Medieval Lore: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn: Sight – Source

This article was first published 28th May, 2020 on titled, Unicorn Lore: Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries, by zteve t evans

The Mythical, Magical Unicorn

The rare and elusive, mythical, magical unicorn has been part of folklore and legend for centuries, evolving spectacularly into the modern age.  Despite its reputed elusiveness and rarity you do not need to go far to find one these days.  Unicorns appear in a range of products such as toys or works of art sold in high streets and feature in literature, films, television and much more.  In the distant past it was a very different creature but it has grown into the very embodiment of purity, elegance, innocence and beauty that we are familiar with today.

Many of today’s perceptions of the unicorn evolved from the medieval and Renaissance eras where they appeared in works of art, tapestries, and coats-of-arms of the rich and powerful. Presented here is a brief look at a set of six late medieval tapestries known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn.  Today reproductions of these designs appear in various places but notably adorning the walls of the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter films.

Interpreting the Lady and the Unicorn

The tapestries are believed to have an original meaning and purpose that has been lost over time and their interpretation is uncertain today. Medieval people would have understood what each of the figures, motifs and symbols in each scene meant and how they were all part of an extended allegory that came together to create an overall meaning or message …

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The Arthurian Realm: The Quest for the Sangreal

The Sangreal

In Arthurian romance the mystical, magical quest of the Sangreal is a popular story that has its roots in medieval times, though its seeds may be from much earlier.  It uses allegories to blend together pagan motifs, Christian tradition and political and social concerns of the day into a story of spiritual evolution for the main protagonists who must remain true to the quest.  The Sangreal is another name for the Holy Grail which eventually became conflated with the Holy Chalice.  There are several other versions of its name and in different stories it has appeared in different forms such as stone or wood, or as a cup or dish. The earliest of these romances was Le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes who died before it was finished but was added to later by other poets.  Other authors also created versions of the story such as Le Roman du Graal, Joseph d’Arimathe, Merlin, and Perceval by Robert de Boron, the Vulgate Cycle, whose authorship is disputed and Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Later, Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, blending together Arthurian and grail tradition, and it is from this that the greatly summarised version of the tale below draws the most.

Origin of the Sangreal

In this allegorical story set in the time of King Arthur, the Sangreal was the cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the last supper, and the Sacred Spear was the one Longinus, the Roman soldier, used to pierce his side during his crucifixion.  Joseph of Arimathea brought them to Britain and his descendants, the Grail Kings of Castle Corbenic were granted guardianship on condition that each guardian lived a life of purity in deed and thought, dedicated to Jesus Christ.  For many ages, the Sangreal remained a visible, tangible object — alongside the Sacred Spear — that pilgrims came from far and wide to pray before.

Over time, one of its guardians allowed the moral standards that behoved his role to slip, and sought forbidden love. The Sacred Spear punished his weakness, inflicting a wound to his groin that could not be healed, leaving the king maimed and kept alive only by the power of the Sangreal; after this, the Sangreal and Sacred Spear were hidden from the people’s eyes.  In those days the fertility of the land was linked to that of the king, and his realm became a barren wasteland until the time came when he would be healed by the purest knight in the world.

Merlin’s Message

At Camelot, Merlin had not been seen for some time and, worried at his absence, King Arthur sent out knights to find him.  Sir Gawain went out searching, and while travelling through the forest of Brocéliande he heard the sound of someone groaning. Following the sound, he found a column of dense mist that he could not penetrate.  From the mist came the voice of Merlin who revealed that his mistress, Viviane — the Lady of the Lake — had imprisoned him there for all time.  He instructed Gawain to return to King Arthur and tell him of his plight. Yet, emphasizing that nothing could be done to save him, he gave an important message to relay:

“Tell Arthur a great event is now unfolding. The knight is born and ready to begin and accomplish this task for the good of the land and its people.  Now is the time of the quest of the Sangreal.”

