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

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The Outlaws of Inglewood Forest

37-svaghi_cacciataccuino_sanitatis_casanatense_4182_cacciatore

Public Domain

The medieval outlaws Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of Clough of Inglewood Forest in Cumbria may not be as famous as Robin Hood, Little John and Will Scarlet of Sherwood Forest but their story is still a good action packed yarn that deserves greater recognition.

Inglewood Forest, Cumbria

Today the Inglewood Forest in the county of Cumbria, which was called Cumberland, is an area of fertile of arable and dairy farm land with patches woodland. The name means “Wood of the English or Angles.”  After the Norman Conquest the area was made a Royal Forest.   The hunting of certain animals such as deer and boar was strictly reserved for the King and there could be severe punishments for offenders.  Certain other activities were also restricted though yeomen did have some rights.

Popular narratives

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries outlaw narratives were popular often appearing as ballads. The adventures of Robin Hood, Little John and the rest of his Merrie Men are the best known examples set in or around Sherwood Forest that have come down through the ages.  Inglewood Forest was home to Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly, and Clym of Clough.  Although this trio are not so famous as the Sherwood outlaws is still a worthy narrative of the age.  The Child Ballad 116 entitled Adam Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee, tells their story focusing on William of Cloudsley as the main hero of the story.  The ballad also has a parallel with the Swiss story of William Tell who shoots an apple from the head of his son. Presented here is brief comparison with Robin Hood and an edited version of the story from the ballad.

Robin Hood

Many areas in England and Wales have a claim to Robin Hood, possibly with some justification, but his most widely accepted home is  Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, another Royal Forest.  Though maybe not as famous as Sherwood Forest, Inglewood had its share of hero outlaws in the semi-legendary trio of Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of the Clough.

Similarities with Robin Hood

As with Robin Hood they have mentions in the Child Ballads and appear to have much in common. For example they were outlaws and expert archers roaming a forest and setting right what was wrong portrayed as honest yeoman who had suffered injustice at the hands of the authorities.  In Adam, William and Clym there are three local heroes swearing allegiance and brotherhood to each other forced to live by breaking the laws of the forest in much the same way as Robin Hood and his band of outlaws did.  Like them, they made their base in the wilds living off the fruits of the forest.

Adam Bell, William of Cloudesly and Clym of Clough

Of the three, only William of Cloudesly was a married man and he dearly loved his wife and three children, but he was forced to leave them in Carlisle.  Being separated from them broke his heart and one day he told his two friends that he would go into Carlisle to visit them.  Both Adam and Clym warned against this fearing that he may walk into a trap or be captured by the authorities.  Nevertheless William tells them he sorely misses his family and must take a chance on seeing them no matter what the risk.  He reassures his friends that he will take every precaution and that he would be alright and goes off to Carlisle to visit his family.

William and Alice

Taking the utmost care he steals through the streets under the cover of darkness until he reaches his family home.  Using a pre-arranged code of knocks upon the window his wife, Alice gladly opens the door and throws her arms around her husband. Great is there joy at their reunion and Alice tells him that she had kept the house  ready for his return for the last six months since he went away.  He hugs and kisses his delighted children and insists his wife tell him of all their doings, which of course she does.  Indeed, this is a very happy scene but there is also one other in the house who is interested in the return of William to Carlisle.

Betrayal

Also present in the house when William returned was an old woman who had been made homeless seven years previous.  William, being a kind hearted man had taken pity on her and had let her live in his home with his family seeking no recompense but giving her free food and lodging for all that time.  Now this woman seeing William had returned crept out of the house and went to the Sheriff and the Magistrate to tell them the news.  The Sheriff and the Magistrate were delighted with the news and reward the old woman with a scarlet dress.

William is taken

They then raise a crowd of men to arrest William.  They besiege his house as he and his wife defend their home against them.  Finally the besiegers set the house on fire and William is forced to let his children down through the upper windows with tied sheets.  Alice wants to stay and fight to the death with William but he insists she leaves or the children would have no one in the world to take care of them.  Reluctantly she agrees and he lowers her to the ground with the sheets.

