The legend of Sir Bevis of Hampton is an old tale but despite its age, its legacy remains all around us. Whether the hero of our story’s name is spelt Bevis, Beves, Bevois, Beve, Bueve, Beavis, Boeve, Buovo, or Bovo, the legend is, according to expert Jennifer Fellows, ‘arguably one of the most important non-Arthurian romances in Middle English’. The enduring popularity of the story of Sir Bevis was such that the thirteenth century Anglo-Norman version was, over the course of the next few centuries, translated into Middle English, Welsh, Irish, French, Dutch, Italian, Old Icelandic, Romanian, Russian, and Yiddish. In fact, the Yiddish version, Bovo-Bukh (Bovo Book), which was borrowed from the Italian version, became the first non-religious book to be printed in Yiddish when it was published in 1541.
Numerous manuscripts survive to this day, including the Auchinleck Manuscript which dates from circa 1330. I will attempt to tell the story of Sir Bevis of Hampton using Ken Eckert’s translation of the fourteenth century Auchinleck Manuscript, as it appears in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston by Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury. Remember, the story’s origins are even older than this seven-hundred-year-old version. This story would have been shared in taverns and inns, discussed over campfires, whispered by watchmen, and brought to life by bards as, like Bevis himself, it travelled around the world. It is a tale of vengeance, love, peril, and adventure.
The legend of Sir Bevis of Hampton would have been well known across the medieval world and our story begins in Southampton. There was a nobleman called Guy, described as an earl, count, or lord of Southampton. Guy was an old man and, concerned by the fact he had not yet produced an heir, he married the young daughter of the King of Scotland. They soon welcomed little Bevis into the world, but the young lady quickly grew increasingly unhappy with her marriage to this old man whose glory days were well behind him.
When Bevis was seven years old, his mother decided that enough was enough. She secretly contacted her former lover, the Emperor of Germany, and together they conspired to murder Sir Guy of Hampton. One day, feigning an illness, she sent her husband to gather the blood of a boar which, according to her, would cure her malady. Unbeknownst to Guy, the Emperor of Germany and his army lay in wait at the given location. Guy fought valiantly but he was helplessly outnumbered and soon became surrounded by the emperor’s men. He knelt before the emperor and pleaded for mercy, but the emperor drew his sword, raised it in the air, and then instantly and unceremoniously decapitated the defenceless earl. Guy’s head was sent to back to Southampton as proof of his death, just as the lady had requested. She vowed, there and then, to wed the emperor. She ordered the messenger to tell her lover to join her in her private bedchamber that same evening.
Bevis was only seven years old but he obviously posed a threat to the duplicitous couple. It wasn’t long before he found out about their murderous plot and he confronted his mother, calling her a ‘vile hoare’ [vile whore] and telling her that she deserved to be drawn and quartered. When he vowed to avenge his father’s death, the lady sent him flying to the floor with a well-placed smack under his ear. Bevis’ teacher, who is sometimes described as his uncle, was a loyal man named Saber. When the lady asked Saber to kill her son, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he sprinkled Bevis’ clothes with the blood of a pig and lied to her, telling her that the deed was done. Meanwhile, Bevis was dressed up as a commoner and sent off to the green to sleep amongst the sheep whilst Saber could arrange some long-term protection until the boy was old enough to win back his heritage in battle.
Bevis was sitting on the green with the sheep as he looked across Southampton, a town which should have been his. He gazed up to the tower of the castle and, at first, felt sadness at the fact that he was once the son of an earl and now he had been reduced to a lowly shepherd on a hill. His sadness quickly turned to anger, and his anger turned into a tremendous rage. Picking up a club, he marched to the gate of the castle, approaching a porter who stood in his way. Bevis instructed him to let him pass, but the porter refused, calling him a ‘little thug’ and a ‘good-for-nothing son of a whore’. Bevis remarked that he may well be the son of a whore, but he was certainly not a beggar, and he smacked the porter’s head with the club and he fell and cracked his head on the floor.
Bevis advanced into the hall, where he saw his mother and the emperor embracing. He accused them of murdering his father and he struck the emperor on the head three times, leaving him insensible on the floor. “Seize the traitor!” his mother cried, but the knights felt sorry for the boy and let him pass. Bevis went to Saber and admitted his assault, but his mother quickly tracked them down and ordered four knights to take her son to the shore and to immediately sell him to the crew of any pagan ship. There was something of an auction and young Bevis was sold to a group of men described as Saracens, who took him to Armenia and presented him to their king.
The King of Armenia was a rich old widower named Ermine (also Ermin or Hermin) who had a beautiful young daughter called Josian (also Josiane or Josanne). Bevis explained that he was born at Southampton, by the sea shore, and he told the story of how his mother had conspired to murder his father. Ermine felt sorry for Bevis and was impressed by the boy. The king told him that if he would convert to Islam, he would allow him to marry his daughter and therefore inherit his kingdom. Despite her beauty and the potential riches that the marriage would bring, Bevis refused. The boy said would never forsake Jesus, not for any amount of gold or silver, and he lambasted those who believed in other religions. One might have expected Ermine to have been outraged by Bevis’ blasphemous remarks, but the king was impressed by his fearlessness. He said that Bevis would become his chamberlain and, when he was old enough, he would become a knight.
On Christmas Day, when Bevis was fifteen, he was riding by a river when some of Ermine’s men mocked his religion and called him a Christian dog. Outnumbering Bevis by fifty to one, they goaded him into a fight. Swords were drawn and Bevis was hurt by many wounds, some of which cut through his flesh to the bone. Undeterred, he courageously fought the men and, despite his wounds, killed each and every one of them, cutting off heads which flew into the river, and cutting bodies in half. With blood running from his many wounds, he rode home and collapsed onto the floor. Ermine was furious. This boy, whom he had taken in, had repaid his faith by slaughtering fifty of his men. He immediately ordered Bevis to be quartered. That may well have been the end of our tale, but the king’s young daughter, Josian, spoke up in Bevis’ defence. She pleaded with her father, telling him that it must have been self-defence, and she begged him to hear Bevis’ side of the story. At first, Bevis refused to go with the messengers, angrily calling them names and threatening them, but Josian came to see him and she calmed him down. They went together to see King Ermine, and Bevis explained how he was jumped by the men, showing his forty nasty wounds. The king believed Bevis and exonerated him, and Josian, having saved his life, then took him to a luxurious bath where she cleaned and treated his wounds.
