I was at Ertheldoun · with Thomas spak I thare · ther herd Y rede in roune · who Tristrem gat and bare · who was king with croun · and who him forsterd yare · and who was bold baroun · as their elders ware – I was at Erceldoune and spoke with Thomas there, and I heard in verse about the conception and childhood of Tristrem, learnt who fathered him and who fostered him, who was on the throne at the time and who, like their fathers before them, had shown themselves to be brave noblemen, year after year – Thomas relates this true tale.
This beautiful summer’s day will be just a memory in winter, when the groves of trees are bare and brown and the green leaves are no more, for this is the way of the world, I believe, there can be no doubt of it. The good are all departed – those who were our elders – and like the trees, they rest and wait. I’m speaking in particular of a knight whose name is well known.
Roland Rhys would suffer no insult, although Duke Morgan was his lord. Roland attacked and destroyed his castles, hunted his boars, killed his men and confronted him many times. The war lasted for so long that Morgan was forced to sue for peace; in all honesty, he came to believe that his life depended on it.
Make no mistake, the fight was long and hard between Roland Rhys and Duke Morgan, and neither of them had any qualms about causing suffering to the other. Many a man was killed on both sides, on Duke Morgan’s side and on that of Roland Rhys, and at last the wisest amongst their knights brokered a peace treaty. The duke and Roland Rhys shook hands on this, then they travelled to England and to the honour and prestige of the court of King Mark of Cornwall and his many noble knights. The peace treaty was supposed to last for seven years.
They went to see King Mark with some valiant knights and they were open and honest with him. The king urged them both to stay with him, in peace, and this is what they did.
Not long afterwards, a tournament was announced. The knights looked forward to it greatly, knowing that the eyes of pretty maidens would be on them. People asked who was considered the most likely to win the prize, and they were told that the favourite was a young knight from Brittany who was staying up in the tower and who had won the heart of Blauncheflour. He was certainly a brave and skilful warrior, you could scour the length and breadth of the country and find none better. He was generous to his friends as well, and his name was Roland Rhys.
‘This is a remarkable man indeed,’ said Blauncheflour, ‘to wound me through the heart so soon. Unless he can bring relief to me very quickly, I shall die.’ The highborn maiden called her three tutors to her and asked them to arrange it, by any means that they could.
Roland went to do battle, but was badly wounded in that fight. Blauncheflour was told about this.
‘Alas!’ she cried, when she heard the news. She spoke to her governess and said that she wanted to go at once to where the knight was lying injured, and then she fainted with grief.
Roland Rhys comforted the maiden with such love and intimacy that a child was conceived by them – a boy who will be named Tristrem.
The truce that had been brokered between Roland Rhys and Duke Morgan was broken by Morgan. He had no desire to uphold it any more. Roland’s steward, the ever-faithful Rohand, wrote a letter to Roland Rhys asking for immediate aid, or they would lose everything. Tearfully, Roland Rhys took his leave from King Mark.
Roland went to see Blauncheflour, who told him that she was carrying his child. ‘I will die in childbirth, or my brother will have me killed for bringing dishonour upon him,’ she said. ‘Or if I survive, I will have to bring the little boy up in penury, since my brother will have me ostracised.’
Roland Rhys gave her the choice of coming away with him instead, to his own land.
‘I have no future here,’ she said, looking at her belly. My mind is made up. I will come with you and live with your own people, in the land that you call your own.
They made preparations to leave at once. They raised the flag, sailed out of the harbour, crossed the sea and came to a town where Roland’s steward Rohand had built a strong castle. They pulled down the sails and all the knights disembarked in full armour, then they went off at once to receive their orders from Rohand.
‘This maiden shall be one of us!’ declared Rohand. ‘Roland Rhys shall marry her and take her to his bed. She is truly a beautiful woman.’
Delightedly, they all agreed and the wedding quickly took place. But very shortly afterwards, it was time for them to part, for it was no secret that Morgan was preparing an attack. Roland gathered all his folk around him and spoke to them with humility and conviction, urging his knights to respond to the call to arms that he was issuing with as many horses as they could muster, as many weapons as they could bring, and with a standard raised high. He rode at the head of a huge army like a crowned king, intending to achieve all the success that he could.
The field of battle where Morgan’s men were waiting was crowded with warriors. The battle itself was fierce and bloody, which pleased Roland for he could see the enemy starting to lose heart from the casualties they were sustaining. Morgan managed to flee the battlefield with his life, but only just.
Duke Morgan’s army regrouped and launched a counterattack. Steel hewed down upon steel, blood burst through chainmail and it was not long before many noble knights had been killed. Roland Rhys was cut down and mortally wounded. His son will make Duke Morgan pay dearly for this!
Wails of lamentation can be heard. Roland Rhys has killed three hundred with his shining sword and in fair fight has shown himself to be invincible, but a cowardly blow has brought him down with a wound that will quickly prove to be his death.
His horse carried his dead body home, much to the wonderment of the people who received it. News was quickly brought to Blauncheflour who was recovering from childbirth. Feel sorry for her, she has just given birth to Tristrem but she will not live to see another morning.
That noble lady had a fine gold ring and she gave it to Rohand to keep in trust for her son. ‘My brother will recognise it,’ she said. ‘My father gave it to me. King Mark may well have regrets when he sees it again and remember me by it. Roland Rhys loved you, so please keep it safely, for his son.'
The people stood in helpless distress before that noble lady. ‘Roland, my lord, is dead. I will never hear his voice again,’ she wept softly. In all truth, she is now dead. And who can come back to life? As God wills it, so shall it be; the more is the pity. It was sorrowful to have to watch, but the lady was soon dead.
In this way was the noble Tristrem conceived and born. Rohand had never been so sorrowful and didn’t quite know what to do. He went to where his wife was nursing her own new born baby and made out to everybody that she had had twins, and said that he was delighted to be able to bring this news, by Christ! The baby was given the name Tramtris, the ‘tram’ before the ‘Tris’.
Duke Morgan was very pleased to see that Roland Rhys was dead. He quickly sent word that his ordinances were to be obeyed and his summonses quickly responded to. None dared go against this, but swiftly yielded town and castle to him. No king had ever gained so much in so short a time.
Duke Morgan conferred honours and titles as he saw fit, and nobody received one unless it was from him. He was proud and cruel, and nobody dared to stand against him. He summoned Rohand to advise him, and Rohand acted with wisdom and intelligence, still true in heart to the loyalty he owed to Roland Rhys. His heart would have burst through blood and bone if hope had been taken away from him, but Tramtris was safe and Rohand was content with this. He set the child to his books, and the boy was so keen and able to learn that he studied voraciously and improved in leaps and bounds. All those who knew him were very happy to see this, and the boy himself was not shy in demonstrating his abilities, particularly with the harp and other stringed instruments.
Rohald looked after the boy for fifteen years and taught him all manner of melodies, so to speak, and every instrument – the old ways and the new. Tramtris often went hunting, for this was the activity that attracted him the most. He knew more of hunting skills than can be found in the most revered textbook.
One day, a Norwegian ship berthed at Rohand’s quay, carrying white and grey hawks and clothes for sale. Tramtris heard news of its arrival. Rohand gave him silver to go and buy a hawk for himself, the finest they had.
Tramtris was accustomed to laying twenty shillings as a bet on a game of chess. He saw a chessboard beside a chair and asked who wanted to play? ‘How much have you to wager against a hawk?’ asked a mariner. ‘Twenty shillings,’ replied Tramtris. ‘Whoever checkmates the other shall take both away with them.’
‘You’re on!’ said the mariner.
They agreed on the rules and began to play. Soon they were both absorbed in the game. Tramtris played wisely, he used deception to lure his opponent into false optimism, giving back, at first, as much as he won, and didn’t stop until he had won six hawks for the loss of some silver.
Rohand took his leave and called his other sons away with him. He took the best hawk that Tramtris had won, and gave Tramtris some more silver to play with. The mariner swore that he would match this stake and laid silver of his own. By the time they had finished, Tramtris had won a hundred pounds off him.
Tramtris won it all fairly and squarely. But there was treason afoot. The ship’s captain decided to depart at once and, as Tramtris and the mariner still sat playing chess, the ship sailed out of the harbour onto the grey sea and began to rise and fall with the waves. The men on board were very pleased to be underway, but Tramtris felt the swell beneath him and was suddenly tearful with anxiety.
They found a small boat and an oar for Tramtris’s tutor. ‘There is the land,’ they pointed. ‘Off you go! It’s up to you whether you get back safely or not. But the boy stays with us!’
Tramtris wept with fear. The sailors thought this a great joke and had a good laugh about it.
The ship was on the sea for a little over nine weeks and encountered some terrible weather; the wind was fierce and the waves were so high that the sailors didn’t know what to do. The anchor broke, and the oars, and they had a rough time of it and blamed the boy for their misfortune, until at last they decided that the only way to make the seas calm again was to put him ashore, if they could – if only they could make it to land!
At last they sighted a coastline with an expansive forest behind and high hills. They took Tramtris ashore with all his winnings, broaches and rings, and left him there with only a loaf of bread to eat, then sailed off in weather that was now favourable to their journey. The wind was just as they wished, so they abandoned Tristrem on that beach and sailed off. The boy’s heart grew cold when the ship vanished from view. He offered himself to Christ, who died for us on the Cross. ‘Lord, save and protect me!’ he cried. ‘Please guide me to safety. Don’t let me die here!’
Thomas of Erceldoune was often asked of this tale of Tristrem: what is it really about? How should the tale of this proud prince be interpreted? Well, gentlemen, listen to me: whoever can tell it differently should consider his version to be no worse than mine. Every man has most concern for that which is most dear to him.
Tristrem was wearing the robe of brown silk that he had been wearing on the ship, as Thomas relates. He didn’t know what to do, so he sat down and ate some of the bread that he had with him. When he had finished, he entered the forest. He was still carrying the money that he had won, and as he walked through the thick woodland towards higher ground he saw a path and hurried towards it eagerly. As he walked along this path he came across two palmers. He asked them where they were from. ‘England,’ they said.
Out of fear that they might kill him, he pleaded the king’s protection and offered them ten shillings if they would go along with him and guide him to the king’s court. ‘Yes,’ they said,’ by God, we’ll do that for you. Come with us.’
The man swiftly prospers who knows how to quickly get what he wants!
The forest was very large and full of wild animals., but the king’s court was not far away and the palmers led Tristrem towards it quickly enough. They came across some men on horseback with a team of dogs, dismembering some fat deer that they had taken. The hunters looked at Tristrem, and at his brown silk robe.
The deer that had already been butchered and tied to the horses were quartered like domestic cattle that had been slaughtered by farmers, and Tristrem was astonished. ‘I’ve never before seen a wild animal butchered in that way,’ he said. ‘Either I don’t know what I’m talking about or you don’t know what you’re doing!’