Gawain quickly returned and delivered the message to King Arthur, who grieved for his old friend as he turned over the message in his mind.

Pentecost at Camelot

It was the custom of King Arthur to celebrate the feast of Pentecost with all his knights around the Round Table.  Each of the knights had their own seat at the Round Table with their name inscribed upon it, and there was one vacant seat known as the Siege Perilous. As the feast was about to begin a squire brought news that in a nearby river there was a red slab of marble that floated on the water.  King Arthur led his knights to the river to investigate. Fixed firmly within this slab, as if it had been driven in, was a sword upon which was inscribed the following words,

“Never shall I be drawn forth except by he who is the perfect knight and at his side, I will hang.”

Sir Gawain tried to draw the sword but failed, as did Sir Percival and many others, but none could free it.

The Quest of the Sangreal

Having investigated, they returned to the Round Table to eat. While they were eating the windows and doors all suddenly slammed shut.  The candles flickered, went out and then came back on again, and stood before them appeared a very old holy man accompanied by Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot.  The holy man led Galahad to the Siege Perilous and seated him there.  They watched in awe as the lettering on the seat changed magically to read, Galahad.   King Arthur led Sir Galahad to the floating slab of marble and he easily withdrew the sword to the wonder of all.

Arthur and his knights returned to their feasting and again, the candles suddenly dimmed and there was a peal of thunder.  A ray of light shone down and in the middle of the Round Table there appeared the glowing Sangreal veiled in white silk. Inspired by this miraculous event, Sir Gawain declared he would not rest, day or night, for one year and a day, until he saw the Sangreal fully unveiled.  Arthur remembered the message of Merlin and was full of disquiet.  He knew the others would follow his example and realized there was every chance some would die on that quest, or not return.  In the early days of summer, as one hundred and fifty knights rode from Camelot on the quest of the Sangreal, King Arthur wept, knowing the world had changed forever.

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The Outlaws of Inglewood Forest


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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.


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


Public Domain

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.


Public Domain

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.


Public Domain

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

Those Crafty Wise Men of Gotham!


The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham

Gotham is a village in Nottinghamshire, England that has acquired remarkable reputation for the villager’s ingenuity.  The inspiration for this came from a series of short, amusing, stories called, ‘The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’ that describe the villagers performing a number of peculiar tasks.   This was first published in a chapbook during the reign of King Henry VIII in 1540. Chapbooks were cheap publications that were written to appeal to the common people.  Rather than mad the people of Gotham became known as the Wise Men of Gotham and for good reason.  The chapbook does not give reasons for their absurd behavior but medieval legend and tradition say there are at least two versions of how this came to be.    

King John

The first says that King John wanted to build a hunting lodge, or castle and make the surrounding area subject to strict Forest Laws for hunting and its use.  The people of Gotham would probably have not welcomed this as it would have place restrictions on the use of the forest and its resources.  The second says that  King John wanted  to travel through the parish, but any road the king traveled on in those days became a Royal Highway. Its maintenance and upkeep became the responsibility of the parishes it passed through.  This was perceived as bad news by the people of Gotham who not surprisingly, really did not want to pay for the privilege of maintaining it.

Gotham madness!illus241

To dissuade the king from his plan the people of Gotham hatched a remarkable plan of their own.  In those days madness was believed to be catching so the villagers came up with a plan where they would be carrying out a series of acts of apparent madness.  When the King’s riders arrived ahead of the main party they were astonished to find a group of men hard at work building a fence around a small bush growing on top of a mound.  The conversation between the king’s men  and the villagers may have been something along the following lines:-

Fencing in the cuckoo

“Why are you doing that?” inquired the king’s man.  “To fence the cuckoo in.” said their leader.

“And why would you want to do doing that?” said the King’s man.

“Because the cuckoo brings the spring and we shall keep the spring with us forever if we fence her in.”  said the leader as the last piece of fencing was fixed in place.  With that the cuckoo flew out of the bush and away over the countryside.