Around this time, there was a large boar near the castle that no man could kill. Many had already tried and failed. Bevis set out for the boar’s den and found it littered with the skeletons of men who had died trying to slay the beast. The battle with the boar lasted a whole day and after many long hours of fighting, Bevis was absolutely exhausted. He rested and prayed and at that moment, the boar charged. With a swish of his sword, Bevis chopped the snout clean off. As the boar screamed in agony, Bevis thrust the sword into its mouth, ending the battle. Ermine had a steward who was already jealous of Bevis, and from the castle he heard the boar scream. He immediately gathered twenty-four knights and ten foresters and set off into the woods to kill Bevis and take the prize for himself.
Bevis had left his sword near the boar’s den and only had his broken spear and the boar’s head to protect him. He was exhausted and dismayed to find himself up against these men, but he fought valiantly once more and managed to obtain the steward’s sword, Morgelai. It was a sword of great power and it was said to be one of the finest in the land. With Morgelai in his hand, Bevis made quick work of the remaining knights, chopping them down to the saddle and removing their heads with ease. The jealous steward was cut in half and Bevis took his horse and rode to the foresters, hoping to make peace with them. The foresters were not interested in his peace mission and they immediately unleashed a volley of arrows at Bevis. This decision did not end well for them. Within a short time, the foresters had been cut into small pieces. From the castle, Josian watched everything unfold and she could not help but fall madly in love with Bevis. Bevis took the boar’s head to Ermine who was impressed, but also puzzled as to how his steward had died. Bevis didn’t own up to that one.
Three years later, another king arrived to see Ermine. His name was Brademond and he demanded to marry Josian, who was still very much in love with Bevis. Brademond said that if Ermine refused, he would win her by battle, attacking him on many sides. He said he would destroy all his lands, slay him, sleep with Josian, and then pass her on to some worn-out old commoner. Brademond left Ermine to ponder his threats, and Ermine called all his knights to warn them. Josian told her father that if Bevis was made a knight, he would surely defend them all, and she told him about the boar and how he had fought against the steward who tried to kill him. Ermine agreed. The king formally awarded Sir Bevis Morgelai and gave him a shield with three azure eagles on it, along with some armour and a banner. In addition, Josian gave Bevis a loyal horse called Arondel (also Arundel or Hirondelle).
Riding Arondel, with his new armour shining brightly, Bevis led the first vanguard of thirty thousand warriors into battle against Brademond and his ally, King Redefoun. Bevis made light work of Redefoun early on, easily running Morgelai through his armour. The battle continued until sunset and when the day was done, sixty thousand enemy soldiers lay dead. Brademond watched the disaster unfold and tried to flee but Bevis soon caught up with him. Calling Brademond an old wretch, Bevis asked if he was coming back to fetch Josian. He warned him that if he tried, he’d meet Morgelai, just as Redefoun had done earlier in the day. Bevis bludgeoned Brademond so hard that he fell to the floor, and Brademond immediately surrendered. The defeated king offered Bevis sixty cities but Bevis refused, instead instructing his foe to never again wage war against Ermine. Brademond promised to never bear arms against them again and so Bevis let him go. It would not be the last time the two met…
Brademond returned to Damascus and Bevis returned as a hero to a delighted Ermine. That evening, in her room, Josian helped Bevis to remove his armour. There, sat on the bed, Josian decided to tell Bevis exactly how she felt, and she revealed to him that she loved him. Bevis told her that she could have any man in the world, but she replied saying she would rather have him than have all of the gold that God has made. But Bevis turned her down. She fell to the floor, weeping bitterly. She then turned on him and told him she could indeed have any prince, king, or sultan, yet here he was, a mere peasant, daring to reject her. Josian cursed him and she asked her God to give him nothing but pain and suffering. Bevis told her that she’d never see him again and he left the castle feeling annoyed and ashamed, to take lodgings in the town. Josian reflected upon the argument with her chamberlain, a man named Boniface, and she decided that she was in the wrong. She went to see Bevis but hearing her outside his room, he pretended to sleep, making some snoring noises. Undeterred, she loudly pleaded with him through the door. Bevis eventually let her in and she apologised and promised to convert to Christianity for him. This was enough for Bevis, who then said he accepted her, and the pair celebrated with a kiss. There were two knights nearby and they both had it in for Bevis. They saw this innocent kiss and went straight to Ermine. Lying, they claimed that they had seen Bevis and Josian having sex. The knights pleaded with Ermine to have Bevis executed, but the old king could not do it, even though the lie had made him furious. Instead, he conspired to be rid of Bevis in another way. One of the king’s men suggested that they send Bevis to Brademond with a letter that instructed Brademond to execute Bevis. This way, they could get rid of him without having to kill him themselves. Ermine summoned Bevis, handing him the letter which, unbeknownst to him, was his own death sentence, and he sent him off to see Brademond in Damascus. Bevis said that he would take Arondel and Morgelai, but Ermine told him that he’d do much better with a lighter horse, adding that Morgelai would only weigh him down. Bevis left his trusty steed and his great weapon at the castle and immediately set off on the long road to Damascus.
Back in England, Saber was still upset that Bevis had, in his mind, been sold into slavery. Saber had a son of his own called Terry (also Terri) and he sent him off to search for Bevis, instructing him to look in every land, near and far, for seven years. Terry searched high and low over foreign lands, but he never did find Bevis. One day, after seven years of searching, as Terry arrived near Damascus, he sat in his armour under an apple tree to have some food. Bevis, having travelled for two days in the same clothes, rode past and Terry beckoned him over, offering him bread, meat, wine, and ale. Bevis tucked in and Terry asked if he had ever heard of a noble youth called Bevis, who had been born in Southampton but had been sold into slavery. Bevis laughed grimly and said he knew the lad well enough, but he had seen him hang not too long ago. Terry collapsed in despair. Seven years he’d searched, only to hear that the man he was seeking was dead. Bevis told Terry to go home and tell everyone what he had told him, perhaps aware that if his mother and the emperor knew he lived, they would likely send assassins after him. When Terry had recovered from his shock, he offered to read the letter Bevis was carrying. Bevis ensured him that the man who had given it to him loved him like a brother and he would not break his trust by reading the private letter. Terry went home to Saber, who was now in exile on the Isle of Wight, and told him what he had learned. Saber wept and mourned.