A huntsman strode up to him. ‘This is the way we’ve been taught to do it, and our fathers before us. Over there is the carcass of a deer waiting to be skinned. You can attend to it if you wish. Do what you like with it. We’ll watch and see what you do.’
So the huntsmen stood and observed Tristrem as he cut open the deer, removed the tongue and the spleen, then sheered away the best bits and laid them to one side, thrust down the hindquarters, then cut and skinned the carcass completely and did this in a way that many will now recognise as the proper way.
The shoulder was the first cut of meat he removed, then he cut the hind legs from the thighs and removed the stomach and the offal, putting the bloody heart, liver and lungs aside as a reward for the dogs. Then he cut the backbone in two and divided the ribs and flanks correctly.
Tristrem gave the forester the left shoulder, and put the heart, liver and lungs onto the outstretched hide for the dogs, then threw the raven’s portion up into a tree, skewered together in the right order on a stick. ‘Huntsmen, where are you!’ he cried. ‘You should blow the correct call, now, to signal completion.’
The huntsmen blew the right note, then sent someone off quickly to find the king, to tell him what had happened. King Mark was sitting beneath a linden tree, and expressed pleasure when he learned about the deer.
Many in the castle, hearing the sound of the hunting horn, were puzzled, for they didn’t recognise the call. They rushed from the tables, not knowing how significant this new sound might be. It can be quite fun, teaching things to people who are entirely unfamiliar with them! The huntsmen were in high spirits when they came before the king.
‘Where were you born?’ the king asked Tristrem. ‘What is your name, my fair friend?’
‘Sir, I was born in Hermonie,’ replied Tristrem. ‘I have been parted inseparably from my father, Sir Rohand, who is the finest huntsman and the best blower of a horn you could imagine.’
But King Mark wasn’t interested in any of this. He had no idea who Sir Rohand was. He said no more, but washed his hands and went to eat. Bread was sliced, there was enough to eat, and whatever anyone wanted to drink, wine or ale, he had only to ask and it was served, in a cup or a horn. They sat for as long as they wanted, then rose from the table onto the benches.
A minstrel began to play the harp and sing a lai for them. Tristrem was rude to him.
The minstrel walked off in a huff. ‘If you think you can do any better, then go ahead!’ he said.
‘If I can’t, then I will be to blame,’ replied Tristrem curtly, and began to play.
When he had finished the lai: ‘Alright, I admit it, you’re better than I am,’ conceded the minstrel. Tristrem was called over to sit beside the king’s knee.
Everyone was very impressed with this excellent young man. They noted his fine features with approval and nobody wanted to leave the hall without taking their leave from him in person. King Mark called for Tristrem and gave him a fine robe and a fur cape, and invited him to lie in the king’s chamber, harping his sweet notes.
But let us leave Tristrem for a moment, high in King Mark’s favour, and turn to Rohand.
Rohand was very worried when he couldn’t get any news of Tramtris’s whereabouts. He travelled sorrowfully to many places, seven kingdoms and more, looking for Tramtris. His clothes became torn and shabby, but this did not stop him. His fruitless wanderings began to affect his strength and wellbeing and he was forced to work for his food and to save in order to buy new clothes. He slept with the workmen at night.
Then one day he encountered the palmers who had first seen Tramtris in Cornwall. He asked them if they had seen a man matching Tramtris’s description, as he always did to everyone he came across, and they said: ‘Yes! His name was Tristrem, he was wearing a brown silk robe. Now he carves the meat at the king’s table. He gave us ten shillings for being his guide.’
‘I will give you the same!’ exclaimed Rohand. ‘Will you take it? Will you be my guide as well?’
‘Yes,’ said the palmers.
Rohand was overjoyed; he eagerly handed over ten shillings and received all the guidance he needed.
Tristrem was Rohand’s pride and joy, he was always talking about him, but when he arrived at the gates of Tintagel and the porter caught sight of him: ‘Go away, churl!’ he cried. ‘Go away, or I’ll beat you with a stick. What are you doing, hanging around here all day?’
Rohand gave the porter a ring. The man didn’t refuse it. He was a wise man, I say, who first thought of giving a bribe. The porter let Rohand in through the gate. It was a lovely ring.
The usher intercepted Rohand and barred his way. ‘Go away!’ he shouted. ‘Get lost, or I’ll break your head open, churl, and then everyone will trample over you where you fall.’
Rohand asked him to be quiet and to help him instead of shouting at him, and offered another ring, a lovely gold one that was worthy of a king. The usher took it and Rohand was allowed in. The usher said that he would lead him to where Tristrem was, and quickly did so. Tristrem didn’t recognise Rohand at all, which surprised Rohand very much; it seemed very strange to him. But even if men had sworn that Rohand was the man that he was saying he was, Tristrem wouldn’t have believed them in a thousand years! Rohald’s clothes were all torn and shabby, and they were horrible, workman’s clothes.
‘Young man, in God’s name, don’t you remember how you were taken from Rohand?’ he exclaimed. ‘Don’t you remember that sad day, with the ship and the hawks and the chessboard?’
Tristrem quickly knelt and, to tell the truth, he eagerly kissed Rohand now. ‘Father, don’t upset yourself,’ he said. ‘You are welcome. By God who died for us, I didn’t recognise you. You have suffered a great deal to find me, I can clearly see that.’
Tristrem went to the king: ‘Will you come to see my father?’ he asked. ‘And please give him some better clothes to wear, ones that are more suitable for a knight.’
Then Tristrem told King Mark the whole story, how he had played chess with some shipmen, how they had sailed away with him, how they were beset by storms, how the anchor had snapped and the oars broken: ‘So they gave me what I had won from them and left me on a beach. I climbed up through the forest until I came upon your huntsmen.’
They prepared a bath for Rohand. His beard was straggly and his hair long and white, but they had a barber ready waiting when he was washed. A scarlet robe was brought to him, and when he put it on, he looked magnificent. He might have been mistaken for a prince!
Rohand began to recount the story of his wanderings as Tristrem led him back into the hall. When they arrived, everyone declared that there was no way that this could be the same man who was nearly beaten from the gate. Nobody despised him now. He was very welcome. Water was fetched, boards and trestles laid out, tablecloths spread over them and then the food and drink was served. The sergeants were very happy to serve Tristrem and Sir Rohand, and when water was passed around for everybody to wash before leaving the table, the king rose and asked Rohand to come and sit beside him.
Rohand began to explain things to King Mark. ‘If you only knew who Tristrem is, he would be even more in your favour than he is now,’ he said. ‘He is your sister Blauncheflour’s son. I am no relation of his at all, I am rather his vassal. I have proof, look, here is a ring that your sister gave to me, when Roland Rhys met his death at Duke Morgan’s hands.’
At this point, Rohand broke down and wept. The king observed how the tears were trickling down the old man’s cheeks, and when he saw the ring he recognised it at once. He kissed Tristrem and acknowledged him as his nephew. Then everybody kissed Tristrem, ladies and knights, and all the sergeants in the hall, and all the maidens. Tristrem called Rohand to him, with many questions in his eyes: ‘Sir, how can this be?’ he asked. ‘How can I know that you are telling me the truth? Don’t lie. Are you telling me that you are not my father? Then tell me, for God’s sake, how was my father killed?’
Rohand explained everything, from beginning to end: the war between Roland Rhys and Duke Morgan, how Tristrem’s mother had run off with his father Roland Rhys and how Tristrem had been conceived between them and born. ‘Roland was killed soon afterwards and the beautiful Blauncheflour died shortly after that,’ explained Rohand. ‘For fear of what Morgan may do to you, I claimed that you were my own son.’
Tristrem quickly addressed the king: ‘Sir, I must go back to Hermonie,’ he said. ‘I must take my leave of you, I have to go to fight with Duke Morgan, to kill him or be killed. No one will see me in England again until I have accomplished this.’
King Mark was very sad to hear it. He sighed terribly. ‘Tristrem, take better advice and stay here in England,’ he implored. ‘Morgan will be hard to destroy. He has many knights.’ But he could see that Tristrem’s mind was already made up.
‘You are brave and valiant, but take more with you, then,’ he said, generously. ‘And make sure that Rohand is by your side, for he will know who are your friends and who your enemies.’
Then King Mark made a call to arms, to gather knights to sail with Tristrem. He knighted Tristrem himself and gave him the finest knights that he could find, to ride with him and to give him the benefit of their experience. Tristrem was very sad to be leaving, but he didn’t want to stay a moment longer than he had to. A thousand knights sailed with him, and Rohand was constantly on hand to give advice.
When, on the seventh day they arrived at Rohand’s castle, Tristrem immediately knighted Rohand’s sons. Tristrem’s friends were all very glad to see him. And can they be blamed for that?
One day, it was reported that Duke Morgan was not far away. ‘I will arrange it so that I can speak with him to my advantage and achieve what I want,’ said Tristrem. ‘We lie to long in idleness. My opportunity has arrived.’
Tristrem was true to his word. He got himself ready and took fifteen knights along with him, no more than this. They entered Morgan’s court just as he was slicing bread for a meal. They could see clearly, if unexpectedly, that ten young men had arrived, all the sons of kings and each having brought the head of a wild boar to give to the duke as a gift.
Back in Hermonie, Rohand had become anxious. ‘I may have let Tristrem ride unknowingly into a trap,’ he thought. ‘If he is killed now, we’ll be seen to be fine guardians! It will be our fault.’
‘To arms!’ he cried. ‘Knights and men-at-arms, quickly, mount your horses and ride like the wind! I won’t be happy again until I know that Tristrem is alive and well and can see him with my own eyes!’
‘Sir king,’ said Tristrem as he entered into the presence of Duke Morgan. ‘May God give you the same love and protection that I hold for you, and that you have given to me.’
‘My dear sir, is this a complement or a curse?’ asked Duke Morgan. ‘What do you want?’
‘I want justice. I want my inheritance back. I am my father’s rightful heir and he is dead.’
‘I know. I killed him.’
‘Since you admit it, then I require compensation as well.’
‘It is I who have been compensated and rightly so! Have you come from your kinsman King Mark? Young man, you shall stay here awhile. Did you expect to find fools here? Your father and mother had you out of wedlock. You are a bastard, so what are you doing here, so haughty and full of yourself? Get out! Get out of my land!’
‘You are a liar. I know this for a fact.’
Morgan struck Tristrem a blow with his fist, and laughed as Tristrem fell flat onto the floor, his nose running with blood. Tristrem was wearing his sword, and he got to his feet and drew it. With a single blow, he cleaved Morgan’s head to the teeth, then stabbed him through the heart with it.
At this moment, Rohand came galloping into the castle with all his knights. All who stood in their way were quickly captured or killed. Earl, baron and knight, all were led away as prisoners, or killed outright for Duke Morgan’s sake. Spears were thrown, shields brandished, heads split in two; it was a fierce battle and it lasted all afternoon and on into the night.
