‘The Helen of Wales’: Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, a Shaper of History (Part 2)

First, be sure to catch up on Part 1 of Nest's story here...

Owain broke through to the sleeping area and took Nest and her children, burning the castle as he left.[23] Gerald of Wales tells us, however, that Owain raped Nest and then returned home, making no mention of Owain taking Nest with him, so there are somewhat conflicting accounts.[24] As told in the Brut y Tywysogion, though, Owain’s father Cadwgan urged Owain to return Nest to her husband, but he refused. Nest then pleaded with Owain on behalf of her children, saying: ‘If thou will have me faithful to thee, and remain with thee, send my children to their father’.[25]

It is generally considered that Owain did abduct Nest. But whether she was party to the attack as suggested by Lloyd, who states that the whole affair was a tale of passion and intrigue, or she was an unwilling victim cannot be substantiated.[26] That this was an act of rebellion against Norman incursions is a more feasible argument.

Although stories abound as to where Nest and Owain went after her abduction, no reliable evidence exists to confirm them. Susan M. Johns relies on Henry Morton’s 1932 volume In Search of Wales, which suggests that they ‘ran to Powys’ and stayed at a hunting lodge called Plas Uchaf in Eglwyseg.[27] Gwen Meredith suggests that Nest stayed with Owain for three years and that they had two sons, Llewellyn and Einion.[28] However, I would suggest that Nest was quickly returned to Gerald, possibly at the same time as her children. King Henry was rightly furious and was quick to act; taking the king’s mistress was one thing, kidnapping his son quite another. Henry brought the wrath of God down on Wales in his search for Owain by sending his man Richard de Belamais, the Bishop of London, to track Owain down. Owain escaped to Ireland, but while on the run, it would make sense that he would not have wished to be encumbered with Nest.

Nevertheless, Nest’s abduction set Wales ablaze, Normans against Welsh and Welsh against their own in a civil war. On behalf of Henry, Bishop Richard offered Owain’s cousins Ithel and Madog ab Rhiryd vast tracts of land to turn over Owain. These two invaded Ceredigion, scattering the inhabitants to any place of safety they could find and brutalising the population as they went, but they never did find Owain. It appears that later Madog changed his allegiance. Once Owain had returned from Ireland, he and Madog burned Meirionydd, killing many and slaughtering their cattle. Owain continued to be a thorn in Henry’s side and continued to avoid capture. He returned to Ceredigion, once again on the rampage, killing and terrorising as he went. In 1111, Madog ap Rhiryd killed Owain’s father, why we do not know. Owain sought revenge and caught up with Madog and blinded him.[29]

After years of constant revolt against King Henry, Owain was finally forgiven by the king and knighted in 1114.[30] A curious act by Henry, did he believe Owain could be useful to him? Owain’s meteoric rise in Henry’s favour is intriguing, especially given the statement in the Brut y Tywysogion saying that Gerald was ‘Henry’s particular friend’.[31] At this point, we may consider the vague possibility that Nest was again with Owain and was returned as a part of the bargain.[32]

In 1113, Gruffydd ap Rhys, Nest’s brother, returned from exile in Ireland determined to retake his father’s kingdom. Records show he stayed from time to time with Nest and Gerald at Pembroke Castle.[33] Young Welshmen flocked to Gruffydd’s cause as he left a trail of destruction throughout the South.[34] Henry, angered at Gruffydd’s actions, ordered Owain and Gerald to find him. Nest’s feelings regarding Gruffydd’s actions are unknown. However, that Henry would use Owain and Gerald to bring Gruffydd to heel must have felt like the ultimate betrayal.

While looking for Gruffydd, Gerald marched with his army to the forests of Ystrad-Tywi. There, Gerald came across settlers that complained to him of the brutal treatment received at the hands of Owain. Gerald decided the time was ripe to take his revenge against Owain. Believing that Gerald had come to assist in bringing down Gruffydd, Owain was instead attacked by Gerald’s forces with a volley of arrows.[35] Owain died from an arrow to his heart, which, given his passion for Nest, seems quite fated.