Bevis came to Damascus around noon and, seeing some of Brademond’s men leaving their temple, he decided to go in and slaughter the priest, for some reason. A witness informed Brademond of this butchery and he knew immediately that it was Bevis. Bevis entered Brademond’s hall and passed him the letter, praising him and stating that Ermine had sent it and he should do whatever Ermine asked.
Beves kneueled and nolde nought stonde, and yaf up is deth with is owene honde.
Bevis knelt and would not stand, and sealed his death with his own hand.
Brademond read Ermine’s instructions. He asked the gathered noblemen to stand and he took Bevis by the hand, gripping it so tightly that he would not be able to draw his sword. He called for the noblemen to help him bring Bevis to the ground and, although he struggled, he was soon overpowered. Brademond addressed his prisoner, telling him that had he not defeated him in battle, he would hang him there and then. However, because he had once defeated him, Brademond said he would instead punish Bevis, and sentenced him to rot in his prison, a deep pit in the ground. Bevis was chained to a boulder and thrown into the pit.
Back in Armenia, Josian asked her father where Bevis was. She was confused by his long absence. Ermine lied and told her that he had journeyed back to England where he had since married the king’s daughter. Josian was heartbroken. She returned to her chamber and tore her hair out. King Yvor of Mombraunt was the latest man to seek Josian’s hand in marriage. He was a powerful and well-respected king, who had amassed a great wealth having won many battles. Yvor was friends with Ermine and Ermine decided to grant Yvor his daughter. Josian’s heart still belonged to Bevis but she reluctantly agreed to her father’s demands, whilst believing that Bevis would never have deserted her without having been the victim of some treachery. She put on a ring and vowed to never let another man have his way with her whilst she wore it.
Ermine decided give Yvor both Arondel and Morgelai. Yvor returned to Mombraunt and, outside of the city walls, he decided that he would triumphantly ride the horse into the city ahead of his new bride. He mounted Arondel but this loyal horse knew it was not Bevis upon his back. Arondel went mad, running over ditches, cutting through thorns, dashing through woods, and tearing through thick grain fields. He would stop for nothing. Finally, Arondel threw the embarrassed Yvor to the floor, nearly killing him. The townsfolk eventually trapped the defiant horse and, instead of putting him down, they bound him in chains. Arondel would stand, tied up in chains, for seven long years.
Meanwhile, Bevis had spent so long in the pit that his hair had grown down to his feet. His only company were venomous snakes, lizards, and toads, which he had to kill with a club. One particular battle with an adder left a huge, infected, disfiguring scar across his brow. Like Arondel, Bevis spent seven long years imprisoned. One day, weak and delirious, he prayed out loud to Jesus. His guards began to shout down to him and, fed up with hearing his prayers, one of them decided to descend down into the pit to put Bevis out of his misery. With one hand on the rope, the guard drew his sword and stabbed Bevis, who tumbled to the floor. Bevis, writhing in agony, told the guard that he was once the son of an earl and yet now it appeared that he was about to be killed by the lowest of the low. He summoned up all of his remaining strength and punched the guard so hard that his neck was broken and then, quickly using his initiative, he impersonated the dead guard’s voice to call his mate down into the dark pit. Before the second guard had even touched the floor, Bevis ran the sword through him. Because his jailors were now dead, and because he was still chained to the boulder, Bevis did not eat for the next three days. On the third day, he prayed to Jesus. Soon after his prayer, the manacles and boulder miraculously cracked and simply fell apart. Bevis thanked Jesus and climbed the rope to escape the prison.
His next move was to sneak into the castle and steal some armour. He picked up sword, a spear, and a shield, and he covered his face. He killed some soldiers in the stable and stole a horse, before waking up the porter and telling him that he ought to be hung and quartered for being asleep whilst the infamous Bevis of Hampton escaped from prison. Bevis told the befuddled porter that he was going out to catch the traitor and he ordered him to open the gate. Bevis rode away and headed straight to Armenia. However, he was mentally and physically exhausted. At a safe distance from the castle, he tied the horse to a chestnut tree and dozed off underneath it. In his dreams, Brademond and seven other kings stood over him with their swords drawn. He awoke with a start.
In the morning, Brademond discovered that Bevis had escaped. He called fifteen kings and all the earls and barons he could muster to his court and asked for their help in capturing the escapee. Grander was a ruthless, cold-hearted king, who rode a famous horse called Trenchefis. Waking from his dream, Bevis decided to return to Damascus. He met Grander outside the city. A great battle followed in which Bevis decapitated Grander, before killing seven of his knights and taking Trenchefis. Brademond arrived on the scene with the other kings, their knights, the earls and barons, and their armies. Bevis knew that this was a fight he could not win and the armies chased him all the way to cliffs and the wild sea that crashed against them. Hopelessly outnumbered, Bevis knew he could never face an army of this magnitude. He prayed to Jesus and kicked Trenchefis so that the horse leapt into the water below. Trenchefis managed to swim across the sea for one day and one night, until it reached a shore, where it threw Bevis to the ground in exhaustion. Bevis rested for a while before continuing his journey. He soon came to a castle and saw the lady in the tower. He begged for food but she told him to leave, for her master was a giant who hated Christians. Bevis refused to leave and annoyed the lady so much by his presence, she fetched this giant who stood thirty feet tall. The giant went to the gate and recognised Trenchefis. Unluckily for Bevis, this giant just so happened to be Grander’s brother, and he accused Bevis of killing Grander and stealing his horse. Bevis and the giant had a fight, the giant swung his club and missed Bevis, instead striking Trenchefis and killing him instantly. Bevis mocked the giant, telling him that he had indeed killed his brother, and now the giant had done a villainous thing by making the horse pay for his crime. This enraged the giant. Bevis cut the giant’s club in two and wounded his chest, but the giant grabbed a spear and threw it through Bevis’ shoulder. The sight of his own blood only angered Bevis and he rushed at the giant with his sword, cutting his neck in two. He entered the hall and demanded the lady bring him some food and wine, making her taste it first to ensure it was not poisoned. After eating his food, he told her to provide a horse, and he promised that he would leave and never return. He then followed a stream all the way to Jerusalem. There, for the first time since he was seven years old, he entered a Christian place of worship. He spoke to the priest, confessed, and told him his story. The priest took pity on Bevis and comforted him but he made him vow that he would never take a wife unless she was a virgin. Bevis agreed and went on his way, leaving Jerusalem the following morning. Out on the road, on his own, he pondered his next move. His mind turned to England, but he realised he could only return if he was backed by an army. Banishing these thoughts, he thought of Josian back in Armenia. That was where he would go.
