“A time when honour was everything,” begins the trailer for the highly anticipated 2021 blockbuster The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as the noble Sir Gawain, a character some may be familiar with from Arthurian legend. The movie is based on perhaps the greatest chivalric poem of the Middle Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, produced in the second half of the 14th century (c1370–1400) by an anonymous author from the north-west of England — probably around Cheshire.
The history of the original manuscript is as obscure as its author, first appearing in the records in the late-16th to early-17th century under the ownership of a Yorkshire landowner, Henry Savile of Banke. A century later it formed part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, a well-known antiquarian collector whose collection famously included the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf. Despite belonging to Cotton’s inimitable collection, the manuscript gathered dust in Ashburnham House in London (an original home for manuscripts preceding the British Library) until it was unearthed from the archive, examined and deemed a masterpiece of medieval romance literature.
It is likely that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written roughly around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but where Chaucer focuses on the feudal social model of the 14th century — the Knight, the Plowman and the Parson; warrior, worker, worshipper — Gawain is rooted in myth, romance and morality. It is also an adventure story written to captivate an audience and illustrate the plight of the noble knight.
In the script of the 2021 movie, Gawain confesses to Bertilak de Hautdesert: “Honour. That is why a knight does what he does,” Honour is a pervading theme throughout Gawain, but it was also imbued within both courtly and martial spaces in the 14th century.
Honour was an integral part of chivalry: an art form, and moral code of conduct for an aristocrat and a warrior. Chivalry was the ‘ethical’ component of war, a pious code that would meet the approval of God, demanding honour, valour, courtesy, mercy and piety, coupled with an almighty set of skills on the battlefield. In the 14th century, chivalry was popularised, aggrandised and performed with ceremony.
At the height of Edward III’s reign, in the 1340s–60s, during the peak of the first stage of the Hundred Years’ War, chivalry was adopted by Edward III not only as a moral code he expected his knights to stand by, but as propaganda: to unify of Englishmen under one cause — war.
In a similar manner to the nationalist, patriotic posters of the First and Second World War eras – Your Country Needs You! – Edward III adopted chivalry and honour to propagandise his war of succession in France. Part of this propagandist programme was adopting popular national figures from myth: virtuous warriors who fought with courage and honour, the legendary King Arthur and the pious but mighty warrior Saint George. The figure Edward personally sought to emulate was Arthur, even modelling Windsor Castle, his favourite home, on the mystical Camelot, investing heavily in its renovation which included founding Saint George’s Chapel.
Edward III’s Arthurian ideals
King Arthur is a key character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the story begins at Camelot with a scene of feasting, dancing, ladies, wealth and luxury, a common trope in medieval courtly love prose:
With all the meat and mirth that men might well devise
Right glorious was the glee that rang in riotous wise
(Verse III, IX- X)
The scene opens at Christmas, the most celebrated Christian festival in the Late Middle Ages, and King Arthur is feasting with his court on New Year’s Eve and hearing carols with his famous knights at the Round Table. As the feast is laid out Arthur refuses to be seated until someone can entertain him with a tale: a “marvel”, setting the precedent for the narrative to unfurl.
In a moment of high drama, an uninvited guest bursts into the hall, a “champion, fierce and fell” holding an axe. This intruder — the Green Knight — is a warrior. Tall, lean and muscular in stature and obscurely, “overall was green”. He comes with a challenge for Arthur and his knights: a beheading game.
Sir Gawain seizes the opportunity to prove his worth and accepts the Knight’s challenge. Gawain decapitates the Knight, however the Knight unexpectedly retrieves his head as it rolls before him, turning to Gawain with the line “on the New Year’s morn’ I pledge me to repay”. A year and a day from this moment, Gawain is told by the Knight that he will repay the beheading.
Gawain is then faced with a choice. He can keep his date with destiny – “the New Year’s morn” – which is likely the day of his death, or he can break his word and keep his life but lose his honour.
Keeping faith with the code of chivalry and honour Gawain chooses to meet his destiny. He sets off on a full-calendar-year-long mission where he faces giants, monsters, enemies, and the bitter elements as he treks closer to the Green Knight who awaits his arrival.
A work of Arthurian propaganda?
Like most mythical heroes, Gawain survives the Green Knight (with the help of a little magic) and returns to Camelot and to Arthur, but it is the anchoring of Gawain’s character in the chivalric code: honour, courage and faith in God’s mercy that speaks of the days of Edward III and his drive for war with France.
In 1346, England won the most famous victory of the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War at the battle of Crécy. The Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III, plucked three feathers from the helmet of the slain John of Bohemia and adopted them as his part of his heraldry; he was only 16, but it was this battle that propagated his reputation as the greatest prince and young warrior in Europe. Edward III was determined to immortalise the victory by binding it to the chivalric code of conduct and to the myth of Arthur, who he already idolised.