So Tristrem killed Duke Morgan. And he didn’t stop until more castles were captured as well. Towns were quickly surrendered to him, and strong cities. The folk fell at his feet. No one dared to stand against him. Tristrem had killed the man who had slain his father, and the people submitted willingly to his authority.
Tristrem spent two years setting everything in order and issuing laws. Almain swore allegiance to him, as well as the people of Hermonie, but then Tristrem handed the sceptre of power over to Rohand to wield, that noble marshal.
‘Rohand,’ he said, ‘I make you lord of Hermonie and of Almain, to hold these lands from me. You and your five sons shall rule these countries, and while you live, they shall be yours to govern as you wish. What more is there to do, except to say goodbye? I shall go back to England, to see my uncle, King Mark.’
So Tristrem set off for England.
It was a happy voyage and the wind was fair. Tristrem left Rohand as king over all that he had won for himself and let sailors carry him to England, where he learnt of something that he’d had no idea about before: men were weeping because of it, they were weeping for the tribute that had to be gathered imminently, tribute that was due to Ireland.
King Mark was bound, unwillingly, to hand over three hundred pounds of gold, even though he was a crowned king. And every second year it was three hundred pounds of silver, and in the third year, three hundred pounds of coin in copper alloy. And every fourth year, he had to give – and this was a strange and terrible thing – but three hundred noble children.
An Irish knight named Moraunt had come to collect this tribute. He was considered to be a giant amongst warriors, and he asked for the children as though it was his right. It was on this very evening that Tristrem landed and came ashore. Tristrem had already seen the Irish ship lying at anchor, waiting to collect this tribute.
King Mark was delighted to see Tristrem, he greeted him and kissed him many times, he was very welcome. King Mark listened attentively as Tristrem told him of the lands that he had conquered and secured for himself.
‘But what is all this gathering that I can see here?’ Tristrem asked. Everybody wept.
‘I will tell you,’ said King Mark. ‘It is distressing to have to explain, but I am a vassal of the king of Ireland. It has been like this for too long now. He has wronged me from the outset, he won my servitude through injustice.’
Tristrem went very quiet, then he said: ‘The powerful Moraunt will not have his way.’
King Mark took counsel and gathered advice. ‘It is unjust that such tribute is exacted,’ he agreed.
‘I advise you to withhold the children then,’ replied Tristrem. ‘I will place myself in jeopardy, as a knight, for I am prepared to defend your rights.’
The children had already been gathered from up and down the land, but Tristrem caused this tribute to be withheld. He was given leave to defend the children, for nobody else had the courage to. He would fight Moraunt in single combat.
Tristrem took the news to Moraunt himself. ‘We owe you nothing,’ Tristrem told him.
‘You lie,’ said Moraunt. ‘I’ll wager my life in battle to prove this, in front of the king.’ He offered a ring, and Tristrem accepted the challenge.
They sailed into the open sea in their two ships, and when they reached the island where the fight was to take place, Moraunt tied his boat up. Tristrem let his float away.
‘Why did you do that?’ asked Moraunt.
‘Only one of us is going to leave this island alive,’ replied Tristrem, ‘so one boat will be enough.’
The island was quite broad. Moraunt was relaxed about the whole affair, he expected to defeat his opponent quite easily. They clashed, and no battle has ever been fiercer! Each rode at the other and blows rained down. God help Tristrem! He is fighting for England!
Moraunt, with all his strength, rode with great violence against Tristrem, thinking that he would topple him easily with a heavy lance. He caught the lion on Tristrem’s shield with the point of his lance, and received a blow on the dragon in the middle of his own shield in return. Moraunt’s blow knocked Tristrem from his horse, but he leapt back into the saddle and fought like a frenzied wolf. Tristrem put all his strength and effort into his blows, and gave Moraunt a wound that bled profusely and broke his horse’s back. Moraunt got back onto his feet.
‘Tristrem, dismount!’ he cried. ‘You’ve killed my horse, so fight with me on foot!’
‘As God is my guide, that’s fine by me!’ Tristrem replied.
Blows rained down once more. Moraunt of Ireland struck Tristrem on the shield so hard that he cut it in two and half of it fell to the ground. But Tristrem displayed his true valour, returning a blow with his good sword that nearly killed Moraunt. King Mark watched all this with great wonderment.
Moraunt fought with all his might, under no illusion now that this was going to be a far from easy task. He put all his effort into killing Tristrem, but Tristrem was able to strike a blow at last that left a piece of his sharp sword deep within Moraunt’s brain. He was already badly wounded himself, though, in the thigh.
‘People of Ireland, look what has happened to you,’ shouted Tristrem with great confidence suddenly. ‘If anyone else wants to ride against me, I’ll slice his brain in half as well!’
Sorrowfully, the people of Ireland carried Moraunt’s body to the sea.
Joyfully, Tristrem made his way back to his uncle, King Mark. He offered his sword, and it was taken to the altar. All of King Mark’s noblemen were delighted with Tristrem and were happy to swear an oath that, when Mark died, the kingdom of Cornwall would pass to Tristrem, for what he had done, if he was still alive then to claim his inheritance.
Tristrem’s thoughts, though, were elsewhere, for he knew he was badly wounded. Physicians came from far and wide with ointments and medicines, but their efforts were all in vain. His pain became worse and worse. Soon, no one wanted to go near him, his wound stank so much. At last, everyone abandoned him, all except for Governail, his faithful retainer.
Tristrem lay like this for three years. He was a pitiful sight to behold. The nights were the worst. Nobody attended to him anymore. They had done all that they could. They couldn’t do any more.
One day, Tristrem poured his complaints out at King Mark, and soon, the following exchange occurred:
‘It seems as though I’ve been in pain forever,’ Tristrem said.
‘Alas, that I should live to see this,’ replied King Mark.
Tristrem asked the king for a ship. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘I’m dying. I’m no longer for this world. My time on land is over. Take me to a ship, put my harp in there for me to play, and enough provisions to keep me going for the journey. As soon as you like.’
King Mark was very upset to hear this, but they took Tristrem to a ship nonetheless.
Who will go with him, but Governail of course. He won’t let him down.
The ship was made ready and Tristrem asked for King Mark’s blessing. Then he sailed out of the harbour at Caerleon. For nine weeks and more he hobbled up and down on the ship as the wind drove him towards the place where he was bound for. The town was called Dublin, a port in Ireland.
The wind blew Tristrem towards Dublin. He came to where there were sailors in boats all around, and they came up to his ship and guided it to shore. They found in the ship a man injured but alive. Tristrem told them that he had been wounded and bound in an ambush beside a shore. No one cared to go near him, his wound stank so much.
Governail asked them what coastline this was. ‘Dublin,’ the shipmen said. Tristrem was not at all pleased to hear this. He had killed the Queen of Ireland’s brother and so he decided not to tell them his real name. ‘My name is Tramtris,’ he told them.
But from his ship that day came all the story and poetry, all the music in the world, and they told the queen, Moraunt’s sister, of this; that a man had arrived with such a wound that it was sorrowful to see, and that: ‘He would be a merry man indeed if he was alive,’ they said.
The queen was in Dublin. She was beautiful to behold, intelligent and very skilled in medicine and she was able to demonstrate this to Tristrem very shortly, for she sent him a poultice to draw out the poison and to cast the stink away. She cured him of his pain, and that’s for sure. The next morning, this worthy lady went to see Tristrem. She asked him who he was.
‘I have been a merchant all my life,’ Tristrem replied. ‘My name is Tramtris. Thieves killed my companions, they drowned them all and then took all our merchandise, after wounding me as you can see.’
He seemed to be a noble man and in good spirits, although his wound was very severe. The music that he played and sang was so beautiful that they all marvelled at it. His harp was very valuable and he had chess pieces and a chessboard with him. Everyone swore by Saint Patrick that they had never seen his like before. ‘If he was brought back to health, he would be a remarkable man indeed,’ they said.
The queen of Ireland, Queen Ysonde, allowed Tramtris to show her his wound, so that she could see for herself the extent of his injury. He wept with pain as the bone disintegrated to her touch, beneath his skin. His sorrows were no joy to him, that’s for sure! They took Tramtris to some lodgings and quickly made up a bath for him, so soothing and efficacious that it soon seemed likely that he would be back on his feet again in no time.
Comforting ointments and relief-inducing drinks were provided, no matter what the cost, and they helped Tramtris to recover very quickly. He started to play his harp again and showed them what a fine musician he was. It wasn’t long before his minstrelsy was in great demand. Everyone was pleased to listen to him, and he was invited often into chambers, to sit and to play.
The king had a dear daughter, a maiden named Ysonde; she loved to hear minstrels singing their lais and was able to recite romances faultlessly. Tramtris began to teach her how to play musical instruments, to understand the stories and to sing them correctly; he gave all his attention to this, in the cause of her education. She had no serious suitors in Ireland, because everybody was so in awe of her.
The noble Ysonde of high esteem, this beautiful maiden who wore fine clothes of fur, and impeccable scarlet, was soon unequalled in every skill and accomplishment that it was suitable for a maiden of her birth and rank to be accomplished in – unequalled, that is, apart from Tramtris, of course, who was her teacher. But Tramtris now longed to be home again, for by now his wound had healed completely.
Tramtris spent a whole year in Ireland, and the recuperation did wonders for him. He served the queen hand and foot, with love and affection, and imparted all the knowledge that he could into her dear daughter Ysonde’s understanding of the meaning of the lais that he had taught her to sing. But then he asked leave to sail back again to his own country.
‘Whoever keeps a stranger will lose him in the end,’ said the queen, resignedly.
They paid Tramtris for his service in gold and silver I say, whatever he wanted. Queen Ysonde gave him all that he asked for, for the entertainment and the teaching that he had given so freely and so generously. He commended them all to God, bid them a good day, and then set off, with Governail. They hoisted a fine sail – white and red, as red as blood – and the wind was to their liking. It carried them swiftly back to Caerleon.
Now he is Tristrem again, as he sails across the sea. The ship was recognised; it was in familiar waters and everyone who saw it was very pleased. Those who had spotted the ship went to tell the king what they had seen. King Mark had never been so happy in all his life. They escorted Tristrem into the city, and the king went to greet him. Their meeting was one of great joy.
‘Tristrem, has your wound healed?’ the king asked.
Tristrem told his uncle everything. Moraunt’s sister Ysonde had given him all her attention and had healed him completely, he said. Then he went on to describe her daughter, how beautiful she was, and how honest, intelligent and good-natured.
King Mark repeated his pledge to Tristrem that he was his heir and would inherit the kingship when he died: ‘But bring this maiden to me, so that I can see her for myself,’ he urged. He repeated this request insistently and constantly, whenever Ysonde was the subject of conversation. Her beauty and her virtue was in everybody’s thoughts, but especially in his.