Now alone, William shoots arrow after arrow into the crowd until he has none left.  Resolving to face death fighting he draws his sword and leaps out at his attackers.  Although he puts up a fierce fight he is eventually overpowered and chained hand and foot and dragged to the gaol.  The Sheriff, even though he has William in chains is still fearful of his escape and orders that all the gates to the city of Carlisle be locked and barred and no one is to enter or leave.  He orders his carpenters to build a gallows from which he planned to hang William.

Adam and Clym

Not all the people of Carlisle had taken part in the attack on William’s house, it was only a small minority, and one who had a small son sent his boy through a small breach in the city walls to find Adam Bell and Clym of Cloudesly and warn them of their friend’s danger.  The boy was a swineherd who spent time in the forest with his pigs and looked after Alice’s at times.  William would leave game where he could easily find it as payment.

Adam and Clym found the boy, rather than he finding them, and he told them of the plight of their friend and how the sheriff had ordered the city gates to be barred.  So they set off to Carlisle but when they arrive they find all the gates to the city barred and locked allowing no one in or out, just as the boy had told them.  But Adam had a plan.  He had on him an official looking letter.   Guessing that the gatekeeper was no scholar he proposed they make out they were the King’s messengers on his business with orders to be given directly by them to the Sheriff of Carlisle and no one should hinder them or answer to the King’s anger.  The two men banged on the gate.  A flustered gatekeeper arrived and told them the gates were barred because the hanging of an outlaw was to take place no one was allowed in or out until the man was dead. He told them to go away and come back tomorrow.

Deceiving the gatekeeper

Adam brandished the letter in front of his face and told him that they had carried this direct from the King in London.  They been instructed by the King himself to give it into the hand of the Sheriff of Carlisle and no man must hinder them on pain of death.  The gatekeeper hesitated and looked closely at the letter.  He saw what he assumed was the King’s seal and not being an educated man knew no different and decided it would be safe and prudent to let them in.  As soon as they passed through the gates Adam and Clym attacked him, bound him hand and foot and gagged him leaving him upon the floor in his guardroom.  Taking the keys of the gates from they prepared their bows and entered the city to find their friend.

The fight for William

Finding their way to the marketplace they see a new gallows had been completed and their see their friend bound hand and foot in a cart nearby waiting the arrival of the sheriff and the magistrate to carry out the execution. William sees his friend and hope returns to him.  As he is stood on the cart with the rope around her neck awaiting the order from the Sheriff, Adam and Clym take aim and shoot the Sheriff and the Magistrate simultaneously preventing the order to be given.  Both suddenly fall to the ground dying causing the gathered crowd to flee in panic and disorder.   In the confusion Adam and Clym race to their friend and cut the ropes which bind him.  Now free William attacks one of his guards managing to wrest a battle axe from him and killing him with it.

Fighting their way out

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Now armed he and his companion attack the remaining guards who flee in disarray. Clym and Adam shoot all their arrows at them then draw their swords and fight hand to hand with any remaining.  But horns blow and bells ring and the Mayor of Carlisle is warned of the events.  He quickly gathers a large body of armed men and the three companions have to fight their way back to the gates and William kills the Mayor in the process.  They make the gates and unlock them to let themselves out then quickly relock them to keep their pursuers in.   They then melt into the fastness of Inglewood Forest which they know so well, leaving their pursuers locked in the city of Carlisle.

Alice and the children

After William had let her to the ground from their burning home she had gathered the children about her and made her way through the dark streets of Carlisle to the gates.  She and the children managing to sneak out just before the order came to bar entry and exit to all.  Stealthily she lead her children into the depths of the forest.  Her intention was to finding Adam and Clym and tell them all that had befallen.  She hoped that they would be able to perform a rescue but she thought at least that they should know what had happened to their comrade and ask them for help for her and the children.  With these thoughts she made her way to the place of the trysting tree in the hope of finding them.  Of course she had no idea that they had been forewarned of events. To her despair she did not find them there as they had gone to the succour of William.

