Beowulf: The Slaying of Grendel and the Water Witch

J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf was originally written in Anglo-Saxon times as a poem in Old English by an anonymous writer.  It tells the story of its heroic protagonist, Beowulf, who embodies the much revered Anglo-Saxon qualities of strength, courage, heroism and virtuous behaviour.   It is these qualities, blended with fictional, legendary and historical elements that make Beowulf the ideal role model for the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy.   Presented her is a retelling of the story after his arrival in Denmark to his triumphant return to Geatland drawn from the sources below.

Beowulf comes of Age

The story of Beowulf begins in a part of Scandinavia called Geatland that was a land of tall mountains,  narrow valleys and a long rugged coastline. It was populated by a brave and virtuous people called the Geats who were ruled over by King Hygelac and his wife Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair.  At regular times King Hygelac would call his earls and warriors to his great hall for feasting and drinking.  These were popular and events that brought together his people from distant parts and helped bond his nation to him and each other.  At these events the stories of their valour and that of their of their ancestors were told by the bards and sometimes one of them might be called upon to tell of a heroic deed they had performed.  Young Beowulf would sit in the great hall taking in all of the stories. He was the son of the king’s sister who from a very young age had caught the eye of his uncle for his physical stature and strength. 

One night a great feast was held in the king’s hall and all of the bravest and renowned warriors and noble of Geatland gathered to enjoy the festivities.  As the evening progressed, King Hygelac stood up and introduced a visiting minstrel, whom he named as The Wanderer,  and asked him to sing a song.  The minstrel brought a stool before the king and sat down and began to play his harp.   He sang of the wild northern lands and of the forbidden mountains that were home to beasts and demons far more dangerous than any of those found in Geatland.  He told of terrible dragons and of their slaying by brave men and he told of the sea serpents and wild things of the sea.

The Song of Grendel

The song of The Wanderer began to change and took on a darker and more disturbing tone.  It told of King Hrothgar of Denmark and of the terrible calamity that had struck that land. He sang of a demon that was part animal, part man and part all terrible creatures and the name of the demon was Grendel. He told how Grendel had appeared one fearful night, twelve years ago after a great feast in the great hall of King Hrothgar that was called Hereot.  After all had ate and drank their fill and the king and queen retired to their own apartments his earls and warriors lay asleep in the great hall. As they had lain peacefully sleeping unaware of any pending peril, Grendel had come and forced aside the great door and carried away thirty of the sleeping earls, murdering and devouring them.

This had caused great sorrow throughout the land and although there had been many attempts to kill Grendel he violently defeated and killed all of his attackers showing no mercy at all.  Now no one dared to sleep in the great hall of Heorot because Grendel often visited it and wreaking his havoc wherever it was in use.  He has killed most of the young and vigorous warriors of the Danes who has dared to stand up to him and now all that remained were defenseless women, children and the elderly.   Beowulf was now completely taken with the song and a fire sprang up in him lighting up his blue eyes. As he listened he knew what he must do.  Springing from his seat he thumped the table shouting, 

“My King and Queen and earls of Geatland, in days gone by King Hrothgar of Denmark was the friend of Ecgtheow my father in his hour of need.  I, Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, will slay Grendel for King Hrothgar in thanks for his friendship to my father and the glory of Geatland!”

The Wanderer stopped his song and throughout the hall a silence fell.  King Hygelac stood up and commanded silence and turning to Beowulf said in a voice that all could hear,

“Beowulf your time has come to prove yourself.  You have been blessed with the strength and vitality of thirty men and you should use your powers to help everyone.  Hrothgar, our friend and neighbor has great need. Go now to Denmark and prove yourself and slay Grendel!”

King Hygelac ordered that Beowulf should be given suitable equipment for his purpose and told him to choose fourteen comrades to accompany him.  These should be such as Beowulf, young men who had come of age and in need of proving themselves.  At last suitable equipped and attired the company made their way to the harbour where a ship had been prepared.  At sunrise the next day Beowulf and his company set sail on their great adventure.

Their voyage across the sea was not to be an easy one as they sailed into a great storm. At last they came safely through and arriving on the shores of Denmark they pushed their ship up a beach.  There they met an old man who welcomed them and showed them the path to the great hall of King Hrothgar of Denmark and promised to stray and guard their ship until their return.

The Hall of King Hrothgar

Beowulf and his company followed  the path through dense forest for many miles until the came into a long valleyAt the far end of the valley stood the once fair hall of Heorot.  As they passed through the valley they saw the deserted farms and the homes of the people while all around there hung the stench of death like the very land rotted.  There was no sign of humans so Beowulf led his company onwards towards the great hall. until at last came to it gates.

Three times Beowulf knocked upon the gates and at last a frightened gatekeeper appeared and nervously asked what business they had at the hall.  Beowulf requested the man go to King Hrothgar telling him that a band of warriors from Geatland had arrived wishing to speak to him and were asking for food and lodging.

The gatekeeper hurried off and presently Beowulf saw the king approach in the company of a band of elderly warriors.  King Hrothgar was now an old man himself with a full beard of flowing white and eyes that told of days of fear and sorrow.  As he approached he opened his arms wide saying,

 “Welcome strangers,  I can see by your bearing you are friends and here on some errand to my sad and unhappy kingdom.  Therefore, speak of your errand and who you so that I may help you as I can.”

Stepping forward Beowulf loudly proclaimed, “I am Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow whom you befriended and KIng Hygelac of Geatland is my uncle.  We come to Denmark to slay the demon called Grendel and free you from his terror.”

Then Hrothgar looked long and hard at him and said, “Ecgtheow was my friend and brother-in-arms.  You and your friends are very welcome in Denmark but I warn you Grendel comes often to Heorot and is hungry for young men to devour.  Now come rest and tonight for the first time in twelve years there will be feasting in Heorot and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful will pass to you the drinking-horn as is our tradition of friendship.”

For the first time in twelve years the great hall of Heorot was made ready for a great feast and fires were lit cooking meats of every kind.  When all was ready the king and queen arrived followed by a great company and took their seats in the hall according to rank. Their number had been greatly diminished by Grendel and now it was mostly old men who sat with the king and queen.  It was not a very joyful atmosphere for fear dwelt in the hearts of all those present of the evil of Grendel.

Queen Wealtheow Pouring Wine – J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

King Hrothgar sat at the head of the assembly with Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.   In a place of honour below the king sat Beowulf. Beside him on the right his right sat Aescher the king’s most trusted advisor. Next to him on his left sat Unferth, whom The Wanderer had sang about that night in Geatland in his uncle’s hall.  At the word of the King the feast began and as the drinking-horns were passed around many oaths were uttered encouraging the slaying of Grendel.   It was only Beowulf’s company of Geat warriors that were joyful and as the drink flowed they began boasting of the prowess and courage of Beowulf. Aescher endorsed their praises of their leader but Unferth became increasingly sullen and silent never offering a single word of praise as was the Danish custom.

Beowulf noticed this and turning to him said, “You keep very quiet Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, tell us of your deeds of valor that we may give praise to you.  Come, tell us and then I can drink from the cup with you!”

At this Unferth stood up and slamming his fist on the table cried, “Beowulf!  Who is this Beowulf but a beardless boy who stands before us telling us he will save us from Grendel?  Who are the beardless boys who accompany him over the sea? Does anyone think that what so many good Danes have failed this stripling will succeed?  Let him and his friends return to Geatland instead of laughing at our sorrow and loss!”

Beowulf felt his anger burn hot for this was the same Unsferth the Wanderer had sung about who had not dared to fight the demon himself.  Beowulf rose, but knowing the words of his accuser to be false spoke clearly and softly without anger, “Take back your words they are dishonorable.  I come in friendship offering to rid Denmark of this vile Grendel.  Unferth, tell us of your great battle with Grendel?”

A murmur of approval of Beowulf’s words from Danes and Geats ran around the hall and KIng Hrothgar stood up and said, “Having listened to the quiet words of Beowulf I know he is a hero. There has been too much sorrow these last twelve years and makes us bitter and say things we do not mean.  Beowulf, forgive us!”

Then Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful took up a jewelled cup and filling it with wine passed it to Hrothgar who drank from it and then she took it to Beowulf.  He drank and she went around the company of Geatland and thanked them for coming to Denmark in their time of great need and asking each to drink. When they had done so she went around the king’s earls and they also drank to the king and queen and the death of Grendel.

Then the festivities were reopened with much good will from both Danes and Geats.  While the Danes praised the glory of King Hygelac and Queen Hygd, the Wise and Fair, the Geats praised KIng Hrothgar and Queen Wealhtheow the Beautiful.  At last Hrothgar rose from his chair and taking his queen by the hand said,  “Now it is time for us Danes to go to our beds and leave Beowulf and his company alone and pray their sleep be untroubled.” 

He led his queen out through the great door of Heorot followed by all of his earls and retainers and the Geats were left to face the night as the great fires slowly burnt out.

The Demon Grendel

Grendel by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

Beowulf ordered that the doors of the hall be secured and his companions made them so well no mortal man could have entered.  With the doors safe the company spread their cloaks over the benches and lay down to sleep. One of Beowulf’s favorite companions named Hondscio took it upon himself to lay next to the door vowing to be the first to do battle should Grendel choose to appear.   Soon all except Beowulf were sound asleep.  He had vowed to stay awake and lay still and quiet listening as silence crept over the hall.  He could hear the breathing of his comrades but little else.

