In the tyme of Arthur, as trew men me tald · The King turnit on ane tyde towart Tuskane · Hym to seik ovr the sey, that saiklese wes sald · The syre that sendis all seill, suthly to sane – In the time of King Arthur, as honest men have told me, the king turned his thoughts one day towards Tuscany. He assembled knights and bannerets, the strongest and mightiest in all of Britain, enlisted warriors to wield their weapons, the most magnificent on Earth. Dukes and higher lords responded to his call and converged upon the king, kings themselves with crowns of pure gold, all resolved to cross the sea with King Arthur, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
King Arthur set off with his knights of the Round Table in royal array, surrounded by noblemen. Many fine warriors set out, their banners glinting in the sun. Gold and crimson, silver and sapphire – a magnificent army on the move. They spurred quickly over fields and fells.
Time wore on, and soon it was many days since they had tasted a hot meal. Across valleys and through forests travelled King Arthur with his army, over mountains, marshes and many a rank mire; through birch woods and bogs with no shelter to be found. Only hard climbs and discomfort. It was distressing, the bruises and strains that tire even the strongest. Be in no doubt, their journey was hard.
As they passed the shore of a lake, they saw a fair city glinting in the sunlight, with turrets and towers and a high wall.
'We should send an envoy into this city,' suggested King Arthur, 'to ask if we may enter to buy food.'
Sir Kay spoke up: 'Grant me this errand, my lord.'
'Be careful,' replied the king, 'and keep your wits about you.'
Sir Kay happily made his way towards the city, found the gates open and went inside. He tied his horse to a tree and went into a large hall. The place was deserted, but as he moved towards the platform, he saw through a doorway a bright fire burning in an open hearth. A dwarf was busily turning a spit above it. Sir Kay rushed to the roasting meat, pushed the dwarf roughly out of the way and tore a leg from a cormorant, delighted to make a grab at such fine food! The dwarf shouted angrily and kicked up a din. A man appeared in the hall; he stood before Sir Kay.
'I don't think that that food belongs to you,' he shouted. 'Your manners are those of a scullion! Why have you assaulted my servant?'
'I shall make little amends!' replied Sir Kay, arrogantly. 'This harbour is not worth calling into, from all that I can see.'
The lord of the city strode over to Sir Kay and punched him in the face. Sir Kay was so astonished at the blow that he fell flat onto the floor and lay as still as a stone while the man smouldered above him. When the warrior turned and strode away, Sir Kay raised himself and crept silently to the door, ran across the hall and out to his horse. He urged the beast into a gallop and fled away.
'Lord, let us be on our way,' said Sir Kay, breathlessly as he arrived back at the king's pavilion. 'This lord injures you with a refusal.'
The noble knight Sir Gawain followed his king's instructions and made for the town. The gates were swung wide open for him and he hurried inside. He alighted from his horse and led it by the reins towards the magnificent hall. By this time, the lord of the city was seated inside with all his noblemen, and with many beautiful ladies. Sir Gawain addressed the sovereign.
'Sir, I come as a messenger to deliver an urgent plea,' he said. 'From Arthur, the king. He asks, for his sake and so that your own honour may be increased all the more, that he be allowed to enter your city in order to replenish his stores and to buy food, at whatever the current price may be.'
'I shall not sell provisions to your sovereign,' said the lord of the city. There was a silence.
'That is your prerogative,' replied Sir Gawain. 'It can only be to your honour that you are in full command of your wealth and your people.'
'Listen to me,' said the lord. 'Take this message to the king, for I hold my lands from him and if I sold him his own possessions, not only would it be wrong but I would deserve to suffer an ignominious death for the crime!'
Sir Gawain took his leave, mounted his horse and brought the good news to King Arthur.
'This lusty lord greets you,' cried Gawain, 'and says that he will be pleased to help.'
The lord of the city seated King Arthur at the highest place at the table and surrounded him with dukes, noblemen and fine warriors.
'You are welcome, my lord king,' he said. 'While you are here, make yourself at home. No prince could be happier to welcome you this day than I, for we are related by birth. Consider everything to be yours! I will refresh you with strong warriors ready to fight if the need arises, thirty thousand in all, intelligent, trustworthy and strong, in their finest armour, with breastplate and sword, encased completely in steel and mounted on mighty warhorses.'