No mention is made in the chronicle evidence of what happened to Gerald at this point. Had he died alongside Owain, it would have been recorded along with Owain’s death. Was Gerald injured in the skirmish and died later from his wounds? History does not tell us. Plausible is the idea that Henry’s actions towards Owain were considered by Gerald a betrayal. It could also be that Gerald was tired of sharing his wife with so many men, the king included, and took his frustration out on Owain and left court.[36] His options would have been few if he wished to keep his family safe and secure. It is possible that he took up the cross and travelled to the Holy Land, but we simply do not know.

D. Walker tells us that Gerald died in 1136.[37] However, William Hait became the constable of Pembroke in 1130,[38] which suggests that Gerald was not in residence at the time. This strengthens the argument that Gerald had either fled, died, or was suffering a prolonged illness that took him out of the record books.

Of Nest’s potentially fourteen children, history does not give reliable dates of their births or their deaths. That she had four children by Gerald is documented by various sources; that she had ten further children is less easy to confirm. She bore Hait, the Constable of Pembroke, a son, William Lord of St. Clears. She also had a son, Robert Fitz Stephen, by Stephen, the Constable of Cardigan, whom she had married after Gerald’s death. While their birth dates may not be reliably documented, they feature prominently in history. There were four further children by fathers unknown, plus the possibility that Nest also had two sons by Owain.

It would be easy to label Nest as promiscuous, given the number of children she had by various men, but the fact that we have no firm evidence of the dates they were born does allow for us to be a little more lenient towards her. I have often considered her unfairly treated in the scholarship. She was forced into situations that were beyond her control, as was the case for many women in the Middle Ages, and that she used the beauty and charms she possessed to make a comfortable and safe life for herself and her children would have been very reasonable, given her circumstances. We must also consider that it would have been prudent for the king to see his mistress married successively to two Norman lords (Gerald and then Stephen), thus keeping her and her children under his influence. Being a daughter of the King of Deheubarth made her a target for those who would use her as leverage against the Normans.

We have no reliable evidence for the date of her death, nor do we know where she is buried. What we do know is that she left a legacy that has survived through time by means of her children and grandchildren. If Nest herself is not remembered well by the historians, her children by the various men in her life have been. They were born with a mixture of both Welsh and Norman blood in their veins and went on to lay the foundations for some of the major houses in both Wales and Ireland. Nest and Gerald’s daughter Angharad married William Fitz Odo de Barry, and their son, Gerald de Barry, is better known to us as the prolific writer and priest Gerald of Wales. Robert Fitz Stephen and his half-brother, Maurice Fitz Gerald, ensured a long line of Fitz Geralds in Ireland by successfully gaining vast tracts of land through either battle or reward. They built castles and established a lasting Fitz Gerald dynasty, which includes the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Patricia Taylor, M.A.
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Footnotes

[23] Annales Cambriae, p.76.

[24] Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, edited and translated by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), pp.229-30.

[25] Brut y Tywysogion, p.87.

[26] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.417-48.

[27] Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, pp.196-198. Henry Morton was a travel writer who took pleasure in portraying Wales as a place of romance and legends to entertain his readers. However, there is an Elizabethan manor house in Eglwyseg known as Plas Uchaf built on the foundations of a hunting lodge which once belonged to the princes of Powys. An inscription can be seen over the door telling how the lodge was inherited by the princes of Powys in 1073.

[28] G. Meredith, ‘Henry I’s Concubines’, Essays in Medieval Studies 19 (2002): p.17. Available: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/39657. Access provided by University of Wales Trinity Saint David. <accessed 4th July 2016>.

[29] Annales Cambriae, p.76.

[30] Brut y Tywysogion, p.119.

[31] Brut y Tywysogion, p.87.

[32] P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, p.33.

[33] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.433.

[34] Brut y Tywysogion, p.123.

[35] Rev. W. Warrington, The History of Wales in Nine Books, vol.1, Bk. V (Brecon: Williams, 1823), p.432.

[36] Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages, p.22.

[37] D. Walker, ‘Gerald of Windsor (d. 1116×36)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) [online]. Available: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/45551. <accessed 23rd November 2016>.

[38] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.424.

‘The Helen of Wales’: Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, a Shaper of History (Part 1)

Nest (b.c.1085) was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth, and the lover of the future King of England. She had three further lovers, two husbands, and potentially fourteen children. Her beauty allegedly inspired such a passion in the men in her life that it sparked a scandal that rocked the world of medieval Wales to its foundations.