On the way to Armenia, Bevis met a knight he knew and they greeted each other with a kiss. Exchanging stories, for it had been at least seven years since they last spoke, Bevis laughed as he described his ordeal in prison at the hands of Brademond and Ermine. But Bevis blamed Ermine entirely and told the knight that, if not for Josian, he would make Ermine his mortal enemy. The knight informed Bevis that Josian was now married to King Yvor and he had taken her to Mombraunt for his table and his bed and, furthermore, he had Arondel and Morgelai with him. The knight recalled with some amusement how Arondel had dragged Yvor through the fields and the woods and had almost killed him. Far from being angry, Bevis was delighted. He knew that, if Josian and Arondel had remained faithful to him, he might still find happiness after all the suffering of the past seven years. The knight gave Bevis directions to Mombraunt and Bevis set off immediately.
Outside Mombraunt, a grand city like no other, Bevis stopped a pilgrim, who informed him that the king was out hunting and the queen was in her chamber. Bevis asked the pilgrim if they could swap their clothes and the pilgrim was more than happy to oblige. Bevis now looked like a pilgrim and the pilgrim now looked like a knight. The pilgrim rode off on a horse as a king, whilst Bevis walked towards the town as a beggar. At the castle’s gate he found more pilgrims, from many different lands, all waiting for the queen to give them her charity. One of the pilgrims told him that the queen loved pilgrims and every day at noon she would feed them generously and give them fine clothes, all because of her love for some knight called Bevis from Southampton. It was still morning and, knowing he had some time to spare, Bevis walked around the castle to see if he could break in. There was a turret in the castle wall and Bevis stopped there because he heard a woman’s voice.
“O allas,” she seide, “Bevoun, hende knight of Southhamtoun, now ichave bide that day, that to the treste I ne may: That iche God, that thow of speke, he is fals and throw ert eke!”
“Oh, alas!” she said, “Bevis, handsome knight of Southampton, now I have lived to see the day, that I cannot trust in you. The same God that you spoke of, is false, and you are also!”
Josian, whilst still sure that Bevis had been betrayed, was now certain that her love would never return and she grieved bitterly. The pilgrims gathered round the gate when Josian arrived to feed them and Bevis hung around at the back of the queue. Josian saw him but, owing to his scar, she did not recognise him at all. She did, however, see certain qualities in this ragged pilgrim and she said that he seemed like a man of honour, both gracious and courteous. She invited him to dinner. There was lots of food and plenty of beer and wine. During the banquet, Josian asked the pilgrims if they’d ever met a knight called Bevis from Southampton, but they all replied in the negative. Finally, coming to Bevis, she asked him the same question. Bevis laughed and said that he knew him well enough, but he was at home in his own country, living life as an earl. Bevis, acting the pilgrim, said that he’d met this knight in Rome, and the knight had told him all about his horse, Arondel. Bevis the pilgrim then continued his fib, saying that he had spent all his money searching for this famous horse, and he was now here because he had heard that the horse was in the castle’s stables. He asked if he could see it. Josian stared at the pilgrim, with his scarred brow, and quietly remarked to her chamberlain, Boniface, that she would be sure, if not for his scars, that this man before her was actually Bevis of Hampton. Arondel heard Bevis’ voice and broke free of his chains, galloping quickly into the court, neighing with joy. Josian exclaimed that many a man would be laughed at for trying to control the horse because they would all fail. Bevis said he’d do it and leapt into the saddle with ease. Arondel did not protest and it was at that moment that Josian realised that it was indeed Bevis in front of her. She told him that she would at once get Morgelai and they could then escape to England together. Bevis told her that the priest in Jersulam had made him swear that he would never take a wife unless she was a virgin. Bevis told Josian that she had spent the past seven years lying as a queen beside a king every night, but Josian promised him that she had remained a pure woman and begged him to take her to England. Boniface advised the pair that the king would soon return, accompanied by the other kings and earls. Boniface had a plan.
Bevis took Arondel back to the stable and waited by the gate. When Yvor returned, Bevis told him that he had come from Yvor’s brother’s kingdom and, not only had their enemies taken it, they would soon be coming for Yvor. Yvor readied his men and quickly left to rescue his brother but he left behind an old king called Garcy to guard Josian. Garcy was a sorcerer who wore a magic ring. Boniface and Bevis concocted a wine and herb mixture which would knock out anyone who drank it and it was taken to Garcy who dozed off shortly after having a few sips. Bevis, Josian, and Boniface then gathered all the gold and silver they could carry and quickly made their escape. Garcy woke up the following morning, confused and bewildered as to how he had slept for so long. He looked into his magic ring and when he saw Josian riding away with Bevis, he ordered the men who remained to go after them.
Seeing this army approaching, Bevis told Boniface to protect Josian whilst he went to face Garcy and his men. The wise Boniface advised Bevis that he’d be better off hiding in this nearby cave that he knew of, and Bevis agreed. Garcy could not find the party anywhere and his army decided to go home. Angered by the failed search, Garcy decided to send a giant to track them down and destroy them.
Two days passed in the cave system with nothing to eat or drink. Bevis went into the forest to hunt but whilst he was gone, two snarling lions entered the cave. The brave and wise Boniface, vowing to protect Josian, tried to fight the lions, but they killed him and his horse. Josian was backed into a corner but it was said that because she was the daughter of a king and a virgin, the lions would do her no harm. But they could harm Bevis. When he returned, dragging three deer behind him, he spotted the dead horse, gnawed to the bone. He could not find Josian or Boniface anywhere and, fearing the worst, he become overcome with worry and sorrow.
