Many hundreds of years ago there lived in the South of England an earl of Southampton, whose name was Guy. He spent most of his life in defending his country from all sorts of invaders who sailed from beyond the seas, and it was not until he was getting old that he had time to think of a wife. Then he made a very foolish choice, for he asked in marriage the daughter of the king of Scotland, who had already plighted her troth to the young and handsome Sir Murdour.
But though Sir Murdour was brother to the emperor, the Scottish king preferred to wed the princess to the stout earl of Southampton, whom he had known of old, and his word was law to all his court. So the bride journeyed with a great following to the south of England, where the marriage took place, and the next year a baby was born that was called Bevis.
Now, though her husband was good and kind, and gave her the most beautiful dresses and horse-trappings in the whole kingdom, the princess hated him with a deadly hatred, just because he was not Sir Murdour. And when her son Bevis was seven years old she determined to seek the help of her old lover, and entice the earl to his death.
To this end she made use of her charms and beauty to gain over to her side some of her husband’s most trusted lords, and when this was done she chose out a faithful messenger to ride north to Sir Murdour.
‘Bid him,’ she said, ‘to come without fail on the first of May to the great forest that lies by the sea. Thither will I take care that my lord shall fare, with but a small company, and — the rest Sir Murdour can grasp. Only, I should like to see a bleeding head, in proof that all has gone as I wish.’
Sir Murdour did not delay when he heard this message, but called together a troop of armed knights, and set sail with them for the forest on the water over against Southampton. They landed late one night, and Sir Murdour bade his foster-brother go secretly to the palace, and let the countess know that he was close at hand. After that he posted his men in deep dells and behind trees, and awaited his enemy.
The sun was scarcely up before the countess roused her husband, who was sleeping heavily after a day’s hunting.
‘Awake,’ she cried, shaking his shoulder, ‘I am feeling like unto death, and I have dreamed that this day I shall surely die if I eat not of the flesh of a wild boar of the forest.’
At these woeful tidings the earl sprang from his bed, and in a short while he was riding with a pack of hounds and a few attendants towards the part of the forest where the wild boars were most plentiful. The dogs were soon racing down a track, having scented a boar, and the earl was preparing to follow when Sir Murdour and his men leapt out from their hiding-places and suddenly surrounded him.
‘I am here at your lady’s bidding,’ said the knight; ‘she has begged me to send her your head, and I mean to do it.’
The earl’s face grew pale at these dreadful words. He did not fear any man alive, but the thought of his wife’s baseness took the strength from his arm and the courage from his heart. Still, for the honour of his name and knighthood, it behoved him to fight his best, though his only weapon was a boar spear. The battle lasted long, but at length the earl’s horse was killed under him, and he fell to the ground. In another moment Sir Murdour struck his head from his shoulders, and, placing it on a spear, he ordered his squire to bear it to the castle.
Bevis, who was standing on the battlements, saw this terrible sight, and seeking out his mother he vowed vengeance against the murderer. Though he was only seven years old, his strength was so great that the countess felt that her life would not be safe if once he discovered the truth, so she ordered his uncle Saber to take the boy to some distant place and there to slay him. Saber did not dare to disobey. He took Bevis with him to a small hut near the forest, and, killing a pig, sprinkled the child’s garments with the blood and sent them to his mother. Afterwards he dressed Bevis in the clothes of a peasant, and, putting a stout staff in his hands, set him to watch a flock of sheep.
The boy did what he was told without a word, but the sheep wandered far that day, and by-and-by he found himself in sight of his father’s castle. Then a sudden fury filled his soul, and, leaving the sheep to go whither they would, he ran swiftly down the hill, and never stopped till he reached the castle gate. Here the porter, to whom the countess had given much gold, tried to stop him, but Bevis only knocked him down with his cudgel, and on into the hall he went, and there he beheld his mother and Sir Murdour feasting at the high table.