'Such friendship is very welcome to me,' replied the king.
King Arthur's army was replenished with meat, bread and wine, and for his noblemen all manner of fine dishes and rare and foreign delicacies. It would be tiresome to describe all the courses that were set upon the tables. The feast lasted for four days, and then King Arthur took his leave. His men packed up their tents and journeyed through many distant lands, around mountains, through forests and over hills.
They rode proudly on their pilgrimage; these proven warriors.
One morning they saw ahead of them a castle. Its walls were strong and it stood on a high rock beside a river. The land around about was fertile and prosperous. The king stood looking at this castle and counted thirty-three fine towers. Its walls reached to the river and seagoing vessels were moored and berthed beside them; sixty-seven in all, waiting to set sail for distant countries.
'This is the finest sight that I have ever seen!' announced the king, loudly. 'Does anybody know who the lord of this castle is, and from whom he holds this city?'
Sir Spinogras spoke up: 'This lord holds his lands from no higher lord, Sir; no one controls them but he alone. It has been like this for generations.'
'Heavenly God!' exclaimed King Arthur in astonishment.
'Ah! Lord! Do not waste your concern,' replied Sir Spinogras. 'He will pay allegiance to nobody and it would cost the lives of many fine knights to force him into submission. It is enough to be considered the equal of such a fine warrior. The mighty king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, could receive no homage here. The finest commander the world has ever seen could make no more impression on these walls than a floating leaf in autumn! Such mighty ambition will bring you only grief.'
'In faith!' cried the king. 'Make no mistake, my ambition shall be fulfilled.'
No man dared to argue with the king when they saw him in this mood. King Arthur rode without rest until he had reached the city of Christ, across the salt sea. He made his offering and came away by the same route that he had followed – his army hurried back, the sides of their horses made bloody from the spurs. This royal force rode restlessly over mountains, westwards to the Rhône.
Here they pitched a pavilion, a fine construction of cloth and wood with adornments of red gold, fine silk and colourful flags. The king called together all his knights: 'I want us all to discuss how best we might achieve the surrender of this castle,' he said.
They agreed that Sir Gawain, Sir Yvain and Sir Lancelot should act as envoys for King Arthur.
'Lords,' said Sir Spinogras. 'I know this bold young warrior better than any of you. You are three of the finest knights we have. But if all three of you were to pool your strength into one pair of hands and were caught in his grip, he would crush you all. However, his manner is very mild. He is as gentle as a lamb. This fine warrior is as willing and eager to please as a lady in her chamber. Therefore, be courteous to him, be polite and accommodating and above all, do not menace him. With negotiation you may be able to achieve your aim, and with the hand of friendship.'
Armed with this advice, Sir Gawain, Sir Yvain and Sir Lancelot made their way towards the castle. A messenger was sent to inform the lord that three knights were waiting outside and requested an audience. The gates into the city were unlocked and the three knights proceeded to walk in on foot. They made their way into the castle. Ladies came out to meet them, and thirty valiant knights. Great courtesy was shown, each greeting the other in the correct way, as befitting their status. The three knights bowed to the lords and the dukes, embraced them warmly, then sought the chamber where the lord of the district was waiting to receive them.
Each saluted the sovereign, bowed courteously and knelt upon one knee. The lord acknowledged their greeting with a bow himself. His head was bare, except for a hood.
Sir Gawain, ever generous, gentle, good-humoured and chivalrous, lively, eager and glowing with loyalty for his sovereign, delivered his message to Sir Gologras:
'Our sovereign, King Arthur, greets you honourably and has sent the three of us to make known to you his wishes and to mediate on his behalf. He is the noblest and the most powerful of lords. There is no living king to equal him and none so valiant in battle. Beneath him rule twelve mighty kings, and many fine warriors.
'He has learned of your courage and your dignity, your royal standing, your generosity and nobility, and will not rest until he has gained your friendship. If gifts and persuasion might bring this about, my lord will not stint in his effort and will spare no expense. I speak in all sincerity. This is his greatest wish.'
