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Knight Tales


There are lots of stories about knights in English literature – many are very, very old stories. Here are 5 of the earliest.

King Arthur - c530ADThe Round Table experience a vision of the Holy Grail

Easily the most famous knight of all time, Arthur is a part-real, part-historical and part-fictional character. His story was first told in 1136 when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his medieval best-seller, the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’.

A French poet Chrètien de Troyes then wrote a series of epic knightly romances, making Arthur the main character and introducing chivalry, the search for the Holy Grail and also Sir Lancelot. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury announced that they had found Arthur’s grave at the abbey and tales of Arthur began to circulate at court and among commoners in Britain and the Continent. In 1469, Sir Thomas Mallory finished his novel, The Death of Arthur, and this fixed Arthur as the iconic figure he remains today.

The real Arthur lived sometime around 500AD and was a Romano-British warrior who through a series of military victories was able to stem the Anglo-Saxon advance across Britain. Arthur and his knights never wore plate armour, but may have had a Christian cross as his emblem. Some think he may have had a Gloucestershire connection possibly being the son of a one of the wealthy villa owner in the Cotswolds!

The Gododdin – 588ADA page from the Book of Aneirin

This Dark Age poem tells the story of a disastrous raid launched against the Saxons by Mynyddog, chief of the Gododdin. He sent a force of 360 cavalry south from Edinburgh to surprise a gathering of Saxon tribes at Catreath (now Catterick) in Yorkshire. The attack failed as the British ran into a united Saxon army of 100,000 men. The Gododdin were slaughtered and only 4 escaped. One was a poet called Aneirin who subsequently wrote a poem about the raid.

Beowulf – 8th CenturyThe first page of Beowulf

This Anglo-Saxon epic tells the story of the warrior hero Beowulf, who travels to the kingdom of Hrothgar and defeats a monster called Grendel and then slays the beast’s equally horrific mother. Beowulf later becomes king of his own lands and years later, as an old man, he has to fight a dragon to stop the destruction of his kingdom. Though he slays the dragon with help from a kinsman, Wiglaf, Beowulf is mortally wounded and dies soon afterwards.

The Canterbury Tales - Chaucer’s knight - 1380
The first page of the Knight's Tale
The Knight is a character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – a poem written around 1372 that tells the tale of a group of pilgrims who travel from the Tabard Inn at Southwark to the tomb of St Thomas Beckett at Canterbury. Chaucer’s knight is chivalrous, noble, skilled at warfare, brave and strong, yet humble, courteous and gentle. He has fought on a number of Crusades and is the perfect example of a knight – but this might be sarcasm for evidence suggests that by this time such chivalry was on the wane. Others think that the knight is a common mercenary who has abandoned chivalry altogether and now fights purely for money.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - 14th Century
A page of the original Gawain manuscript
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale from the mid 1300s. It tells the tale of Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's round table, who accepts a challenge from a mysterious knight dressed in green with green hair. The Green Knight offers to let Gawain have one swing at his neck with an axe provided Gawain will then let the knight do the same to him. Gawain takes his swing, severing the Green Knight’s head from his body, only for the Green Knight to rise and pick up his own head. The Green Knight then tells Gawain he will be waiting in a Green Chapel in one year’s time to return the blow. The story follows Gawain’s year long quest to find the Green Chapel and confront his terrible fate.

There are many more knight tales old and new that are worth reading, or watching! Why not try and find some at your local library?