4.2. The Ring and Girdle Scenario

In the critical temptation scene (the third) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Sir Gawain is first offered a red gold ring holding a valuable stone, which he refused


Ho raȝt him a riche rynk of red golde werkez,
Wyth a starande ston stondande alofte,
Þat bere blusschande bemez as the bryȝt sunne;
Wyt ȝe wel, hit watz worth wele ful hoge.
Bot þe renk hit renayed …

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1817-1821)

Then the lady of Hautdesert then offered him her girdle


'If ȝe renay my rynk, to ryche for hit semez,
Ȝe wolde not so hyȝly halden be to me,
I schal gif yow my girdel, þat gaynes yow lasse.'
Ho laȝt a lace lyȝtly þat leke vmbe hir sydez,
Knit vpon hir kyrtel, vnder þe clere mantyle;
Gered hit watz with grene sylke and with golde schaped,
Noȝt bot arounde brayden,  beten with fyngrez.
And þat ho bede to þe burne and blyþely bisoȝt,
Þaȝ hit vnworþi were, þat;he hit take wolde;

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1827-1835)

and insisted that he take it, binding him to secrecy.


And bisoȝt hym for hir sake discouer hit neuer
Bot to lelly layne fro hir lorde; þe leude hym acordez

  --Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1862-1863)

It may at first sight seem highly improbable that such a scene could have been played out in the life of very many people.  However, the gift of a ring was by no means an uncommon sign of friendship, and the gift of an intimate article of clothing by a lady to a lover might also not have been too uncommon.  However, it is when we combine the two together and then conflate the gifts with a lady of high social status, in the absence of her husband, and include a reluctance of the lover to receive the gifts, a binding to secrecy, an insistence on the costliness of the ring, and associate the incident with a be-heading threat and a last minute reprieve that we define a requirement of very low probability.  There is certainly no overwhelming need to expect the Gawain-Poet to have experienced such a situation in his lifetime, it could well be an exercise in pure fiction, and a ring and girdle incident cannot be regarded as a necessary requirement.  But if we should find a candidate who has actually been exposed to such a situation, we must rate it of very high importance;  the parallel to the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight would be too close to be easily accepted as coincidence (actually a set of nine coincidences.)

In the royal court of Portugal there occurred a very similar set of incidents in 1381 which was witnessed by João (then João of Avis) and was familiar enough to the historian Fernão Lopes, a contemporary of James Cottrell, to be included in his historical work [FERNAO].  The incident closely involved João, the ultimate patron of James Cottrell, and resulted in a be-heading order for João (which was subsequently repealed under pressure from Edmund of Langley, in whose service was James Cottrell that year.)  Juan Fernández Andeiro, had been kept hidden at the court at Estremoz by king Fernando for political reasons.  Fernão Lopes ([FERNAO] p.97) relates that there were suspicions of the relationship between queen Leonor and Andeiro, and that while Fernando was away there happened two events similar to those that occurred between Sir Gawain and the lady of Hautdesert in the third temptation scene while Bertilac is away.  Only the order of events is rearranged, first Leonor gave Andeiro a veil, but in return he asked for a more intimate garment (“kept more about her person”:  a girdle,) then she gave him a gold ring set with a big red stone which she insisted was very costly.  Andeiro was very reluctant to accept the ring, but she insisted on his taking it.  João of Avis was a witness of this and regarded it as a very unseemly exchange.  This is certainly reminiscent of the Lady of Hautdesert offering Sir Gawain a red gold ring set with a valuable stone, which he refused, saying it was too costly, after which she insisted on him accepting her girdle.  James Cottrell and Fernão were contemporaries at the time Fernão was writing his history, and of similar age (Fernão was born 1380, 20 years younger than James Cottrell,) and both held high position in the royal household and court of João and Philippa.  It seems to be entirely feasible that James Cottrell would have heard the story from Fernão, even if he hadn't learnt it whilst serving with Edmund in 1381, and later adapted it to his own ends.  The incidents are so relevant to the scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that it is worth quoting Fernão.[14]