Searching from one cave to the next, he finally found Josian. She asked Bevis to help her avenge Boniface and she bravely grabbed one of the lions by the neck, imploring him to kill the other. But Bevis told her he would have little to be proud of if he killed one lion whilst she held the other, and he told her to let the lion go, else he would leave her there. The subsequent battle was savage. Bevis’ hands were shredded by the paws and his armour was ripped to pieces. He managed to cut the male lion’s head in two after it got its teeth caught in his shirt, but the lioness proved to be even tougher. The fight was hard on Bevis and, fearing for his life, Josian at once grabbed the lioness, hoping to save her love. Once again, Bevis was not happy about the prospect of being helped by a woman and he told her that if she did not let the lioness go, he would slay her too. So, she let the lioness go, handed Bevis his shield, and sat down. The lioness pounced on Bevis and caught his leg in her mouth, gripping it as a wolf does to a sheep, and she nearly tore his calf clean off. Enraged, Bevis took Morgelai and sliced the lioness evenly in half, so that the sword came to rest in the ground.
Josian was jubilant and Bevis thanked God, but they were both sad for Boniface who had given his life in an attempt to protect Josian. Seeing that they could not stay in the caves, they left with Josian riding a mule and some time later, they came across the giant that Garcy had sent. This giant stood thirty feet tall, he sported a great beard and there was a foot’s width between his eyebrows. In his hand he carried the trunk of an oak tree which he used as a club. Bevis asked him his name, and he wondered if everyone in his homeland was as tall as him. “My name is Ascopard,” he said. Ascopard (also Ascupart, Ascapart, or Ascopart) told them that he had been sent by Garcy to bring the queen back and to slay Bevis where he stood. Humouring Bevis, Ascopard told them that he had been driven out of his homeland when he was young because he was so small. Men would hit him and call him a dwarf, so he came to live in this land, where he grew strong and tall. He reiterated his intention to slay Bevis and so Bevis spurred Arondel to charge. He struck Ascopard with his spear but it shattered and Ascopard took a step back to strike Bevis with his club. In doing so, however, he slipped and fell to the floor. Bevis held Morgelai to Ascopard’s throat, ready to send him to the next life, but Josian begged Bevis to spare the giant so that he could become his new page. Bevis warned Josian that Ascopard would one day betray them, but she promised to act as his guarantor. Ascopard got to his feet and pledged his allegiance to Bevis. The three of them then journeyed until they reached the sea.
At the coast they spied a well-guarded ship. Ascopard made light work of the guards and then carried Bevis, Josian, Arondel, and Josian’s mule on board. They set off immediately, setting a course for Cologne. Bevis’ uncle, a man called Saber Florentine, was the bishop of Cologne and Bevis knew he could provide them with a safe haven. The bishop baptised Josian and he tried to baptise Ascopard in a specially-made font. Thinking he was being drowned, Ascopard panicked and refused to be baptised, on account of him being too big for the ritual. Soon after the baptism, Bevis decided to slay a dragon that lived nearby. Invoking the spirit of Saint George, Sir Lancelot, and Guy of Warwick, Bevis went to the dragon’s den and fought an incredibly ferocious and drawn-out battle. It lasted for hours but ultimately Bevis gained an advantage. He hacked at the dragon’s head until its head split in two, he then carved its throat open, and when the dragon was laying on its side, he pierced its heart. It took one hundred blows to cut off its head. Bevis returned to Cologne with his trophy and he could hear all the bells ringing. He asked a man for the reason, and this man told him that they were ringing for the sad death of Bevis, who had gone to fight a dragon but had not returned. When the bishop saw Bevis he thanked Jesus and led him on a stately procession through the town. One day, Bevis asked his uncle, the bishop, what he should do about the emperor, who held all his lands in Southampton. The bishop advised Bevis that the other Saber still had land on the Isle of Wight and once a year he led an attack against the emperor. The bishop promised to give Bevis one hundred loyal warriors to help him avenge his father, and he said that Josian could stay with him in Cologne, with Ascopard by her side to guard her.
Bevis and his army of one hundred knights travelled through France before crossing the English Channel. Bevis knew that they probably couldn’t take on his enemy alone, so he stopped his men about a mile outside of Southampton and asked if they had anyone brave enough to pass a message on to the emperor. Bevis stipulated that they must speak good French and one man stepped forward. Bevis told the man to go to the emperor and tell him that this army had come from France and it was led by a man named Gerard who would be sure to bring the emperor victory in any battle if they were well paid. The man did his job and the emperor invited Bevis – Gerard – to join him in the castle that evening.
The emperor told Gerard that his lady used to be married to an earl and together they had a son, a proud and childish wretch, a little good-for-nothing who, like his father, had a defiant spirit and was descended from some foul blood. When the arrogant boy was of age – the emperor said – he sold his inheritance and frittered away his money, later fleeing the country in embarrassment and shame. Now, his old teacher, Saber, lived on the Isle of Wight, and the emperor complained that he caused him great trouble. Bevis, pretending to be Gerard, told the emperor that he could defeat this Saber fellow, but only if the emperor could provide his one hundred knights with armour, weapons, horses, and boats. The emperor agreed to do so, and they agreed that Bevis’ knights would sit alongside the emperor’s knights on the ships. Gerard would lead the army, Bevis said, and he promised the emperor that within a little while, he would hear of a cunning plot. The emperor looked forward to Saber being undone by this cunning plot, unaware of Bevis’ clever double meaning.
The men boarded the ships ahead of the short trip down Southampton Water to the Isle of Wight. The knights paired up, with one of Bevis’ men sat next to one of the emperor’s, and so on. Midway through the voyage, a signal was made, and Bevis’ knights threw their counterparts overboard so that not one of the emperor’s knights remained on the ships. Saber saw the fleet approaching and became worried that he was about to be attacked by the emperor, but Bevis raised a banner with his father’s colours on it. Saber recognised it immediately. They came ashore and Saber was delighted to see that Bevis was alive, he celebrated jubilantly and they kissed each other in happiness. Bevis told Saber that he had played a trick on the emperor and he now asked for a man who would sail back to Southampton to tell his foe that he was not Gerard, but he was Sir Bevis of Hampton, back to claim his heritage and avenge the death of his father.
