King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain

Tuesday, 11 April 2023

Castles and manors – the literary landscape of the northern authors of King Arthur and Sir Gawain

The alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death) is widely recognised to be amongst the finest works of the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century. But who enjoyed it and why was its survival not more commonplace?

It is certainly true that the alliterative Morte is today unique, redacted by the gentleman scholar Robert Thornton in the early fifteenth century and now contained within a single text residing in the library of Lincoln Cathedral (Lincoln Cathedral, MS 91 - the "Lincoln Thornton Manuscript").

Although Thornton’s source has long since disappeared, passages of Malory’s later Morte d’Arthur reveal that Malory himself was working from a similar – though different - source to Thornton, suggesting the original alliterative poem was once much more widespread.

Who read these books?

The fate of much of the corpus of original Middle English texts is moot; if some, like the Auchinleck Manuscript (containing a number of romances), were richly decorated and of the highest quality, most were simply-produced texts with limited illumination or textual decoration.

This suggests an aspirational readership; people acquainted with the texts of wealthy households even if they themselves did not quite operate on the same social level. Such readers took pleasure in words over art and seemed open to poetic experimentation. We may see such readers as members of the local gentry.

Scribes such as Thornton hold the key to our understanding such readers; living at East Newton in Ryedale, he may well have been acquainted with associates of the hugely powerful Neville family at nearby Sheriff Hutton (below).

The Nevilles’ estates stretched far towards Carlisle, Arthur’s home in the alliterative Morte. A number of extant texts from this period seem also to come from this area, suggesting works designed with local appeal designed to please powerful landowners and their families.

Thornton’s work therefore sheds a light not only on the interests of his own class in copying such works but also on those of his social superiors. In so doing, Thornton's redactions of these texts also reveal how each social group’s interests intermingled and spread.

Potentially originally commissioned by families such as the Nevilles, the copying and distrubution of these original texts hints at a form of social emulation; potentially message spreading. Forming what York academic Dr Nicola McDonald calls a type of medieval “pulp fiction”, they became widely read texts produced simply and cheaply to be enjoyed across a much broader social spectrum.

What were their interests?

The evidence for a broad readership is hinted at in particular by texts which survive in more than one example, an example of which lies in another of Thornton’s redactions, the short yet poetically complex Awntyrs off Arthure (the Adventures of Arthur). 

This romance, which also survives in three other versions, reveals not only that none can claim to be closest to the original but also that there were several other versions - all now lost - once in broad circulation across England.

An alliterative work like the Morte, the Awntyrs differs from it in being written in short-line stanzas containing an intricate 13-line rhyming scheme, with the final words of each line rhyming in a scheme of ababababcdddc. An interesting feature of the poem is that in each stanza’s final five lines (the cdddc section) we also find a “wheel” of shorter lines.

These are highly redolent of the “bob and wheel” employed by the unknown author of the magisterial Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK), the finest of all the alliterative romances, which combines non-rhyming long-line alliterative verses with a final bob and wheel rhyming ababa, as here:

"I will no longer delay nor let light of your errand

right now!”

Gawain stands ready for that strike

And frowns in lip and brow;

No wonder his great dislike:

For naught would stop that blow!

By contrast, the alliterative Morte is non-rhyming throughout, relying entirely on the thrust of the alliterative long-line and employing a rise and fall of delivery centred on a mid-line caesura (as recreated in my own translation, which many of you have kindly supported).

This intermingling of different poetic devices suggests a delight by audiences in different types of rhyme scheme, potentially a pleasure in listening to authors with new techniques.

Romances with a mission

Of course, reader interest wasn’t just centred on intricacy of form. Content was just as critical; many romances were deliberately ambiguous in their meaning - perhaps reflecting the mysteries of God and the universe - while others promoted subversive underlying themes dressed up in Arthurian stories or other chivalric adventures.

Others still, such as the fascinating Mum and Sothesegger, are openly critical of political decision-making and the evils which can be awoken by poor leadership.

Though short, the content of the Awntyrs addresses a wide range of themes including torment in pergatory, redemption through prayer, trespass, wildlife and nature, justice and chivalry.

An underlying and potentially attractive theme, as with many alliterative romances, is that of responsibility: in the shadow of the Black Death, these romances advocate, through the deeds and beliefs of their characters, the importance of restraint.

We see this in how Arthur is brought low in the alliterative Morte, King Arthur's Death; we see it in the humiliation of both Gawain and the Round Table itself in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the Awntyrs we see it in the poet’s judgement of the sin of adultery committed by Guinevere’s mother and in his assessment of Arthur’s crass management of the complainant Galeron in the second half of the romance.

Dramatically, in Winner and Waster, we even see it in a debate which would be just as familiar to a modern audience: that of making money versus distributing wealth to the poor (the conclusion of which, tantalisingly, is never resolved as the romance is incomplete).

It is fascinating that in William and the Werewolf (William of Palerne), a long-line alliterative romance produced early in the alliterative revival in c.1350, its sense of social justice is what lies at its heart.

English - a language of radical politicisation?

The alliterative poets and their audience appear to have many shared values, values which seem symbiotic. The alliterative revival of the fourteenth century hints strongly at audiences with a mission.

Perhaps, like William and the Werewolf, they extracted their social zeal from more traditional French texts and made them more distinctly English, more radical and politicised. 

Perhaps these poets were fortelling the future through the downfall of their characters, sending warnings that actions make for consequences. As with the disappearance of many of the great illuminated texts of the wealthy, so too their lands were lost.

When the Nevilles fell from grace, even the mighty Sheriff Hutton castle failed to survive. Still extant as a well-walled shell when the Buck brothers arrived to describe it in the first half of the eighteenth century (above), within fifty years much of it had gone.

Like Camelot, its kings and all its former glories, Sheriff Hutton's very fabric and its stones - a latterday Ozymandias - were robbed away by humbler hands who came to claim its heritage.

We are grateful to Robert Thornton and his ilk for their almost selfless acts in the preservation of these texts. Whether these romances were copied or amended for enjoyment or as part of a more complex subversive movement, we owe so much to those who wrote them down, shedding a light on the people of a distant time.

Without their silent tireless work, only crumbling walls, their ghosts and calling rooks, would be all we have to tell today of people's dreams and silent thoughts in England long ago. 


Michael Smith

Author, translator, printmaker


PS. If you have not yet done so and would like to support my forthcoming translation of William and the Werewolf, please do so here. The book is currently 94% funded and, with your help, will bring this fascinating alliterative romance to a whole new audience. As with your sponsorship of King Arthur’s Death (the alliterative Morte), your name will also be published in the back of every copy. Please do support it.

Above: the effigy of Robert Thornton's father at Stonegrave Minster north of York (courtesy of Find a Grave)

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