LIONS, AND VIRGINS : THE LEGEND OF SIR BEVOIS OF
by Viktoria Turner (Southampton)
Southampton’s Sir Bevois and
his giant page and squire, Ascupart, are commemorated in the city in several
ways. There are two large, wooden
tablets, now unfortunately unseen
by the public, situated inside the Bargate.
There are the street names, Josian Walk, Bevois Street and Ascupart
Street. There are the areas of
Bevois Park, Bevois Mount, Bevois Town and Bevois Valley, and of course, the two
lead lions which stand guard outside the Bargate.
Nevertheless, whilst the Bevois
legend has been well documented there are surprisingly few Southampton
residents, and even fewer visitors, who know much about these illustrious people
and the legends which are associated with them.
There are numerous learned
arguments about Sir Bevois’s actual existence and certainly the stories told
of his Founding of Southampton, and the tales of his weird and wonderful
exploits, need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Even so, an open mind should be kept as to whether the original
pre-Norman version of the legend was based on fact or not.
The saga has its literary roots
in an Anglo-Norman poetic romance that was first translated in England in the 12th
or 13th Century from a long lost Middle English Manuscript. Similar, earlier stories
of Sir Bevois, however, can be found in several countries in
Europe, the Middle East, and as far afield as Russia, Rumania, and the
Over the past couple of
centuries those who have studied the legend have come to the conclusion that
even if the literary romance was originally based on fact, it is more likely
that the Southampton stories of Sir Bevois’ exploits have come about as the
result of the medieval knight Crusaders (and later travellers) who embroidered
old sagas, and Anglicised similar legends which they had heard whilst away from
Romantic stories and tragedies,
full of symbolic meanings, and added and altered bits, which were carried from
place to place by gleemen and troupes of minstrels and players under the
patronage of influential nobles, must also have played a part in spreading the
Shakespeare, (whose only
definite patron was the 3rd Earl of Southampton) took full advantage
of the symbolism involved in legends like Sir Bevois.
He was also aware of the desirability of changing, reinterpreting or
romanticising some detail of history to suit the political times, recent events
or happenings, and the personal motives of himself, his public or his customers.
It would be foolish, therefore, not to presume that lesser players, as
well other great ones, did not do the same thing.
Similarly, the pageants often
held simply to boost civic or household pride, particularly in the Tudor and
Elizabethan periods, are also possible reasons for the English variation of
Bevois’ adventures, and the continued popularity of the legend.
Southampton had at least six visits by Tudor Monarchs, and
Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was possibly written as a result
of Elizabeth’s third visit in 1591.
The fact that drawing
flattering pageant and memorial parallels had for centuries been the norm in
England, and also that Southampton Mayoral Accounts in 1593/4 show that two new
lions were made; restoration work was done to pretty up the Bevois panels; and
the Queens picture (later replaced by the Royal Arms) was set up between them on
the Bargate; helps to back up the supposition that the Southampton
Burgesses also jumped on the bandwagon of the Virgin Queen cult, thereby
perpetuating the Bevois legend.
Written histories by such
people as Geoffrey of Monmouth, which today have been proved sometimes to be
full of fantasy, or are biased historial interperetations, rather than known
fact, can also take some credit for the widespread distribution of the legend.
The ‘History of Southampton
Div 6’published in the 1850’s, in a footnote on page 165, mentions that
“in some early plays, as well as in formal inventories, passages from the life
of Beafres, Beavaes, Bevis, or Bogo are mentioned as the subjects of
tapestries……..’ Henry V had tapestries representing the deeds of Sir Bevois;
and in the days of Henry VIII, the ‘arras of Sir Bevis’ was a tapestry at
Richmond Palace. Henry V sailed
from Southampton for the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Bevois’s story tells us that
he was the son of Sir Guy, Earl of Hampton.
His mother was the daughter of the King of Scotland whom Sir Guy had
married in his declining years. She
arranges for the murder of her husband by her lover – who she later marries
– and the sale of her own son into slavery.
(Strains of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’)
According to one version of the
romance; as a child Bevois was strong in will as well as arm.
The “History of Hampshire Div 6” says that when he was 7 years old he
was supposed to “have knocked down the palace porter and then cudgeled his own
stepfather almost to death”.
The merchants who bought Bevois
eventually gave or sold him to Ermyn, King of Armenia, and it is whilst under
his patronage that most of the stories of his exploits occur.
Bevois had a magic sword called Mortglay, and an equally magical horse
called Hirondelle. (The Swallow) As
a result of one of his adventures he also acquired the services of a page and
squire, the treacherous giant Ascupart.
This part of the written
versions of the story and the one told today differ from what the 18th
Cent. Dr. Speed said was the traditional tale at that time. He wrote ‘he
[Bevois] fought with a giant named Ascapart on the sea-shore near the town, and
that Ascapart struck at him with his club, but missing his blow, the club stuck
fast in the mud, and that while he was pulling to get it out, Bevois despatched
him with his sword’ .