Outside fog was forming and hiding the moon.  Slowly all sounds died away and even the wind stopped its sighing and all was silent.  As the fog crept across the land and wrapped itself around the hall, despite his vow, Beowulf became very drowsy.  He fought to stay awake but his limbs felt heavy and his eyes closed and he sank into a deep slumber.

Outside the fog thickened and completely obscured the moon and tightened its hold upon the hall.  For a second the fog parted and a gigantic black shape loomed and slowly moving towards the great hall and stood before the door in the weird light.

Inside, unaware of the horror that lay outside, Beowulf and  his company slept under the bewitchment Grendel had wrought upon them.  Beowulf fought hard to break the spell and desperately tried to crawl out of the nightmarish pit he found himself in.

Outside Grendel slowly brought his strength to bear silently pushing the door open despite its  securings. Beowulf, fighting hard, crawled from the pit and saw the door wide open and fog streaming in.  He saw the great shape of Grendel bend down and picking up the sleeping Hondscio tear his limbs from his body and now he saw clearly the nature of the demon he faced.  It resembled a gigantic but twisted and deformed man yet there was something beast like about it. Its body was covered in grey scales that rattled when it moved and a pale light flickered from its eyes.  Struggling to his feet he watched in horror and disgust as it crushed the body of Hondscio and greedily ate his remains. Then it turned its vile gaze around the hall until it fell upon Beowulf. Slowly the monster moved towards him.

Beowulf, full of loathing and disgust shook off the spell and ran at the beast.  Clashing together the two grappled to gain a hold on one another. Although the claws of Grendel were strong and dug into his flesh, Beowulf was quicker and slipped easily from his hold.  As Grendel sought to grasp, hold and tear his opponent apart, Beowulf moved quickly around him dodging his grabbing hands. While his company lay in spell induced sleep he and Grendel engaged in a deadly hand to hand fight for life. 

Grendel tried to grasp and crush the head of Beowulf who in turn evaded him and continued to seek some advantage or weak spot.  At last Grendel managed to grab Beowulf but his quick turn forced both of them to the ground and for a split second the demon experienced fear and doubt. Like a true warrior Beowulf sensed this and quickly took advantage of this lapse and managed to grasp him briefly by the throat, but its scales prevented him from taking a killing grip. 

Then Grendel thrashed out and almost gained the advantage but Beowulf grasped hold of his arm and giving a quick twist jumped behind the brute pushing it high up its back causing it to scream in agony.  The two fell to the floor and Beowulf continued to grip his arm wrenching this way and that until he felt the muscles and sinews weaken and give way and he pulled the arm free from its socket. Grendel stumbled up and through the door disappearing into the fog leaving the exhausted Beowulf clutching his severed and bleeding limb.  With the spell broken his companions awoke and gathered around in wonder and horror. 

As dawn broke people slowly appeared at the great hall to see how the Geats had fared though they expected the worse.  Soon a great crowd of people thronged the hall and they were astounded by what they saw. Hanging high from one of the roof beams was the massive severed and bloody arm of Grendel.  Upon the king’s dais stood Beowulf wearing a scarlet cloak his blue eyes flashing fire and his fair hair shining like gold like some god of old. 

King Hrothgar was sent for and quickly arrived and said, “Give thanks now to Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, to be sure, this is the end of Grendel and his terror.  Hail, to Beowulf hero of Geatland!” Then Queen Wealhtheow praised him and called on the servants to prepare a great feast. The celebrations went on all day and into the night and Beowulf was greatly honored by all.

Vengeance of the Water Witch

Beowulf and the Water Witch by J. R. Skelton [Public domain]

The next day a  messenger rushed in his face white with fear, body shaking and eyes wild and kneeling before the king said in a trembling voice,   “Sire, I have just run as fast as I could from Heorot;  The good and wise Aescher has been most terribly murdered.  His head has been severed from his body and his limbs crushed to a pulp.”

With that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow, accompanied by Beowulf, hastened to the great hall. They found the mangled remains of Aescher amid a scene of great destruction and the severed arm of Grendel had been removed.  Queen Wealhtheow cried, “This is the revenge of Grendel’s mother.  In our gladness at the defeat of Grendel we had forgotten her evil presence.  Unless she too is slain she will wreak unending devastation upon us. Beowulf, we implore you to hunt her down and slay her too!”

On hearing  this Beowulf called his company to him saying, “Come, let us finish this evil once and for all before night comes,” and begged Hrothgar for horses and hounds to hunt down the monster.  Then Unferth, stepped forward from the crowd and said, “Beowulf, I am put to shame that I have ever doubted you.  Take with you my sword. Its name is Hrunting. It is a magical sword and will be of help to you.  Forgive my foolishness and let us be friends.”

Gladly, Beowulf embrace Unferth and taking the sword he and his company mounted the horses that had been brought for them.  He called for the dogs to be set loose and they soon picked up the powerful scent and raced away on the trail with Beowulf and the Geats  and King Hrothgar and the Danes following on behind. The dogs ran over hill and fen for many miles until at last they reached a small dark mere.  Strange and slimy things moved in its depths and putrid vapours rose from its surface. The dogs stopped at the water’s edge and Beowulf and his company rode up.  Throwing off his cloak and unbuckling his sword he cried, “I go into the mere alone.  Wait here until I return!”

All of his companions protested, each wanting to accompany him but he would not allow it.  He embraced his followers in turn and paid homage to King Hrothgar and turned and ran into the dark water holding Hrunting before him.  The mere covered him and he found himself sinking into the cold darkness. To his surprise the water was deep and as he sank through the darkness he entered into light. Looking down he found he was being dragged by a most vile hag. Her hair was a mass of twisting and hissing snakes. Her mouth was filled with long green fangs and her eyes  burned red like hot coals. She held him by her skinny arms and dragged him into the cave.

Quickly, looking around Beowulf saw he was in a cavern with a great fire at one end.  Huddled in one corner was a dark mass that he knew to be Grendel and now he knew this to be Grendel’s mother who now gripped him.  In that cave at the bottom of the world Beowulf grappled with the fiend striking her with his sword but it could not pierce her skin while she clawed at him trying to reach his throat.  She cast a spell and he found the strength ebb from his body. He managed to trip her off balance and threw her in the air, but she fell on top of him and he felt her claws around his throat.  Confident she had him in a death grip she relaxed a little and for a split second the spell lifted. 

Quickly, he threw her from him and staggered to his feet and moved to put his back to the wall.  There he found driven into the wall the hilt of an old sword. Grasping it he heaved with all of his might and pulled it free.  As she attacked he struck a blow that cut her clean in two. Turning to Grendel he cut off his head and then threw both bodies into the fire.  Clasping the severed head of Grendel he ran to the cave’s mouth and into the mire and surged upwards through the water until he reached the surface where his friends were waiting.

His companions were still there but King Hrothgar and the Danes had gone for he had been absent for a very long time.  He was greeted joyfully as they all crowded around wanting to hear his story, but he would tell them nothing. Instead he showed them the head of Grendel as proof of his victory.  With that he commanded them to mount their horses and they returned to Heorot and King Hrothgar. 

When the company arrived back at Heorot bearing the head of Grendel, Hrothgar was delighted Beowulf had survived and even more so to see the head of the demon he carried.   He presented all of the company with rich gifts of fine swords and weapons and chests of gold, silver and precious jewels rewarding Beowulf the greatest of all.

Having achieved all he had set out to achieve Beowulf thanked the King and Queen of Denmark and took his leave deciding to sail for home with his company. He led the company back along the forest path and at last they reached the beach where the old man still sat guarding their ship.   With all aboard he gave the order to set sail for Geatland.

Return to Geatland

King Hygelac was delighted to welcome his nephew home bearing riches from his exploits in Denmark.  After hearing of his heroics in freeing Denmark of its monsters he acclaimed Beowulf the greatest hero of his people.  The minstrels made songs of his bravery and heroism and he became famous throughout the northern lands but there were still further exploits written in the stars including a great flame dragon for him to overcome.

© 20/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 20th, 2019 zteve t evans

Legends of Wild Edric: The Wild Hunt, the Faerie Bride and the Monster Fish

Image by Franz Stuck [Public domain]
This article was originally posted on #FolkloreThursday.com on 27/06/2019 titled British Legends: Wild Edric, the Wild Hunt and the Bride from the Otherworld by zteve t evans.

Wild Edric was an Anglo-Saxon earl from Shropshire who was also known as Eadric Salvage, Eadric Silvaticus and Eadric the Wild. He was one of the wealthiest men in Shropshire and the lord of fifty-six manors. Tradition says he was a great huntsman, hunting areas of the Forest of Clun, Stiperstones and the Long Mynd. Although he was a real person many myths and legends became attached to him such as the Wild Hunt, his faerie bride and the monster fish of Bomere Pool.