‘Traitors and murderers!’ cried he, and lifting his staff, he dealt three fierce blows at the head of Sir Murdour, which felled him to the ground, where he lay unconscious. Then the boy turned and walked out of the hall, none daring to stop him.
He told his uncle what had happened, but Saber was never ready of counsel, and before he had time to think what was best the countess entered the hut attended by two knights, whom she ordered to seize Bevis, and sell him as a slave to any captain in the port of Southampton who might be sailing that night for the lands of the Infidel.
The captain of the ship was a kind man and took a liking to the boy whose fate was so hard, and when a fair wind blew them into the harbour of Heathenesse he bade the child bear him company to the palace. The king, whose name was Ermyn, thought he had never seen any boy of his age so tall and beautiful, and asked him many things as to his past life. These Bevis answered with so much truth and spirit that Ermyn was persuaded that he would grow into a man much above the common, and declared that he would make him heir to his throne and wed him in due course to his daughter Josyan, if he would only give up Christianity and become a convert to the faith of Heathenesse. But this Bevis swore he would never do.
The good captain feared greatly that the king might be angered by Bevis’s refusal, but instead Ermyn seemed to think that the boy, who would not break his vows lightly, was fain to turn out a true and loyal man. So he smiled, and told Bevis that he would make him his chamberlain, and when he was of age to be a knight, he should be his banneret.
Eight years passed by, spent by Bevis in learning all the feats with the sword and spear for which the knights of Heathenesse had long been famous. His life was smooth and pleasant, and it was only when he had counted fifteen summers that he had his first adventure.
It was Christmas Day, and Bevis was riding with a large company of Paynim knights through the great plain that surrounded the city. The talk ran upon the many lion chases they had held in that very place, when suddenly one of the knights who had journeyed both to Rome and Jerusalem turned to Bevis, who happened to be next him, and asked if he knew what day it was.
‘No,’ answered Bevis; ‘why should I? Is it different from any other day?’ and the knight laughed and told him he was but a poor Christian. This angered Bevis, who said that, as he had lived among heathens since he was seven years old, it was not likely he should have learnt anything about his faith, but that in defence of it he was ready to tilt with the knights one after the other and hoped that in so good a cause he might prevail.
‘Listen to the crowing of this young cock’ cried one of the party, highly wroth at the answer of Bevis; and indeed so furious were they that they set upon him at once and dealt him many wounds before the boy was able to defend himself. Then he snatched a sword from the man nearest him, and laid about him so hardly that in a short time they were all stretched dead upon the ground, while their horses galloped back to their stalls. Bevis himself, suffering great pain, went quietly back to his room in the palace and waited to see what would come next.
When king Ermyn heard the news, and how so many of his best knights had been put to death by his page, he was beside himself with fury, and gave orders that Bevis should be instantly beheaded. But Josyan, his daughter, pleaded so hard for the young page that the king agreed to hear his story, and when he had heard it he not only forgave the youth, but told Josyan, who was skilled in leechcraft, to heal his wounds. And in a little while Bevis was raised to higher favour than ever by slaying a boar which had carried away and eaten several children on the outskirts of the city.
By this time the fame of the princess’s beauty had spread far and wide, and the king of Damascus sent an embassy to the court of king Ermyn, praying that she should be given him to wife.
‘But,’ added he, ‘in case you do not well consider my suit, I would have you know that I will gather together a great army, and lay waste your land with fire and sword. So think well before you refuse me.’
King Ermyn was little used to language of this sort, and for all answer collected twenty thousand men, whom he commanded to be in readiness. Next, at the request of his daughter, he dubbed Bevis a knight, and the princess herself clad him in a richly inlaid helmet, and buckled on him the good sword Morglay. As a parting gift she bestowed on him a swift white horse called Arundel, and very proud was Bevis as he rode away at the head of the army beside the commander.
