A Walk with Sir Gawain in Fourteenth Century Bowland Forest

Ron Catterall   

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The fourteenth century Middle English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, contains a detailed description of the walk over Fiendsdale Head in Bowland Forest, from Bleasdale Tower to Langden Castle.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Bleasdale Tower to Langden Castle
A. Modern English
B. Some Possible Pictures

1. Introduction

The long poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one of the most important works of early English literature.  Although the story is presented as a legend of one of King Arthur's knights, the Gawain-Poet is concerned with moral imperatives rather than great knightly deeds.  There is no great jousting, no giants or magicians to defeat, no maidens to rescue and no clear distinction between good and evil men.  The poem is a record of Sir Gawain's struggle to live up to his word, to maintain his honour and his truthfulness under severe constraints.  Sir Gawain holds true to his promise to meet the Green knight at the Green Chapel on New Year's day even though it is likely to cost him his life–honour is maintained.  Beneath this major test of honour he is led into making separate minor promises to his host and to the lady of the castle of Hautdesert.  Unfortunately these promises are mutually exclusive and it is impossible to fulfil both, and Gawain is forced to break his trawthe–only at the end of the poem do we realise that this was the real test of his knighthood.

So much is taught in every university in the world offering a course in English literature.  What is never taught is the poem's connection with Bowland Forest in Lancashire.  The final stage of Sir Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel is a high level crossing of the moors with a final descent into a valley of evil reputation to meet the Green Knight at the Green Chapel.  The dialect of the poem is very clearly north-western, and the extensive use of Old-Norse words of Viking origin locate the author's home in Amounderness, and the Gawain-Poet has been tentatively identified with Sir James Cottrell, a member of a prominent Lancashire family in the fourteenth century, and possibly the son of the John Catterall who held the manor of Heton in Lonsdale and was a squire at the court of Edward III in 1368, the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer was listed as a squire of the lesser degree.

James Cottrell led an interesting life, in 1381 he accompanied Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, and later the first Duke of York on a warring expedition to Portugal, and followed this with a second expedition with John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) in 1386 on his attempt to enforce his rights as King of Léon and Castile with the help of King João I of Portugal (João of Avis).  John of Gaunt's attempt failed, but he married his eldest daughter, Philippa of Lancaster, to João and she became Queen of Portugal.  James Cottrell remained in Portugal with Philippa as Mordomo-Mór (majordomo or chamberlain to the royal court) until the death of Philippa in 1415, during which time he tutored the royal princes in the glory of their Lancastrian ancestors.  After the death of Philippa he joined the Infante Dom Henrique (Henry the Navigator) at the Order of Christ as Monteiro-Mór (literally “The Greatest Hunter”, perhaps Head Forester.)  Directly descended from the Knights Templar, the Order of Christ was composed of sixty-nine mounted and armed knights, nine chaplains and six sergeants devoted to ousting the Muslims from Portugal.  In Portugal James Cottrell took the name Jaime Cotrim and was elevated to the Portuguese nobility and became the founder of the Cotrim dynasty still flourishing in Portugal and Brasil.  Around 1430 Jaime Cotrim retired as the Senhor da Quinta do Souto de Eyreira (Paio Mendes) where his house still stands with his coat of arms high on the wall.

Sir Gawain's final journey from the castle of Hautdesert to the Green Chapel is described vividly in the poem and I propose that this journey is a description of the crossing from the region of Admarsh Chapel on the old mediaeval road over Fiendsdale Head and down Fiendsdale to the old resting place at Langden Castle.  In the latter half of the fourteenth century this was the main road between Whalley and Lancaster, with resting places at Langden and Admarsh.

The Gawain-Poet reveals his name in an anagram almost at the end of the poem when Sir Gawain asks the Green Knight to tell him truly his right name.

Lines 2443-2445

'How norne ȝe yowre ryȝt nome, and þenne no more?'
'Þat schal I telle þe trwly,' quoþ þat oþer þenne:
'Bertilak de Hautdesert I hat in þis londe.'   (lines 2443-2445)

See Appendix A for a Modern English Translation

The use of anagrams and similar devices to disguise the names of authors was very common at that time, and “Bertilak” is easily transformed to “Bi Katrel”, one of the common forms of Cotrel or Catterall.  There was no commonly accepted spelling in those days, a scribe would try to represent sounds as best he could.

In the following section I follow the final journey of Sir Gawain to the Green Chapel, comparing the text of the poem with the features of the crossing of Fiendsdale Head.    The quotations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are taken from the definitive edition of the Middle English by Andrew and Waldron[4], while the translation given in Appendix A into modern English verse is by James Winny[3], the easiest introduction to the poem.  Unfortunately any translation must lose the alliterative rhythm characteristic of almost all Old and Middle English poetry prior to Chaucer.  However, if you will listen to this story but a little while, I will tell it at once, as I heard it in town.

Lines 30-31

If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot a littel quile,
I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde.   (30-31)

See Appendix A for a Modern English Translation