The Norman Conquest

Wild Edric was not believed to have fought at the Battle of Hastings, but most of his manors were taken by King William to be given to his own barons.  Therefore, between 1068-70 he allied himself with Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, Prince of Gwynedd, and his brother, Riwallon, the Prince of Powys, who were Welsh resistance leaders opposed to William.  They attacked the Normans in Herefordshire, devastating Hereford, but, unable to capture the castle, they retreated.  In retaliation, the Normans attacked Edric many times, but could not defeat him.

Retreat

In 1069, William led his northern army to put down a rebellion led by the Earl Mokar of Northumberland and his brother Edwin. While William was preoccupied, Edric and his Welsh allies joined with rebels from Cheshire, attacking Norman lands in northern parts of Shropshire. They burnt Shrewsbury, but were unable to take the castle.

When news of the assault reached William he turned his army around and headed south. Instead of confronting William, Edric retreated back to Shropshire. The Welsh and Cheshire rebels fought William but were defeated near Stafford.  William was not satisfied with this victory and proceeded to attack and lay waste the land. Eventually, Edric was forced to make peace and swear allegiance to King William who took all but three of his remaining manors. In 1072, Edric supported and accompanied William in an attack on Scotland.

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The Arthurian Realm: The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle Retold

Unknown -Public Domain

Medieval England

In medieval England tales about the adventures of King Arthur and his knights were popular and were often found in the form of a long poem.  These were often read socially as entertainment at events such as celebrations or banquets.   The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is such a poem and appears as a parody  of the Arthurian world with a hidden mix of ancient motifs and themes such as The Loathly Lady, Sovereignty, the annual cycle of the sun, and a little humor blended into the story-line.  In many ways it turns Arthurian tradition on its head for in this story unusually the heroic King Arthur is found having to beg a vengeful knight  for his life. The knight agrees to put off his execution for one year when he must return to him with the correct answer to a question or die. The question is What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? No wonder Arthur is worried!

With the help of his faithful, but gullible nephew Sir Gawain he searched the world for the answer.  He finally came across Dame Ragnelle in Inglewood Forest who gives him the correct answer but only on the condition that Sir Gawain marries her. Dame Ragnelle is the opposite of the beautiful and well-mannered females who populate the Arthurian world.  She is repulsively ugly, openly lusty, and course of manners, nevertheless, to save his uncle, Gawain agrees to take her for his wife. Although it appears Gawain is too faithful and gullible for his own good things turn out extremely well for him in the end. Presented here is a retelling of the story.

Inglewood Forest

One fine day King  Arthur and a hunting party left his court at Carlisle to go hunting  in the nearby forest of Inglewood. For speed in the chase, comfort and practicality he had left his armor off and was lightly armed with bow, arrow and hunting  knife. While the hounds were seeking out a quarry Arthur noticed a fine stag standing stock still in a thicket.  Ordering the others to stay where they were he carefully stalked the stag.   Nevertheless the stag got a scent of him as he crept forward and ran off. Arthur gave chase and letting fly with his bow and arrow managing to wound the animal as the hounds took up the chase. He  told his huntsmen to remain where they were while he went after it.  He chased for about half a mile and managed to wound it again causing it to stumble and fall.   As he finished it off with his hunting knife a stranger appeared who was well armed and dressed in armour and  looked a most formidable warrior. 

Sir Gromer Somer Joure

The stranger knight stood  proudly over Arthur as he knelt over the stag and said, “Well,  met King Arthur, well met indeed!  All these years you have done me wrong and here I have you unarmed, without armor alone in the wilds.  I will have my revenge. You took my lands and gave them to your nephew Sir Gawain. Now I will unleash my anger and hatred upon you.  What have you to say now I have you alone in the wild unarmed?

Arthur stood  up realizing he was indeed alone, unarmed and vulnerable against this well armed knight dressed for battle who stood threateningly before him and said, “Well, Sir Knight, perhaps you could tell your name before you slay me?”

Replied the knight, “I am Gromer Somer Joure.”

“Then, Sir Gromer Somer Joure, good knight that you are, you will know slaying me unarmed and not attired for battle will bring you nothing but shame.  You will be shunned by knights everywhere you go. Perhaps there is something I can do to amend or alleviate the hurt you accuse me of before I leave?  Speak now!” replied Arthur.

“You will not escape me now that I have you.  If I let you go you will defy me again.” replied the knight.

“Slay me while I am unarmed and with no armor and you will have eternal shame.  Spare my life and perhaps there is something I can do to right the wrong you allege or reward you,” replied Arthur.

“There is nothing that will  help you. I do not desire land or riches just you death, but  if you agree that …”

“I  agree,” interrupted Arthur.

“Listen to my demand!  You must swear that you will return in a year with the answer to this quest I am about to ask you.  If have the right answer you will live. If you do not have the right answer I will take your head. The question is this.  What is it that every woman, everywhere, most desires? If you agree swear your oath and get gone. If you do not I will take you head now.  What say you, King Arthur?”

“Although it is disagreeable to me I swear and being a true king will return in a year and a day with or without the answer to your question and face my fate.” answered Arthur.

“Then get you on your way King  Arthur, you have no idea of the troubles that await you.  You must keep this secret and don’t even think of betrayal for I could kill you in battle,” said Gromer Somer Joure before mounting his horse and riding off.

Arthur blew his horn and the rest of his party came quickly to him. They found him with the deer but were surprised to see how sad he looked.  Telling them he had no further desire to hunt the party went back to Carlisle. Although no one said anything they all knew something strange and serious had happened by the look on his face.  Back at Carlisle, Arthur sat alone brooding and clearly unhappy.

Sir Gawain

At last his nephew, Sir Gawain approached him and asked what ailed him. He replied sadly, “While I was unarmed and alone in the forest I encountered an unknown knight armed and clad in armor, ready for battle.   He told me certain things that I must not tell unto others and gave my word. Therefore, I must keep my word or betray it.”

Gawain reassured  him that whatever he told him he did so in complete confidence and that he would never pass it on.  Therefore Arthur said,

“Today while hunting alone I slew a stag.  Afterwards, I met a knight named, Sir Gromer Somer Joure who wanted to slay me. I had no sword or armor and I spoke to him politely and courteously reminding  him of the shame and dishonor as a knight that would befall him if slayed and unarmed man. Of course I did not want to die and I swore on oath that I would return to him in one year, clad as I was and unarmed with the answer to this question.  What is it that women most desire? I am bound to return and give him the right answer. Should the answer be wrong he takes my head. If I give the right answer I am set free from the oath. If I don’t turn up, unless by death alone, then I am eternally shamed.  This, then is the cause of my woe.”

Sir Gawain by Howard Pyle [Public domain]

On hearing him Gawain said, “Let me help.  You search for the answer in one direction and I will search in the opposite.  On our way we will ask everyone we meet the question and write down the answers in a book.  At the end of a eleven months we will meet back here in Carlisle and I will give you my book and we will peruse the findings together.”

Arthur could think of no better plan and so agreed and they went off on their separate ways.  Each asked everyone they came across the question, “What is it that women most desire of men?”  and wrote down the answer.  Some said it was money. Some said it was fine clothing. Others said they liked to be courted and wooed, while the other said they liked lusty men who swept them off their feet.  By the time they arrived back at the court of Carlisle the both books were full with many different answers.

Eleven months later they met back in Carlisle and looked over each other books.  Gawain was confident that one of the answers contained in the books would be right but Arthur was not so sure. There were so many answers so he said, “I still have a month left and there is time to find something more definite.  I think I will look around Inglewood Forest for a while in the hope of finding the right answer.”

Gawain was confident that they had the right answer in the books already but said, “As you wish, but I have every confidence the right answer is in the books.”

Dame Ragnelle

Arthur Meets Dame Ragnelle – Public Domain

The next day Arthur rode to Inglewood and spent several hours wandering the many paths in the forest.  Eventually he came across and old woman seated upon a horse at a crossroads. She was the most hideous, ugliest and the most repulsive person he had ever seen.  In contrast to her the horse she sat was most handsome chestnut mare. Its saddle and bridle were decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. The magnificence of the beast was in stark contrast to the vile appearance of her.  She was sat on her horse in the middle of a crossroads seemingly in waiting for him. It was she that spoke first seeming to knew who he was and boldly greeting him thus,

“Well, met King Arthur, well met alone in the woods.  I have advice for you if you will listen that will save your life!”

Arthur was utterly repulsed by the loathly lady but politely asked what she had to say.  She told him she aware of him and his quest and knew the answer he sought,

“I know the right answer to the secret. I know you found many answers but the ones you have gathered to you are wrong. If I do not tell you then you will die.  If you grant me a request I will tell you the answer you seek, Your life is in my hands! Therefore, what say you?”  

Arthur was unpleasantly surprised that she appeared to know so much.  He looked at her in disgust of her appearance and said, “Lady, I dislike your words,  Tell me what you want and if I can I will grant it. Why is my life in your hands?”

The loathly lady cackled at him said, “Whatever else I am, I am not evil.  The bargain I would make with you is this.  To save your life I must marry Sir Gawain. Think, deeply, think wisely.  If you do not agree or if he does not agree the marriage you will die!”

Arthur was aghast at the thought.  The more he considered it the least able he thought himself of delivering it.  Therefore, he said, “In all  truth, fairness and honesty, I cannot promise Sir Gawain will agree to be part of this bargain.  It is for he alone to choose a wife, but I will ask his thoughts on the matter, though only because it may save my own life.  I would not blame him if he refused, but I will ask and see what happens from there.”