In February 1344, two years before Crécy, Edward III held a royal tournament at Windsor where he announced his intention to form a “Round Table… in the same condition as Arthur, formerly king of England, established it”. After Crécy, in February 1348 came a series of tournaments spanning five months that celebrated the victory. These were spectacular, elaborate and boastful, with no expense spared.
At a tournament in June Edward appeared wearing red robes emblazoned with twelve embroidered garters. Shortly afterwards he formalised his commitment to the chivalric code and its marital ideals by founding the Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle — his ‘Camelot’. The Order was an elitist fraternity representing chivalry, valour and high military command. It was also a deliberate parallel to Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Of course, the concept of chivalry is riddled with paradoxes. Though Edward III glorified war and conquest as a noble venture celebrated through tilts, jousts, mêlées and the Order of the Garter, the realities of war are brutal, bloody and inhumane. War feeds off the worst parts of humankind: cruelty, greed, lust. Chivalry celebrates the best: mercy, courage, piety. War and chivalry, despite being deeply interwoven in medieval martial standards, set men up to fail at their quest in the same way that Gawain fails at his when his deeply human fallibility is exposed on multiple occasions throughout his year long journey to meet the Green Knight and his fate.
Chivalry and the English national identity
Edward III’s construction of chivalry as part of England’s national identity was a great high in England before a great low. As thousands attended jousts and mock tilts, as they celebrated and glorified knighthood and its celebrities, a great enemy approached England that sword and steel could not defeat. The Black Death arrived in the same year that Edward established the Order of the Garter, and killed up to 50 per cent of the English population. In the first wave, it killed largely men: the able-bodied plebeian fighting force that Edward sought to inspire to fight for his vision for continental power.
After the Black Death had passed, people cracked open the doors of their homes and released the ghosts of their loved ones and the grief that shrouded them. England began to recover and rebuild, but there was little space to glorify chivalry in the same hedonistic fashion as had existed prior to the plague. War continued, and in the 1350s Edward III mustered another army to lead into France in a final attempt to claim the French throne.
His campaign was a failure; literally a wash out as the elements unleashed their fury on the English Army in France as rain and hail destroyed his baggage train and supplies. The Black Prince however, in an earlier and more successful campaign, led his men — soldiers largely mustered from the north-west of England, the location of Gawain’s author — into battle and victory at the battle of Poitiers, where he captured the French king as a prisoner.
The success at Poitiers solidified the Black Prince’s celebrity status and his victorious procession back into London was nothing short of a chivalric circus. However, it was short lived. The Black Prince – who represented the “flower of chivalry” to chronicler Froissart, and to his biographer Chandos Herald, “the perfect root of all honour and nobleness, of wisdom, valour and largesse” – went to rule his own court in Aquitaine, the English power base in France. He became terminally ill, possibly with bowel cancer, after a final campaign in Castile. In 1370, crippled with sickness, he returned to England to recover and in 1376 he passed away. A year later the Black Prince was followed to the grave by his father, Edward III.
A lingering ode to chivalry
With Edward III’s death, the drive for chivalry and martial glory died with him, for his successor, Richard II – the Black Prince’s son, who came to throne at the age of 10 – would have a different idea of ruling England.
In the later 1370s, Richard’s interest and investment in the arts supported a mini Renaissance in England. This was seen in developing art and architecture, but most clearly in court culture and the literary trend for poems and prose in the vernacular. Where it was once popular to speak French at court, the English language began to gain favour amongst the elite. Given the poem’s alliterative style – which Poet Laureate Simon Armitage calls its “warp and weft” – it’s possible that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was produced around this time with the intention being orated, used to entertain a court in the same manner as Arthur wishes to be entertained at the beginning of the tale.
It is unknown who commissioned the poem, or who the author is. However the epic narrative, bound to Arthurian legend, celebrates chivalric qualities defended in the middle of the century: morality, courage and honour. All of this harks back to Edward III, Arthurian propaganda and the promotion of chivalry as a national incentive prompting every Englishman to see himself as a solider.
It is tempting to imagine the poem being performed in a wash of candlelight, captivating members of a north-west aristocratic household as they imagine Gawain’s plight. But what feels clear to me is that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not only a form of entertainment, bound up in the trend for English verse in the late 14th century, but it is a eulogy to the dying cult of chivalry reminiscent of the age of Edward III and the Black Prince. It is an ode to chivalry, honour and the fallibility of mankind that transcends centuries and has the power to bewitch and inspire an audience even in the 21st century.
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Helen Carr is a historian, writer and documentary producer. Her latest book is The Red Prince: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Oneworld, April 2021)
This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021