As the weeks and months went by, the nobility all over England started to become jealous of Tristrem and put their minds to trying to find a way of bringing him down. They advised the king to take a wife. Tristrem would have to accept a queen, for they saw it as the best way of making sure that he could never become king himself. They cooked up the idea of having the young Ysonde of Ireland as their queen. Tristrem could go over to fetch her.
They said to King Mark: ‘We’ve chosen a lovely young lady for you, as pale and rosy-cheeked as blood upon freshly fallen snow. Tristrem will be able to find her for you.’
‘How so?’ retorted Tristrem. ‘It is the errand of a fool to go searching for something that doesn’t exist. That’s idiotic. No one can possibly find a girl with the complexion of blood upon freshly fallen snow, and I advise that no one tries! But a little bird has told me – I think it was a swallow, and it was singing: “Word is going around that Tristrem is stopping his uncle from marrying in order that he can become king himself.” So give me a ship and some provisions, and you will never see me again, unless I can return with Ysonde. All I ask is fifteen knights to sail with me.’
Fifteen knights were chosen, all of them intelligent and skilful, the finest the kingdom had to offer, and a ship was provided, laden with cloth and furs, everything, in fact, that pertained to merchants and commerce, to sail to Ireland.
The ship lacked nothing that might be needed. It set off from Caerleon, they raised the sails and a suitable ensign and the wind carried them to where they wanted to go. Dublin was the name of this city where they made landfall, a beautiful city. They took a gift to the king there, they brought a present to the king, and another to the queen and asked if they could stay for a while And they didn’t forget the maiden Ysonde either, that’s the truth, and when they returned to their ship, they reckoned that none of them had ever seen a more beautiful maiden, ever.
But the country seemed to be in turmoil. Why was everybody running away?
People were fleeing Dublin very quickly! They were heading for the sea, hoping to find a ship to take them to safety, for they were terrified of a dragon. They didn’t care who did it, but if any man could kill this dragon, whoever he might be, he could have the lovely Ysonde as his reward.
Tristrem was very eager to try his luck, and called his knights to him. ‘Who dares to take on this challenge?’ he asked. They all said: ‘Let’s leave the dragon where it is.’ None of them wanted to put himself in danger. ‘Well, I’ll have to do it then,’ said Tristrem.
Listen, now, everybody, to the deeds of a valiant man. They transported a horse onto land, the finest they had brought with them. Tristrem’s armour was new and shining, his heart was strong and brave and his resolve unwavering. He was familiar with the country and knew where to go to find this dragon.
Up close, it looked as though hellfire was pouring out of the dragon’s mouth. Tristrem attacked it like a ferocious lion, he struck it in the side with his lance, but it did him not a button’s worth of good! The head of the lance just slid away and didn’t bite at all. The dragon’s hide was as hard as flint. Tristrem took up his lance once more, and this time it splintered into three pieces against the dragon’s hide. The dragon lashed out and killed Tristrem’s horse. Tristrem dashed under a tree and stood very still.
‘God in Trinity, don’t let me die here!’ he implored.
Now he had to take the fight to the dragon on foot. He swung his long broadsword like the valiant knight that he was, and with a stroke of immense power, he managed to cut away the dragon’s lower jaw with it. The dragon breathed out a stream of fire which burnt Tristrem’s shining armour so badly that it now looked a disgrace. The dragon belched out another billow of flame and burnt Tristrem’s shield to a cinder.
Tristrem’s horse lies dead and now his armour is destroyed! But he gathered his strength and with a final effort, plunged his sword deep into the dragon’s brains and broke its neck.
Tristrem was overjoyed that the battle was finally won. He had never been so happy in all his life! He took the dragon’s tongue by cutting it away at the root and stuffed it away into his leggings. But he hadn’t gone ten strides before he began to lose the power of speech and couldn’t stay on his feet any longer; he couldn’t go a step further but fell to the ground unconscious.
The steward came up and cut off the dragon’s head. Then he took the head back to Ysonde and showed her what he had risked his life to do – or so he said – for he wanted Ysonde very much. The king seemed quite happy to accept the steward’s word that he had killed the dragon, but Ysonde wasn’t happy with the idea at all. She and her mother went to where the dragon had been slain, to try to find out who had really killed it.
‘Could the steward possibly have done this?’ asked the queen.
‘No!’ replied Ysonde, with absolute certainty. ‘That burnt horse is not his. Neither is this scattered armour that’s been torched either. As they advanced further, they came across a man lying prostrate on the ground.
‘He must be the one who killed the dragon,’ they said.
They opened his mouth and poured some medicine into him. When he was able to speak again, Tristrem told them how he had defeated the dragon: ‘I took its tongue away,’ he told them, ‘but it has poisoned me.’
They looked, and the queen took the tongue from out of his leggings. They could plainly see that he was telling the truth and that the steward was lying.
‘If the steward dares to fight with the man who has really killed the dragon, I can prove beyond all doubt that I was the one who did it,’ said Tristrem, like the true knight that he was. And he vowed that he was ready to do just this, so enthusiastically that Ysonde laughed. He offered his ship as well as his honour, as a guarantee that he was willing to do so.
The queen asked him who he was.
‘I am a merchant,’ replied Tristrem. ‘My ship is nearby. Whoever may have claimed to have killed this dragon, I will prove it otherwise, before he gets any kiss from Ysonde!’
Ysonde though to herself: ‘Alas, if only you were a knight!’
Tristrem was eager to ride against the steward. The two ladies, mother and daughter, cared for their champion to the best of their ability, building his strength up enough that he would be able to fight, for his arms were long and his shoulders very broad. The queen made a bath for him and led him to it, then went off to prepare a potent drink for him.
The beautiful maiden Ysonde was harbouring a suspicion that the man might be the minstrel Tramtris. She looked at his sword and found that it had a piece of steel broken from it. She took a broken piece out of a chest and laid it against the missing splinter and found that it fitted perfectly.
‘It isn’t Tramtris, it is Tristrem!’ Ysonde suddenly had it in her mind to kill him there and then. She went to where he lay in the bath, the sword in her hand.
‘You killed my uncle Moraunt!’ she cried. ‘For this, I want to see the blood come from your heart!’
He mother thought she had lost her wits. She appeared with the medicinal drink and laughed.
‘I’m not joking, I mean it!’ exclaimed Ysonde. ‘This villain is the one who killed your brother. It is Tristrem. There can be no doubt about it. Look at this piece of steel that was taken from my uncle’s head. Set it against this sword. Don’t you see?
They both sprang at him, both wanting suddenly to kill him, and they would have done so too, there and then, in the bath, if it hadn’t been for the king.
Tristrem laughed at sweet Ysonde: ‘You might have killed me many times over when I was Tramtris,’ he joked. ‘But you accuse me undeservedly of that noble knight Moraunt’s death, for I freely admit that I killed him, but it was in a fair fight and this is the truth, and if he had had the strength, he would gladly have done the same to me. When I was Tramtris, I taught you to play the harp and to sing, and when I returned to Cornwall I did all in my power to extol your virtues to King Mark. I have done so to such an extent that he had begun to yearn for you.’
The steward retracted his claim that he had killed the dragon, once it was known that Tristrem had done it. The king had taken the view that a trial should be fought to decide who was telling the truth, but the steward refused it, preferring to concede the issue without contest. So they gave Ysonde to Tristrem as his reward.
Ysonde entreated her father to throw the lying steward into prison. Tristrem asked for no land nor title, just Ysonde to take back to King Mark. He gave sureties in order to prove King Mark’s goodwill and to lessen the obstacles against a reconciliation between Ireland and Cornwall, if Ysonde would agree to be Mark’s queen. Tristrem swore to the truth of the proposal, and they believed him and said that it should be so, that he should take Ysonde across the sea to marry King Mark, and that Mark should make her Queen of England. This contract was formally agreed and sworn to. Preparations were made for Ysonde to travel back with Tristrem.
Squires and knights busied themselves with preparations for the voyage. Ysonde’s mother made a powerful drink that would induce love between whoever shared it, and she gave it to pretty Brangwain to keep safe.
‘On their wedding night,’ she told her, ‘give this to Mark and Ysonde to drink.’
The beautiful Ysonde is far out to sea, but the wind is blowing unfavourably and they have to take down the sails and row.
The knights manned the oars, and Tristrem rowed as well; he pulled his oar continually, without pause, as the seats beside him were occupied in rotation, giving each of his knights a good rest. It was great work on his part!
Sweet Ysonde asked Brangwain for a drink. The cup she gave her mistress was very beautifully made, with gold, and in all the world there was not another drink to compare with the one that was inside it, for Brangeain has made a mistake. She has brought the wrong drink! Ysonde took a sip and then gave the cup to Tristrem to quench his thirst. Their love could not now be broken.
There was a dog beside them, a little hound called Hodein. He licked the cup when Brangwain put it down and thereafter all three of them loved one another beyond all reason, much to their joy. They would remain together in joy and in pain from now on; regretfully, that is to say, because the drink was prepared under an evil star.
Tristrem lay with Ysonde every night after that, and played with her as he wished. They made love during the day and during the night, and Tristrem had never been happier in all his life. Brangwain was fully aware of what they were doing. Tristrem and Ysonde loved each other with all their strength and all their energy, and so did the little dog.
They lay for two weeks on a flat calm, then a wind picked up and blew them towards England. A squire carried news of their arrival to the king; he found King Mark out hunting and the king knighted him on the spot, for bringing this welcome news.
The beautiful Ysonde was married to King Mark. He gave her a lovely ring in marriage, and I’ll say nothing about the wedding feast. Brangwain did as they had planned, she took the love-potion that had been brought from Ireland for Ysonde and the king, and then, when the lamps were all extinguished, Brangwain was brought to bed and Mark did all that he wanted to do in bed with Brangwain. When Mark had finished his work, Ysonde was taken to the bed and the lamps were re-lit. She asked for an Irish drink and Brangwain offered her the cup. But Ysonde let it fall at her side. She had need only of Tristrem and didn’t want to share her love with anybody else. No cleric could approve of, and no poet could adequately describe, the love that existed between the two of them. It was so intense they thought that their days would be filled with joy.
But alas, it was not to be so. Their hopes were in vain, their future uncertain. They couldn’t see each other nearly as often as they had hoped, and they became dispirited and morose. Ysonde deliberately laughed when Tristrem seemed downhearted, their moods swung this way and that.
Now Ysonde is planning to kill Brangwain. She thought: ‘I have a right to be angry. She was the first to make love with the king. I promised her much if she would do so, but she might decide to bring shame upon us now. It is better that she dies, quickly and secretly. Then Tristrem and I will be able to continue our intimacy without fear.