This appeared to satisfy the lady who replied, “Go now and speak to Sir Gawain and speak as fair as you can of me.  Yes, I am hideous, but I am as lusty as I am hideous! Go and speak to Gawain and you may yet live.  You will find me here when you have your decision.”

“What will I tell him your name is?” asked Arthur.

“You may tell him my name is Dame Ragnelle,” she replied

So Arthur rode back to Carlisle to talk to Gawain.  He knew his nephew would probably accept simply because of his own sake.  Nevertheless, he really regretted having to ask him with the terrible consequences involved but he had no choice.

The first person Arthur met was Gawain who greeted him happily and asked how he got on with his quest in Inglewood.  Arthur looked at Gawain sadly and said, “Everything went exceedingly bad.  I may as well kill myself now as I appear to be doomed to die!”

Gawain was shocked and wanted to know why he was so sorely depressed and unhappy.  Arthur said, “In Inglewood I met the most disgusting and hideous lady I have ever seen.  She has promised me that she will save my life if you will marry her. Gawain, I cannot let you do this, therefore I am doomed!”

Gawain replied, “No matter how foul or hideous I will marry her to save you.  You are my uncle, my king and my friend. We have fought side by side in many battles and it is my honour that is at stake if I refuse.  I will not dishonor myself or become a coward afraid of a lady, hideous or otherwise. I will marry her!”

Arthur told him how they had met at the crossroads and how she had told him her name was Dame Ragnelle.  He reiterated that she was the vilest, ugliest woman he had ever seen. He told Gawain that she had told she knew the answer to the question he sought.  She had told him there was only one answer and she was the only one knew. She would only reveal it if you married her.

Gawain was not to be put off and replied, “Have no fear, I will marry her regardless of her vile appearance, for my respect for you is even greater.”

Arthur was pleased by Gawain’s answer and told him, “I cannot thank you enough!  You are the best of my knights and I shall love you as long as I am king of this land!”

At the end of the last month, Arthur, accompanied by Gawain went to seek Dame Ragnelle at the crossroads as he had promised.  When they reached the forest Arthur told Gawain that here they must part. Gawain told him he would prefer to accompany him but as it was his wish they would separate.

When Arthur reached the crossroads he found Dame Ragnelle sitting as if she had not moved since he had left. She greeted him saying, 

“Well met, what is the news.  Are to be saved or are you doomed?”

Arthur looked upon her with a mixture of gloom and disgust and said, “I have spoken to Gawain.  As there is no other way he has agreed to the marriage.  Therefore, Dame, tell me the answer to the question for I  must go.”

Dame Ragnelle laughed long and hideously and then said,

“I will tell you what it is that women most desire.  Some men say it is beauty and youth we desire that we stay attracted to men and are lusted after. It is not that. Some say women wish to be flattered and feted and wooed, but it is not that either.  There are many other wrong things men say about women but now I will tell you what women most desire in all the world of men. It is this. We women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of our self and over men, so that all that is theirs is ours.  We will use all our wiles and skills to master the most manly, the fiercest and the most brutal of men and gain sovereignty over them. Now King Arthur, go and tell this to the adversary who would cut off you head and you will be saved. Just remember our bargain!

Arthur’s Answer

Wasting no time Arthur rode to the place where he had killed the stag and where he had agreed to rendezvous with Sir Gromer Somer Joure.  When he arrived Sir Gromer was already waiting. Arthur showed him the books with the answers he and Gawain had collected, Gromer spent a long time diligently studying them and at last said, “No, the correct answer is not here.  Therefore, prepare to die!”

Arthur held up his hand and cried, “Wait! I have one more answer, will you hear it?”

“I will,” said Gromer.

“It is this.  Women desire most of all to have complete sovereignty of herself and over men so that all that is men’s is theirs,” said Arthur.

This infuriated Gromer who replied angrily, “Curse the woman, I hope she burns in Hell.  Clearly you have spoken to the old hag, Dame Ragnelle, who is my sister.  If not for her I would have your head here and now! Yes, you have given the right answer, but only thanks to her.  Go now Arthur, but never let me catch you alone and unarmed in the forest again, for I will not hesitate a second time!

Much relieved Arthur replied, “You can be sure I will never again be found at such a disadvantage.  From now on I will always be armed and armored to defend myself and defend myself I will. Now I go.”

With that Arthur mounted his horse and rode to the crossroads to meet Dame Ragnelle, leaving Sir Gromer Somer Joure angrily cursing his sister.  Although Arthur was glad to be free of the threat of death he now looked forward to his meeting with the loathly lady with disgust and dismay. He was desperately sorrow for what had been lain on Gawain and would have done anything to change it.  At the crossroads she was waiting patiently still sat upon her horse. She cackled hideously at his approach and said, “Ha, King Arthur! See it is just as I told you.  I have kept my part of the bargain and now you must keep yours.  Sir Gawain will be my husband!”

Arthur shuddered, deeply sorry for what he had got his faithful nephew into but said, “I have spoke to Gawain and he has agreed,  The marriage will go ahead though I wish for all the world it would not!   Therefore if you will have your wish follow my advice. We will go secretly …”

Dame Ragnelle cut him short saying, “We will do nothing in secrecy.  I will be married openly in public for all to see.  You will not leave me until I am the wife of Sir Gawain, or it will bring shame and dishonor upon you.   You will escort me royally to your court and all will see how I have saved your life and the gratitude you owe me! ”

Deeply embarrassed Arthur escorted Dame Ragnelle to court.  When they reached Carlisle she waved and smiled gruesomely at all she met lapping up the attention she received.  Everyone stared in shock and wonder at the hideous woman King Arthur escorted to his court. On arrival Arthur led her into his hall where she said joyfully, “Now bring to me Sir Gawain and summon your knights, noble and ladies.  Send out to all nobles and lords to attend that they may witness our marriage which will take place as soon as all is assembled as witnesses.  Fulfill your bargain King Arthur!”

The Marriage

Leon Bakst [Public domain]

Groaning inwardly, Arthur summoned Gawain and his knights, noble and ladies to meet Dame Ragnelle.   When Gawain arrived, Dame Ragnelle declared she was so taking by his handsome appearance she wished she was beautiful for him.   To his bemusement and embarrassment she reassured him she was as lusty as she was hideous, digging him in the elbow and winking, while Gawain stared blankly before him.

King Arthur held his head in his hands in despair while all of his knights and noble looked on in shock and bewilderment,  The ladies of the court wept at the sight of the handsome, heroic Sir Gawain sitting next to his grotesque fiance. Although Arthur and his queen begged her to have a small private ceremony Dame Ragnelle refused.  She declared it was her special day and she would share it openly with everyone. With resignation, Arthur summoned the lords and ladies of his realm to Carlisle to witness the marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.

After a few days everyone had arrived and all was in place and a magnificent wedding banquet prepared for after the ceremony.  Although she wore a most beautiful wedding gown the contrast between her and her gown made it all the more surreal. The ceremony took place and Arthur and his lords and ladies looked on in shock and horror as the jubilant Dame Ragnelle wedded Sir Gawain.  Although the horror could be seen in his eyes his courage was without fault that day. After the ceremony the banquet began and Sir Gawain led his bride to her chair at the banquet table.

The Marriage Banquet

It was a magnificent banquet but no one was prepared for what happened next.  Taking her seat next to her husband at the head of the table. After all the appropriate speeches were rendered and proper protocols observed, Dame Ragnelle wasted no time in tucking in to the banquet.  

To the sheer amazement of her new husband and the guests she began eating with amazing speed.  She stuffed her mouth full of various kinds of food while swallowing great gulps of beer and wine.  Everyone one stared in amazement and horror as plates of meat, pies, bread, sweetmeat and delicacies of all kinds disappeared into her voluminous mouth.  As she ate she belched and coughed sending saliva flying across the hall and causing the guests to cover their plates. Greedily she ate whole capons, whole ducks, even whole swans,  She ate a boar’s head and body to herself. She ate and she ate and ate and she drank and she drank and she drank.

Everyone looked on in embarrassed astonishment. All the time she chatted away gaily with her mouthful to her new bewildered husband and their equally bewildered guests.  Every now and then she would elbow Gawain urging him to up to build up his strength, while giggling coyly. Gawain sat blank faced staring in space before him while Arthur sat holding his head in his hands silently begging Gawain for forgiveness. 

At last she was satiated of food and drink and with  more than a wink and a nod to her guests carried her new husband off to their bedchamber.   Gawain stared forlornly out of the window while his wife prepared herself for her husband. At last she said, “Ah now, since we are now married you must not deny me in bed.  I cannot deny that if I were beautiful you would feel and act differently, certainly with more enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, do me the honor of turning to face me and kissing me. Show that you honor me!”

Gawain stood staring out of the window and sighing said, “Have no fear, I will kiss you and more.”

The Spell is Broken

Turning to face her he stood dumbfounded in astonishment at what he saw.  Stood before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“What are you?” he asked.

“Husband, I am your wife,  Why do act so strange?”