'I thank your lord,' replied Gologras gravely. 'Had ever a lord of this land recognised a higher lord, Sir knight, I would certainly consent to all that you imply and would seek out your sovereign. But since my noble elders and forebears have prospered in this land unbound to any higher lord, if I were to attach myself, now, as vassal to your sovereign, I would deserve to be hanged from the highest tree in full view of everybody. I would deserve to swing about like a corpse in the breeze!'
Preparations were made for conflict. Knights and fine warriors made their way across the river to the foot of the castle, carrying every conceivable weapon of war: crossbows, stone balls for siege engines, huge javelins, even cannon. The noise of sharpening from grindstones was deafening! Soon there were men blowing their bugles, carpenters hewing off branches to make massive beams for an assault, others felling trees or filling the surrounding forest full of timber defences in preparation for a counter-assault. Each nobleman flew his own banner and the field was soon ablaze with colour, with gold and shining scarlet, the bright sun reflecting from the shields.
By midmorning, more than a hundred of Sir Gologras's knights sallied out to display their shields defiantly with their lances upraised and their helmets closed. They moved into battle formation and prepared to receive the enemy, if King Arthur dared advance to meet them, these fierce and proven warriors. Each knight displayed his identity clearly in his heraldic arms and other letters and insignia, so that each of his compatriots, wherever they might be on the battlefield, would know where he was.
'Over there is the strongest fortress that I have ever encountered,' said King Arthur. 'In all my years of campaigning, it's the most formidable I've seen. It will be difficult to take, the walls are so strong and so high, and it is filled with fine warriors. And yet I shall strip the roof from it before I have finished! I shall destroy the land hereabouts and deprive this city of food, even if it takes nine years to do so!'
'Be careful,' cautioned Sir Spinogras. 'There are warriors in that castle who are stronger of heart than any under heaven, and would rather die than be humiliated in defeat. Sir, you are surrounded now by your glorious army, yet within three days you will know the truth. You will soon see what kind of men you face, and the extent of their courage.'
Just as the sun was beginning to set, while the king was inspecting his forces he heard a trumpet ring out. A figure appeared on the battlements, approaching a high tower, holding a steel helmet and a shield made of gold, seeming purposefully to reflect the rays of the setting sun towards his enemy as he paraded about. In his other hand he brandished a great spear.
'What is the meaning of this bright shield?' asked the king, turning to Sir Spinogras, 'and that loud call on the trumpet?'
'Sir,' replied Sir Spinogras, 'it is a challenge to single combat. The man wishes to win honour and to give a good account of himself in front of his lady. Therefore, select a man from amongst your forces to match him in battle; choose one who is courageous and bold, and who is eager to fight.'
The king was delighted to hear this and called Gaudifere to him. Sir Gaudifere armed himself with everything he would need. In his shining steel clothes he glowed like iron in a furnace! His horse was chestnut, massive and well-built. He rode out to meet his opponent at noon the next day.
They galloped grimly towards one another, and each was knocked from his horse. They advanced towards each other once more, swinging their swords, working upon one another in anger, these mighty warriors, hewing on hard steel so strongly that, despite all their fine armour, their weapons soon found soft flesh beneath! They fought ferociously like this for nearly an hour, until the ground beneath them was soaked in blood; but although they were by now exhausted, each stood firmly against the other's blows. And at last, through God's might and by his own skill, Sir Gaudifere achieved the other's surrender. King Arthur and his knights heaped praise upon God and Saint Ann!
Sir Galiot was bound and taken to a secure place. Gologras felt his heart sink within him. He called Sir Rigal of the Rhône, one of his finest warriors.
'I shall not rest until this has been avenged,' he said.
This warrior quickly armed himself, blew a blast from a trumpet as had Sir Galiot before him and took his shield, his helmet and his lance. King Arthur now recognised the significance of this signal and called Sir Ronald to him.
'If any knight comes seeking single combat,' he instructed, 'I give the battle to you.'
Sir Ronald readied himself. His helmet gleamed, his armour sparkled. His horse's trappings and his surcoat were of matching colours: gold and red upon a green background. He bore three boars' heads, as his British ancestors had before him.