The messenger sailed back and rode his horse into the hall of the castle where the emperor was dining. The messenger spoke of the cunning plot and the emperor was enraged. He grabbed a knife and threw it at the messenger but he missed and hit his own son instead, killing him instantly. The messenger said:
Thow gropedest the wif anight to lowe, thow might nought sen aright to throwe, thow havest so swonke on hire to night, thow havest negh forlore the sight.
You’ve fondled your wife too vulgarly at night, and you can’t see straight to throw. You have rutted on her at night so much, that you have nearly lost your sight!
With this, he warned the emperor and kicked his horse with his spurs and sped out of the hall. The messenger returned to the Isle of Wight and Bevis found the fact that the emperor had accidentally killed his own son hilarious.
Whilst this was happening, Josian was in Cologne with Saber Florentine and Ascopard. There was an earl in Cologne called Miles who fell in love with Josian and he began to aggressively pursue her. Josian rebuked his advances but he simply asked her why he should stop and he carried on, relentless in his pursuit. Josian told Miles that whilst she had Ascopard, she did not fear him, but Miles soon developed a plan to get rid of her protector. He had a letter written up, supposedly from Bevis, telling Ascopard to join him immediately on a remote nearby island. Ascopard went at once, sailing across three miles of water in a boat, and when he reached the castle on the island he entered the gate. The gate shut behind him and he suddenly found that he was trapped. Once Miles knew that Ascopard was out of the way, he went to Josian’s chamber and seized her in his arms. She protested, telling him that she would marry Bevis, but Miles told her that they would wed tomorrow whether she liked it or not, and he called for all the barons and knights to join them for a wedding feast. Against her will, Josian was made to marry Miles and he threw a big party to celebrate. That night, Miles ordered Josian to be taken to her chamber and be placed in the bed, for he wanted to consummate the marriage. Josian knew that if Miles had his way, Bevis would never marry her. Miles entered the room with a great procession of knights who carried spiced wine.
With al the gamen that hii hedde, for to make hire dronke a bedde.
And with all the tricks that they had, to make her drunk in her bed.
Josian knew she had to act soon and she told Miles that if he would grant her just one wish, she would never ask anything of him ever again. She asked him to lock everyone out of the room so that they would be alone. He duly obliged. Coming back to the bed, he told her that he would take his own shoes off, which he had never done before, presumably because he always had a servant to do it for him. He sat on the bed to take off his shoes and, whilst he was distracted, Josian quickly made a noose out of a towel and swung it round his neck. She drew it on the crossbeam of the bed and ‘be the nekke she hath him up tight,’ and choked him until he died. She left him hanging there all night.
In the morning, the barons and knights began to wake up and they were puzzled as to why Miles had not yet risen. After a while, one came to bang on the door and he shouted through, telling Miles to wake up else he’d get a headache from sleeping too long. Josian coldly replied that Miles’ head would never ache again, for she had treated him for those pains. She told the baron that she had hanged him and they could do with her as they liked, she was just glad that he would never again defile another woman.
The barons decided that she should be put in a barrel and burned at a stake. Over on the island, Ascopard realised that he’d been tricked. He could see the town, the people, the fire, and the smoke, and he smashed through the castle wall to make his escape. He leapt into the water and began to swim, quickly commandeering a boat from a terrified mariner. As he rowed himself towards the fire, another boat caught up with him. It was Bevis, who had heard about Josian’s plight. Bevis called Ascopard a traitor, accusing him of abandoning Josian, but Ascopard explained that Miles had tricked him, and Bevis then forgave him. Outside the town, Josian stood naked in her smock next to the fire, and a priest was there to hear her confession. They were preparing to burn her when Bevis came galloping in on Arondel, wielding Morgelai, whilst Ascopard came in another way. Bevis killed the men around the fire and helped Josian on to his loyal horse. They immediately sailed for the coast and boarded a ship bound for the Isle of Wight. Safely back on the island, Bevis and Saber sent messengers to every ally they knew, calling for all the knights and cavalry they could muster.
Meanwhile, in Southampton, the emperor heard of Bevis’ call to arms. Bevis’ mother told him that he should send for his army in Germany, and make contact with her father, the King of Scotland, who would surely help them. She promised that he would see both Bevis and Saber hang.
The King of Scotland arrived with his army in May, and he was joined by thirty thousand German knights as well as a great cavalry division. In the hall of the castle, the emperor told his men about Saber’s raids, and about Bevis, and about Ascopard, whom he called a ‘fend stolen out of helle’ – a fiend stolen out of hell – and he said they would go to Saber’s castle and besiege them there.
Saber saw them coming across the water and rallied the troops by sounding a horn. They formed three divisions, one led by Saber, one led by Ascopard, and one led by Bevis. Outside the walls, the emperor heard the horn and he formed two divisions, one led by the King of Scotland, and the other which he would lead himself. Saber led his division of three hundred hardy knights out of the castle and into battle. A knight called Sir Morris of Montclear rode towards Saber and Saber killed him with his spear. Bevis came out next, riding Arondel, and he rode straight for the emperor. He struck him hard with Morgelai and, ‘with a dent of gret fors, a bar him doun of his hors,’ – with a blow of great force, he threw him down from his horse. Bevis was about to remove the emperor’s head from his shoulders when ten thousand knights arrived to rescue their leader. Ascopard came out of the castle, striding through men and horses, knocking them to the ground and sending them flying with his club in great sweeps. Bevis called out to him, telling him that the emperor was on a white horse, and if he captured him alive, he would pay him well. No armour in the land could withstand Ascopard’s club and the King of Scotland was killed by one particularly harsh swing of it. Ascopard saw the emperor, went straight to him, lifted up his horse under his arm and carried both horse and emperor to the castle. Meanwhile, Bevis and Saber cut down every single enemy soldier. Aside from the emperor, Bevis and Saber took no prisoners and left no survivors.
The victors returned to the castle where the emperor was being held as a prisoner. Bevis put him inside a lead kettle and filled it with pitch, burning sulfur, and molten lead.
Wende his saule, whider it wende!