Gawain stood in amazement at the transformation and said, “Forgive me, I am at a loss.  I am bemused and well and truly confused.  Earlier today at our wedding you were the most hideous and ugliest creature I have ever seen.  Now you are transformed into a vision of loveliness. The day began strange and has grown even stranger and I am at a loss to know what to say or do!”

His bride stood before him very much a vision of loveliness and she said, “You must make a choice.  My beauty as you see me now will not last.  I can only be fair at night or in the day time.  That means if you chose me to be fair at night I will be foul during the day.  If chose me to be fair in the day then I will be foul at night. Whatever you choose, I will remain, but you must choose one or the other.  What will it be?”

Gawain thought for awhile then said, “It is a hard choice to make.  To have you beautiful only for myself at night would be a sorrowful thing and I would do you dishonor.  To have you beautiful in the daytime would mean I have little reward at night. Truly, I would like to choose the best but I have no idea of what that may be.  Therefore, I give you the choice. Please make the choice that you prefer. I promise whatever that may be, my body, all of by possessions, my heart and soul will remain yours to do with as you please, this I promise before God.”

Thus transformed Lady Ragnelle said, “Sir Gawain you have proved to be an honorable and courteous knight and I bless you for the honor you have shown me.  Do not be grieved or confused by my sudden transformation. My wicked stepmother cast a spell upon me changing me into the hideous being you first saw.  I was to remain in that vile shape until the best and most worthy knight in England married me and gave himself, his body, his soul, all his worldly goods to me to rule and to do as I wished.  You have given me sovereignty over myself and also over you. Be sure that I will use that power most wisely and with all love.” 

Their wedding night was still young and they made the best of it.   When dawn came they laughed and kissed and remained in bed happy in each other’s company.   The morning passed and midday arrived and Arthur said to his knights with trepidation, “I think we better go and make sure Gawain has survived the night.  I fear the hideous thing may have killed him. Let us go and make sure he is alright.”

Lady Ragnelle

He led a party of knights to the newly weds bedchamber and began banging upon the door crying, “Gawain, it is midday. Why are you so long in bed, are you ill?”

Gawain got up and opened the door ajar and said, “My Lord, I would be most grateful if you would leave me be for all is well here and in good health as is my beautiful wife, see …”

And he purposely opened the door fully to reveal Dame Ragnelle standing in a stunning gown with her red hair hanging around her waist looking a vision of beautiful and loveliness.

“Now you can see for yourselves why I am in no rush to rise and meet the day. Meet my wife,  Dame Ragnelle who gave you the answer that saved your life.”

He told Arthur of the enchantment she has been under and how now it had been broken.  All of Arthur’s knights were greatly relieved at his safety and pleased at the way things had turned out for him.  The queen and her ladies were also delighted fearing that the hideous woman had murdered him, but even more pleased that his exemplary behaviour had won a  wife of outstanding beauty. There was much relief all around and Arthur told the queen of how he had been forced to swear an oath in the forest of Inglewood to save his life and how Dame Ragnelle had saved him.

Gawain explained how his wife had placed under an enchantment by her stepmother and how his marriage to her and the choice he made to grant her sovereignty over herself and him on his wedding night had broken the spell. 

Dame Ragnelle said, “I give my thanks to Gawain for without him I would still be the hideous, vile and misshapen thing.  Therefore, although Gawain has recognized my own sovereignty over myself and granted me sovereignty over him I swear I shall never abuse or misuse it.  I will be his wife and he my husband as it should be. There will never be discord between us.”

In return Gawain pledged his love and faithfulness, acknowledging the mercy she granted him.

The queen declared to her ladies that Lady Ragnelle was the most beautiful of the all and said, “I give my thanks to you for saving the king for I love him with my life!”

Gawain and Dame Ragnelle settled down and soon she bore him a fine strong son whom they named Gyngolyn, who grew up to be a good knight of  the Round Table. It soon became apparent that Gawain loved his wife more than anything in the world.  He gave up jousting and competing in tournaments and spent all his time by her side and she was reckoned the fairest lady in England.

Lady Ragnelle, begged Arthur to forgive her brother Sir Gromer Somer Joure for the wrong he had done to him and he reluctantly agreed.  If everything appeared happy for a time it was bound to change. Sadly, after five happy years together Lady Ragnelle passed away. Although Gawain remarried he was said to have never loved anyone else like he loved Lady Ragnelle.

© 28/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 28th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Voyages of Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake by Jodocus Hondius [Public domain]

Sir Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake was one of the most celebrated mariners of the Elizabethan era and one of the greatest heroes of British naval history.   In his career he had many spectacular victories, but also some serious defeats.  It is his victories which he is most remembered for. In the modern age for some people his reputation is tarnished by his involvement with the slave  trade and his part in the Rathlin Island massacre in 1575. Nevertheless, to the English he was the scourge of the Spanish Main and a hero who played a key part in saving the nation from the Spanish armada.  To the Spanish he was a bloodthirsty pirate who plundered the treasure ships carrying the gold and silver they had plundered from the Native Americans. Presented here is a brief retelling of his adventures and his exploits concluding with a brief look at some of the legends that surround him.

Drake’s Early Career

Francis Drake began his seafaring career becoming apprenticed to a merchant who owned a small freight boat trading between England and France.  He proved an adept seaman, a skilled navigator and a such a highly regarded employee that when his employer died childless and without an heir, he left the vessel to Drake.

Drake had cousins by the name of Hawkins who were traders and privateers.  They owned a fleet of ships based in Plymouth In those days a privateer was not much different to a pirate except that a privateer had the backing of Queen Elizabeth I who took a portion of the plunder.

First Voyage to the Americas

Drake made his first voyage to the Americas at the age of 23 with Sir John Hawkins, his cousin.  He was given the command of his own vessel in 1568 called the “Judith.”  In San Juan de Ulua, a port in Mexico the two ran into trouble.  Although Drake and Hawkins escaped many of their men were captured, or killed.  From then on Drake developed a burning hatred for Spain. In 1570 and 1571 he again returned to the Americas though both voyages were uneventful.

Return to the  Spanish Main

Queen Elizabeth I granted Drake a privateer’s commission in 1572. In effect, this gave him her permission to attack and rob Spanish ships and property wherever he found it much to the fury of King Philip II of Spain.  With the permission and encouragement of Elizabeth he set sail for the Spanish Main planning to attack the strategic port of Nombre de Dios in Panama. Along with him were two other ships, the Passcha and the Swan and 73 men for the planned raid on  Nombre de Dios, the nearest Atlantic port to the Pacific. Nombre de Dios was important because gold and silver from Chile and Peru on the Pacific coast was transported overland across the narrowest part of Panama to the Caribbean port. It was then loaded onto ships and taken by the Spanish through the Caribbean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

Although he and his men captured Nombre de Dios, Drake was seriously injured in the fighting. This forced the attackers to pull back without winning much treasure and  Drake was forced to find a safe haven in the area to recover from his wounds. When he was fully recovered, he and his crew embarked on a series of raids on Spanish shipping along the Spanish Main.  From these raids Drake captured a great deal of gold and silver taking it back to England in 1573.

Back to the New World

Queen Elizabeth was delighted with the success of his expedition having also gained much in profit herself.  In 1577, she sent Drake along with Thomas Doughty and John Wynter, back to the New World on an expedition to raid the Spanish settlements on the western South American continent along the Pacific coast.  The three men were to jointly share command of a small fleet of five ships and men that comprised the expedition. After raiding Spanish settlements in the Azores, Drake assumed command. Doughty resented this and tensions between the two festered as they crossed the Atlantic.

Drake Executes Doughty

On reaching the coast of Argentina, tensions came to a head and Drake had Doughty arrested and tried for witchcraft and treason.  He was found guilty and beheaded. Drake then made all officers responsible directly and only to him, effectively giving him full control of the fleet.   A short time after this Drake changed the name of his flag ship, the Pelican, to the Golden Hinde. This may have been a move to placate Sir Christopher Hatton, one of his sponsors because Doughty had been Hatton’s personal secretary. The Hatton family coat of arms featured a golden hind so the name may have been deemed an apt compliment.

A Storm 

Now in total command of the fleet he set sail for the Straits of Magellan and then on to the Pacific Ocean.   A storm arose and two ships could not keep up. One commanded by John Wynter gave up and returned to England. The other was lost in the storm.  Only his flagship, now renamed the Golden Hinde, remained of his fleet, but Drake pressed on with his expedition. Navigating through the Straits into the Pacific Ocean and sailing up the coast of Chile and Peru he attacked and plundered many unsuspecting and unprotected Spanish treasure ships. Eventually he reached the California coast claiming it for Queen Elizabeth.  

Here he landed and repaired his ship, rested his men, and replenished supplies and provisions, before sailing across the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.  Then rounding the Cape of Good Hope he returned to England. In 1580, he finally arrived in Plymouth to become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

The treasure he had plundered from the Spanish made him a very wealthy man.  Queen Elizabeth and his investors were delighted at the highly profitable enterprise and with their share of the booty.  In 1581, the Queen gave him a knighthood and he was elected to the House of Commons.

Back to the Spanish Main

When relations between England and Spain reached a new low between 1585 and 1586, Queen Elizabeth sent Drake back to the Americas to harry and plunder Spanish ships and settlements.   Apart from the huge financial incentives, the hope was to damage their economy and morale. Drake successfully raided or captured several Spanish settlements in both South and North America, angering King Philip II of Spain.