The two knights advanced on their steeds and engaged each other fiercely. Their lances shattered into fragments and the pieces scattered about the field. They quickly dismounted and drew their swords. Their horses stood looking on at the battle in some agitation. Each stroke was immense. Each warrior swung his sword down upon the other, hewing through hard steel, sending sparks and splinters through the air. Sir Ronald delivered a blow to the other's shoulder that cut through the mail and made a grievous wound. Still they fought, the blood flowing from them both, and all the warriors sighed in anguish to see it.
At last, Sir Rigal's body was taken back into the castle, and Sir Ronald's body was brought to King Arthur's tent. These two ended their lives with honour, and their courage is remembered to this day. They were buried within an hour of each other and prayers and hymns were sung. Then Gologras had his men armed, four in all: Sir Lewes the loyal, Sir Edmund, Sir Bantellas and Sir Sanguel.
Sir Lionel rode at Sir Lewes, Sir Yvain was matched with Sir Edmund, Sir Bedivere with Sir Bantellas and Sir Gyromalance with Sir Sanguel. They met ferociously and took their chances in a formidable joust. They all fought magnificently with sharpened weapons and shining armour, hewing so quickly at each other and with such brutal force that soon pieces of mail were flying out like hail!
At the finish, prisoners were taken on both sides.
'I will bring an end to all this!' cried Sir Gologras. And he climbed to the belfry of a high tower and rang two small bells. King Arthur heard them. So did Sir Gawain.
'What does that ringing signify?' asked the king.
Sir Spinogras became agitated as he saw the look in Sir Gawain's eyes. Through concern for King Arthur's nephew he said: 'For Christ's sake, don't take on this battle! There is none stronger than Gologras and none able to withstand him. Of all who belong to the king, it grieves me most that you, Sir Gawain, should want to take on this deadly challenge. Since you are so noble and valiant in war, counted amongst the finest and strongest in battle, Gologras will not spare you through any thought of ransom, but will fight you to the death.'
'If I die honourably, I shall not suffer,' replied Gawain. 'I urge you to understand this. And I ask that I may be given this battle.'
The king and his knights armed Sir Gawain as the sun began to rise the next morning. Onto the field appeared Gologras, with many magnificent warriors. Over his armour he wore red gold with rubies and some exquisite jewels, ancestral relics and fine silken cloth. Sixty knights rode alongside him, on horses whose silken trappings hung to their ankles; these knights were clad in shining armour and lacked for nothing that money could buy.
Gologras rode on a white horse, sparkling with shining gold and flashing beryl. To describe his armour fully, and his magnificent equipment, would be a delight indeed, but it would take too long. There was no mistaking his nobility. And there was no knight around him he did not tower over by half a foot! Gologras galloped over the field without taking any pause, to where the combat was to take place.
By this time, Sir Gawain was fully armed and approaching from the other side, ready to lower his lance in anger. These two knights left their friends behind and rode towards each other; two noblemen galloping to test one another's skill and courage. Each spurred his horse until its lungs were near to bursting, the stones on the ground flew out like cannon-shot as they galloped together. Their lances shattered into fragments as they struck one another, pieces tore from helmets, their horses stumbled and the knights fought to control them. So fierce was this collision that no one could tell who had come out of it worse.
The two knights quickly dismounted, drew their long swords and began to hew against hard steel. Both men were strong and fit. Gologras delivered a blow to the top of Sir Gawain's head, swung again at his neck and shattered more than fifty links of chain mail! Sir Gawain reeled from the blow, staggered backwards, gathered himself and returned a blow of his own. With a biting sword, strong and heavy, he swung as hard as he could and severed through a part of the other knight's shield. The blade carried on through armour and mail, the gold from Gologras's breastplate fell to the ground and was followed by a spurt of blood. In anger and as fiercely as fire itself, Gologras made another lunge at his foe.