May his soul go wherever it may!
Bevis’ mother had made her way to the castle top and she watched in horror as her lover was boiled in the tar. The shock of it all made her fall and she broke her neck when she hit the ground. Bevis was satisfied with this outcome.
Thanne al the lords of Hamteschire, made Beves lord and sire.
Then all the lords of Hamptonshire, made Bevis lord and sire.
Saber Florentine, the bishop of Cologne, soon arrived in Southampton and without delay he married Bevis and Josian. It was a very royal wedding, with plenty of food, drink, and happy celebration.
Bevis and Josian settled down for a little while before Saber advised Bevis to visit King Edgar at London. He went to Edgar and asked him to grant him his heritage and the king happily obliged, since Bevis’ father, Guy, had been his marshal, and he now made Bevis his marshal.
And that is how Bevis avenged his father’s death and reclaimed his lands. However, according to Ken Eckert, the story does not end there. According to Eckert, these events follow the marriage: Bevis and King Edgar fall out and so Bevis and Josian have to flee to Armenia in exile. Ascopard, for some reason, makes a pact with King Yvor of Mombraunt. It is worth remembering that, when Josian begs Bevis to spare Ascopard’s life, Bevis warns her that one day he will betray them. Ascopard and Yvor kidnap Josian just as she gives birth to twins. One she names Guy and the other she names Miles, which is a strange choice. Saber hunts down Ascopard and slays him for his betrayal. He then rescues Josian and reunites her with Bevis. Meanwhile, Saber’s son Terry marries a princess and inherits a great wealth. The old King Ermine dies shortly after naming Bevis’ son Guy as his heir. Bevis and Guy then proceed to convert Armenia to Christianity. Bevis defeats King Yvor in a battle and he returns to England where King Edgar’s steward raises an army against him. Bevis has to travel to London to defeat the steward’s men and afterwards, he reconciles with Edgar, who gives his daughter and his kingdom to Miles.
For the next twenty years, Bevis and Josian lived happily and without any trouble until one day, Josian became gravely ill. She sent for her son, Guy, and for Saber’s son, Terry, who was, by now, a rich king. As they gathered, Bevis went to the stable and he found that Arondel had passed away peacefully, and he was distraught by the loss of his loyal old friend. He went to the bedchamber and found Josian dying too. He could not contain his sorrow, he embraced her, and they died together in each other’s arms.
Guy had a majestic chapel of fine marble built to honour his parents and he established a monastic house to sing prayers for Sir Bevis, Josian the gracious, and their faithful friend, Arondel.
Thus endeth Beves of Hamtoun. God yeve us alle Is benesoun! Amen.
Thus the end of Bevis of Hampton. May God give us all His blessing! Amen.
This particular telling of the story of Sir Bevis of Hampton may be almost seven hundred years old, but Bevis’ name certainly lives on and the legend is not just part of the fabric of Southampton, but part of the fabric of the South Coast of England too. The story may well be a work of fiction but the legend has endured, lending its name to a number of places.
According to legend, Bevis built Arundel Castle in Sussex and named it after his horse. If we examine the facts, we can see that the castle was founded by William the Conqueror’s cousin, Roger de Montgomery, who was given the land after the conquest. In the Domesday Book of 1086, Arundel is called Harundel and it is thought this word comes from the Old English Harhunedell, meaning ‘valley of the horehound’, a type of flower. Local folklore connects the name with the Old French arondelle, meaning ‘swallow’, and the town’s coat of arms features three of these birds. However, just because Bevis did not establish the castle, his story was so popular that he did become connected to it. Today, in the castle’s armoury, there is a six-foot long sword called Morglay which is said to have been the Morgelai which belonged to Bevis. In addition to this, one of the castle’s towers is named Bevis Tower, although that could be linked to someone else with the same name.
If legend and folklore would link Bevis of Hampton to Arundel in Sussex, then it seems obvious that the same would happen closer to home. At the north-west corner of Southampton’s town walls, you will find Arundel Tower. This tower was built in the thirteenth century and enlarged in the fourteenth. Folklore suggests that Bevis had the tower built, naming it after his horse. In real life, it was probably named after Sir John Arundel, who was the governor of Southampton Castle at the time. However, there is one version of the local legend that says before Bevis died, he stood on this very tower and launched Morgelai as far as he could, stating that he would be buried wherever it landed. There was ancient artificial mound of earth that lay just over a mile north of Arundel Tower, and it was here that Bevis was said to be buried, according to one version of the legend.
One man who bought into this story was Charles Mordaunt, 3rd Earl of Peterborough, who purchased the land around the mound. He built a fine mansion here in 1723 and guess what he called it? Bevois Mount House. The house, which stood in the middle of the modern-day Cambridge, Avenue, Cedar, and Lodge roads, was demolished during the 1930s and 1940s. However, Mourdaunt and his Bevois Mount House gave its name to the areas called Bevois Town and Bevois Valley, and various nearby road names, such as Bevois Valley Road and Bevois Hill. There was also once a large house nearby called Bevois Hill House. Inevitably, local pubs also used the name and at various times one could get a pint at the Bevois Street Tavern, the Bevois Castle Hotel, the Bevois Tavern, and the Bevois Town Hotel. There was also the Bevois Mount Brewery in the nineteenth century. Elsewhere in Southampton, we have, or have had, Bevois Street, Bevois Place, Bevois Terrace, Ascupart Street and Josian Walk.
The version I used to tell the story dates from circa 1330 and it’s amazing to think that this old tale is still told today. The story itself tapped into all the popular ideas of the time. You have the hero avenging his father’s death, the damsel in distress, giants, dragons, blood and guts, violence, betrayal, quests, adventure, and plenty of peril. Perhaps the reason for its enduring popularity was because it was a medley of many different popular concepts. It had something for everyone.
Bevis was so well known that, some three hundred years after our translation was written, William Shakespeare mentioned him in his play, Henry VIII, which was most likely written in the early seventeenth century.
