Is Ludchurch Sir Gawain’s Green Chapel?

One day in May 1135 some white monks from Comberemere Abbey founded a new Cistercian monastery near a ford on the Dee at Poulton a few miles upstream from Chester. In itself this is no great event, however there is accumulating evidence to strengthen the view that in due course the founding of Poulton Abbey led to the writing of the greatest medieval poem outside the work of Chaucer: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Although we have no clue to the identity of the poet, he seems to have a familiarity of the landscape which is descibed in the poem and with the scenes depicted. In one place in the poem, while Sir Gawain searches for the Green Chapel, we are actually given a piece of genuine itinerary. Sir Gawain is journeying through North Wales, leaving Anglesey on his left hand, and then crosses the Dee by some ford into “the wilderness of Wirral.”

The remaining action of the poem takes place in or near the castle of Bercilak de Hautdesert (who later turns out to be the Green Knight) and, although no more place names are mentioned, the poet was obviously at home in the wild, hilly countryside he describes. The nearest scenery fitting these descriptions within the area covered by the poets dialect is the Staffordshire Peak country, and here is our first important link with Poulton, for as the Welsh proved unruly neighbours, the whole Abbey while retaining its Cheshire possessions was moved in May 1214 to a wild corner of the Staffordshire moorland, by the river Churnet on the outskirts of Leek, to become the abbey of St. Mary and St. Benedict of Dieulacres.

The organizer of this move was Ranulph Earl of Chester, whose father according to tradition had died near the same spot, at his favourite hunting lodge of Swythamley, which formed part of the new abbey’s endowment.

The remains of Dieulacres Abbey are all that can be seen today on Abbey farm on the outskirts of Leek.

Here the monks established one of their granges, half farm, half miniature monastery, cultivating forest and marsh until the grange became the “Parke-laund” of the sixteenth century, and it is still a private seat.

There was never a castle at Swythamley such as Sir Gawain so opportunely discovered, but not only is Gawain’s approach to the castle very like the journey from the present Abbey farm to Swythamley park, but there is also a distinct likeness between the terrain at Swythamley with its central eminence, once called Knights Low, and the situation of the poetic castle, enthroned on a lawe. That such a castle never existed need not suprise us, for the several up to date features so expertly enumerated by the poet were only just beginning to make their separate appearance in English domestic and ecclesiastical architecture. It was a brilliant vision superimposed upon a genuine English hill.

Many architectural features from Dieulacres abbey have been incorporated into the farm buildings of Abbey farm on Abbey Green road close to the town of Leek.

It is here that Sir Gawain relaxes and is subjected to the temptation of his alluring hostess while her husband is away hunting, for three successive days, deer, boar and fox. Here again the terrain is at times so vividly described that identification becomes possible, particularly on the second day, that of the boar hunt.

Starting from Swythamley, within echoing distance of the Roaches (the poet’s rocheres), the hunters crossed the latter, then headed northwards past Flash (the poet’s flosche) towards the steep valleys of the Wildboarclough country beyond the river Dane. Many of the features the poet mentions in unusual topographical words still bear the same or closely similar words today.

Sir Gawain was able to relax at Bercilak’s castle bacause upon his arrival he had been assured that the Green Chapel which he sought was “not two miles hence.” Again the poet was speaking from personal knowledge, and it is almost uncanny to read his description and the directions given to Gawain by his guide and then to walk the two miles that seperate  Swythamley Park from what is surely one of the most fantastic natural chapels in existence, namely Ludchurch.

From the top of a “high hill” Gawain’s guide points to a steep valley:-

Ride down this path along that rocky bank,

Till you reach the bottom of this forbidding valley,

Then look up a little among the trees on your left hand,

And there, along the valley, you will see the Green Chapel.

Anyone can make the same journey today, first climbing up towards Roach end from Swythamley, then turning sharply northwards and down again, steeply, some 500ft in under a mile, into the valley of the Black Brook and thus to its junction with the Dane at the Forest Bottom. Sir Gawain saw no building there, only rocky crags and strange piles of stone all knokled and knorned; and indeed all you can see today, up on the left bank, are the twisted shapes of Castle Cliff Rocks.

Castle Cliff Rocks overlooking the river Dane.