One day, when the queen saw two workmen nearby, she took them into her confidence: ‘You shall kill Brangwain and then hide her body,’ she instructed. ‘I’ll reward you well if you will do this for me. I’ll make you rich. Don’t let anything stop you from carrying out this mission to its conclusion.’
They rode with Brangwain into a dark and secluded valley. One of them drew his sword, the other stood behind her. She cried for mercy:
‘For the cross of Jesus! What have I done wrong? Why do you want to spill my blood?’
‘Queen Ysonde, that good lady, has instructed us to kill you.’
Brangwain begged them to speak these words to the queen, on her behalf: ‘Tell Queen Ysonde that I greet my lady, who has always been faithful to me. She and I had shifts, and hers was already dirty when she had to lie beside King Mark, so I leant her my clean one to wear. I have never, I am certain, done anything else to displease her.’
They couldn’t kill her, she seemed so sincere, so they returned to the queen.
‘What did she say to you,’ Ysonde asked when she saw them.
‘She asked us to say to you: “Your shift was dirty when you had to lie beside King Mark and I leant her my clean one that day.”’
‘Where is that faithful maiden?’ asked Islode. ‘You have killed her!’ she exclaimed in horror, and she swore by the cross of God that they would be hanged and drawn for this crime. Then she offered them expensive gifts if they would bring her back again. They fetched her at once. Ysonde was overjoyed. She knew now that Brangwain was faithful, and she loved her very much. From that day onwards they were reconciled and all was forgiven.
Tristrem and Ysonde continued to make love together.
One day a harper arrived from Ireland to see King Mark. He carried a harp the likes of which had never been seen in Cornwall before and he carried it around with him all the time, and no lie. He had loved Ysonde for a long while, and this was the reason why he wore the harp around his neck. It was a very finely made instrument, but he kept it secured. He wouldn’t take it out.
‘Why don’t you play for us, if you can do so?’ asked the king.
‘The harp stays where it is, unless gifts are offered to me,’ he replied.
‘Show us what you can do and I will give you whatever you want,’
‘Then gladly,’ and he began to sing a merry lai. When he had finished: ‘Sir king,’ he said, ‘of all the generous gifts you could give, I claim your wife Ysonde. Give her to me, or else be known as a liar and a man whose word cannot be trusted.’
King Mark took counsel and asked which of these two ignominious choices it would be better to accept:
‘Should I give him my wife or be branded a liar?’ he asked.
In the end, with great reluctance, he decided to let Ysonde go. All this while, Tristrem had been out in the forest, hunting deer. He arrived back just as Queen Ysonde was being led away. Tristrem was furious. He shouted at the king: ‘Have you given your queen away to minstrels? Hadn’t you anything else to give?’
Tristrem took up his own harp and rode out to where the Irishmen had enthusiastically carried Ysonde to their ship. Tristrem began to play and to sing. Ysonde heard the music and listened entranced. Tristrem sang such a song that Ysonde’s emotions overcame her, her heart nearly burst for love-longing and the Irish earl rushed up to her, accompanied by many knights:
‘My sweet thing, what is all this?’ he asked.
‘I will be alright soon,’ she said. ‘I can hear a minstrel. It sounds just like Tramtris playing. I must go ashore to listen.’
‘A curse on him!’ exclaimed the earl. ‘Is it Tramtris? That minstrel shall have a hundred pounds off me if he’ll come along with us, my darling, since you’re enjoying his music so much.’
In order to enjoy this music to the full, the lady was taken ashore. The earl led her by the hand to the river. Tristrem, the true friend that he was, found some merry notes on his ivory harp and Ysonde listened to him contentedly on the beach. The pleasing and familiar verses that he sang made the queen feel happy and joyous again. Her spirits were lifted by virtue of Tristrem’s music, and for this reason, the earl was very pleased also. He gave Tristrem two hundred pounds and then began to make his way back to the ship with Ysonde and Brangwain, for the earl and his three knights wanted very much to return to Ireland.
Tristrem leapt onto his horse. The queen asked if he would carry her to the ship through the water on horseback. Tristrem was happy to do as she asked: she mounted beside him and he galloped off with her into the woodland.
‘You’ve made yourself look a complete idiot!’ Trystram shouted back to the earl. ‘You won her with your harp just a short while ago, and now my harp has won her back again!’
Tristrem rode with Ysonde away into the forest, where he made a lodge for them both, and it was soon filled with joy and merry play. Ysonde was beyond happiness, she was in ecstasy. They stayed there for seven nights, then they made their way back to the court.
‘Sir king,’ said Tristrem when they arrived back, ‘give minstrels something else next time.’
Tristrem had a friend whom he trusted, named Meriaduk. They shared a room together and there was a lot of goodwill between them. Tristrem went off one night to lie in bed with Ysonde. He had craftily taken a board away from Ysonde’s chamber so that he could gain entry, but it had been snowing that evening. A snow shower had fallen and all the way was white. Tristrem was not pleased that his plans had been thwarted, for between the hall and Ysonde’s chamber the way was narrow and likely to be slippery. This was the problem that presented itself, as the story tells us. Tristrem found a couple of sieves and tied them to his feet.
Mariaduk woke up and rose immediately, then followed the footprints to the queen’s chamber. He found the board missing, and saw a fragment of green cloth that had been torn from Tristrem’s clothing as he passed through. Meriaduk wondered what was going on.
In the morning he told the king what he had seen. ‘My lord, without any word of a lie,’ he said, ‘Tristrem must have lain with Ysonde last night. Here’s my advice: say that you intend to carry the cross of Jesus to Jerusalem and ask her who she would like to take care of her while you are away. The queen will choose Tristrem, I can guarantee it.’
That evening: ‘I intend to go to Jerusalem,’ the king said to Ysonde when they were in bed. ‘Let’s put our heads together and decide who should look after you while I’m away.’
‘I would like it to be Tristrem,’ replied the queen at once. ‘I love him very much, because he is your nephew.’
In the morning, Ysonde told Brangwain everything that she and Mark had discussed the previous evening. ‘He wants to go overseas,’ she said. ‘Now our happy days have arrived! I’ll be put in Tristrem’s keeping until he returns, and we can do as we like!’
‘Be careful, you’ve been rumbled,’ cautioned Brangwain. ‘Be warned, Mark will sing from a different song sheet tonight. To forestall him, say that you’d like to accompany him to Jerusalem, and tell him that if he still loves you he should send Tristrem away. Leave Mark in no doubt that you don’t like Tristrem, that you’re afraid of him, that you fear he might kill you if he’s left on his own with you and that you profess to love him only because he is Mark’s nephew.’
The next night, then, Ysonde cried: ‘Mark, have mercy! You intend to entrust me to my enemy! It’s a grievous sin that you should do so. It would be better if you were to let me go abroad with you. I would ask you to have Tristrem killed if it wasn’t for the love that I have for you, for the rumour is going round that Tristrem and I have slept together.’
Mark was happy and relieved to hear this. Maraiduk wasn’t pleased at all that King Mark seemed to have been duped once again by Queen Ysonde. ‘Call her bluff,’ he said. ‘Send Tristrem away from court. Then you’ll be able to see the truth of it with your own eyes, you’ll be left in no doubt.’
So King Mark had Tristrem sent away. Ysonde had never been so sad, and neither had Tristrem. Tristrem took a room in town. Ysonde stayed in her chamber and wanted to kill herself. Tristrem lay comatose on his bed, unable to get up. They both yearned for death, day and night, and it was plain for all to see – the life that they were having to lead because of love.
Tristrem sent little pieces of wood with his initials carved into them downstream to the garden outside Ysonde’s chamber. Ysonde recognised them at once and guessed that he was trying to tell her that he was coming. Before noon the next day, they were in one another’s arms again.
‘I advise you to go hunting,’ said Mariaduk to King Mark. ‘Make it known that you’re planning to spend a fortnight away, inspecting all your forests, and ask Tristrem to come along. Then stay here and see what happens. You’ll catch them in the act, I’m sure. In the olive tree outside Ysonde’s garden. If you hide there, you’ll see exactly what they’re getting up to.’
Tristrem and Ysonde met in her orchard, and when the coast seemed clear, they made love together. A dwarf saw what they were up to, as he sat in the tree. He went off to tell King Mark to come and see for himself. ‘Sir, you’ll have no reason to doubt it any more if you do,’ he said.
Off went the dwarf to set a dastardly trap. He went to Tristrem, like a snake in the grass, feigning a message from Ysonde: ‘My lady Ysonde has sent me to you because I am trustworthy,’ he said. ‘She asks you very fervently if you will come to see her. Mark is away, so there is no danger.’
Tristrem chose his words carefully: ‘Master, I thank you for bringing this message to me. Take this robe for your trouble, and do not forget to tell Ysonde that I have suffered much in the past for what she has said. That dear lady accuses me falsely to her husband’s face. I will see her tomorrow, in church, and that is the truth.’
The dwarf went off to find King Mark. ‘He gave me this robe,’ he said. ‘It shows that he loves the queen very much, although I don’t think he trusted me, for he made out as though he didn’t like her at all. I reckon he’ll go to her tonight.’
King Mark sat in the tree as, nearby and below him, Ysonde and Tristrem met one another. But Tristrem saw Mark’s shadow and called out to Ysonde that she ought to see Mark instead, it was he she ought to be seeing!
‘You shouldn’t be here!’ cried Ysonde, suddenly understanding. ’There is no legitimate reason for you to be here, Tristrem. Men should kill you. I would do so myself, but for my loyalty to the king!’
‘Ysolde, you are my enemy,’ replied Tristrem. ‘You have slandered me unjustly. You’ve told such lies about me that now my uncle doesn’t want to see me any more. It would be more to your honour to behave more fairly towards me, by the Holy Trinity! Otherwise I will have to leave and go into Wales.’
‘Tristrem, I don’t like you, God knows, but I’ve never slandered you, I swear by the Holy Cross! Men say that I have slept with you, and your uncle has heard this malicious rumour. So by all means, go away! I have only ever loved one man, and he is the one who took my maidenhead from me.’
‘Mercy, sweet Ysonde! You say that men think that I have slept with you? Then convince the king for me, please, that I am blameless. Otherwise I will go away and King Mark will never see me again.’
As he sat in the tree and listened to all this, King Mark’s heart ached with pity. ‘You are both innocent of this slander,’ he thought.
‘You say that I malign you?’ cried Ysonde. ‘Well, your uncle is rich and powerful and he is generous to you, but whatever may come of it, here’s my message to you: I don’t care if he sends you away!’
‘And yet he shall remain here,’ thought King Mark.
Tristrem turned and left, and Ysonde returned to her chamber. King Mark had heard everything with his own ears and he couldn’t wait to kiss his nephew and forgive him. He was happy again, and Tristrem was welcomed with open arms once more.
Now Ysonde has all she wants. Her slanderers are much in King Mark’s disfavour and Tristrem has been appointed chief officer to King Mark’s court.
