Firstly, we find direct evidence for a name in the text from the following passage
|--Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2443-2445)|
In response to the request for a ryȝt and trwly name we get the response bertilak. There is no obvious significance in this reference to a very minor character in the Arthurian cycle, but a simple anagram of bertilak is bi katrel. Katrel is but one of many variations of the name of a knightly family of the north west of England from 1200 to 1600, and we propose that one James Cottrell, who accompanied Philippa of Lancaster to Portugal first as Mordomo-Mór (majordomo) to the royal household and later as Monteiro-Mór (chief hunter) to the Infante Dom Henrique at the Order of Christ (which made extensive use of the pentangle symbol,) is at least a possible candidate for the role of the Gawain-Poet.
Whilst it has almost invariably been been assumed that the poems were written in England, there has been at least one suggestion, by Michael Bennett, [BENNETT97] (p.80), that they might have been written outside the north west Midlands for an expatriate audience, possibly in Brittany or Guyenne, but the idea has never been developed.
Given the themes and concerns of some of the works it is not impossible that they were written outside the north-west Midlands, for an expatriate audience.
|--M.J.Bennett, “The Historical Background”, [BENNETT97] p.80|
James Cottrell was certainly an expatriate and Philippa had a very considerable English entourage.
There is evidence in the poems that the Gawain-Poet lead two very different lives. He shows himself as a practical man with deep knowledge of the formality of verbal contract, with detailed knowledge of the hunt, with experience of the bustle of ports prior to a departure, with the rigging of ships, and displays intimate knowledge of procedures at court. On the other hand his poetical work is primarily concerned with theological matters, with personal trawþe and, to a lesser extent, the Arthurian cycle of romance, all more typical of the contemplative life. Such dualism was by no means unknown in the fourteenth century. Although the Gawain-Poet was intensely interested in theological matters, it was always as a non-cleric, the narrator in Nero A.x always appears on the secular side of the church - but see below Section 4.4. Furthermore, he was always prepared to adapt the scriptures to suit his own poetic purpose.
A picture begins to emerge of a very practical man, deeply immersed in aristocratic life and deeply interested in theological matters. Certainly he was not, himself, a member of the nobility in England, although his family were of knightly status in England, for he refers to his liege lord and mentions a time of enforced poverty in Patience. He held a sufficiently high position in a court and his duties made him necessarily very familiar with the detail of courtly life, and allowed him access to a good library and the time to indulge his more contemplative interests. Men of this position and with these opportunities were rare in the fourteenth century, but James Cottrell certainly fulfils all these requirements.
Perhaps the most striking puzzle about his identity is the apparent isolation of the Gawain-Poet. Despite his obvious close experience of the courtly life and his literary activities, he appears to have been completely isolated from the great concerns of the day in England and particularly from the great English poets of his time. Similarly, with his theological concerns, he shows no apparent contact with the theological disputes in England (typified by the life and work of Wycliffe and the Lollards) current in the last decades of the fourteenth century Again he is deeply aristocratic in outlook, but also locked into the dialect of the north west (where there was very little aristocratic presence.) He shows no interest or even awareness of social problems in England (the recent Black death (1369) or the oppressive taxation leading to the Peasant's revolt of 1381.) He has no comment to make about the democritisation of religion, no interest in political strife and no criticism of the nobility or high ecclesiastics (contrast “Piers Plowman” and “Wynnnere and Wastoure”, and indeed much alliterative verse.) This isolation may well be mirrored in the scarcity of his work (although one can always take refuge from this in the tendency of historical documents to disappear.) Although there exist over 60 manuscripts or fragments of Piers Plowman, over 80 of Canterbury Tales, 16 of Troilus and Chrysede and 40 of Confessio Amantis, there exists only one of the work attributed to the Gawain-poet (the Nero A.x.) Many legal and official documents exist which point to the historical figures of Chaucer and Gower, and there is a little documentary evidence of the historical Langland, but (to date) no record of any sort of the Gawain-poet. The situation of James Cottrell from 1386 onwards, at the royal court of Portugal, is more than sufficient explanation of his isolation from the events and poets of England in the last decades of the fourteenth century (it was not until about 1415 that the Confessio Amantis was translated into Portuguese.)
There are some aspects of the life of a candidate (including living at the right time, and familiarity with the dialect of the north west) that we must describe as essential: clearly the Gawain-Poet was a man some considerable education, he had clear and precise knowledge of the significance of the pentangle symbol, he was very familiar with the procedures of court, feasts and the hunt, he must have had access to a good library, and he obviously had some legal knowledge. A person without any of these experiences could not have produced the poems of the Nero A.x manuscript, (although the possession of these experiences does not prove that he was the Gawain-Poet.) There are also some aspects which, while not absolutely essential, are strongly indicated: the mere existence of Pearl strongly suggests that the Gawain-Poet had a close connection with the death of a young girl before the age of two. The above might be described as “happenings” in the life of the Gawain-Poet. There are also a multitude of aspects in his life which may well have been experienced only at second hand (e.g. in his reading) such as the experience of a storm at sea, although the experience of the bustle at a port prior to departure, and the knowledge of a ship's rigging indicate a more personal experience. In the following section we choose a set of ten requirements which we believe should be met by any candidate for the role of the Gawain-Poet and present the evidence that James Cottrell conforms to the requirements. These requirements we believe to be both necessary and very nearly statistically independent. Together they constitute a reliable template with which to assess any candidate for the role of the Gawain-Poet. Again we stress the value of direct evidence: that James Cottrell held the position of chief huntsman (Monteiro-Mór) is far more convincing than a statement that as a member of a knightly family, attached to a royal household, he could well have had experience of the hunt.
 There is one other possibility of a name recorded in the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which has so far escaped notice. on l.65 at the top of folio 92r we have “Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte”. The Nowells were closely associated with the family of James Cottrell. The Nowel (later Nowell) family were local to Whalley Abbey, first at Mearley, then at Read, and were later to achieve literary prominence in the sixteenth century when Laurence Nowell, Dean of Lichfield, preserved the manuscript of Beowulf and encouraged (initiated) the study of Old English poetry, his brother, Alexander, was Dean of St. Pauls for over 40 years and drafted the catechism, and Roger Nowell of Read financed the education of Edmund Spenser at Merchant Taylor's School and Pembroke college. John Nowell of Capelside (Mearley) was vicar of Giggleswick in Ribblesdale 1548-1556, he was chaplain to Edward VI and procured the endowment of a grammar school at Giggleswick, “Schola Gramm. regis Edw. VI de Giggleswick…medicate Johanne Nowel, Clerico, Capellano sua, Vicario Ecc. Par. de Giggleswick” and “Septem discretiores homines” were constituted governors (William Catterall, … [and others]) [WHITAKER78] (p.168.) Around 1520 Grace Catterall of Little Mitton married a Nowell [WHITAKER72] (p.22.) Stephen Hamerton of Hellifield Peel appointed John Catterall as his attorney in 1538. Catterall Hall in Gigleswick is now the junior scholl of Giggleswick Grammar School. Fernão Lopes [FERNAO], Ch. CXXVIII, of the Chronicle of Dom Fernando, p.65 and the footnote on p.344) mentions a Chico Novell who arrived in Portugal in 1381 among the retinue of Edmund of Langley, and a compatriot of James Cottrell. The Nowells were a rising family in the Whalley area at the end of the fourteenth century, and it is not inconceivable that one of them found wealth in the wars abroad.
 James Cottrell was closely associated with the Order of Christ in Portugal which, of course, maintained the (perhaps nominal) usual vow of poverty of a religious order.
© 2005-2007 Ron Catterall