During that same century, on 26 April 1662, Samuel Pepys visited Southampton and subsequently wrote: ‘The towne is one most gallant street, and is walled round with stone, &c., and Bevis’s picture upon one of the gates; many old walls of religious houses, and the key, well worth seeing.’ Pepys was clearly familiar with the story since he recognised Bevis, and the picture he was talking about would have been familiar to townsfolk and visitors alike for centuries. The pictures were large painted panels, and they once adorned the north side of the Bargate, the principal entry into the walled town of Southampton. They were each about ten feet tall and they fit perfectly on the buttresses either side of the main gate. Adrian Rance suggests that the panels dated to the sixteenth century. We know they were there in the seventeenth century, and it appears they were restored in 1644.
In 1635, around nine years before the restoration of the panels, a visitor described ‘that fearful giant, on the one side, and brave Bevis of Southampton on the other,’ and it is clear that the panels were both impressive and noteworthy, with the story behind them remaining familiar in the minds of those who saw them.
It should be remembered that in 1620, the Pilgrims began their voyage to America together from Southampton on board Mayflower and Speedwell. Eighteen years after that, in 1638, a ship called Bevis of Hampton departed from Southampton with sixty-one colonists on board, bound for New England. One of its passengers was Richard Austin, a Hampshire man, who travelled with his wife and two children. It is generally believed that he is the great-great-great grandfather of Stephen F. Austin, the ‘Father of Texas’. Also on board Bevis of Hampton was Richard Dummer from Bishopstoke who became an important figure in the colonisation of New England after making his fortune trading out of Southampton.
The story of Sir Bevis was still well known, at least locally, in the eighteenth century. Daniel Defoe published A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain between 1724 and 1727 and he noted that the local townsfolk believed the stories to be true:
‘Whatever the fable of Bevis of Southampton, and the gyants in the woods thereabouts may be deriv’d from, I found the people mighty willing to have those things pass for true; and at the north gate of the town, the only entrance from the land side, they have the figures of two eminent champions, who might pass for gyants if they were alive now, but they can tell us very little of their history, but what is all fabulous like the rest, so I say no more of them.’
As we have learned, the Yiddish version of the tale, Bovo-Bukh, which was first published in 1541, was derived from the Italian version of the story, which was known as Buovo d’Antona. In 1758, the Italian composer Tommaso Traetta premiered his opera about Buovo d’Antona in Venice.
Back in Hampshire, Dr John Speed had written a history of Southampton which he completed around 1770. Speed’s great-grandfather was the famous mapmaker, John Speed, who had created a well-known map of Southampton in 1611. Speed’s grandfather, also John, was Mayor of Southampton in 1681 and 1694. Dr John Speed enjoyed the legend of Sir Bevis, writing: ‘Opposite to Bittern, on the west side across the river, is a hill called Bevois Hill, from a legendary tradition that Bevois of Southampton lies buried under it. It is now part of the beautiful gardens made by the late Earl of Peterborough.’ Speed also suggests that a large skeleton was found during the digging of the foundations of the summer house.
The legend remained popular well into the nineteenth century too. In 1845, there was a pantomime which told the story of Sir Bevis (with added Christmas elements) and three years later, in 1848, a ship was launched at Northam called Sir Bevois. There were further pantomimes in 1877 and 1878, and it was probably performed at other Christmases too. In that decade, there was a group of the Ancient Order of Foresters who met in Southampton and their court was called ‘Sir Bevois’.
The panels were removed by the council in 1880 for repair but they were never reinstalled. Instead, they were hung inside the Bargate, where they remain to this day. In 1899, when councillors discussed the potential demolition of ancient Bargate in order to relieve the traffic problems caused by the trams that passed under it, one person used Sir Bevis of Hampton as the basis of a protest poem he wrote and sent to the Hampshire Advertiser. The writer imagines Bevis and Ascopard coming to life and hunting down those who sought to demolish the Bargate. When they caught them, they hung them from the gate. Their poem ended:
‘Sir Bevois and stout Ascupart
Returned to the rest they had earned,
And the light of a gratified heart
In the eyes of the twain of them burned.
Oh, Southampton be warned by this story,
Leave the Bargate for ages to glow,
In the lustre of all its old glory;
Shall we raze it, my citizens? – NO.’
It was not the last time that councillors discussed demolishing the Bargate. Thankfully, the outrageous proposals were always defeated.
During the First World War, the Royal Navy ordered twenty-four minesweeping sloops and one of these was named HMS Sir Bevis. Launched in May 1918, she was renamed HMS Irwell in 1923, became HMS Eaglet in 1926, and was scrapped in 1971. In 1923, a newspaper report mentions children being taught the story and in 1929, a Masonic lodge was founded and named ‘Sir Bevis’. The lodge survives to this day. In the 1930s, one of the tugs that operated in and around Southampton was also called Sir Bevois. In 1938, the great liner RMS Berengaria was alongside at Southampton when a fire broke out. Sir Bevois heroically rushed to the ship’s aid, helping to fight the fire by spraying it with water.
The story of Sir Bevis of Hampton remains well-known even today and in 2010, a film was made about Sir Bevis by Solent University. It was filmed at some of Southampton’s most historic locations and it was shown at Cannes Film Festival.
It is an antiquated tale and some parts do feel somewhat outdated, but other parts feel like they could have come straight out of Game of Thrones. Most people would have found at least some part of the story interesting and it is not surprising, therefore, that the story of Sir Bevis of Hampton has clearly stood the test of time. Hopefully this old tale, with all of its local connections, will endure for a few more centuries yet.
Sources and further reading:
Eckert, Ken, “Chaucer’s reading list: Sir Thopas, Auchinleck, and Middle English romances in translation” (2011). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 1036. LINK TO INFORMATION and LINK TO TEXT
Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston by Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, 1997
‘Sir Bevis of Hampton in Popular Tradition’ by Jennifer Fellows for the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, 1986
‘Sir Bevis of Hampton’ by Jennifer Fellows, 2017: ‘Sir Bevis of Hampton is arguably one of the most important non-Arthurian romances in Middle English…’
‘The Bevis and Ascupart Panels, Bargate Museum, Southampton’ by Adrian B. Rance for the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society, 1986
Sir Bevis of Hampton, Sotonopedia
Newspapers, various, Findmypast.co.uk
A History of Southampton. Partly from the Ms. of Dr. Speed, in the Southampton Archives by Rev. J. Silvester Davies, 1883
With special thanks to Southampton Cultural Services