Nest was born into a troubled and often violent time, less than twenty years after the invasion by William the Conqueror and the coming of the Normans. Nest’s father died at the Battle of Brecon (1093). Left to the mercies of her Norman captors, she was possibly given to a family in the pay of King William Rufus.[1] Windsor Castle was a Royal Court Castle and a favourite haunt of Prince Henry.[2] Her later affair with Henry, the king’s brother, and her subsequent marriage to Gerald of Windsor, the son of Walter Fitz Otho, the castellan of Windsor Castle, suggest Windsor as her destination.[3]

Nest was a Welsh princess and therefore highly regarded by the Welsh people. She would thus have been a very valuable asset to the English crown, which adds fuel to the argument that she would have been taken out of Wales as quickly as possible. That being said, no attempt to rescue or to barter for her has survived in the historical record.

Some have thought Nest to be promiscuous, and indeed, historian Timothy Venning portrays her as a woman of great beauty and little virtue.[4]  However, Nest was a woman of her times. With her father dead, her mother having disappeared from all reliable records, and her brothers either incarcerated or having fled to Ireland, she was thrown alone into a Norman world after the battle for Brycheiniog. That she used her beauty to charm her captors would not be unexpected; it would have been her only weapon to ensure her own comfort. Being taken to Windsor Castle would have given her ample opportunity to meet Prince Henry, a man known for his many love affairs and numerous illegitimate children.[5] Nest would have been aware that being the mistress of such a figure could have its advantages, and Henry was known to be good to his mistresses and did not refuse to recognize his bastards. An affair with Henry could offer Nest a certain security. Her life in Wales was gone, and making the kind of marriage that would once have been available to her was also gone.

With the death of William Rufus in 1100, his brother became King Henry I. During this time, the Norman lord, Gerald of Windsor, was a rising star in King Henry’s court. Being no doubt aware of the benefits of marrying a mistress of a king, Gerald did so, wedding Nest with Henry’s permission and support. Gerald had already been installed as steward of Pembroke Castle by Arnulf de Montgomery, a man who took up arms against Henry in 1102 and lost all his lands for his pains. Eventually, Henry made Gerald constable of Pembroke Castle, which brought Nest back into Wales once again.

Figure 1. Pembroke Castle. Arnulf de Montgomery first established an earth and timber castle with a small inner bailey c.1093, which may later have been built of stone. The castle as we now know it was re-built by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, c.1189-1220. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

After his marriage to Nest, Gerald went on to build castles at Cenarth Bychan (Cilgerran) and Carew, a particularly important site in the history of the kings of Deheubarth.

Figure 2. Carew Castle as it is today. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 3. Carew Castle was gradually built in the 13th and 14th centuries by Sir Nicholas Carew. In Nest’s day, the castle would have been one of earth and timber, and the only stone structure attributed to Gerald of Windsor can be seen here between the square tower and the polygonal tower. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 4. The rear of Carew Castle viewed from the tidal Carew River. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

The date of Nest’s marriage to Gerald is open to conjecture; although, it has been suggested that she married in 1100, as proffered by John Edward Lloyd.[6] However, Gwenn Meredith suggests Nest’s first child, William fitz Gerald, was born in 1096, indicating that they were married earlier than 1100.[7] That she had one child (Henry fitz Henry, c.1105 to 1114) by King Henry I is documented; that she was the mother of Robert of Gloucester is still open for debate.[8]

Nest’s marriage to Gerald seems on the surface to have been a success. The Brut y Tywysogion, a Welsh chronicle that picks up where Geoffrey of Monmouth left off, tells us that she and Gerald had at least one son and a daughter in the nursery, along with King Henry’s son, Henry, and another son by a concubine of Gerald’s.[9] She was the wife of a now powerful lord who held Pembroke Castle, Carew Castle, and Cenarth Bychan Castle. By 1109, however, life for Nest would take a very dramatic turn with repercussions for all of Wales.