'Lord, as you gave me life! – as you provide for us all and feed us,' cried Gologras, 'grant me comfort this day, as you are the true God!' And in Gologras’s heart grew such a rage that, like a starving lion, he gripped his sword in both hands and hewed at Sir Gawain with such ferocity that the ornaments and the mail and even the plate armour began to fly from the knight. King Arthur’s warriors cried out in anguish as Gologras hewed through Sir Gawain’s armour; he cut his shield into more than twenty pieces as Sir Gawain cowered in anguish, bereft almost of his wits.
Sir Gawain wept in anger as he gathered himself against the onslaught, then tried to return blows of his own. He dealt back some heavy strokes, rapidly, without pause. Through breastplate and mail, ringlet and edge, he let fly at the warrior like the spark out of a flint! He hewed with great haste and with great power, hit his adversary’s head, hacked through the steel armour, cutting through fastenings a hand’s breadth at a time. In this way Sir Gawain destroyed Gologras’s armour; but Gologras returned the fight to Sir Gawain once more, hit this knight of King Arthur’s a mighty blow, beat down the bright gold and the precious stones and tore his steel armour sharply away. Sir Gawain reeled from the strokes, rendered nearly unconscious from the attack.
They fought so grimly and in anger, exchanging such fierce blows that King Arthur offered a prayer to Jesus: 'As you are our sovereign lord, keep Sir Gawain in your safekeeping and let this battle end with both their honours intact.' Everybody asked this of Christ – knight, squire and page.
They fought on, these two mighty warriors, cutting through mail, striking at each other as though they were mad. Gologras began to hate Sir Gawain, for by now Gologras's armour was covered in his own blood. He struck Sir Gawain a mighty blow with his sword. Gawain hit him again with his own weapon and Gologras stooped from the blow, lost his footing on the uneven and blood-soaked grass and fell awkwardly to the ground.
Before he could recover himself, Sir Gawain seized him as he lay. All King Arthur's knights gave loving thanks to Christ! Sir Gawain quickly and skilfully drew a dagger.
'If you love life,' warned Sir Gawain, 'yield to me your sword.'
'I think it better that I die than be shamed by defeat,' replied Gologras. 'I have never before been overcome by force, nor have any of my ancestors. Do not look scornfully at me. I ask nothing but the glory of arms. Do what you will. This is my final word.'
All the lords and ladies in the castle, when they saw Sir Gologras lying on the grass, nearly fainted in shock. They cried to Christ: 'As you died on the cross to redeem us with your blood, do not let our sovereign end his days shamefully! Mary, beautiful mother of Christ, beg your son, through his grace, to grant us this.'
The people in the towers were distraught, but the lords on the other side were in a mood to laugh. Sir Gawain tried to urge Gologras to change his mind, for he was very reluctant to kill him.
'Sir,' he said, 'see for yourself, you are finished! It is no help to you to make it difficult for yourself. Get up and come to our king. He is the noblest in all the world and will restore you to your high position, bestow new titles upon you, probably make you a duke!'
'The knight who loves his life more than honour deserves to be killed,' replied Gologras. 'For any treaty that may come about after my death, I tell you, I will not change my mind. Before I reduce my worth by a pennyweight, I must tell you that I do not fear to die.'
Sir Gawain grieved for this worthy knight: 'How may I offer you your life and maintain your honour in front of all your people?'
'I will tell you,' replied Gologras. 'You can deny that it is you who has done this but affirm that it is I who have defeated you. Let us each take on the mantle of the other. Let me lead you off as though I have gained the victory, as though I have won you in battle; let me lead you to my castle where I have most influence. In this way you can save me from shame. Then I swear I shall repay your kindness and save your own honour.'
'This is a hard thing for me to do,' replied Gawain. 'I shall be relying upon your word without any witness to our agreement. I have never set eyes upon you until now! But I know from our combat that you are a true knight, and so I shall do as you say, by God.'
He stood up and allowed Gologras to stand also. Never before has such magnanimity been shown on a field of combat. They started fighting afresh. Quickly, they each drew a short sword and set upon each other. Nobody suspected anything other than that the fight was for real. Then, true to their agreement, they put up their naked swords and made their way to the castle, Gologras leading Sir Gawain as though he had won the combat and was taking him into captivity. King Arthur groaned in despair. He cried out in anger. It was pitiful to hear. He strode off to his tent, the tears streaming down his face, as though his world had been destroyed. His other warriors looked grief-stricken and as black as thunder.