For three years, Tristrem and Ysonde lived in each other’s company and loved one another just as they wished. Their love was secure, as long as they maintained their discretion.
Meriaduk continued to make accusations. He still tried to catch them at it, and whenever any opportunity presented itself to do this, any which might help to precipitate their downfall, he would jump at the chance.
‘They’re at it all the time,’ he complained to the king. ‘I’ve been telling you for ages. Choose a day for all three of you to have your blood let. Then do as I advise and you will have proof very shortly. Ysonde’s bed will be bloody before Tristrem can get her into his arms!’
Trystram, Ysonde and King Mark had their blood let out. Afterwards, the floor was swept clean. Meriaduk brought flour and spread it between the beds, so that no one could go across the floor without it being clear for everyone to see from the footprints afterwards. Trystram leapt thirty feet that night! He was so desperate to hold Ysonde in his arms that, since he couldn’t go to kiss her because of the flour on the floor, he jumped thirty feet, I say! But in doing this, his bandage came off, his wound opened and it began bleeding again. Before it was light, he leapt back to his own bed.
Thirty feet, without a lie! King Mark saw how bloody Ysonde’s bed was. He told Brangwain that the peace between Ysonde and himself was now at an end.
Tristrem chose to leave the country, to be away from King Mark’s gaze for a while. With Tristrem now out of the way, Mark decided to put Ysonde to a trail by ordeal, because men were continuing to say that she had acted wrongly. In London, a bishop was called to mediate. Ysonde agreed to endure hot iron in order to prove her innocence. She said that she would accept the outcome of the trial, so a place for this ordeal was laid out at Westminster, where hot iron would be carried, to determine Tristrem and Ysonde’s guilt.
Tristrem appeared that night in poor man’s clothing. His loyalty could not keep him away, and of all the knights who were there, none recognised him at all. In the morning, Ysonde prepared herself to be taken over the Thames, which is an inlet of the sea.
‘This man shall carry me to the ship,’ she said.
Tristrem took her up into his arms, but he fell and landed on top of her and couldn’t help touching her in a very private place. Many were witness to this intimate moment. The skirt of her dress had been pulled up around her waist, as all the knights could see.
They thought to drown him there and then.
‘That would be very poor payment for honest work,’ objected Ysonde. ‘He looks as though he hasn’t had a decent meal in days. He fell because of his poverty, through severe need, so give him gold, please, and then he may be encouraged to ask God to look kindly upon my own difficulties.’
So they gave him gold, and then the trial began.
Sweet Ysonde swore that she was guiltless of any sexual impropriety at all: ‘excepting , of course,’ she said, ‘with that man who just carried me to the ship and touched me in a very intimate place. You all saw where his hand went. He had a fine feel of my private parts! But no one except for himself and my lord the king has ever been nearly so intimate with me.’
In this way, Ysonde swore her innocence. They chose hot iron to use for the trial. The knights were all assembled in front of her, and they began to pray for her. She held the iron and carried it successfully, passing the test. Mark forgave her everything. Everybody looked upon Mariaduk now as a fool and a liar. Queen Ysonde was exonerated.
The queen had never before been in such favour with King Mark. Tristrem, I know for certain, went into Wales, seeking battle and conflict. Because he couldn’t kiss Ysonde, his turned his thoughts to fighting and he sought it wherever he could.
In Wales, there was a king whose name was Triamour, who had a young daughter whose name was Blauncheflour. But a giant named Urgan was causing all sorts of violence and harm in order to win that sweet maiden and take her to his bed. Urgan controlled Wales unjustly; he was besieging Triamour in his castle and often plundered the land. Tryamour told Tristrem one summer’s day that he would yield to him the sovereignty of Wales if he could only win back control from Urgan. Tristrem, with great honour, became the king’s knight and defender. He went to war and won the land, and this is the truth.
Tristrem met Urgan in battle. ‘You killed my brother Morgan, while he was eating!’ Urgan shouted. ‘My foe! You will pay for this with your life.’
‘We’ll see,’ replied Tristrem. ‘But I think you are the one who will die.’
The club that Urgan carried was twelve feet long. No man could survive a blow from it! It will be a miracle if Tristrem can. But Tristrem found himself with a sudden advantage and cut away Urgan’s club with one stroke of his sword, taking the giant’s hand along with it. He made the giant bleed that day, that’s for sure! Urgan, in a great rage, fought with his left hand and managed to deliver a fierce blow onto the valiant Tristrem’s shining helmet. Tristrem was knocked to the ground. But up he leapt and with a cry of praise to God Almighty, he began to swing his sword once more. The giant backed away.
Urgan picked up his hand and ran off, roaring, as fast as he could in the direction of his castle. Tristrem followed the blood stains and found the giant’s hand lying on a table in the castle. The giant reappeared – he had gone off to collect herbs and salves in order to reattach his hand – and he immediately raced after Tristrem, who was riding swiftly away with it.
People had gathered from far and wide to watch.
‘I’ll put my faith in God,’ thought Tristrem, ‘and accept whatever grace I am given.’ So he waited on a bridge. Many were watching now. Urgan ran at Tristrem, and each gave the other a grim welcome. Strokes of great power were exchanged and both of them sustained injury and wounds, even through their chainmail. Tristrem fought as a valiant knight, but Urgan delivered a fearsome blow that split Tristrem’s shield into two pieces. Tristrem had never before been in such fear of his life. Urgan struck at him again, with all his strength, but he missed. Tristrem delivered a counter blow that pierced the giant right through the body. The giant staggered backwards, mortally wounded, and fell over the bridge onto sharp rocks below.
Tristrem has killed Urgan!
The whole country was delighted. King Tryamour kissed Tristrem and gave him all of Wales to govern. Then the king brought a young hunting dog to Tristrem. Let me tell you his colour: he was red, green and blue, with fur as soft as silk, and all those who played with him thought him a lovely animal. His name was Peticrewe, and he was considered to be very valuable.
King Tryamour gave Peticrewe to Tristrem, for the puppy had the ability to lift anyone out of sorrow and to bring instant joy and pleasure. Tristrem, with great generosity, and true to his nobility, gave all of Wales to Blauncheflour and sent the young dog Peticrewe to Queen Ysonde of Cornwall. Ysonde, in all truth, when she saw the puppy, sent word immediately to Tristrem telling him that she had made peace with King Mark on his behalf and that there was friendship again between the king and himself.
King Mark had already heard that Urgan had been killed and sent messengers of his own to Tristrem, asking him to return. Mark was overjoyed when Tristrem appeared before him. He kissed him with great affection and gave everything that Tristrem had once controlled back into his stewardship, castles, cities, the lot. And who was more delighted than Ysonde? No one!
But regardless of the danger in doing so, Tristrem and Ysonde began to see one another again. They allowed unguarded moments to reveal their feelings for one another and started once more to make love together whenever they could.
At last, King Mark could see plainly what was going on. He was left in no doubt, and knew that he had no option but to act, so he cast them both out. He told them both to get out of his sight! To go away together. ‘Get lost!’
They were never happier! Tristrem and the beautiful Ysonde fled into a forest where they had no dwelling place except for the green woodland, so they lived beside the woods and the hills. Ysonde had all the joy that she needed there and they had never been happier in all their lives.
Tristrem and that lady were cast away for what they had done and they lay in an earth house and lived with their hunting dogs, for they had taken Hodain and Peticrewe with them. Tristrem taught them how to take wild animals at full tilt in that ancient forest; he chased with Hodain and he killed a wild beast with Hodain. They lay in a den, and had joy enough. Giants had made it, in olden times, and every night they both retired eagerly to their earthen cave. They spent day and night beneath the branches of that forest.
The den was warm in winter and cool in summer, and it had a secret way into it that no one would find. They had no wine and no ale and their food was very plain and simple, but they had all that they needed. They were so in love that love was all they needed, and all they wanted.
Tristrem stood on a hill where he had been before and found a natural spring. The stones and gravel were sparkling white. Tristrem took sweet Ysonde there and that was all they had to live on, along with wild flesh, and grass, but they had never been so happy in all their lives. Their joy lasted for almost a year.
But then one day, very early in the morning, Tristrem took Hodain and they killed an animal in a clearing and Tristrem butchered the beast and trussed it, then took it home with him. Ysonde lay asleep and Tristrem got down beside her, quickly drew his sword and laid it between them. For King Mark was out hunting.
That same morning the king had disturbed a hart. His huntsmen went after it and they quickly found a path and followed it, when suddenly they came across Tristrem and Ysonde. Never before had they seen such a man, nor such a beautiful woman. Between the pair lay a drawn, shining sword. The hunters quickly went to tell King Mark what they had seen. King Mark went back with them and recognised both the lady and the knight. He knew them well. The sword lay between them. A sunbeam shone through a crack in the earth and fell onto the face of the queen, and Mark was filled with pity. He filled the crevice with his glove, to keep the sun from getting in her eyes.
‘If they were living as lovers, they wouldn’t be lying together like that,’ he said.
His anger turned to regret. ‘Look, how they lie apart! They have no thoughts of making love to one another at all.’
‘Yes, it is love in good faith, for certain,’ agreed his knights.
Tristrem woke up, and so did sweet Ysonde the beautiful. They found the glove and removed it, and confirmed to each other that it was Mark’s. They knew from the glove that he had been there and a new joy filled their hearts, that he had seen them like that with his own eyes. Very shortly afterwards some knights appeared, to fetch the two of them back.
They who have been in the forest are quickly taken back to the king’s court. Mark kissed Ysonde, and he kissed his dutiful nephew Tristrem as well. Their trials and misdemeanours were all forgiven. They were held once again in the highest honour. Tristrem was reappointed to all his former roles and set into high office once again.
But all who want to hear of love, listen awhile. It happened, one summer’s day, that Tristrem and Ysonde crept off to make love together once more, and the cursed dwarf saw them and went to tell King Mark.
‘Sir king,’ he informed him, ‘your wife is away again with your knight. Go after them at once and you‘ll catch them at it, if you go quickly enough.’
King Mark ran to his horse. Tristrem and Ysonde became aware that he was approaching.
‘Ysonde, we are lost,’ said Tristrem. ‘There is nothing we can do now.’
Never had there been a more concerned man than Tristrem at that moment. ‘I must flee or be killed,’ he said. ‘But I shall go with more sorrow and regret than I can say. I flee for fear of death and I’ll lead my life in sorrow, in the woodland, but I dare no longer stay.’
Ysonde gave Tristrem a ring and then he fled in fear of his life, to hide in the forest. Mark and his knights came galloping up, but found only Ysonde lying there by herself. Tristrem had departed and Ysonde was lying there as though nothing had happened. King Mark’s knights rebuked him for being wrong, once again, about the pair of them. They asked him to forgive Ysonde.
Tristrem spent that night with the queen, and they didn’t sleep very much. Then he took his leave from her and went away.