It were too long to tell of all the deeds wrought by Sir Bevis during the fight with the king of Damascus, whose standard-bearer, the giant Radyson, he slew at the very outset of the battle. In the end, and owing in a great measure to the valour of the young knight, the Damascenes owned themselves beaten, and their king remained a captive in the hands of Sir Bevis.
‘I will spare your life on one condition only,’ said the victor, ‘and that is that you shall swear fealty on my sword to king Ermyn, and acknowledge yourself to be his vassal.’
The king’s heart was sore when he heard what was demanded of him, for never before had he been vanquished in war. Still, he saw that there was no help for it, and he took the oath that Bevis required of him, after which he was suffered to depart into his own country.
King Ermyn could not do enough honour to Sir Bevis when he came back to the palace, and, as was the custom, he bade his daughter rid him of his heavy armour, to put on him gorgeous robes, and to wait on him when he sat down to table. Sir Bevis was half glad and half ashamed to receive these services at the hands of the princess, but Josyan heard her father’s orders right willingly, and led him away to fulfil them at once.
The first thing she did was to order her slaves to prepare a bath for him, and to make it soft with all manner of sweet-smelling spices. Then she summoned him to her chamber, where she had prepared food and wine, and, like a wise woman, spoke nothing till he had eaten and drunk as much as he would. When he had satisfied his hunger, he flung himself to rest on a pile of cushions, and Josyan seated herself near him. Taking one of his hands in hers, she said softly:
‘Oh, Bevis, little do you know what I have suffered these many months from the love I bear you! Indeed, so grievous have been my pains that I marvel that I am alive this day. But if you return not my love, of a surety I am a dead woman.’
Now Bevis had long loved the princess in secret; but his heart was proud, and, besides, he feared to seem that he had betrayed the king’s trust. So he answered:
‘Fair Josyan, I thank you for your gentle words, but it would ill become me to take advantage of them. There is no prince in all the world, be he who he may, who would not crown you queen, and hold himself honoured. For me, I am but a poor knight, and one from a strange land, to whom your father has shown more favour than I deserve. It is not thus I should repay his kindness.’
These words struck a chill through Josyan. All her life she had never known what it was to be denied anything she asked for, and she fell to weeping.
‘I would sooner have you, poor as you are, than the greatest king alive,’ sobbed she; but when Bevis sat still and kept silence her grief turned to wrath.
‘Am I, who might reign over any of the kingdoms of the earth, to be flouted by you, a mere churl? Out of my chamber this instant, and betake yourself to working in the fields, for they are fitter setting for one of your birth than a lady’s bower!’
‘Damsel,’ said Bevis, ‘you wrong me. No churl am I, but the son of an earl, and a knight withal. And now farewell, for I shall depart into my own country.’
For a short time Josyan’s anger held sway in her heart, and even the death of Bevis would hardly have moved her, but when she heard that Bevis was actually preparing to leave the city her pride broke down, and she sent a messenger to implore his forgiveness. But she had to learn that Bevis was no less proud than she, and he dismissed the messenger with a ring that the king had given him, merely saying that he had already bid good-bye to the princess Josyan.
Then Josyan saw that if she would keep Bevis at her side she must humble herself to the dust, so she went herself to the chamber of Bevis, and implored him to forget her hasty words, and not to forsake her. Nay, she would even promise to give up her own faith and to become a Christian.
At this proof of her devotion, Sir Bevis’s resolve gave way, and he told her that he had loved her always, but feared that her father would never accept him as a son-in-law. Josyan made light of this obstacle, and declared that her father would never refuse her anything she had set her heart upon; but Bevis was not so hopeful, and soon events proved that he was right.
Two knights whom Bevis had rescued from captivity and had brought to the palace overheard the vows exchanged between him and Josyan, and her offer of being baptized. Hating and envying the good fortune of Bevis, they sought out the king, and told him that his daughter was about to give up the faith of Mahomet, and to fly from the country with a Christian knight.