The Spanish Armada

King Philip of Spain ordered the construction of a massive armada planning to invade and conquer England. Drake, as bold as ever, led a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish city of Cadiz where the armada was anchored.  He destroyed over 30 vessels and thousands of tons of supplies. Furthermore, he mocked King Philip referring to the raid as “singeing the king of Spain’s beard.”  

After this Queen Elizabeth made him vice admiral of the English Navy and second in command, under Lord Charles Howard.   But the danger for England was not yet over. Drake had damaged the armada but not destroyed it and what remained was still a mighty force and his attack had only delayed its sailing.

Under the command of Medina Sidonia the armada comprising of 130 vessels and 25,000 men moved menacingly into the English Channel in a crescent-shaped battle formation.   The English fleet met and engaged them in battles that lasted several days. Although the Spanish galleons were bigger and heavier than the English ships the battle did not go their way.

The English ships were smaller, faster and more manoeuvrable and engaged the Spanish in a series of hit and run attacks.  Two Spanish ships were disabled and Drake, always in the right place whenever there is plunder to be had, captured one of the galleons that carried the pay chest of the Spanish army.

Finding the going tough against the English navy, the Spanish commander Sidonia, decided to rest up off the coast of Calais.  He hoped he would be joined there by Spanish soldiers for the invasion of England. This was a mistake as while the armada kept its crescent battle formation the English navy found it difficult to attack them decisively.

English ships battle the Spanish Armada, August 1588 – Public Domain

The Battle of Gravelines

Sir Francis Drake and Lord Howard were not content to stop the fight just yet.  The next day they sent fire ships sailing into the Spanish armada. The fire ships did little damage to the Spanish ships but caused great panic in their captains with many cutting anchor and scattering out of the way.

In doing so they were caught in a strong south westerly wind that took them into the English Channel with the fast English ships in hot pursuit. The battle formation of the armada was broken and the huge, slow galleons, struggled with the hit and run tactics of the English navy.  The big Spanish ships were trying to come alongside the English vessels and board them. But the English came in close in a line and turned their ships broadside firing their cannons blasting the Spanish vessels before quickly moving out of reach effectively ruining the Spanish battle plan.

The Armada Runs

Many English ships were running out of powder by the end of the afternoon and had to hold back   At this stage the battle was still not fully decisive. Sidonia, the Spanish admiral, now believed he had no choice other than to take what was left of the armada north to sail around the Scottish coast and around Ireland to return to Spain.  But as they rounded the Scottish coast they ran into a strong gale and many ships were forced on to rocks. Many of the sailors and soldiers on board were drowned, or if they reached land, were killed by English soldiers or local people. Less than 10,000 of the 25,000 who set off returned to Spain.

Drake Meets With Disaster

Queen Elizabeth was still not satisfied with the victory and in 1589, commanded Drake to search out and destroy any vessels that remained of the armada.  He was also ordered to aid the Portuguese rebellion against the Spanish occupiers in Lisbon. This proved to be a disaster with Drake losing 20 ships and 12,000 men.  On his return to England he kept himself out of naval affairs taking up office as mayor of Plymouth.

Drake’s Last Voyage

In a bid at severing Spain’s revenue from the Americas and hopefully ending the war, Queen Elizabeth commanded Drake and his cousin, Sir John Hawkins to sail to Panama in a bid to capture as much treasure as possible.  In the Caribbean, Drake’s fleet clashed with Spanish ships before anchoring off the coast off Portobello, Panama. Here, Drake contracted dysentery dying of fever on the 28th of January, 1596. He was placed in a lead coffin and buried at sea off Portobello.

Legend In His Own Lifetime

Drake was very much a legend in his own lifetime.   To the English he was a great national hero who had given his best for his queen and country.  Perhaps one of the greatest compliments of his prowess came from the Spaniards. They called him “El Draque” and King Philip II was believed to have offered a reward of 20,000 ducats, for him dead.  This would be the equivalent of around £4 million, or roughly $6.5 million in today’s terms.

The Legend of Drake’s Drum

Drakes Drum – No machine-readable author provided. Throwawayhack assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Drake had a snare drum that he took with him on may of his voyages and was with him on his last. According to legend, just before he died he instructed that the drum be taken back to England where it was kept at his family home of Buckland Abbey.  He vowed that should England ever be in danger someone should beat upon the drum and he would return to save his country. The legend also says that the drum can be heard when England is at war or when events of national importance occur.

The legend of the Drake’s drum is a variation of the classic folklore motif or theme of the king under the mountain who lies either dead or asleep to awake and save his people in times of danger.  Allegedly the drum has been heard to beat several times when the nation has been threatened, in danger or at other significant times. 

It was said to have been heard in 1620 when the Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World and was also reportedly heard when Admiral Lord Nelson was made a freeman of Plymouth.  It was said to have been heard again when Napoleon Bonaparte was brought to Plymouth Harbour by ship as a prisoner after he had been defeated. The drum was said to have been heard in 1914 at the beginning of World War I.  A victory roll was reported to have been heard on HMS Royal Oak that was attributed to Drake’s drum when the German navy surrendered. It was also allegedly heard when Dunkirk was evacuated by British troops during the Second World War.

© 07/08/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 7th, 2019 zteve t evans

Ghostlore: The Night Humphrey Dobson Had A Fright

Illustration by Charles Gliddon – Believed to be Public Domain

Presented below is a retelling of a story from Goblin Tales of Lancashire called the Pillion Lady collected by James Bowker.

The Pillion Lady

It had been a beautiful summer day and after conducting a good day’s business in the local market Humphrey Dobson had spent a few hours drinking with his friends in his favorite tavern. Deciding he had drank his fill he mounted his easy  tempered mare and set off on the road home.  

It was a warm and balmy evening and the moon was throwing down her light making the road easy to follow.  There was one place along the route that Humphrey was always wary about. This was where a road crossed over a stream which was said to be the scene of where a maiden was murdered many years ago.  Nevertheless the moon was high and lighting the road sufficiently for Humphrey to see the stream and fortified by the beer he pushed on. 

The bridge was shrouded in darkness caused by dense branches of overhanging trees that blotted out the moonlight.  It was the dark bridge that gave Humphrey the shivers. He had heard many eerie stories of a headless woman reputed to haunt the bridge that appearing to terrified travellers.  To bolster his spirits he began to sing an old song and stoutly urged his horse onwards.

“He rode and he rode till he came to the dooar,

And Nell came t’ oppen it, as she’d done afooar:

‘Come, get off thy horse,’ she to him did say,

‘An’ put it i’th’ stable, an’ give it some hay.”‘ (1)

Nevertheless, as he approached the bridge he could feel his heart beginning to quail and suddenly he spurred his horse forward to gallop cross the bridge.  No sooner had his horse’s hooves struck the stone on the bridge when an eerie, unearthly laugh rang out from beneath the arch. The horse shuddered and snorted and galloped nervously forward but as it did so Humphrey’s blood turned to ice as he felt a deathly cold arm creep smoothly around his waist and  at the same time experienced faint, cold, pressure against his back as if someone or something was close behind and leaning on him.

Shocked and startled by the experience his heart racing and breaking into a cold sweat he hardly daring to look around. His horse galloped wildly out of control itself sweating in fear, eyes wild and rolling. Humphrey fought to gain control of the terrified beast as its iron-clad hooves thundered upon the cobbled stones causing flashing sparks in the darkness.

Another eerie cackling laugh split the night but this time seemed so close to his ear that Humphrey looked quickly around and was shocked and terrified at what he saw. It was not the headless woman he had heard so many frightening tales about.  The thing behind him with its arm wrapped tightly around him certainly was not headless but more grotesque and terrifying than that. The ghastly thing had a head, or rather a grinning skull that looked out of black hood so close to his face they were almost cheek to cheek, a pale light flickering from its empty eye sockets and its ample teeth white in the light of the moon.

Paralyzed by fear Humphrey was forced to ride cheek by jowl with the terrifying thing as the mare galloped wildly down the road.  Every now and then his ghastly pillion passenger let out a hideously laugh its jaw snapping grotesquely close to his ear. As its arm tightened around him he slipped his own arm down to feel but was alarmed to discover that what encircled his waist was the cool hard skeleton of an arm.

Shocked and terrified to the core Humphrey continued on the wild ride clasped in the loving embrace of his skeletal companion. He lost all sense of time as frozen in fear he careered wild down the road on his frantic horse.   Suddenly the horse came upon a sharp corner in the road and had to turn sharply to get round it as the ghastly figure behind let out another terrifying laugh. Humphrey was completely unready for such a sudden a manoeuvre and was thrown over the head of his terrified steed landing heavily upon the road.

There he lay unconscious through the night until the sun began to rise.    He finally regained consciousness with the dawn chorus in the trees above in full song.  Looking around he saw his horse quietly grazing just along the road. Climbing painfully to his feet, for he was battered, bruised and bleeding, he managed to mount the horse and ride carefully home.

On his return he was greeted by several farm lads who listened to his story with disbelief and not a little humor.   They jibed him and jested at the idea of his ghastly skeletal passenger making great fun of him. Yet thereafter, not one of his tormentors, dared cross the bridge over the stream alone after dark,  ever since the night Humphrey Dobson had a fright.

