Category Archives: Gawain and the Green Knight

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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The edges of England awash with water


image of spigot mortar mount in Norfolk
Last line of defence: redundant spigot mortar mounts at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk
Travel into East Anglia my friends and the world suddenly feels less certain. The sky, whether blue or grey, reduces your size to a pinprick on this orb and the land is flat and unremitting.

We are nothing in this landscape and churches pray to heaven lest, one day, the sky should fall in and we are crushed by a firmament of stars. Thus it was I found myself once again in Norfolk; Le Gringalet had brought me to new pastures: the flat beaches of the Wash where (I recall) King John had a lucky escape not so long ago.

What was most strange is that my visit to these marshlands was almost 795 year to the day when the king fell ill and instructed his baggage train to cross the Welland estuary at Fosdyke. I am sorry to say that as well as losing his baggage he also subsequently died of his illness himself, at Newark-on-Trent on the 19th October 1216. Little wonder that these lands, at times, make you wonder when the world will stop for you…

And that’s because the land here moves, like a swamp snake. Clearly, since they were drained from the 1400s (and most dramatically from the seventeenth century onwards) both the land and the waters have changed much since when I first ventured here. Indeed, the marshy reed-land of the Fens has largely disappeared now but, imperceptibly, this soil is alive beneath its calm surface and I have no doubt that when man stops thinking, the world will move again and those waters will rise…

And the waters, whether flowing here or not, have created a strange, melancholy aloofness among the denizens of the Wash. People here could hide for years and never be found at one time and well I recall some local folk wandering around on stilts from place to place. Little surprise – the reeds revealed nothing: staunch guardians of dark secrets, home to the booming bittern and nasty ends in dark pools.

Travelling here too was a leap of faith in those days. Navigation beyond the road to Lynn was very much one of following your horse’s nose. For the traveller heading north, once the isle of Ely was behind you, the horizon was but a sea of reeds, your only hope to turn back and use the great lantern of Ely cathedral as your guide; ever taking you back to God – or at least you hoped.

And in those reeds, then as now, the people – water-crinkled by nature – were sullen folk, proudly independent and tending their lands in summer, surrendering to the floods as they rose in winter months. Black and dangerous were these lands when John last rode this way. And as the anonymous “Fen Parson” was to write in the 1770s:

The moory soil, the wat’ry atmosphere,

with damp, unhealthy moisture chills the air.

Thick, stinking fogs and noxious vapours fall,

agues and coughs are epidemical;

Hence every face presented to our view

Looks of a pallid or a sallow hue

So that was then but what of today? Lest you journey to Wicken Fen, reader, there is little left to tell the story of this landscape of rustling and silence. But in its place comes still a flatness and a threatening calm. In place of the stiltmen you have the sugar beet lorry, wending its lonely path up clogged arterial roads. In place of the rustling reeds you have the endless horizons. In place of the marshes, you have the brown murk of the Wash – only navigable by the Lynn river among the dangerous sandbanks.

Yet it’s on the beaches of the Wash that, perhaps, nothing has changed and this is where threat of this brooding place still breathes roughly. At the mouth of the Wash by Holme-Next-The-Sea, walking beyond the village and over the dunes, the salt marshes and lowlands are just as I remember them, just as they have always been.

Look along these beaches and touch the sheer futility of the concrete mounts for spigot mortars – a last hopeless line of defence against German invaders; now forlorn and forgotten in the sands. And then look behind the dunes to the village beyond. It is lonely, quiet and flag-less, in the autumn evenings, flickering lights are turned on in living rooms just as serfs gathered in hovels in my time: their company sole comfort against the uncertainty of the unknown.

Holme-Next-The-Sea hides behind the dunes but it does so on borrowed time. It lies on land which appears lower than the sea beyond the dunes. These lands are beyond the Fens but not beyond the power of water. Water, like the dunes of the Sahara, waits and moves imperceptibly. One day soon these waters will rise again and England will lose yet more treasure to the Wash.

As the Fen Parson writes of the life of man in these places: “His varied scenes of life, now make him see, Nothing is certain but uncertainty“.

Reader, though times have changed, some things forever remain the same.

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A Viking’s skin nailed to a door?


Hadstock church door today

Hadstock Church door - a dark story or something less sinister?

In my travels across this land, one of the many privileges I enjoy is the ability to dip into local stories and legends – none more so than that of Hadstock in Essex.

For those unaware of North West Essex, it is surely one of the most beautiful areas in the kingdom, where small woodlands give way to delicate views over ancient field systems. Country lanes and roads wind themselves through the landscape like eels in a river and, here and there an ancient village reveals itself. One such place is Hadstock.

Today, to my sorrow, little remains of the village I once travelled through in 1411, but the imprint of it on the landscape is still much as I recall, with the church rising above the homesteads and Essex folk quietly going about their business. Yet the village also plays host to a somewhat macabre local story…

It was here, at this church, that a strange legend has grown up of a Viking who was flayed alive and his skin nailed to the door as a warning against future invasions. Indeed, this very flesh ended up in the museum at Saffron Walden, a nearby market town, where for many years it has resided in the museum there. Local legend lives on through the centuries, its tale to tell, so what is the truth of the matter?

I can now reveal, as news readers are so fond of saying, that on Saint Brice’s Day 1002 – over a thousand years ago in your time, dear reader, if not in mine – King Ethelred , fearful of an attempt to assassinate him, ordered the mass killing of Danes. I can also reveal that the door did indeed have a leather covering. Thirdly, it is also true that this door – if not the church – is the oldest in the county. The evidence certainly appears convincing. However, illogical syllogisms – and the finest local legends – oft comprise unrelated facts and so, in this case, it proves to be.

I do indeed remember this church door well from my first visit and while leather was certainly present, this was not an unusual occurrence; such material occurs on other church doors as far afield as Rochester, Copford and even Westminster Abbey. At no time in my memory did the covering look anything like the flesh of a human.

How could I, a mere knight, know such a thing? Reader, it pains me to say that in my travels through the centuries, I have seen many brutal acts – not least the disgraceful flaying alive of Bertrand de Gurdon (although someone there called him Pierre Basile) at Chalus-Chabrol following the death of Richard Coeur de Lion – and I know a flayed skin when I see one. I can, therefore, confirm that the skin on the door at Hadstock was not, and never has been, human – most likely it was that of an ox or a cow.

Of course, it is always makes good reading when a story contains gruesome details but, as a Knight of the Round Table I am duty bound to put honour and virtue above all things and  I have looked into the matter further. I can tell you that not so long ago, Alan Cooper, a DNA expert from Oxford University,  also looked into the matter further. His analysis showed that the skin was indeed that of a cow.

Sic transit gloria mundi we must say; how sad it is that the magic of such a tale can be destroyed by the cold calculation of pure science. But if only they had asked me, I could have told them anyway!

Hadstock church door interior

The interior of the church door at Hadstock. Notice the gaps which the original leather covering would have covered

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