Tristrem has gone away and doesn’t intent to return. He travels as a man who doesn’t care if he lives or dies, grief-stricken and full of anguish, looking for conflict and martial challenges wherever he goes.
He arrived in Spain and defeated three giants there. Then he rode out of Spain and headed for Hermonie, to see Rohand’s sons. They were very pleased to see him and welcomed him with open arms and whoops of joy. He lived there for a while as lord, much to his honour and worth, for he was promised all the lands that he had won. After due consideration, however, he thought it best if he moved on:
‘Thank you, but I have no desire for your lands,’ he said.
He chose next to go into Brittany, to become the duke’s knight. There, Tristrem brought peace to the duchy, which before had been wracked by war, and all the land that had formerly belonged to the duke he won back for his lord. A grateful duke invited Tristrem to accept the hand in marriage of his beautiful daughter as a reward. Her name was Ysonde of the White Hands. But Tristrem still loved Queen Ysonde.
Tristrem composed a song about Ysonde and the maiden mistakenly thought that the song was about her. She waited for so long for Tristrem to declare his love for her that she felt compelled to pour out her complaints to her father. The duke urged Tristrem to take Ysonde of the White Hands to be his wife.
Tristrem decided: ‘Mark, my uncle, has wronged Ysonde and me. My sorrow and pain is all because of him. Her love is mine! But the Bible says no; and it is right to do so.’
So Tristrem sought out the maiden Ysonde more and more, but only because of her name. These thoughts ran through his head and he truly believed them, so in the end, he agreed to marry the maiden Ysonde.
The wedding took place.
That night, they retired to their chamber and to bed. The ring on Tristrem’s finger was taken off as men prepared to lead him into the bedroom. Tristrem looked at the ring that Ysonde had given him and his heart nearly broke.
‘Ysonde has never done anything like this to me,’ he thought. ‘It is not her fault that Mark has a right to her. It is through wrongdoing. No man has the power to separate my heart from hers. I am the cause of our separation and the wrongdoing is all mine.’
Tristrem made his way to the bed in a very sorrowful state. ‘I dare not make love to you,’ he said to Ysonde when they were lying together, and he asked her not to force him to.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I won’t compel you to do anything until you wish to.’
One day, Ysonde’s father gave Tristrem and his new wife a great swathe of lands. It bordered a country where a giant ruled; the boundary was clearly marked out with ancient markers and no man could encroach into that area without having to face the giant in battle. Anyone who did so was likely to have the bubble of his pride quickly burst, be he king or knight.
‘I caution you never to allow your hunting to take you beyond the arm of the sea,’ the duke warmed Tristrem. ‘Beliagog is enormous, he’s a stern giant and you in particular, Tristrem, would be wise to fear him, since you have killed his three brothers in battle: Urgan, Morgan, and the Irish knight Moraunt. So if, when you are hunting, your hounds inadvertently stray into his territory and then return again of their own volition, be courteous and understanding if his hounds do the same.’
The forest was a beautiful one, with many a wonderful tree. Tristrem decided to go hunting in it, come what may. ‘I will explore this country and take whatever chances to come my way,’ he said.
So Tristrem went hunting and set off in pursuit of a hart, into the district where the boundary markers were. His hounds chased beyond them. The water was broad and black, but Tristrem followed to where the duke had warned him not to go. He quickly followed his dogs and then blew the prize in the only way that he knew how – with three loud notes and more.
Beliagog appeared, very suddenly, and asked Tristrem who he was. ‘I’ve come riding here to hunt. My name is Tristrem,’ he replied.
‘Ah! You’re the man who killed my brother Moraunt. Is it really you? You killed my brother Urgan as well. I don’t feel very much like greeting you. I feel rather that you should atone for this offence, now that you are in my land.’
‘I killed Urgan, you are right, and I expect to be able to kill you as well,’ said Tristrem. ‘Then I shall fell this forest and build a castle, for it is lovely here. I claim this land for myself!’
The giant listened to this and his anger grew. It was not long before they began fighting. Beliagog threw a volley of javelins and he very nearly killed Tristrem. One of the spears passed between Tristrem’s coat of chainmail and his side, and he thanked God Almighty that he had managed to dodge it just in time. He redoubled his efforts and fought back valiantly, but Beliagog fought ferociously like a fiend and nearly killed Tristrem once again, as Thomas has told us. But then Tristrem managed to deliver a blow with his sword that took off the giant’s foot. The giant fell at once, in a crumpled heap, that huge man, and cried: ‘Tristrem, let us come to terms. You can have my lands. I am defeated. I’ll never make any claims against you now. I concede that you have defeated me in battle.’
Beliagog showed Tristrem his treasure. Tristrem knew, in all truth, that the giant’s promise would be kept. What was this promise? That he would construct for him a hall in honour of Ysonde and Brangwain.
The giant led Tristrem until they came to an old secluded place of refuge and defence, surrounded by water, his ancestor’s castle. Beliagog invited Tristrem to have it built anew; he would assign some fine masons and carpenters to do the job and provide the finest timber from his forests. Tristrem would have the beautiful Ysonde there.
The giant showed Tristrem where there was a ford that he could use to go across to it, whenever he liked. Tristrem spent most of his time there, without telling anybody where he was. He would spend only a short time away before he was back again. He needed to keep an eye on his workmen, for Beliagog had found craftsmen and the able Tristrem had set them to work. Never before had anyone seen such things as they made in there; it was perfect. On a platform in the hall was set Ysonde, with Hodain and Peticrewe, and a statue of Brangwain holding the fateful drink. Mark was there, clothed in a fine robe, and Meriaduk, standing with his brow creased in scheming thought. They were all so lifelike that they seemed to be more than images, more than just statues. There was Tristrem fighting with the giant Beliagog!
It happened that a festival was taking place in the town of Saint Mahé, attended by many lords of renown. A nobleman named Boniface had married a lady of Saint Pol de Leon and there was a great deal of entertainment from musicians and storytellers. Minstrels were everywhere, singing and playing.
Duke Florentine of Brittany made his way there, with his son Ganhardin and his daughter Ysonde. Ysonde’s horse stepped into a puddle and the water splashed up under the skirt of her dress and managed to wet her in a very private place. The lady laughed out loud. Her brother Ganhardin heard her.
‘Why are you laughing?’ he called to his sister, fearful that the joke might be at his expense. ‘Tell me what’s so funny? I insist that you tell me.’
‘Don’t be angry,’ replied his sister. ‘My horse splashed in a puddle and the water came up between my legs and wet me in a place that no man has yet dared to touch. It was very brave of the water to do that, I thought, seeing that no one else has dared to summon the courage. That was why I laughed.’
‘Then this is to our dishonour!’ exclaimed Ganhardin. ‘Tristrem insults our family! It is disgraceful of him! I’d rather see him true to his marriage vows than have all the gold in India. They shall not be broken! I’ll break our friendship first!’
Ganhardin was very angry. Tristrem could clearly see this, but he didn’t know why, so he asked Ganhardin what was wrong.
‘You have slept beside my sister Ysonde with nothing to stop you from doing anything you wanted to, and yet you have never made love to her. Why, Tristrem, tell me this? What has she done wrong? What is the problem?’
‘She might have kept this a secret,’ replied Tristrem. ‘But she seems to have been quite eager to tell you, I can see, so that’s it, I’m done with her. But I’ll take you to see a lady who is three times more beautiful than your sister will ever be, if you like. Look upon it as a gift from me.’
So Ganhardin made his excuses, left the feast and went off with his friend Tristrem. He was keen to visit this lady, let’s be honest. He said that he would die if Tristrem didn’t let him go along with him.
‘If we are lucky enough to arrive safely in England,’ said Tristrem, ‘don’t say a word about anything you might see but stay silent and discrete, as the fine nobleman that you are. Keep it all a secret and say nothing.’
Ganhardin pledged to abide by this. He promised to be his faithful companion and a true knight, whatever Tristrem might require of him. That night, they both journeyed into Beliagog’s land. When Ganhardin saw where they were bound for, he quaked with fear on that shore. ‘You’re leading me to Beliagog!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’re leading me to my death!’
‘No, Ganhardin, you are wrong. Why do you say this? I don’t wish to kill you. The giant is my servant, I hold his life in my hands.’
Tristrem called the giant and he quickly appeared, walking with a wooden leg. ‘Lord, your wish is my command,’ he said.
‘Beliagog, go and see that all is ready. Ganhardin and I want to see the lady.’
They came to a castle that was beautifully constructed out of timber and stone. Ganhardin quickly realised that they had come to see Ysonde, for they went into a brightly lit hall and there she was! There was Ysonde, and Brangwain as well, both of them. Tristrem was there also, and Beliagog the giant – Ganhardin jumped away in fright and hit his head as he staggered backwards, and he was filled with shame as his head began to bleed, but also with astonishment to be so close to Ysonde, and to Brangwain, who was so very beautiful. He looked on with awe and pity, that noble man, and swore by God’s mercy that he had never seen anything like it, as he stared at Brangwain holding the cup which lay firm and unmoving in her hand.
‘Tristrem, it is foolishness to speak any words against you,’ he stammered. ‘I am mad to even contemplate going against you. But this is heartbreak! My fervent desire, if I could have it, is to see this beautiful lady. She has pierced my heart, this friend of Ysonde’s, this Brangwain. She is so noble and lovely! I will never he happy again until I have seen her!’
Tristrem and Ganhardin pledged that, come what may, in joy and in pain, they would be true to one another, and Tristrem promised that Ganhardin could lie with Brangwain and have all his desire with her, if he could bring it about. So they took the way to England, these two valiant knights.
King Mark had made Sir Canados his constable and this knight guarded the queen closely. He knew that Tristrem had been the queen’s lover and conceived the idea that he might try to emulate him through gifts of broaches and jewellery. But the queen was not going to be seduced, so he was wasting his time. No one could take Tristrem’s place in her heart.
Tristrem composed a song that lauded the praises of the wise Ysonde, and he sang it to the accompaniment of his harp. Sir Canados was nearby and heard it being played.
‘Madam, you are being misled,’ he said. ‘It’s like the noise of owls and whistling wind. You love Tristrem, but you are being misled. Tristrem has taken a wife. He will be the duke of Brittany soon, so put on a brave face when you see the lady, for he took her because she has the same name as you. She is called Ysonde: Ysonde of the White Hands.’
‘Sir Canados, be careful!’ the queen replied. ‘You focus your feeble efforts on hate, when a true nobleman should be aiming at higher things. If anyone wants to hear lies, you’re the man to go to. You’re an incorrigible liar; this has always been your failing and as a result of it you shall have the curse of God and Our Lady! You are always fighting against me. So here is a gift from me, may it harm you! What you have asked of me shall never be yours, and may every noble heart hold hatred for you! Get out of my sight! I pray to Saint Catherine that you might be plagued by ill fortune.’
