Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.
The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.
The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.
Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).
For more on the later life of the Guy of Warwick legend, see Dr. Siân Echard’s page: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/GUY.HTM.
So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.
The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.
Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.
A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).
To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).
In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.
Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):
N.B. This list is not exhaustive.
Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary)
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