Did I Ever Tell You About Sir Bertram?
Did I ever tell you about St Bertram?
His real name is either Bertilah or Berhilta but after the conquest
Archbishop Lanfranc suppressed the cults of English saints, the undeclared
objective being to reinforce the authority of Norman power; but Lanfranc
declared that their rough silly names made religion laughable. (See
the letters of Lanfranc.)
Bertram's cult is based around Alstonfields in the Staffordshore Moors.
Alston does not imply, as it seems to, All Stones but rather gave me the
first clue that the land was once a fief of St Austin; ie a large ancient
Augustinian stronghold. The Augustinian Priors simply changed the name,
for official purposes, to a more french sounding one.
Poor old Wolfstan of Durham used to sign himself: "The Wolf" to his
people. It was obvious - he would have to go.
When fire ravaged the Cotton Library in 1731 an undistinguished little
book survived (B.L.MS. Cotton Nero A.x). In it are bound 4 crudely
illustrated poems. The book is probably late C14th, the poems by author
(or authors) unknown. Gawain and the Greene Knight is one of
them, and is an old personal friend. It's unlikely you don't know the
story. I shan't attempt to precis or gloss it, but a copy is available.
The dialect of the Middle English is very clear and suggests the Midlands,
the high country of Staffs or Derbyshire.
The circus took me to Staffordshire and left me there over one winter. I
lived partly out of pub trivia machines, and walked over every inch of the
area. I stalked the hills in a long green caped oilskin coat (which I
still have) and high topped ringmaster's riding boots (which are long
since worn out).
In some places I achieved a kind of outlaw liberty, being able to eat and
drink out of empty pockets on the strength of my impeccable credit - a
delightful feeling when supported only by your word rather than two major
credit cards - but I digress.
Camelot and the realm of Logres are mentioned in Gawain of
course, but his travels also take him near Anglesey and the trail runs
cold on the Wirral.
If von Schlieman could find the site of Troy with only Homer as his
guide... I followed a trail of rumour and inspiration. The green chapel is
a natural feature in desolate high country. I was often misled to ancient
barrows and tumuli unmarked by survey, but there all the same, until I
heard of "Lud's church".
- And aye he frayned as he fared at frekes that he met.
In any grand thereabout of the green chapel
And all nykked him with nay.....
"Where is this place?" I asked a jovial drunk in a pub near Onecote at
about 2 am. "Up near Margeryfield", he told me (combined of course with
directions useless to a pedestrian).
I had read no scholarly work on Gawain for 10 years or more.
The poem's dialect alone placed it in the Staffordshire moors and a
"genius loci", that I could not believe invented, supported it. Even so,
apart from an obscure note in J R Tolkein's edition (Yes
that J.R.T.) to the effect that a legend haunted cavern in North
Staffs existed, I was running on smoke.
In Tolkein's day there was much dispute as to whether or not the author of
the "Romance" (Gawain) could possibly also be the author of the three
religious poems Cleanness, Patience and
particularly Pearl bound with it. Pearl is so
physically and metaphysically compact and complex that most doubted it
could be by the same hand as the Arthurian adventure.
The name Margeryfield was enough to convince me that they were - or else
Jung knew nothing about coincidence. "Pearl" is ostensibly the name of a
dead child, and as Pearl and Margery mean the same thing and as Margery
is much more plausible as a christian name, and knowing the mind of the
I sauntered north to Margeryfield.
Needless to say, I found the green chapel. The book provided a perfect
guide. Orientating myself from the crags they call the Roches where
"mist mirged on the moor, moved on the mountains".
In the poet's words:
Following these directions I did as Gawain did, except I had no
Gryngolet for my trusty steed.
- And ryde me down this ilk rake, by yon rokke side
Til thou be brought to the bottom of the brern valley
Then look a little on the land, on thy left hand
And thou shall see in that slade the self chapel
After this adventure I returned by way of the shrine of St Bertram. The
ancient tomb is within a newer building. In the parish church is a font
even older than the tomb.