The queen was very angry and stormed back to her chamber. ‘How can I trust a man like that!’ she exclaimed. She asked for a riding horse to be made ready, and then quickly set off for her pavilion.
Tristrem and Ganhardin were waiting nearby, under a fig tree. They saw Queen Ysonde approaching with Brangwain and two delightful hounds. Ysonde was relating a story and came to a halt and paused for a while. Tristrem heard them and with great joy said to Ganhardin: ‘Take this ring from my finger and ride over to them. Greet them in turn and make a fuss of their hounds. Make sure that she sees your finger with the ring on it. She will recognise it at once and question you about it in a friendly but urgent way. Say that you come from me.’
Ganhardin rode off and overtook the queen and her maiden. First he greeted the queen, and then Brangwain I believe, then he bent down and tickled Peticrewe with his fingers and made a big fuss of him. The queen saw the ring and knew it well enough.
‘Tell me, how did you come by that ring?’ she asked.
‘Its owner has sent it to you as a token.’
‘Do you mean Tristrem?’
‘Madam, he sends it to you via me, this is the truth.’
‘By heaven’s king! I’ve been longing to be near him for so long!’ she exclaimed. ‘They must be allowed to stay all night with us,’ she said to Brangwain.
The queen pretended to be sick, she looked very pale and so incapacitated that pavilions were quickly set up and her entire retinue made themselves comfortable there. Ysonde looked around at the trees and saw Tristrem. So did Brangwain, that evening under the stars, and Ganhardin promised that night to marry her.
They remained for two nights in that fair forest. But Canados had a spy who was prowling around, keeping a good watch on their pavilions. All the people of the countryside responded to Canados’s cry of alarm when he at last made it. Governail was outside their tent, waiting where it was most suitable to do so discretely, and he warned his master as quickly as he could:
‘Now might be a good time to leave,’ he told Tristrem.
Governail was Tristrem’s retainer and Ganhardin was the son of the duke of Brittany, but when they saw armed knights approaching, obviously intent upon violence towards them, Governail fled, he ran away, and Tristrem and Ganhardin followed him, making for an unhappy exit. Tristrem rode away that night with Ganhardin beside him.
The haughty Canados led the queen away. Tristrem wisely did not want to pick a fight, so he and Ganhardin rode off.
Brangwain was beside herself with woe. She screamed her rage at Ganhardin: ‘This land isn’t worth an egg when you dare to do such a thing!’
Ganhardin went into Brittany, but Tristrem stayed behind in England to hear what people were saying. He carried a cup and a clapper for fifteen days, pretending to be a leper and sleeping under walls.
Ysonde was in such a state that all she could do was to writhe in mental anguish and distress. While Tristrem lay in sorrow, Ysonde seemed to be going insane. Brangwain threatened to go and tell King Mark what had been going on behind his back. She went to the king and told him.
‘You have a knight who is so much your enemy that he is quite willing to do you shame. Sir king, listen to me, Sir Canados plans to sleep with your queen. Unless you separate the two of them at once, a shameful thing will take place. She does her best to fight him off and tries to dissuade him from doing this deed, but she is so afraid of him that it can barely be imagined. She has managed to prevail so far, inasmuch as he hasn’t succeeded in having sex with her yet. But I’m telling you the truth.’
King Mark thanked Brangwain very sincerely, then he had Canados sent for and threw him out of his court. ‘You deserve to be hanged,’ he shouted. ‘I would take great pleasure in watching that execution, were it to be necessary!’
When Brangwain was returning to Ysonde’s chamber, Tristrem intercepted her.
‘Brangwain! Take me to your lady. It is me, Tristrem.’
‘You both ran away when you could have helped the queen,’ she replied disapprovingly, and continued on towards the queen’s chamber without him.
‘Tristrem is outside, but I won’t let him in,’ said Brangwain.
‘Where has he been? Brangwain, you know how we feel about each other,’ said Ysonde. ‘Do you think he’s not the valiant knight that he once was? Those who say so are lying.’
Brangwain recognised the truth of this and let Tristrem into Ysonde’s chamber. Tristrem was filled with joy to be in Ysonde’s arms once more, and they enjoyed each other to the full.
Later, Brangwain said to Tristrem: ‘Listen. Whoever you might have thought was riding against you, fully armed as they were, you and Ganhardin ran away as quickly as you could, you can’t deny it!’
‘Then announce a tournament,’ replied Tristrem. ‘Do this, then both of us can show you whether we dare to fight against our enemies with lance and sword, be it against knight, baron or earl.’
A tournament was proclaimed and all the knights assembled. Canados attended, and Meriaduk was there to help him. Tristrem quickly sent messengers to Brittany to fetch Ganhardin, and he arrived as swiftly as he could. They did not intend to flee from this fighting! Not until all their enemies had been thrown from their horses and defeated.
They rode onto the field of combat and found eager and valiant knights waiting there to do battle. Many old scores were settled and there was some fierce fighting. Tristrem encountered Meriaduk and threw the whole weight of his anger against him, intending to exact revenge for the tales that the man had told about him. Tristrem gave him a dreadful wound, piercing him through one side and out through the other.
A tremendous battle broke out between Ganhardin and Canados. Tristrem thought it a shame that it was lasting so long, so he toppled Canados out of his saddle heavily onto the ground. Sir Canados lay there with blood seeping out through his chainmail, in great pain and distress, and after a short while he lay dead on the ground.
Tristrem had achieved sweet revenge. His foes and Ganhardin’s were quickly overcome and many of them were killed. Soon, everybody was up in arms against them, but Tristrem and Ganhardin made them pay dearly. They commanded the high ground and circled around, then made skirmishing advances under cover of woodland. Then they turned once more into the attack and Tristrem paid many back for what they had done; they killed a great number and defeated even more. Knights fled away screaming for mercy. Many were badly wounded and soon, all the accusers in the king’s hall had been put to the sword.
When the tournament was over, many lay dead.
Revenge is sweet.
Not long afterwards, Ganhardin departed for Brittany. But Brangwain’s dreams had already been answered.
One day, a knight named Tristrem turned up, he wore no shoes and was called Tristrem, and this is the truth; he had been looking for Tristrem all over the place, for a long while, and found him at last. He fell at Tristrem’s feet and pleaded for mercy.
‘A knight has taken away my lady,’ he implored. ‘This knight has seven brothers and they and their companions are out on horseback today and they’re very close to us now. It’s my last chance. They’re fighting me, and if you will help me, may Christ send you your own love Ysonde, who is so qualified to speak of love, for I will never see my love again if I don’t win the victory today. But there are fifteen of them in all, and we will be only two, facing them.’
‘A curse on anyone who would hesitate for that!’ responded Tristrem. ‘They shall find that they have overstepped themselves, through the grace of God Almighty!’
The two knights armed themselves in iron and in steel, then tracked down their adversaries and came across them on a path beside a forest. A loud shout rang out and the knights charged at one another. The young Tristrem was soon brought down and killed. His wounds were such that he did not rise from where he had fallen. The young knight was dead.
Tristrem gave his all to avenge his new friend-of-brief-acquaintance. He killed fifteen or more, in open conflict, laying them low with some savage blows, but he carried away an arrow that had penetrated deeply into his old wound. …
Here, by an astonishing coincidence, Hannah’s text of Sir Tristrem ends prematurely in exactly the same place as it does in National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript.
An ending is supplied by Sir Walter Scott:
The fifteen companions were all killed, but Tristrem the young was dead and Tristrem himself was in great pain from his wound. He made his way to a hostel and flung himself down on a bed. Many treatments and salves were applied to his wound, but nothing seemed to work. The wound kept opening and bleeding again and the bone beneath was going black. Nobody could find any way of helping him, and that was the truth. His only hope was Queen Ysonde of Cornwall.
Tristrem called constantly for his true friend Ganhardin.
‘Help me, brother, for it lies in your power to,’ he told him. ‘Make your way to Ysonde of Cornwall. Take my ring with you and show it to her as a token, but be discrete. Unless she has the courage to help me, I will surely die.
‘Take my ship, fill it with new merchandise and have two sails on board, each of a different colour. One of them should be black and the other as white as snow, and when you return, fly the sail that shows clearly how you have got on. If Ysonde fails to come, raise the black sail.'
Ysonde of the White Hands had been secretly listening to all this and knew that Ysonde had been sent for, from England. ‘I will have my revenge on my unfaithful husband, this is for certain,’ she thought. ‘I have been a decoy for these love birds for too long, and they’ve laughed at me too often.’
Ganhardin sails to England, disguised as a wealthy merchant. He brought expensive goods, lovely clothes and gifts for King Mark. He put a little wine into a cup and dropped the ring into it, then gave it to Brangwain to give to the queen.
Ysonde recognised the gold ring as the token that she had given to Tristrem. Ganhardin took her aside and told her that Tristrem had been hurt again in his old wound and that if she didn’t help him, he was beyond all help and would die. Ysonde was distraught when she heard this. She disguised herself as a man and went with Ganhardin to his ship, where a favourable wind carried them across the water as Ysonde wept tears of sorrow. Ganhardin had the white sails raised.
Ysonde of the White Hands saw the ship approaching and could see that it was flying the white sail.
‘Here comes Ysonde,’ she thought, ‘to steal my unfaithful husband away from me. But I swear that no good will come of her arrival.’
She went quickly to where Tristrem was lying on the bed.
‘Tristrem, by all that I hold dear,’ she said, ‘I believe that you are going to be healed! I can see your ship, I’m telling you the truth, Ganhardin will shortly arrive to cure you of your pain.’
‘Which sails are flying, for God’s sake?’ asked Tristrem.
Here was her moment for revenge.
‘The black ones,’ said Ysonde. ‘They’re as black as pitch.’
Tristrem threw himself back, imagining that Ysonde had been unfaithful, and his heart broke in two; may Christ have mercy on him, for he died of true love.
Many a tear was shed for dear Tristrem, from old and from young, from noblemen and commoners alike. Maidens wrung their hands, wives lamented and cried out, the bells were rung, Masses sung and priests intoned prayers for his soul.
Ysonde was brought to shore, by sail and by oar, and met with an old man with a white beard who was sighing deeply with tears streaming down his face.
‘He is gone, then,’ the old man said. ‘We’ll see him no more. The very flower of England, Sir Tristrem, is dead.’
When Ysonde heard this, she hurried as fast as she could to the castle gate. Nobody could stop her, she passed through the gate, entered the castle and ran to the chamber where Tristrem was already lying on a cloth-of-state, as cold as a stone.
Ysonde stood looking at him, motionless. Brittany had never seen a more beautiful woman, nor one so overcome with grief. She went over and lay down on Tristrem’s bier, and she never rose again. There she died, for sorrow.
Such lovers as these will never be seen again.
Translation and retelling of Sir Tristrem copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2020