Senhora, mais chegado e mais husado quéria eu de vós o pano, quando m'o vós ouvessees de dar, que este que me vós daaes

  --Fernão LopesChrónica de Dom Fernando”, Ch.CXXXIX

This was overheard and re-told by one of her ladies-in-waiting, and eventually it was learned by Leonor that this had become public knowledge.  Leonor feared that the king's (Fernando's) half-brother João of Avis might try to retaliate on Fernando's behalf against Andeiro, and at her instigation João of Avis was imprisoned and ordered to be beheaded immediately.  Aided by a little intervention from Edmund of Langley (and James Cottrell accompanied him on this 1381 expedition to Portugal,) the beheading order was repealed and João released.  Later, on meeting with Leonor again (p.117)[15]


Acobar o jantar, trouverom a fruita; e a rrainha começou de fallar nas joyas que tiinha e quanto lhe custarum, gabando-as muito; e o conde alçou-sse da mesa ficando os outros asseentados, e ella tirou hüu anell que tiinha no dedo, d'hüu rrubi que dezia que era de gram preço e tendeo a maã com elle e disse ao conde, emguisa que o ouvirom todos;  “Johane, toma este anell”.  “Nom tomarei” disse ell. “Porque?” disse ella. “Senhora, disse ell, porque ei medo que digam d'ambos”.  “Toma tu o que te eu dou, disse ella, e diga cada hüu o que quiser”;  e elle tomou-ho e pose-o no dedo; e ao meestre e aos outros quehi estavom nom lhes paeceo bem esta cousa, e teverom aquellas por mui maas rrazoões.

  --Fernão LopesChrónica de Dom Fernando”, Ch.CXLVI

Whilst Sir Gawain was able (almost) to resist the temptations of the lady of Hautdesert, it appears that Juan Fernández Andeiro had failed the test of chivalry to the disapproval of João.  The Gawain-Poet has re-shaped the events to show how a true knight should have reacted in this situation (in fact Sir Gawain did not behave altogether perfectly, and did accept the girdle, and the remainder of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is concerned with his fault in not rendering it to Bertilak.)  The true events were known to João (who was present at, and offended by, the gift of the ring) and one can imagine his approval of the way the story was re-shaped in a more moral fashion, probably for the edification of the young princes being tutored by the Gawain-Poet  It is also particularly significant that the story of the ring and the girdle are tied to a be-heading and a reprieve.

In this history, which must have been known to James Cottrell, we have almost all the ingredients of the final testing of Sir Gawain:  The installation of a knight in a castle, the leaving of the knight with the lady of the castle while the host was away, the testing of the knight in a matter of love by the lady with the gift of a ring and a girdle, the failure of the knight in the test, the attempt to keep the gift secret, the be-heading threat and the reprieve, and the moral judgement.  The final replaying of the scene by James Cottrell in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which Sir Gawain only fails in a manner understandable to the court of Arthur, must have both pleased João and served as an excellent education in knightly behaviour for the princes.

[14] Lomax and Oakley [FERNAO] translate this as: “My lady, rather than this cloth which you have just given me, I would prefer another one which you have used more and kept more about your person, when you have it to give to me” [FERNAO].

[15] Lomax and Oakley [FERNAO] translate this as: “When the meal was over, fruit was brought in.  The Queen began to talk about her jewels and how much they cost, and praised them greatly.  The Count [Juan Fernández Andeiro] rose from the table while the others remained seated, and came to the divan on which the Queen reclined at table.  She pulled from her finger a ring set with a ruby that she said was a stone of great price.  She held it towards him and spoke to him so that all could hear her: ‘João [Juan], take this ring.’  ‘I cannot’, he replied.  ‘Why?’ she asked.  ‘Madam’, he answered, ‘because I am afraid of what the others will say.’  ‘Take what I give you’, she said, ‘and let the rest say what they like.’  So he took it and put it on his finger.  The Master [João of Avis] and everyone present disapproved of this, finding this exchange most unseemly.”.