But the poet knew that there was something else there, “either an old cave or a crevice of an old crag – he could not say for certain,” a tremendous rock fissure entered through a cave like hole in the hillside. Already in the seventeenth century a Dr Plot, historian of Staffordshire, knew it was Lud’s Church or Ludchurch, truly a weird church, about 100ft long, with vertical walls up to over 50 ft in height and nowhere more than 10 ft in width, and with a hole in each end leading downwards into the earth and hitherto only partly explored. Tradition records it as the hiding place of the Lollards and the surrounding region is rich with legends of headless riders and a tall man dressed in Lincoln Green.

One other detail the poet adds, and again its source is at the same spot: after Sir Gawain had climbed to the top of the Green Chapel he hears from “that high hill” a strange tumult emanating from the other side of the brook, a fierce grinding noise “grievous to hear.” There is no forge now at the Forest Bottom, but on old maps it is still marked, and the little wooden bridge over the Black Brook still bears the revealing name of the original stone arch, Castor’s Bridge, and traces of iron slag lie not far below the soil.

Slag from the forge which existed many years ago can still be found littering the path at Castor’s  Bridge, below Ludchurch on the edge of the Back Forest.

Photographs by Gary Tacagni.

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18 Responses to “Is Ludchurch Sir Gawain’s Green Chapel?”

  1. ‘Hautdesert’ – for the Cistercians, the biblical wilderness and desert of the bible became the forests of western Europe. The Cistercians used the terms ‘desert’ and ‘forest’ interchangeably, they became to mean the same thing. ‘Hautdesert’ is ‘High forest’ an area between Swythamley Hall and Lud’s Church.

  2. From Sleigh’s History of Leek we have information on the purchase and possession of the Keeper of the forest’s house at High Forest, by William Trafford – On the 10th June, the 32nd year of King Henry’s reign, 1540/41 – “And possession was taken in the hee-foreste at the howse of the keeper of the seid forreste”. One of the witnesses to the possession document was Thomas Whytney, late Abbot of Dieulacres.

    The above mention of a Keeper of the forest, confirms that High Forest was once one of Dieulacres’ hunting grounds, an appropriate place for the home of Bertilak de Hautdesert.

    Gary I would be interested on your thoughts on my findings regarding the Gawain poem: http://hautdesert.webnode.com/

    • Thanks for the comments Noel, I have looked at your website and it looks very interesting. I intend to spend some time studying it.
      Regards Gary

  3. Thanks Gary, I would love to hear your thoughts. Andrew Baker, District Manager, Stafford
    Staffordshire Library & Information Service has shown great interest. It would be good to have a consensus as I need some opinions from people familiar with the area and its history, as yourself.

    • Hi Noel,
      I’ve not had chance to read your website in depth yet, however I have put a link to your website under useful links on mine so anyone interested in Gawain and the Green Knight will be able to find more information.
      Regards Gary

  4. Thanks for that Gary, much appreciated.
    Regards Noel

  5. I have a small volume “A Ramble to Ludchurch” by Henry Green. It was from Mr Broclehurst to my 6g grandmother Mrs Mabella Trafford

  6. That sounds very interesting David, I have not come across this book but hope to be going on a ramble to Ludchurch this Saturday. I will also try and visit Turn (thorn) Edge, not too far from Ludchurch. In the Gawain poet’s day this thorny hillside was part of Alstonefield/Malbanc frith and owned by the Audley’s of Heighley Castle. It was the area of Sir Bertilak’s boar hunt, where his hounds were unleashed amongst the thorns. The Audley’s, I’m sure, have a connection to the Gawain poet.

  7. Hi David,
    Unfortunately I can’t see you attachments. Is there anything you can do about this Gary?
    Thanks,
    Noel

    New comment on your post “Is Ludchurch Sir Gawain’s Green Chapel?”
    Author : David Burgess (IP: 86.159.33.104 , host86-159-33-104.range86-159.btcentralplus.com)
    E-mail : citrushouse@btinternet.com
    URL :
    Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/86.159.33.104
    Comment:
    Hi Noel,

    Ive attached some scans fro the liitle book,

    Regards,

    David

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  8. The Audley’s have a connection to the story as Sir Henry de Aldithley endowed Hulton Abbey (Stoke on Trent) which was a Cistercian Abbey with strong connections to Dieulacres Abbey.