These tidings were grievous to king Ermyn. He could not forgive his daughter, and yet, after all the deeds he had done, the people of the city would not suffer Bevis to be punished. What was he to do? The more he thought of it the more bewildered he felt; and all the while the two traitors stood patiently by, knowing well what was passing through the king’s mind.
At length he turned, as they were sure he would, and asked their counsel, which was quite ready.
‘Let your Majesty write a letter to King Bradmond, as from liege lord to vassal, and let Sir Bevis be the bearer of it, and bid the king put the knight to instant death.’ So said the traitors, and, though the device was neither new nor honourable, it would serve. Bevis was summoned to the king’s presence, and listened carefully to all he was told. Joyful was he at being chosen for this mission, which he thought betokened special favour, though his spirits were somewhat damped by the assurance that he must leave his sword Morglay and Arundel, his swift horse, behind him.
‘It were an insult to the king to approach him on a war-horse, and brandishing the sword that has slain so many of his men,’ said Ermyn. ‘You shall ride the ambling palfrey on which I make my progress through the city; and, as for weapons, you will have no need of them.’ So Arundel remained quietly in his stable, while Bevis unwillingly jogged along at the slow pace of the palfrey. But in one thing he disobeyed king Ermyn, for under his tunic was hidden a short sword.
On the way he fell in with a pilgrim, whose offer to share his dinner Bevis accepted gladly. They soon began to tell each other their adventures, and, to his surprise, Bevis found that the pilgrim was his own cousin, the son of his uncle Saber, and that he had come so far with no other purpose than to seek out the young knight and to inform him of all that had happened during the years that had passed since his father’s death.
The vassals of the old earl, said the pilgrim, had been so ground down by the wicked Sir Murdour and his wife, that they had risen up as one man, and, headed by Saber, had defended the Isle of Wight against the usurper. But it was greatly to be desired that the young earl should return home as fast as possible, and attack Murdour in his castle of Southampton, and for this reason had he set forth to seek him.
Bevis’s heart and his blood waxed hot with the listening, but he did not wish that the pilgrim should learn just then who he was, so he answered that the young earl was his friend and brother, and that on his part he would promise speedy help to the faithful vassals fighting in his cause. With this they parted, and Bevis pursued his way to Damascus.
On entering the gates of the city he found himself in the midst of a large crowd, who were making ready a sacrifice to a wooden idol, which was carried in a golden car. This roused the wrath of the young man, and, forcing his way through the multitude, he seized the idol and flung it into the mud, calling loudly on the people to go and help their god, since he could not help them. In an instant a thousand arms were raised against the stranger who had dared to insult the majesty of their idol, and, though Bevis drew his short sword and defended himself bravely, he could not have held out against such numbers had not the palace gates been close behind. Still fighting, Bevis entered the gates, and drawing the letter from his tunic ordered the guards to take him at once into the presence of the king.
Bradmond read the letter with joy, as he felt that his enemy was delivered into his hands, and the tidings of the attack on the idol hardened his heart still more. Without further delay he bade the guards take Bevis and carry him off to a deep dungeon under the palace where lived two huge dragons, who would be fain to eat him forthwith.
‘And I do this,’ said Bradmond, ‘not to avenge my own wrongs, but to perform my oath of duty unto my sovereign lord king Ermyn. For this is the service he requires of me, in the letter that you yourself have brought.’
Ropes were tied under Bevis’s arms, and he was lowered down, down, down, till he could see nothing but four fiery eyes which glared furiously up at him. Soon after his hands knocked against something hard and rough, which moved under his touch. At the same moment his feet touched the bottom, and he found himself standing in a large cave with a feeble ray of light coming from the far end. By this he dimly perceived two horrible dragons, but for a moment they were still, and did not move to attack him.