- Then girds he to Gryngolet and gathers the rake,
Shoves in by a shore at a shawe side,
Rides through the rough bank right to the dale,
And then he waited him about, and wild it him thought,
And saw no sign of rest besides nowhere,
But high banks and brent upon both half,
And rough knuckled knares with knorned stones;
The skies, of the scouts, skinned; him thought.
Then he hove and withheld his horse at that tyde,
And oft changed his chair the chapel to seek.
He saw no such on no side, and silly him thought
Save a little on a land, a law as it were,
A bald barrow by a bank the brim beside,
By a force of a flood that ferked there;
The borne blubbered therein as it boiled had...
...Then he bowes to the barrow, about it he walks,
Debating with himself what might it be.
It had a hole on the end, and on other side,
And overgrown with grass in glodes aywhere;
And all was hollow inwith, nobut an old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag - he could it naught deem with spell.
"Way! Lord," quoth the gentle knight,
"Whether this be the green chapel?
Here might about midnight
The de'il his matins tell!"
This is Bertila's story: Sometime in the Dark Ages: A Pagan Nobleman from
the Saxon kingdom of Mercia travelled to Ireland, where he wooed and won
a wife. He also was converted to Christianity. Tales vary - perhaps they
had one child already, or she was pregnant with the first or second when
they embarked on the arduous journey home to Mercia.
On the journey through the high country, Bertila left his family to hunt
in the wilderness.
One version says she delivered alone in the woods. When Bertila returned,
the wolves had been before him. Mad with grief, he forgot the world. He
never left the wilderness again. I can only guess how this wild figure
became a revered saint, but he did. His tomb is still covered with votes
written in many hands, votive thanks for favours, prayers for intercession,
pleas for help in hard times. Such a devotion to a saint's cult I have
never seen elsewhere in England.
Many wells, springs and dewponds are called St Bertram's.
Church reference books seem to have forgotten him by any name.
The Green Knight of the poem, it transpires, is also Bertilak de Hautdesart.
The host who goes hunting leaving his wife alone with Gawain. I used to
read "Hautdesert" to mean "of high deserving", but desert has the other
meaning: a place deserted.
If Sir Bertilak of the high desert isn't a reference to St Bertila, then
coincidence is too far stretched.
The Gawain poet was a contemporary of Wycliffe (more or less). You would
have liked Wycliffe I think. Sometime master of Bailiol college, he
heretically claimed that Christianity wasn't the same as the Church; he
had the Bible (that revolutionary tract) translated into English;
criticised doctrines such as indulgences, confession and absolution. The
Lollards who followed him rejected war and capital punishment, advocated
the diversion of ecliastical property to charitable uses and even rejected
the doctrine of transubstantiation.
One legend associated with Lud's church is that it was used as a Lollard
refuge, and they would have escaped detection - had not their singing given
If this is historically true, it probably happened after 1401, when
De Heretico Lombustando was published, and mass burnings of heretics
became a justified necessity of Christian society.
Bertila is at one time the paradigm of virtue and nobility and the wild man
of the Wilderness.
Gawain & the Green Knight is a coded map for Lollard heretics
written in poetic codes of Saxon Celtic Hebrew Arabic Islamic and
Romano-Christian mythologies to guide good heretics to a safe obscurity
from which to rebuild the world.
How many thousand books and essays were written before I stumbled into the
secret? How many thousands more before I share it?
As for Beordulogh, that fierce wild unkempt noble shameful shy fearful
courageous honest angry sad magical shape-shifting soul, he is still up
there in the wild places, brother to the wolf and to the mistle thrush,
brother to the fog, brother to the hawk. He disappears as rivers do into
limestone caverns and reemerge after a thousand years springing on the
The wild is not a game reserve into which we can exile animals. The wild is
in the human heart and remains the best preservation of the world.
As the Gawain poet gave (though since subverted) -
Honi soit qui mal y pense
- Jamie Chadwick (April 1994)