© 31/07/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 31st, 2019 zteve t evans


The Arthurian Realm: The Madness of Merlin

Artist: William Blake – Public Domain – Source

This was first published as a two part article titled, British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 1), on #FolkloreThursday.com, 24th, January, 2019, and British Legends: The Madness of Merlin (Part 2) on 31st January, 2019 by zteve t evans. Here it is published as one piece and the ending is different.

The Vita Merlini

The Vita Merlini, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, tells the story of Merlin after the Battle of Camlann where he ruled over South Wales, had a wife named Guendoloena and a sister named Ganieda.  Unlike many Arthurian stories, instead of glorifying war, it tells of the horrifying effect of war trauma on the individual and their families even one as famous and powerful as Merlin. The work was originally written in Latin and presented here is a retelling of the story from a translation by John Jay Parry (1).

After Camlann

After the Battle of Camlann, Arthur had been taken to Avalon and Britain split into many small kingdoms that fought among themselves. Merlin ruled over the South Welsh giving laws to the people and foretelling the future.  When Peredur of North Wales quarreled with Gwenddoleu, the King of Scotland, Merlin and King Rhydderch of Cumbria joined him against the Scots resulting in a savage battle.  Alongside Merlin were three brave brothers who had fought beside him in many ferocious conflicts.  They stormed through the enemy lines driving the foe back but eventually were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and slain.  Seeing his brave brothers-in-arms fall Merlin cried,

 “Where can I now find such brother-in-arms who have stood with me and fought the vicious foe?” 

Seeing blood and death all around he wept and lamented for all the dead and dying but the fighting continued unabated. 

The Britons rallied their troops and drove hard against the Scots forcing them to flee for their lives.  Seeing victory, Merlin called Peredur and Rhydderch to him telling them to bury the dead with honour, but then grief took him and he began to wail and cry, mourning the death of his comrades and so many brave warriors.

Madness in the Woods

Peredur and Rhydderch could not console him so great was his distress so they followed his instructions leaving him alone in his anguish.  As his cries rent the air his mind was taken by a fury and he fled into the woods where he found joy and peace in the quiet of the trees and hidden glades. Naked, he hunted animals and harvested the nuts, fruit, and roots surviving only from the gifts of the woods. He watched the animals and birds and learned of their ways and studied the trees and the plants and the natural world about him.

Winter came and food and shelter became hard to find and he struggled to survive.  He often talked out loud to himself about the problems he faced.  One day, while he was hidden among the trees and thickets, a traveller heard him and stopped to listen to what was being said.  To the surprise of the traveller when he approached, the wild man fled through the undergrowth faster than any animal.

Ganieda Seeks her Brother

William Blake [Public domain] (cropped) Source

After Merlin had fled to the woods, Queen Ganeida, Merlin’s sister and the wife of King Rhydderch, was greatly worried for his well being.  She sent searchers to the woods to look for him in the hope of bringing him back. The traveler had resumed his journey and meeting one these told of his strange encounter with a wild man and gave him directions to the scene of the incident.  The searcher thanked him and continued to the scene but Merlin had gone.  He searched all the wooded valleys and hidden glades and scoured the mountains searching places where few had ever trod.

The Fountain

At last, he came across a fountain hidden by hazel thickets and by the gushing water, naked and unkempt, sat the wild man of the woods, who sat talking to himself. Not wanting to alarm him the searcher hid behind a bush.  He was a good singer and played the lyre. Gently and softly he played the strings and sang softly of the mourning of Guendoloena for Merlin, her beloved husband and of the worry of Ganieda, for her brother.

The music and singing soothed Merlin’s soul and he stood to see where it came from. Seeing this, the singer slowly stood up still playing his lyre and repeated the song. The music stirred in Merlin pleasant memories of his wife and sister and was deeply moved by their love. He remembered who he was and what he had been and set aside his madness. He asked the searcher to take him to the court of his old friend King Rhydderch where they both lived.  

At the Court of King Rhydderch

As Merlin walked through the city gates, Ganieda and Guenedolena ran to meet him. They covered him in kisses and hugged him, making him feel greatly loved and he showed his own love to them.  Happily, they led him to the royal court where King Rhydderch received him with great honour.  Merlin seeing the vast crowd of people present and unaccustomed to human company, panicked and his madness returned. Desperately, he tried to escape to the sanctuary of the woods far away from the roaring of voices.

Rhydderch refused to let his old friend go.  He ordered him to be restrained and music played upon the lyre to ease his distress and begged him to stay offering expensive presents but Merlin told him he preferred the treasures of the woods.  Rhydderch worried about his safety in the wild and ordered him to be chained and Merlin fell silent and morose refusing to speak or smile to anyone.

Ganieda Unmasked

One day, Ganieda came looking for her husband who moved to embrace and kiss her affectionately.  Noticing a leaf caught in her hair he gently untangled it while lovingly chatting with her.  Merlin saw this, smiled knowingly and laughed.  This surprised the King and he urged him to say what was funny.  Merlin fell silent refusing to answer, but Rhydderch persisted with his question promising him gifts.  Merlin told him the freedom to return to the woods was the only gift he wanted and if he granted that he would tell him why he laughed. Knowing he had nothing to give that Merlin would value, Rhydderch finally agreed.

Therefore, Merlin said, “I laughed when I saw the affection you showed the Queen when you removed the leaf from her hair, when earlier, she lay under a bush with her lover, which is how the leaf got there.”

Shocked,  Rhydderch looked angrily at his wife.  Ganieda tried to conceal her shame by smiling and saying, “Take no notice of a raving madman who cannot tell lies from truth.  I will prove his madness!”

She called a young boy over saying, “Now dear brother, show us your powers of prophecy.  Tell us how this boy will die!”

Merlin said, “My dear sister, he shall die in manhood by falling from a cliff.”

Ganieda then told the boy to go and get his long hair cut short and put on different clothing.  When he returned thus disguised she made him stand before Merlin and said, “And now dear brother, tell the King what death you foresee for this boy!”

 Merlin replied, “This boy will grow up to meet death in a tree while his mind has shut out all reason.”

Ganieda turned to her husband and said, “This proves my innocence and my brother’s madness for the same boy cannot surely have two deaths. I will prove the point further! “

Taking the boy aside she told him to go and put on girl’s clothing and come back to her dressed in that way.  When he returned she presented him to Merlin saying, “Now, dear brother, tell us how this girl shall die!”

Merlin replied, “Girl, or not, death will be in a river!”

Rhydderch laughed at the three different deaths predicted for the same boy and was sorry he had doubted his wife.  Ganieda was greatly relieved, but deep inside she wept for her brother.  Rhydderch kissed and embraced his wife but inside he grieved for his old friend and brother-in-arms remembering his greatness.

Return to the Woods

Artist: William Blake – Public Domain – Source

Merlin went down to the city gates but Ganieda appeared and spreading her arms before him entreated him to stay.  He thrust her aside and strode on. Her servants tried to stop him but he simply glared down on them as if they were naught but impertinent little imps leaving them shuddering. 

Guendoloena came running through the streets and pushing all aside threw herself before him.  She wailed and wept, begging on her knees for him to stay, that they may live as man and wife again.  Merlin could not look upon her but Ganeida said, “Have pity on your wife who loves you and will die for you.  Would you have her live out the rest of her life in sorrowful longing for her husband?  Say the word and she will follow you to the forest and live as you live.  Say the word brother!”

Merlin bowed his head for a moment as if softening but then the madness in him spoke, “I will be free of her, free of you, free of love and its binding chains, therefore it is right that she be allowed her chance of happiness and marry a man of her own choosing, but beware should that man ever come near!  On her wedding day, I will come to her and give her my gifts.” His sister and wife watched his departure sorrowfully but marvelled how he could have known about the secret affair of the queen and both were convinced the three different deaths of the boy he had predicted proved his derangement. 

The boy grew into a young man and one day set off with friends hunting in the forest. The dogs roused a stag chasing it for many miles and he alone managed to keep up with the chase.  With the dogs hard on its heels the stag sought refuge in a high and rocky place.  In his excitement, the young man became oblivious to the dangers and urged his horse forward.  Coming suddenly to a high ledge looking down upon a river, his horse suddenly stopped throwing him over its head and over the cliff.  As he fell his foot caught in the branch of a tree that overhung the river leaving his body suspended in the air while his head was submerged in the water drowning him and fulfilling Merlin’s prophecy.

Guendoloena’s Wedding Gifts

Returning to the woods Merlin lived as the wild beasts lived.  Through the winter he suffered greatly from the cold, damp and the biting wind but preferred this to the wars and violence of corrupt kings, rejoicing in the absence of human society.

Years passed and one cold night when the stars were clear and bright the moon threw down its light to fall upon a high mountain.  Silhouetted against the magnificence of the heavenly vault a lone madman stood staring up at the sky studying the movements of the heavenly bodies.  He saw the intrigue, murder, the death of kings and all the great events of Britain.  From Venus came a double ray of light that was cut in two.  Knowing this told of Guendoloena’s wedding he set off to take her presents as he had promised.