Bevis made use of the short time allowed him to feel about if perchance he could find some weapon with which to defend himself instead of the short sword which had been taken from him, and he came upon a stout staff, thrown into one corner, and by the aid of this he held those two monsters at bay for a whole night and day. By this time the dragons, who had been weakened by a slothful life and the flesh of many prisoners, were too weak to resist any longer, and fell an easy prey to the strong arm of Bevis.
Of course it was not long before the men who had charge of the dungeon discovered that the dragons were dead, but they were so filled with admiration of Bevis’s courage that they kept his counsel, and let down into his prison daily a good portion of wheat cake, so that he managed to keep himself alive. Bradmond the king very soon forgot all about him, so that the soldiers did as they pleased.
Thus some years passed away.
At the end of that time one of the gaolers died, and the other was sent to a distant city. The two men who took their places knew nothing of Bevis, save that he was a captive in the dungeon, and that as long as he was alive it was part of their duty to feed him every day. ‘Let us murder him,’ said one man to another; ‘it is small use to feed a man in a dungeon who is forgotten by himself and all the world’; so one of them fastened a ladder of ropes to the side and climbed down it, in the hope of finding an easy victim lying on the ground. Instead there was a man as strong as ten other men, who leapt swiftly aside to avoid the blow of his sword, and struck him dead to the ground with a blow of his fist. The other gaoler, hearing no noise from below, crept down the ladder to see what had taken place; but as soon as he was on the floor of the dungeon Bevis gave a mighty spring which snapped the chain that had bound him to the rock, and thrust him through with the sword he had taken from his fellow. Then, when, as far as he could reckon, the night was nearly gone, he climbed up the ladder, and stood once more a free man.
At the first gleam of dawn, Sir Bevis stole out to the stables, where the king’s horses were being groomed. Peeping through a hole, he discovered a room hung round with suits of armour, and, getting in through the roof, he took down a coat of mail, a helmet, and a shield, while he chose out a good sword from a pile standing in a corner. Then entering the stable, he cut off the heads of several of the men, while the rest fled out of reach of the strange being with the long hair and strong arm. When they were all gone Bevis brought out the best horse in the stable, and rode out across the drawbridge into the world again.
Of course, directly he was missed, king Ermyn sent his best knights in pursuit of him, but in one way or another Sir Bevis got the better of them all, and made his way to Jerusalem, where, for the first time since he was seven years old, he entered a Christian church. But so anxious was he to hear some tidings of Josyan, that he remained only a short time in the city, and soon rode on again along the road to her father’s court.
On the way he met with a young knight who had once been his squire, and who told him a sad tale. Josyan, he said, had been asked in marriage by the most powerful and fierce of all the kings of Heathenesse, but she steadily refused to wed any man who was not a Christian like herself. This so enraged her father that he gave leave to her suitor to do with her as he would; so king Inor, for so was he named, carried her off to his own kingdom, and shut her up in a tower till she should come to a better mind, and be ready to return to her old faith.
‘In her tower she is still,’ continued the knight; ‘but if you would have speech with her it is first needful to persuade the king to go on some distant mission. And first you must put on a disguise, for at any moment those may come by who knew you well at the royal palace.’
This advice Bevis followed; he hid himself with his friend behind a clump of bushes till a pilgrim passed on the way to Jerusalem. The young knight then left his hiding-place, and prayed the pilgrim for the sake of charity and a dole of money to be given in alms that he would exchange clothes with Sir Bevis. To this the pilgrim readily agreed, and soon Bevis was arrayed in a long mantle, carrying a staff in his hand.
‘Now go and stand about the door of the palace, and when the king comes from hunting he will see you, and will ask you where you come from, and what news is stirring in the world. And you must say to him that you have lately journeyed from Syria, from the kingdom of his brother, and that the land has been overrun by strange armies, and that the country is in a great strait. When he hears that he will of a surety hasten to his aid, and then you will be able to escape with Josyan without danger of losing your head.’