Printed versions of the medieval poem, however, say that after Ascupart had missed his footing; Josian, daughter of King Ermyn, intervened and forbade that he be killed. Against Bevois’ better judgement -
“Dame” he sayed “he wyll
vs betraye” (William Copland trans.1560’s)- she
persuaded him to make Ascupart his page.
There is also divergence from the translated poem because this incident is said to have happened before Bevois’ return to England to reclaim his father’s land – which he did successfully, but after he had killed the two lions who were sensitive enough not to eat his future wife.
JOSIAN AND THE LIONS
Previous to meeting Ascupart, Bevois had fallen in love with
Josian,, but a wise man had told him that he could not marry a woman who
was not pure and who was not a King’s daughter. Josian was married to Yvor of Mombraunt.
There is much speculation as to where Mombraunt actually was, but by all
accounts Yvor was an evil man, so Josian ran away with Bevois.
She had told him that by means of a spell she had managed to maintain her
virginity throughout her seven year marriage!
And Bevois believed her.
During their flight, she was
left, with her Chamberlain, Boniface, to shelter in a cave.
Two lions entered the cave and ate Boniface.
However, because she was a King’s daughter and a pure virgin, the lions
are unable to harm Josian. They lie
quietly with their heads in her lap until Bevois returns and kills them.
(Incidentally, St Bonifacae (c680) the canonised Primate for Germany and
Gaul, first became a monk at Nursling, near Southampton)
The two lions guarding the
Bargate are in commemoration of this bit of the Bevois legend.
The present ones date from 1743 and replace very much earlier wooden
ones. In Victorian times when the
Bargate was the Guildhall and Court House where ‘fallen women’ came before
they were sent to the House of Correction at God’s House, Winkle Street , it
was said that if a virgin walked past the lions
they would roar and fall off their plinths.
A similar story exists in Portsmouth and Winchester.
The traditional story goes on
to tell of Bevois’ later marriage to Josian once she and Ascupart are baptised
as Christians (shades of the Crusaders saving the pagans – or perhaps the
Anglo Saxons converting the Norsemen). The
christening was supposesd to have happened in Southampton Water, and it took a
‘ton of water to perform the feat’.
William Gilpin when he
described his coastal observations in 1774, added another dimension.
He says that the local people said that both Bevois and Ascupart were
giants ‘able to wade the channel of the sea to the Isle of Wight’.
The place noted for this feat is Lepe Beach in the New Forest.
Earlier visitors to Southampton – Leiutenanat Hammond, governor of the Isle of Wight, in 1635 and Jeremiah Milles, in 1743 – also make comment about both Bevois and Ascupart being depicated as the same size on the Bargate panels . This probably fostered the later Paladin style hero twist to the pre-Norman myth. Milles also mentions Peterborough’s Bevois Mound, saying that he [Bevois] is said locally to have raised it to ‘hinder the Danes from passing’. (See below)
ARUNDEL AND EDGAR, KING OF
Whatever the case, the legendary scene now splits and shifts to Arundel (Hirondelle)Castle in Sussex. Bevois is supposed to have built Arundel and named it after his horse because it had won him a lot of money in a race. Presumed, but highly unlikely, fact and fiction really become intertwined with the Southampton and Arundel Castle connection. Suffice it to say that there are many coincidences and connections between Southampton and the Lords of Arundel, Dukes of Norfolk, and to this day they are the source of fierce debate as to the historical Bevois relationship.
Staying with Southampton, the legend goes on to tell of Bevois once more getting into trouble. The jealous King of England’s son tries to steal Bevois’ horse, and is killed by a deliberate kick from its hoof. Bevois flees abroad again rather than face the angry King. Further adventures follow but he returns to help his foster father, Saber, gain his right and proper dues.
The poetic version of the legend has Bevois and Josian living happily ever after in Mombraunt; all, including Arundel, dying on the same day. The English versions, however, place Bevois’ death at Bevis Tower, Arundel Castle and at Arundel Tower, Southampton.
DEATH OF SIR BEVOIS
Bevois, when he knows that he is dying, goes to the top of the tower and states that he wishes to be buried where his sword – Mortglay – rests when he throws it. This, it would seem in both cases, Southampton or Arundel, was some two miles from the tower.
Amongst those halfpenny and
farthing tokens issued were some of the ‘Brewery and Block Manufactury United
Company’. They showed a helmed
head in profile with the words ‘Sir Bevois of Southampton’ underneath. Some, on the reverse, around a shield of Arms, said
‘payable at the office of W. Taylor, RV Moody and Co’ , and others had a
ship or a rose and crown on a shield on the reverse.
In ‘The Prrovincial Token Coinage of the 18th Century’ (R Dalton and SH Horne) there are also illustrations of similar coins and tokens, some without legend, dated 1794, from Gosport and Stockton. A tradesman’s token from Norwich also sports a very similar ‘Bevois’ helmed head complete with three rosettes,on his breast.
PUBLISHED SOURCES NOT
MENTIONED IN TEXT