  9. It appears that the Audleys do have a connection, as follows: The Gawain poet says that the pentangle is a knot, an endless knot. There is a book, A dictionary of Chivalry by Grant Uden, which describes how the knot was used to represent a family name. His entry is on page 14, under “Badge”. Uden tells us that: ‘Among the most popular and curious badges were various types of knot, these knots (in Heraldry) were a rough pictorial representation of the wearer’s name or initials. Thus, the Stafford knot may be considered as two S’s crossed; the Bourchier knot embodies two B’s; the Bowen knot is made of bows, or loops; and Lacey’s knot is a play on the name, an intricate lacy design.’
    In Gawains pentangle/endless knot there are 5 initial A’s, see pentalpha, this could representation the Audley name, see this link for more on this connection, http://hautdesert.webnode.com/the-audleys/

  10. Lots of interesting stuff on this page Gary. Castor’s bridge could also be a reference to the european beaver, castor fiber, that would have lived in these parts until the 16th century. ‘Back’ forest too is an old nordic reference. ‘Back’ in Nordic means hillside; slope; Old Norse, bakki: slope; river bank. Back forest is on a slope or hillside, ascending from Black brook and the river Dane. Back forest therefore, was once a slope/riverbank that was under forest law. Probably formed the boundary between the private forests of Alsonefield/malbanc frith and Leek frith and the royal forest of Macclesfield.

  11. This is a fascinating page. There is no doubt in my mind that the writer of the Gawain poem was deeply inspired by the landscape in this part of the Peak District and the place names certainly echo the language he uses. There is are, however two huge problems with Lud’s Church being identified with the Green Chapel. Sir Gawain journeys over the Dee and then through Wirral, presumably heading ever Northwards to find the Green Chapel, after his adventures in North Wales. This would put it in an unknown part of Lancs or Cumbria and it seems right that the poet is imagining a mythical, distant land in the harsh North. The other major difficulty (if you carefully translate the original) is that the Green Chapel is clearly described as a burial mound ( a barrow ), which is what makes it green. It is hollow inside, “nobbut an old cave” but so small that Gawain comes quickly out again to find the Green Knight. Unusually for a burial mound it is described as being in the bottom of a valley, set next to a stream, on a area of level ground littered with bones. Lud’s church is high above the Dane, on a steep slope and there is no sign of it ever having been covered by a mound. Nevertheless, the links you make with features all around this area are very intriguing and help to narrow down the origins of this remarkable work of literature. Many thanks, Simon.

  12. Hi Simon, I hope the following is of interest.
    The wild boar in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was tracked down between the knot and the knar, these are believed to be references to Knotbury (Staffs) and The Knar (Cheshire). The knot and the knar were between a flosche and a foo cragge. Flosche is believed to be a reference to Flash (Staffs) and cragge/crag was the original name of Wildboarclough (Cheshire). Knotbury and The Knar are exactly between Flash village and Wildboarclough.
    Hautdesert was a high forest as can be confirmed by the poet’s description, ‘huge hore oaks a hundred together’. Other names for high forest would be holt woods or grove, areas for growing trees for wood/timber of one specific species, close together. In coppiced woodland oaks were spread apart to let sunlight into the forest floor. High forests were also used to protect deer and wild boar, these were areas where they naturally congregated.
    High Forest still exists as a name and was in Leekfrith. Bertilak’s boar hunt left Hautdesert to enter an adjacent frith where there was a flosche/Flash, this was Alstonefield frith. On the boundary between Leekfrith and Alstonefield frith lies Ludchurch. Gawain in Wirral forest (wilderness was the King’s ‘forestis’) confirms that he has to ‘meet that man (Green Knight) at that mear’. ‘Mear’ means boundary. He would ask in Wirral if anyone had heard of the green knight and his chapel as he was heading from the river Dee towards the Mersey, mer(e)sey means, boundary river. Gawain (or the poet’s audience) has a pre-conceived idea that the green chapel is on a boundary.
    In conclusion, the Green chapel is on a boundary next to a high forest/grove. Ludchurch was on a boundary, the crevice of an old crag with a cave within, next to a high forest. Ludchurch is on the boundary between two friths and in the right dialect and place name area.
    To confirm that the Green knight was of the high forest, he carries the Danish axe, a felling tool of trees, secondary use as a weapon of war. He carries the holly branch, nursemaid to the oak, as its thorny leaves were a natural protection for the young oak trees as they grew in a high forest.

  13. Please keep posting such beneficial articles, I adore this kind of posts!

  14. Please keep posting such great posts, I’m a sucker for this type of topics!

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