“Darn!” cried the leader, “we should have made the fence higher!”   Perplexed, the king’s man rode on.

Drowning an eel and more madness

Wherever they went they found the people engaged in some absurd or hopeless task.  At a local pond they found a group of villagers trying to drown an eel.

“What ever are you doing?” asked the king’s man.

“This eel has eaten all the fish we put in the pond we kept for our own use. We are drowning it to teach it a lesson!” they told him.

Puzzled the king’s man rode on until he came upon a group of men dragging carts onto a barn roof.  “Why are you doing that?” asked the king’s man.

“To shade the barn from the sun!” they replied.

Astonished the king’s man rode on and soon came on another group of villagers rolling cheeses down a hill towards Nottingham.  Reluctantly the king’s man asked them what they were doing.illus236“We are rolling our cheeses down the hill to Nottingham that they may find their own way to market, saving us the trouble of taking them ourselves!” they replied.

The bemused king’s men rode into Gotham but wherever they went they found the people engaged in an impossible or absurd task.

The  madness of Gotham

The King’s men, as was the belief at the time,  believed madness to be a contagious disease.  From what they saw of the villagers they were convinced they had all fallen sick with it.  They returned to King John and reported that the whole population was afflicted with madness.  Not wanting to risk catching their affliction King John decided not to go to Gotham and either found a way round the village, or decided to have his hunting lodge elsewhere.

The Wise Men of Gotham

So the people of Gotham managed to avoid the consequences of a Royal Forest or  expense for the upkeep of public road. The villagers became known as the Wise Men of Gotham and the people would often be heard to  say, “we ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it”.

© 12/07/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans

Corineus the Trojan: First Duke of Cornwall

Descendant of Trojans

In medieval legend Corineus was held to be a descendant of the Trojans and a great warrior who became the founder and first Duke of Cornwall. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book The history of the Kings of Britain identifies him as the leader of a group of warriors descended from a group of Trojans who settled along the coasts of the Tyrrhenian Sea in exile after the fall of Troy. In a dream Brutus had been told by the goddess Diana to seek out Albion which was populated by giants and make it his home. Although the book was popular in its time it is not regarded today as a reliable history book. This shows how attitudes change with the times and how legends are made, though some may call it fiction. However, we will allow the reader to make up their own mind and look at the story Geoffrey tells about the founding of Cornwall by exiled Trojans.

Brutus of Troy

According to Geoffrey, Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, and had freed many Trojans who had been enslaved in Greece after the fall of Troy. He had become their leader and traveled far and wide with them having many adventures before meeting up with another band of exiled Trojans along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.


The commander of these exiles was named Corineus who was a courteous and modest man who could offer good council but was renowned also for his courage, boldness and prowess as a warrior. Brutus told Corineus of how Diana had come to him in a dream and told him to search for Albion and asked Corineus to join him. Corineus agreed and although he was a great war leader in his own right when told about the dream and understood who Brutus was descended from he placed himself and his men under his command becoming second in command himself in the army of Brutus and joined the quest.  Read more

The legendary Brutus of Troy, first king of Britain

According to medieval legend the founder and first king of Britain was the Trojan exile known as Brutus of Troy, who was said to be the descendant of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. This claim was first documented in a ninth century text the Historia Britonum attributed to Nennius, followed by an account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Histori Regum Britanniae, in the 12th century. Brutus does not appear in classical works and is not regarded as being a historical figure by most historians.

In a hunting accident when Brutus was in his teens he killed his father with an arrow and was punished by being exiled from Italy. Brutus left Italy and traveled among the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea and spent time in Gaul, founding the city of Tours. Eventually with a band of followers he arrived in Britain defeating the few giants that populated the country. Naming the country after himself and reigning over it until his death. His sons were to split Britain into three parts to rule over. Read more Continue reading