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