Now Inor the king had placed Josyan under the charge of Boniface, the chamberlain, who had been long in the service of her father, and in order the better to help her had pretended to approve of the evil way in which she was treated. Directly he heard of the plot he began to play his part towards its fulfilment, and in the evening of the day on which the king had departed he managed to give the steward, who had been left to rule the city, such a powerful sleeping draught that he did not wake for twenty-four hours. Meanwhile Sir Bevis chose out the best suit of armour in the king’s armoury and the fastest horse in his stable; and when night fell Josyan stole softly down from her tower, and, mounting Arundel, whom she had brought with her from her old home, rode out of the gates by the side of Bevis. Boniface followed close after them. He did not dare to stay behind, as he knew that his head was forfeit.
But as things happened he might as well have remained where he was, for the very next day, when Bevis was hunting, two lions came up to the cave where Josyan and her chamberlain lay concealed. Without an instant’s pause they devoured Boniface and his horse, which was tethered outside, though Josyan’s beauty so overawed them that they bent their heads humbly in her presence.
The next adventure that befell Sir Bevis was a battle with a giant thirty feet high, who had been sent by the steward to catch the two runaways. During the fight he was sore wounded, and in the end owned Bevis to be his master, and begged to be allowed to take service with him. Sir Bevis agreed, though somewhat doubtfully, but soon found reason to rejoice in his new page, for by his help he was able to turn some Saracens out of a ship which bore them all with a fair wind to the city of Cologne.
Here he found his uncle, the bishop; who was brother to his father and to Sir Saber, and, leaving Josyan in safety under his care, he set sail with a hundred knights for Southampton. Before landing he sent one of his most trusty squires for tidings as to how fared Sir Murdour, and received for answer that the quarrel still raged betwixt him and Sir Saber. Then Bevis went on shore with all his knights, and bade one of them tell Sir Murdour that they had sailed from France in quest of service, and that if he so willed they would fight under his banner, but, if not, they would offer themselves to his foe.
Sir Murdour was overjoyed at the sight of the strangers, and asked the name of their leader.
‘Sir Jarrard,’ said Bevis, who did not wish to make himself known, and inquired further what were the causes of the war with Sir Saber, and how long it had lasted. To this Sir Murdour made reply that Sir Saber had been seeking for many years past to wrest from him the heritage which was his by purchase from the spendthrift heir Bevis, who had afterwards quitted the country, but that with the help of the strangers an end would speedily be put to the quarrel.
While Bevis stood listening to Sir Murdour, his fingers unconsciously crept to the handle of his sword, but he forced back his wrath and answered that, had they brought their horses with them, the dispute might have been settled that very night. Still, much might be done if Sir Murdour would give them a ship in which to sail to the Isle of Wight, and would provide them with horses.
Sir Murdour did not need to be asked twice; he gave to Sir Bevis his finest horses and his best armour, and before many hours Bevis was standing on the Isle of Wight by the side of his uncle Saber.
‘Take yonder fishing-boat,’ said he to one of his knights, ‘and return to Southampton and enter the castle. Then tell Sir Murdour that the man to whom he has given his arms and his horses is no knight of France, but Sir Bevis earl of Southampton, who has come to take vengeance for the death of his father.’
The battle which decided the strife was fought upon the island, and never for a moment did Bevis lose sight of his enemy. In vain did Murdour ride from one part of the field to the other; Bevis was always there, though it was long before he was close enough to thrust at him. At last he managed to hurl him to the ground, but Murdour’s followers pressed hard on him, and Bevis could not, by his own self, take him captive.
‘To me! To me!’ he cried at last, and Ascapard strode up, cleaving the heads of all that stood in his way.
‘What shall be done with him?’ asked he, picking up the fallen knight and holding him tightly.
‘Put him in the cauldron that is boiling outside the camp,’ said Bevis. ‘For that is the death for traitors.’
So Sir Bevis got his own again, and he sent to Cologne for Josyan, and was wedded to her by his uncle the bishop in his good town of Southampton.
[From the Early English Metrical Romances.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57