He came across a stag and by talking soothing words it allowed him to climb upon its back and he rode through the woods with its does following in a long line. Arriving at the place of the wedding he made the beasts stand patiently and obediently while he called out, “Guendoloena! Guendoloena! Guendoloena! I have brought your wedding presents as I promised!”

Laughing at the sight of him upon the stag with the does in obedient line, she came running, marveling how he managed such a feat.

From a high window, the bridegroom looked down at the scene and seeing Merlin riding the stag laughed.  Hearing him, Merlin looked up and realizing who he was flew into a rage.  Grasping the antlers of the stag he wrenched them from their sockets and hurled them at the laughing bridegroom.   The antlers struck with great force embedding in his skull, killing him outright. 

Prophecies of Death

Frank Vincentz [Public domain] Source

Merlin fled upon the stag chased by servants.  The stag outran them until it reached a river which it leaped over, but Merlin slipped from its back into the water.  He was caught and taken to Ganieda at the royal court where he sat silent and morose refusing food and drink causing his sister great grief and worry.  Rhydderch ordered food be placed before him in the hope of tempting him but to no avail, so he ordered that Merlin should be taken for a walk around the marketplace in the hope seeing people and all the different goods and novelties might cheer him.

In the marketplace, Merlin saw a man of ragged appearance sitting before a door begging for money to buy new clothes.  Merlin stood looking at him, laughed and walked on.  Further on, he saw a man purchasing a new pair of shoes while also buying patches of leather.  Merlin stood and laughed and people stared.  Seeing them stare he refused to go on and the servants took him back to the palace and reported to the King.  Rhydderch, curious to know why Merlin had laughed offered to free him if he told him.

Merlin told him he had seen a man begging for coins to buy new clothes when he was sitting on a secret hoard of money. He was laughing at his audacity and the gullibility of people who gave to him and said, “Dig below where he sits and you will find his treasure.”

Next, he had seen a man buying new shoes and leather to patch them with when they became worn.  He had laughed at the irony and futility of the act as he was destined to die by drowning telling him, “He is now lifeless on the river shore.”

Rhydderch sent servants to search the river banks but went himself to where the ragged man sat and digging up the ground below him found his treasure.  His servants returned from searching the river and reported they had found the body of the man who brought the shoes.

Merlin was freed and made his way the gates where his sister caught up with him. She still loved him and begged him to at least see out the winter in comfort with her, but he told her,

“Dear sister, why do you fight to keep me?  Winter will be hard but not as hard as living among the savagery of people, therefore let me be.  But, if you will then build me a lodge in the remoteness of the woods where I may watch the movement of the stars and predict the fate of our people. You can visit me and bring me food and drink and keep me company.”

He left and Ganieda built a lodge for him and would bring food and drink and Merlin thanked her for that and for her company.   One day he told her she needed to return quickly to court as her husband was dying, but told her to come back after the burial with Taliesin who had recently arrived after visiting Gildas in Brittany.

Ganieda returned to court to find to her grief that Merlin had spoken truly.  After her husband’s funeral, she returned with Taliesin to Merlin’s lodge where she decided to live out her days.  Merlin and Taliesin talked of many things.  Merlin told him how they had taken the grievously wounded King Arthur to the Isle of Avalon after the battle of Camlann, leaving him in the care of Morgan le Fay.  He told him the story of the Kings of the Britons from Vortigern to Arthur and then foretold a long period of Saxon domination which would eventually lead to a return to British rule under Cadwalader after prolonged and bloody conflict.

The Healing Fountain

As he spoke one of his servants came rushing in excitedly announcing that a new fountain had gushed forth at the foot of the mountain. Merlin and Taliesin followed the servant to see the wonder.  Both marveled that it should have appeared so suddenly and sat down watching it flow.  Feeling thirsty, Merlin cupped his hands and drank from the fountain and then bathed his brow. As its pure water coursed through his body his madness left him and his reason returned.

Many princes and chieftains came to see the place where the wonderful waters had cured Merlin of his madness.  Seeing him whole and sane again they asked him to rule and guide them with his wisdom and knowledge.  Merlin refused and told them he now preferred his life in the woods to one in a royal court.

Maeldinus

Just as he finished speaking the air was rent by wild howls and cries and a madman rushed out of the woods towards them.  Seeing them he stopped suddenly and then ran around looking to escape.  He was quickly captured and brought before Merlin, who groaned for he knew the man and his heart went out to him understanding what he endured and said, “His name is Maeldinus.  He was my friend many years ago when he was a strong and noble knight. Having such friends I thought myself fortunate.”

He told how they had both been among a hunting party and finding a spring of fresh water they all sat down to rest and quench their thirst.  One of their party found a pile of apples and Merlin shared them out.  Although there was none left for him he was happy for them to enjoy the fruits. His friends all declared they were the finest apples they had ever tasted but their pleasure did not last long.  Soon they were howling wildly and running madly through the woods to become lost in the forest and that was the last time he had seen them and Maeldinus.  

He discovered the poison apples were placed there by a woman who had loved him but who he had spurned.  She had placed the apples for him to find intending revenge, but luckily he had not eaten one and was spared.  Finishing his story, he ordered his servants to make the man drink from the fountain.  They obeyed and the wildness fled from his eyes and intelligence and reason shone forth and he recognized Merlin and remembered who he was.  Merlin invited him to stay and serve him and Maeldinus was pleased to accept.  So Merlin now had his sister Ganieda and Maeldinus as companions and then Talisien spoke and said that he too would remain with him in the lodge.

Ganieda the Prophetess

After the death of her husband, Ganieda lived with her brother and his friends enjoying the closeness of nature and the companionship.  Sometimes she became of elevated spirit and would foretell events to come to her companions concerning the destiny of the Britons.  One day when the spirit came upon her she made a long prophecy concerning the wellbeing of Britain causing her companions to marvel and wonder.  Merlin spoke approvingly and with love telling her that the spirit that spoke to him had fallen silent and the task of foretelling the future was now given to her.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

At this point, Geoffrey brings Vita Merlini to an end saying.

“I have brought this song to an end.  Therefore, ye Britons, give a wreath to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  He is indeed yours for once he sang of your battles and those of your chiefs, and he wrote a book called “The Deeds of the Britons” which are celebrated throughout the world. “(2)

Although the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth are no longer considered as accurate reference books his influence on British culture cannot be denied and as cultural products of his time they are priceless and certainly he earns at least a bouquet.

Offering a Prayer

Instead of a tale of heroism and glory he gave us a very tragic human story concerning one of the most powerful, important and enigmatic characters of Arthurian tradition. It showed the love and dedication of family and friends supporting a sufferer of trauma through dark times.  Therefore, perhaps we can offer our own thoughts and prayers to our own divinities to comfort and heal those afflicted by inner anguish, torment or war trauma and offer support where ever we can.

© 24/01/2019 zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com

References, Attributes and Further Reading

Copyright January 24th, 2019, zteve t evans and #FolkloreThursday.com

Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen

Imaged by Frederic Shields [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] (Cropped) Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published under the title of British Legends: Warrior Women — The Battle of Britomart and Radigund the Amazon Queen on #FolkloreThursday.com, 28/02/2019 by zteve t evans

The Faerie Queen

The epic unfinished poem, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, published 1590-96, created a parallel of the medieval universe that alluded to events and people in Elizabethan society. The narrative draws on Arthurian influences, legend, myth, history, and politics, alluding to reforms and controversial issues that arose in the times of Elizabeth I and Mary I. It is an allegorical work that both praised and criticised Queen Elizabeth I, who is represented in the poem by Gloriana, the Faerie Queene. The six human virtues of holiness, chastity, friendship, temperance, justice, and courtesy are all represented by a knight. Spenser raises many questions about Elizabethan society, especially about the role of women in maintaining the patriarchal order. This is represented by a spectacular battle between Britomart, the Knight of Chastity, and Radigund, the Amazon Queen.

Britomart the Knight of Chastity

Britomart is a virginal female knight, who not only represents chastity but is also associated with English virtue, especially military power. The Brit part of her name comes from “Briton while martis comes from the Roman god of war, Mars, meaning war-like person. From an early age she refrained from the traditional activities of girls at the time, and was trained in the use of weapons and combat, preferring such typically masculine activities. She dressed in the armour of a knight, acted like a knight, fought like a knight, and wielded a magical black spear.

After a long quest and many adventures seeking him, Britomart married Artegall, the Knight of Justice whom she had seen in the magic looking glass belonging to Merlin. Yet, as was often the way with knights, Artegall was bound to a quest he could not abandon without losing his honour. Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, had given him the task of rescuing the Lady Eirena from the tyrant Grantorto. It was his chivalric duty to complete the quest or die trying. Despite her sorrow at his leaving, Britomart knew she had to allow her husband to complete his quest, and looked forward to his return.

Queen Radigund, the Warrior Queen

On his quest, Artegall, accompanied by Talos, an iron-man who helped him in the dispensation of justice, came to the country of the Amazons, ruled by the warrior Queen Radigund. She fought against any knight who arrived in her realm and would not submit to her will. After conquering them, she forced them to obey her every command or die. Radigund made all defeated knights remove their armour and against their will wear female clothing, forcing them to work by spinning thread, sewing, washing clothes, and other tasks that women usually did. If any refused or complained, she executed them.

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