He was a convicted housebreaker and killer, turned soldier, courtier and leading magnate in northern England. According to a scholar, the medieval knight Sir John Stanley was also one of the country’s greatest literary figures, who has gone unrecognised until now.
Based on his analysis of a series of clues in the text, philologist Dr Andrew Breeze, of the University of Navarre, argues that Stanley, ancestor of the earls of Derby, was the anonymous author of the 14th-century masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The chivalric romance begins at the court of King Arthur, where a green horseman carrying an axe interrupts a feast to offer the guests an extraordinary challenge. The young knight Gawain agrees to strike the stranger with an axe on the understanding that he will receive a return blow in a year and a day. He proceeds to decapitate the Green Knight, whose trunk picks up its head, which commands Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel on the appointed date.
Adventures ensue, including tests of Gawain’s purity by a married chatelaine, all culminating in a sensational plot twist when he meets the Green Knight for his day of reckoning.
Breeze said that Stanley, as author of Gawain and three other poems from the same manuscript, influenced not only his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, but also Gawain’s 20th-century translator JRR Tolkien and the Monty Python team. A film adaptation, starring Dev Patel, was released as recently as last year.
His identification of Stanley, detailed in his forthcoming book The Historical Arthur and the ‘Gawain’ Poet (Rowman & Littlefield), is based on layers of circumstantial evidence and is likely to provoke controversy.
Stanley was the second son of a Cheshire knight and had an inauspicious start. In 1369 he was convicted for his part in a raid to seize a manor house. Seven years later he was found guilty of killing Thomas Clotton, his cousin by marriage.
Having obtained a pardon on condition of joining the English army in Aquitaine, he distinguished himself in military service and his fortunes began to change. He married a Lancashire heiress in 1385 and rose in royal service to become a leading administrator and provincial magnate. By the time of his death, in 1414, he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a Knight of the Garter, and King of the Isle of Man.
Among the reasons for his identification of Stanley as the Gawain poet, Breeze said the dialect of the poem was that of Cheshire, where Stanley held lands and spent a considerable part of his life. The poem also alludes to various places in the North West of England and North Wales, with which Stanley would have been familiar. Moreover, the poet shows expert knowledge of hunting, warfare and military architecture, as well as courtly etiquette and seduction. In Breeze’s view, these point to a poet who was a leading landowner, courtier and soldier, as Stanley was.
Narrowing things down, the poet knew French, and French romances well, and Breeze said he appeared familiar with parts of southern France. He believes Stanley would have honed his knowledge of the country and its language and poetry during his military service. Significantly, the manuscript of Gawain ends with “Hony Soyt qui mal pence“, the motto of the Order of the Garter, added in a slightly later hand. Breeze said Stanley was, from 1405, the only north-western member of the order around this time.
He disagrees with arguments that the Gawain author was a cleric on several grounds, including the poet’s apparent worldliness. For example, the poem describes the fur coat worn next to the skin of Gawain’s hostess, who enters the knight’s bedroom, her throat “all naked” and “breast bare before”, while her husband is away hunting on the moors. He believes the same author’s poem Pearl, about a father mourning the loss of his daughter, is unlikely to have been written by a celibate cleric but could refer to an unrecorded daughter of Stanley’s lost to bubonic plague in the early 1390s.
He said Pearl also shows influence from Italian poets such as Dante and Boccaccio, and that Stanley was accompanied to Ireland in 1387 by a Neopolitan physican, Antonio de Romanis, who may have familiarised him with such texts.
Still more compelling, in Breeze’s view, are apparent references in Gawain to Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and a favourite of Richard II, who made him Duke of Ireland. They are central to Breeze’s reconstruction of the poem’s origin. After Gawain beheads the Green Knight and sets off on his mission, courtiers say that he deserves to be made a duke. Professor Ann Astell, a specialist in Middle English language and literature, wrote in a 1999 book on political allegory that this was likely to relate to the elevation of de Vere as England’s first non-royal duke in 1386.
Later, when Gawain is putting on magnificent new clothes, the poem says: “The ver by his uisage verayly hit semed” (“Verily by his appearance it seemed vernal to all”). Astell argued in her book that this was a punning reference to de Vere, who was notorious for his finery.
Breeze said Stanley would have become familiar with de Vere’s ways when the newly-created duke was living, with a Bohemian mistress, as his guest at Chester Castle in the early summer of 1387. In his view, the poem cannot date from after mid-December 1387, when a force led by de Vere and loyal to Richard II was defeated by rebel troops under the king’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke, forcing de Vere into exile.
“The only person who I think fits this specification is Sir John”Dr Andrew Breeze
He believes the poem was written by Stanley in the latter part of 1387, when he departed from Chester Castle to serve in Ireland as de Vere’s deputy. He speculates that it may have been intended as a Christmas entertainment to be performed at Chester Castle. Astell’s book, on the other hand, dates the poem to between 1397 and 1400, and does not connect its author with Stanley.
Although Breeze is the first to put forward Stanley as the Gawain poet, the Dominican friar and scholar Gervase Mathew proposed in 1968 that Stanley was the poet’s patron. This might also account for the apparent ties. However, Breeze believes the poet’s “effortless” allusions to court life and his apparent breadth of life experience are more consistent with the perspective of a magnate than that of a retainer.
He said: “There’s this intimate knowledge of life at the highest level — of heraldry, of etiquette, of feasting, of the luxury of a court, even a royal court. Added to which there are in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the allusions to places near Chester. It’s a Cheshire poem — there’s a joke about people who live in the Wirral, for example. It’s the analogy of the slices of Swiss cheese and all the different holes. The only person who I think fits this specification is Sir John.”
He believes that Stanley ranks with the Brontë sisters and William Wordsworth among Northern literary talents. He added: “I would like to appeal to Cheshire pride. People in Cheshire now can think that there was a great poet writing in Cheshire dialect, making in-jokes about people and places in Cheshire.”
The top image is from the 2021 film The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. Photo: Alamy