The trysting tree

The three friends made their way through the forest until they come to the trysting tree where they planned to camp for the night.  There, knelt in a huddle with her arms around her weeping children was Alice, herself weeping thinking that William had been killed.  Pure delight was the feeling of that loving family to be reunited again.  Adam and Clym took leave of the happy family leaving them to be together while they went hunting bringing back game to feed all.

While eating they all talked together about their future trying to form a plan of what to do next.  They knew that the king would be angry about the killing of his Sheriff, Magistrate and Mayor as well as all the others who fell in the battle.

A decision is made

William tells the others that he thinks they should go to the king before he hears the news and ask for clemency.  He takes Alice and the children to a nunnery who will give them food and shelter and takes his eldest son with him.  Adam and Clym also go with saying they are brothers and brothers should stick together.

The King

So William and his son, along with Adam Bell and Clym of Clough make their way to London to ask clemency from the King.  Arriving in London they make their way to the palace and enter its gates and proceed into the hall ignoring the sentries, the ushers the porters, and kneel  straight before the King and beg clemency for killing his deer.

The King asks them who they are and when they tell him he immediately rejects clemency and tells them they must hang.  Adam points out that they had come to ask for clemency of their own free will and asks again for clemency, or else to be set free with the weapons they carry and that they will then never in 100 years again ask for grace.  The king is unmoved and tells them again that all three will hang.

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The Queen is sitting next to him throughout all this and decides to intervene on behalf of the men of Inglewood.  She reminds her husband that when they were wed he promised her a wedding gift of her choice which she had never yet asked for.  Now she asked him to spare the lives of these three yeoman as her wedding gift.

The King reluctantly agreed to his wife’s request but no sooner had he done so when messengers arrive from Carlisle with news of the deaths of the Sheriff the Magistrate, the Mayor and others of his men some fifty in number who were killed  in the fight. The king is grieved and looking woefully at them he wonders what kind of fighters they were and just how good was their archery.  To test the proficiency of the three outlaws of Inglewood he calls his best archers who set up a series of tests and targets.

William shoots an apple on his son’s head

William, Adam and Clym easily pass every test and prove themselves better archers than the King’s men.  William suggests that the targets were too easy for a good bowman and sets up three hazel rods in the ground twenty paces distant from each other.  He then turns to the King and says that it is a good archer who can split even one of these.  The King doubtfully tells him such a feat is impossible and no archer could possibly do it.  William proves the King wrong splitting the hazel down the middle.  The King now is greatly impressed telling him he is the best archer he has ever seen.

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William says to the king that he can better that and will place an apple upon his seven year old son’s head and split it in two with an arrow fired at 120 paces distant.  The king now tells William that he would like to see such a feat of archery and warns him that if he misses or fails, or if the arrow so much as touches his son’s head, or clothes then he, along with Adam and Clym would be hung.

So William fixes a stake in the ground and ties his son to it.  He tells the boy to turn his head so he cannot see in front of him and places an apple upon his head.  William measures the one hundred and twenty paces and begs the onlookers for complete silence.  Taking careful aim he lets fly an arrow which splits the apple in two leaving his son or his clothing untouched and unharmed.  The king now is most impressed by William’s prowess as an archer gives him eighteen pence a day as one of his bowmen and makes him his rider in chief over the North country.

The queen is also highly impressed making him a gentleman of the cloth and makes Adam and Clym yeoman of her chamber,  She also gives William’s son a place in her wine cellar as a porter.  Alice is brought from the nunnery with the other children and is made the governess of the Royal children and also the Queen’s chief gentlewoman.

William, Adam Bell and Clym of Clough give thanks to the king and queen and go to the church to be absolved of their sins.  They spend the rest of their lives serving the king and queen and all three eventually die good honest men in the service of their monarch.

Happy ending

This ballad has a happy ending which many others of its type and time do not get.  It shares many common elements with Robin Hood and the shooting of the apple from the head of William’s son is similar to the story of William Tell.  It is an action packed tale yet somehow not as famous as those of Robin and his Merry Men.

© 01/03/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright 1st March, 2016 zteve t evans