Deeds of Derring-do

Deeds of Derring-do

Deeds of Derring-do
The Renowned History (or the Life and Death) of Guy Earl of Warwick, containing his Noble Exploits and Victories
Canterbury Cathedral Library H/M-4-22

The title of this slim volume is at pains to make the heroic nature of the contents of the book very clear from the outset: The Renowned History (or the Life and Death) of Guy Earl of Warwick, containing his Noble Exploits and Victories (Canterbury Cathedral Library H/M-4-22). These valiant overtones are echoed and emphasised in the portrayal of the protagonist, which appears under the title on the frontispiece to the book. This particular edition of the story was printed in London for Bates and Foster in 1701, but the tale has a long life and is known to have existed in written form from the thirteenth century and was particularly popular in England and France up into the late seventeenth century.

Little known today, Guy was once a familiar medieval hero from the Romance genre belonging to a category known as the ‘Matter of Britain’; the tales of King Arthur also come from here and have since overshadowed the accounts of Guy. As a measure of how easily recognised and widespread the story of Guy was, it appears in at least two medieval manuscripts (The Smithfield Decretals and The Taymouth Hours, both in the British Library) in pictorial form only; as the story was so well-known these narrative images appear without the need for accompanying text for explanation.

The image of the champion featured here is a sixteenth-century rendering of Guy, but despite his more modern armour, the picture holds elements that make him instantly recognisable as the medieval hero. In much the same way that a pirate in a tricorn hat with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder might make us think of Long John Silver, a knight accompanied by a lion shown with a boar’s or giant’s head would have evinced thoughts of Guy of Warwick. At first glance, the creature that fits easily under the fine horse’s belly might seem more dog than King of the Beasts. However, closer inspection reveals that it is a diminutive lion. The beast’s head that sits atop the knight’s lance is recognisable as a wild boar due to its tusks and piggish snout.

The frontispiece image is one of several woodcuts portraying Guy in the book and is technically the superior. It shows him as an archetypal knight in full armour, mounted upon a handsome destrier (war horse) and equipped the most important weapons of lance and sword. This image of Guy gives a sense of purpose and strength achieved not only through the knight’s expression of forward-looking determination, but also by the fact that the horse and lion are depicted in movement as if the whole group are riding on towards their next adventure.

So what were these ‘Noble Exploits and Victories’? And how are they connected to giants, boars and a lion? Allowing for minor differences in the various editions, the below version of the tale covers the main aspects connected to the tradition of the Romance of Guy of Warwick.

Guy was a steward in a nobleman’s household in Warwick who fell in love with his master’s unattainable daughter, Felice.  She declared that he was unworthy of her and that he needed to be proved valiant and courageous before he could approach her as a suitor. He therefore set off to fulfil her wishes and headed towards the Holy Land and lived through a series of adventures on his way, one of the most famous of which connects him to the lion that we see in the frontispiece image. Guy encountered a lion that was being attacked by a dragon. Moved by pity, Guy intervened, slew the dragon and won the lion as an eternally grateful companion on his travels. Many more adventures occur including a mighty battle with a monstrous boar. In this 1701 book the giant boar is described as having eyes which ‘like two beacons blazed and on his back the horrid bristles stood much like a grove of spears: His tusks were like two fiery bulwarks’ (p.33).  Guy, naturally, defeated the boar and this and similar adventures ensured that his  fame spread. Having become a knight of renown, Felice agreed to marry Guy on his return to her. However, late on their wedding night Guy went out to view the stars and experienced a moment of deep revelation: rather than spending his time and energy on deeds of derring-do in order to win the approval and affections of a woman, he should have been undertaking such exploits for the love of God and defence of Christianity.

Having realised the error of his ways and being filled with contrition, Guy left Felice the very next day and set off on another epic journey, on which he won more victories and underwent more tremendous adventures. The most famous from this second bout of enterprises is when, acting in cognito, Guy volunteered as military champion for King Aethelstan and fought in single combat against Colbrant, a giant warrior from the invading Danish army. Guy’s eventual victory, after a gruelling day-long battle, freed England from Danish threat (historically this sets the tale in the tenth century). The fact that he acted anonymously indicates a new humility. Guy eventually returned in the guise of a hermit to the estate in Warwick where his wife (and in some versions, their son) still lived. Not knowing that the hermit was her husband, Felice went daily to the gate to give him alms and allowed him to live in a cave near the castle. Having seen that Felice was a good woman moved to acts of charity for the poor, Guy revealed who he was just before his death. Felice died the day after her husband and the two were reunited in death in a heavenly marriage of true worth.

With a last thought to this month’s picture, the publishers of 1701 have endeavoured to reflect the nature of the text by the use of an image of notably heroic tone in their frontispiece. In fact, in many ways, the rather long-winded title could almost act as a caption for the figurative representation of the resolute character that appears just underneath it.

Jayne Wackett: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

Further Reading:

  • Richmond, Velma Bourgeois, The Legend of Guy of Warwick (New York: London: Garland, 1996)