Figure 5. The Celtic cross at Carew Castle reads ‘Margiteut Rex Etg(uin) Filius’, meaning King Maredudd, son of Edwin. Maredudd ap Edwin ruled jointly with his brother Hywel but died c.1035. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Figure 6. Plaque situated at the base of the Celtic cross. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.

Although there was a heavy Norman influence in South Wales, many areas were still ruled as fiercely independent kingdoms warring constantly with each other. The Welsh system of partible inheritance aggravated this situation.[10] Owain ap Cadwgan, a cousin of Nest’s, was the son of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, King of Powys. Owain’s history and that of Powys in general, as we shall see, reinforces the image of warring kingdoms and indiscriminate slaughter, which left Powys a somewhat ineffectual kingdom.[11] Cadwgan ap Bleddyn held a great feast on his lands in Ceredigion during Christmas 1109.[12] These feasts were not just Christmas celebrations, but an opportunity for princes such as Cadwgan to gauge the loyalty of their barons. Often these gatherings were used to rally support for war and were known hotbeds for political machinations and posturing.[13]

Where Gerald and Nest were at the time of Cadwgan’s feast has long been a point of discussion. R. R. Davies maintains that they and their children were at Cenarth Bychan in Ceredigion.[14]

Figure 7. Cenarth Bychan (Cilgerran) as it is today.[15] Gerald of Windsor’s castle would have been a ‘ringwork castle’ of earth and wood.[16] The present castle is considered to have been built by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke in c.1223. Photographed by Patricia Taylor.
Owain had heard of Nest’s beauty and was determined to see her. Knowing that she was close by, he took some of his men and paid her a courtesy call. He was so overwhelmed with her beauty, it is said, that he became fired with lust for her and was so determined to have her by any means available to him that he took his men back to his father’s feast and devised a plan to capture her.[17] The Brut y Tywysogion states that Owain was ‘instigated by the devil’.[18]

Owain and his men returned at night and dug under the castle’s foundations, scaled walls and ditches, and set buildings alight.[19] Nest, realising that Gerald would be killed if he retaliated, persuaded him not to leave the bedchamber, but to go with her to the garderobe, saying: ‘go not out the door, for there thy enemies wait for thee, but come, follow me’.[20] Once there, they pulled up the floor, and she helped him to escape down the midden chute.[21] With Gerald safely out of the way, she called out to the attackers that Gerald had gone, saying: ‘Why call out in vain? He is not here, whom you seek; surely he has escaped’.[22]

Stay tuned next week to find out what happens to Nest and her lovers...

Patricia Taylor, M.A.
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

 

Primary Sources

Annales Cambriae: A Translation of Harleian 3859: PRO E.164/1: Cottonian Domitian, A1: Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E.164/1, translated by Paul Martin Remfry (United Kingdom: Castle Studies Research and Publishing, 2007).

Brut y Tywysogion; or, The Chronicle of the Princes, edited by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860).

Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, edited and translated by A. B. Scott and F. X. Martin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978).

Footnotes

[1] When a woman was widowed and left with young children and their father was of noble birth, or had Crown lands, then the ‘wardship of the heir or heiress became a Royal reward.’ The children would be given to another house to be raised under their guardianship. This guardianship could be given to a royal servant. These children would live with their guardian as a part of their household, and their lands and assets would be administered by their guardians. Anne Crawford, ed., Letters of Medieval Women (Stroud: Sutton Publishers Ltd., 2002), p.108.

[2] Royal Collection Trust. press@royalcollection.org.

[3] Davies suggests that Gerald chose his wife so that “he [might] sink his roots and those of his family more deeply in those parts.’ It was not uncommon for Norman Marcher Lords to marry into the Welsh nobility in order to build their holdings within Wales. R. R. Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change: Wales 1063-1415 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p.106. P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, as final fulfillment for the degree of Master of Arts, Celtic Studies (Lampeter: University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 2017), p.23.

[4] T. Venning, The Kings and Queens of Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2015), p.123.

[5] Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp.60-73.

[6] John Edward Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii (London: Longman Green and Company, 1911), p.417.

[7] S. M. Johns, Gender, Nation and Conquest in the High Middle Ages: Nest of Deheubarth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p.10.