'The flower of all knighthood has been captured!' they all cried. 'The Round Table is dishonoured. That noble Sir Gawain should be led to a prison! Fortune has deserted us!'
The king wept many a salt tear.
When the noble Sir Gawain arrived at the castle of Gologras, all the knights inside were delighted. Warriors extolled the excellence of their magnificent lord, and beautiful ladies smiled joyfully. Sir Gawain was invited to eat beside Gologras's own wife and daughter, and the other captured knights of King Arthur's were set at another table, opposite the most beautiful ladies in the hall. The seating was to everybody's liking.
'Noble lords!' shouted Gologras loudly to all his knights. ''Listen to me!'
He struck the table with a rod, and immediately silence descended.
'Here are you all gathered, the greatest in my land,' he said. 'Lords of great wealth. Knights, I make you this request. I make it genuinely and sincerely, that you tell me honestly what you think about this matter that now weighs heavily upon my heart, so God help me. It concerns my honour so deeply that I must learn your true thoughts. Choose from one of these two possibilities: that I remain as your lord although I have been defeated on the field of battle – or else imagine that I have been honourably killed and that you will be ruled by another lord, who may well prove to be as good a sovereign to you as I have been.'
The knights in the hall began to murmur in dismay as they slowly began to understand what their sovereign was saying.
'We would not wish anybody else to take your place, whoever he might be,' they cried.
When his knights had expressed this view, in all sincerity, Gologras explained to them that Sir Gawain had won the contest and had defeated him fairly in battle: 'And in the sight of his own king he has saved me from disgrace, through his generosity and gentility. This noble knight has risked his own good name to do me this honour. I want to make known and understood this great kindness that he has done me.'
Gologras went over to Sir Gawain.
'Sir, now it is my turn to show my finer side. I acknowledge your superiority and give you my hand in submission. Since Fortune takes us wherever she wishes, I do not submit to this through any fear of dying or through faintheartedness or cowardice. May his fellow be every man’s concern, knight, king and emperor, and muse in his mirror! This is all I wish to say.'
They were quickly clothed, this royal company, lords and ladies, and great lanterns were fetched. Sixty bright torches were carried in front of Sir Gawain.
King Arthur was taken aback when he saw them issuing from the castle. Noblemen seized their lances.
'Hold everything!' cried Sir Spinogras suddenly. 'They come in peace! I can see by the lights. They are all in fine clothes and are not armed.'
Gologras rode towards the king with his noble entourage, sixty shining knights glinting in the torchlight in cloth-of-gold. Gologras dismounted and knelt before King Arthur in front of all the king's knights. He greeted this brave monarch vigorously, a furlong in front of his own warriors. The king acknowledged his bow, inclined his head, raised Gologras up by the hand graciously, and did him every honour.
'I come here into your presence as into that of the most valiant and virtuous knight in all the world, the greatest lord on Earth, richest in lands, unequalled in honour and in goodness,' said Gologras. 'Here I give to you my allegiance. Conqueror and king, I acknowledge you as my liege lord.'
'This is a marvellous thing, by Christ!' exclaimed King Arthur.
Sir Gawain suggested that they might all like to retire to Gologras's castle in order to meet the dukes, barons and ladies there.
It was a marvellous spectacle to behold – to describe the scene would be too much. The festivities lasted for a week! Hounds pursued deer through the woods and the river Rhône was a riot! On the ninth day, they all took their leave of one another and King Arthur set off for home.
'Sir Gologras,' he said as they were ready to depart. 'I wish to reward you concerning your possessions, your castles and towns, your forests, estuaries, woodlands and heaths. Before all your noblemen I release you from your bonds of allegiance. Both on sea and on land, I leave you as free as you were when I first found you.'
Here ends The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain, from the South Gate of Edinburgh, by Walter Chepman and Andrew Millar, on this, the eighth day of April in the year of Our Lord, 1508.
Translation and retelling of The Knightly Tale of Gologras and Gawain copyright © 2002, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson