Forgotten local histories: Guy of Warwick's adventures across England, Europe and the Middle East

Local historian George Evans-Hulme visits some places that have a fascinating history behind them

The statue on the Coventry Road, Warwick depicts the aftermath of a bar hunt.
The statue on the Coventry Road, Warwick depicts the aftermath of a bar hunt.

In last week’s Forgotten Histories article, we saw how the international adventures of Guy of Warwick were initially inspired by his love of Felice, the daughter of the Earl of Warwick, and Guy’s desire to win her love. We then saw how the latter stages of Guy’s adventures were motivated more by his desire to pay thanks to God for bestowing Guy with extraordinary abilities. This week, we will see what Guy got up to on his adventures across England, Europe and the Middle East.

The legend of Guy of Warwick is very dramatic, with plenty of battles, sieges and conflicts to keep readers entertained. One of the more common themes of the story is for Guy to adopt the role of ‘champion’ for various rulers and factions in fights across the world. Guy was very effective in this role, to the extent that opponents often tried underhand tactics to gain an advantage over him. One such example involved Guy being surreptitiously dumped into the sea whilst he was asleep in bed!

Fortunately, the hero was rescued by a fisherman who spotted him floating in the water.

Two of the more noteworthy instances where Guy adopts the role of champion are his respective battles against the two giants, Amorant and Colebrant. The latter fight, which takes place in Winchester and is one of the last great events of the tale, became synonymous with the Guy of Warwick legend, and was very popular amongst early readers of the tale. Guy, disguised as a pilgrim, elects to fight Colebrant, the champion of the Danes, at the behest of King Athelstan as part of a ‘trial by combat’ scenario with the crown of England resting on the outcome. Colebrant is a fearsome opponent, ‘so big and strong that no horse could carry him’.

However, after a fierce battle, Guy emerges victorious, having cut off the sword-arm, and then the head, of the giant.

Some readers may be curious to see why I have not yet mentioned arguably one of the most famous stories associated with the story of Guy of Warwick: his fight with the Dun Cow of Dunsmore. The reason is because the story of the Dun Cow is most likely a later addition to the original tale. Indeed, it is not featured in any of the surviving medieval French or Middle-English manuscripts of the legend. There is evidence to suggest that the Dun Cow had become part of the Guy of Warwick saga by the mid-14th century, and it is possible that the Dun Cow formed part of oral retellings of the story prior to that point; however, there is no conclusive evidence to support this.

Nevertheless, the original tale does feature combat experiences with various real and imaginary creatures. One of the more popular episodes amongst medieval readers was the fight between Guy and a dragon in Northumberland. Upon defeating the 30-foot-long beast, Guy cut off its head and took it back to York as a trophy.

Guy also fought another dragon at an earlier point in the narrative, in Constantinople. Despite being less dramatic than the Northumberland fight, it too is notable as, by defeating the dragon, Guy rescues a lion who proceeds to become Guy’s companion. Indeed, the lion immediately falls in love with Guy, at one stage ‘jumping up at him like a greyhound’. In a tale slightly closer to reality, Guy takes part in a successful boar hunt in Lorraine. A statue on the Coventry Road, Warwick (pictured) depicts the aftermath of a similar event.

Author's note: I would like to thank Dr Judith Weiss and Dr Sian Echard for fielding my questions regarding the origin of the Dun Cow of Dunsmore section of the Guy of Warwick legend. This article relies heavily on Dr Judith Weiss’ translation of the Guy of Warwick legend (published in Arizona, 2008). It goes without saying that any and all errors in this piece are mine alone.