[8] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.499.Yorke states that Nest was ‘the beautiful mistress of Henry who brought him his eminent son Robert of Gloucester.’ P. Yorke, Esq. of Erthig (1799) and D. Williams (2016), The Royal Tribes of Wales (Hardpress Publishing, 2013), p.33. D. Crouch, ‘Nest (born before 1092, died c.1130)’, ‘Robert of Gloucester’s Mother and Sexual Politics in Norman Oxfordshire’, Historical Research vol.72. no.179 (October 1999): pp.323-333. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  (2004) [online]. Available: http://www/oxforddnb.com/view/article/19905. <accessed 10th September 2016>.

[9] Brut y Tywysogion; or, The Chronicle of the Princes, edited by Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860), p.85.

[10] Lynn H. Nelson, The Normans in South Wales 1070-1171 (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1966), p.110. Partible inheritance is the system where all the sons of the deceased, and in some cases, the daughters, would receive a share of the estate. This system differs from primogeniture where only the eldest son is entitled to inherit. See the entry for ‘primogeniture’: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/primogeniture. <accessed 14th October 2016>.

[11] D. Walker, Medieval Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.38.

[12] The Brut y Tywysogion states that the event took place at Christmas 1106 (p.83). Scholars such as Lloyd (History of Wales, Volume ii, p.417) and Davies (Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, p.86) offer 1109. The Annales Cambriae state that in 1109 Owain burned Cenarth Bychan and was expelled to Ireland and makes no mention at all of Nest. Annales Cambriae: A Translation of Harleian 3859: PRO E.164/1: Cottonian Domitian, A1: Exeter Cathedral Library MS. 3514 and MS Exchequer DB Neath, PRO E.164/1, translated by Paul Martin Remfry (United Kingdom: Castle Studies Research and Publishing, 2007), p.76. Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.418.

[13] T. M. Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owens, and Paul Russell, eds., The Welsh King and His Court (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), p.343.

[14] Davies, Conquest, Coexistence, and Change, p.86.

[15] Cenarth Bychan Castle is now known as Cilgerran Castle.

[16]  Ringwork castles are similar to motte-and-bailey castles but are encircled by lower earth walls and a ditch to enclose them which would be finished with a timber palisade. See Marvin Hull, ‘Ringwork Castles’ [online]. Available: https://www.castles-of-britain.com/ringworkcastles.htm.1995-2011. <accessed 2nd July 2018>.

[17] Brut y Tywysogion, p.105.

[18] ibid., p.105.

[19] Lloyd, History of Wales, Volume ii, p.418.

[20] ibid., p.85.

[21] P. A. Taylor, Nest Ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, p.30. Pembroke Castle and Carew Castle both hold claim to the abduction of Nest in their tourist guides. Research considers these claims as highly unlikely.

[22] Brut y Tywysogion, p.85.

Guy of Warwick the Anglo-Norman Guthlac?

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.

Guy of Warwick as a Knight. Introductory illustration to a copy of Le Rommant de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (an abridged continental French prose version). London, British Library, MS Royal 15. E. VI, ff. 227r-272r (15th Century)
Guy of Warwick Slays the Dragon, Saving the Lion. The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 14r (c. 1331)

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 of Warwick in the Rous Roll. Pictured from left to right are Felice’s father, Felice and her son Reinbroun, Guy of Warwick as a knight with the lion, then Guy of Warwick as penitent pilgrim and vanquisher of Colbrond, then the adult Reinbroun. London, British Library, MS Additional 48976, f. 3ar (c. 1483)

Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.

Misericord Showing Guy Fighting Colbrond (S03) (c. 1350-1360), Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England
Misericord with Felice Giving Alms to the Hermit Guy (SH-16) (c. 1330s), Wells Cathedral, Wells, England

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).

Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire
Quatrefoil Portraying Scenes from St. Guthlac’s Life, Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

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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Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. Ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

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“Guthlac A.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 248-268.

“Guthlac A.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 49-72.

“Guthlac B.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 269-283.

“Guthlac B.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 72-88. 

Speculum Gy de Warewyke. Ed. Georgiana Lea Morrill. Early English Text Society. e.s. vol. 75. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. Ed. Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: Scolar Press, 1977. 

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The Romance of Guy of Warwick. The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from the Paper MS. Ff.2.38 in the University Library, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 25-26. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1875-1876.

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