The Castle of Hautdesert in the Middle English masterpiece Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) has often been studied as to whether it may have been a real place. What secrets does it reveal to the reader and are they indicative of a castle which the poet might actually have known?
The features of Hautdesert revealed by the poet
Unlike generic castles and towers in romances such as Sir Bevis of Hampton or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, SGGK’s Hautdesert is emphatic in both its magic and its realism. It is surrounded by what seems to be a deer-park, a timber fence some two miles long.
It appears to have double ditches, even if some scholars have interpreted this as indicative of depth rather than quantity. It has exquisite decorations including machicolations, chimneys and bartizans. As the poet says, it is a castle built in the best manner.
A castle in the best manner
What was “the best manner” when SGGK was written? If we place the poem in the final quarter of the fourteenth century, we encounter castles which are largely self-contained rather than structures built over a number of centuries accreting different features according to their time.
In castles such as Nunney (Somerset), ca. 1370, Bodiam (Sussex), ca. 1386 or Queenborough (Kent), ca. 1360s, all three are built “in unit” as contiguous forms. However, while Queensborough was of an unusual circular design built by Edward III for defensive purposes reminiscent of the later forts of Henry VIII, both Bodiam and Nunney were built as residences intended to impress.
These two castles hold the key to understanding Hautdesert. Built by nobles who gained their wealth on the back of campaigns in France, many of their features are aesthetic, demonstrative of the taste of their builders and reflecting castles they had seen on their journeys. Both castles feature wet moats and machicolations; their main turrets also feature smaller turrets or bartizans. The interiors of both buildings reveal lavish living quarters and chambers.
We are perhaps given the strongest clue as to the true character of Hautdesert when then Gawain first encounters it:
Ƿe burne bode on bonk, þat on blonk houed,
Of þe depe double dich þat drof to þe place.
[SGGK, ll. 785-6]
(The horseman abided on the bank by the deep double ditch which surrounded that place)
In the description, “place” is not merely a casual reference to the building, it is a statement of what the building actually is: a “place” or “palace”. In Ware in Hertfordshire even today stands a fourteenth century manor house known as “Place House” – the palatial house. Hautdesert is intended by the poet to be something different.
Castles in their landscapes
By the late fourteenth century, castles came to be built to impress within their landscape. It is well known that Bodiam had its own viewing platform from which visitors could look down upon it; the approach to the castle itself was specially designed to impress the visitor as he/she circumnavigated the castle’s moats to reach the entrance across a specially-constructed route over the water.
By this time castles, if still intended as statements of ownership and control, were now rich homes, often seeming to appear amid large wastelands like the magical castles of Chretien de Troyes and, yes, the Gawain-poet.
We see these develop in their most exaggerated form in the great noble residences of Middleham, Castle Bolton and Sheriff Hutton in the North Riding. These places appear as enormous statement palaces among rolling hills or, as in the case of Sheriff Hutton, visible for miles across the Vale of York.
The context of Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
It is clear that Hautdesert is to be seen as a residence and not a military fortification; every feature of it is intended to impress. As the poet goes on to describe it,
“Ƿe walle wod in þe water wonderly depe
And eft a ful huge heʒt hit haled upon lofte
Of hard hewen stone vp to þe tablez,
Embaned vnder þe abataylement, in þe best lawe;
And syþen garytez ful gaye gere bitwene,
Wyth mony luflych loupe þat louked ful clene;
A better barbican þat burne blusched vpon neuer.
An innermore he beheld þat halle ful hyʒe,
Towres telded bytwene, trochet ful þik,
Fayre fylyolez þat fyʒed, and ferlyly long,
With coruon coprounes, craftily sleʒe.
Chalk-whyt chymnees þer ches he innoʒe
Vpon bastel rouez þat blenked ful quyte.
So mony pynakle payntet watz poudred ayquere
Among þe castel carnelez, clambered so þik,
Ƿat pared out of papure purely hit semed.”
[SGGK, ll. 787-802]
(The wall rose from that wonderfully deep water so that often it seemed to be of a huge height in its hard hewn stones up to the machicolated parapet arranged below the battlements in the best manner. Next, attractive watchtowers were arranged along them featuring many lovely arrow-loops situated pleasingly; a better gatehouse was never seen! On the inside, he beheld a high great hall set within towers decorated with crockets and beautiful pinnacles, elegantly long, with crown-shaped finials finely fixed most subtly. He perceived many chalk-white chimneys on the roofs of the towers which shone most pleasingly. So many painted pinnacles were scattered everywhere among the castle’s crenellations, clustered so thickly, that the building seemed to have been pared completely from paper.)
The poet here is taking us on a journey of magical architectural possibility, building a castle the likes of which is unknown in English texts of this period. Even allowing for the painted rooms of Melidor’s castle in Sir Degrevant, the Gawain-poet’s description of Hautdesert is unparalleled – it is the literary equivalent of the magnificent castles depicted so wonderfully in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry (ca. 1410-20).
Hautdesert is described as a feast for the eyes; the genius of the poet’s powers of description is that his “paper” metaphor relates to paper castles constructed as table decorations for the grandest medieval feasts.
Was Hautdesert Castle based on a real place?
The description of Hautdesert seems at once to transcend the commonly-held view of castles being ostensibly military phenomena; instead it acknowledges the possibility of castle architecture as one art and expression.
This, however, creates a problem. If it is accepted that SGGK was written in southern Cheshire/northern Staffordshire, we are pushed to find a castle of such exquisite fashion locally. Beeston, the most obvious possibility, is too high, too old and too plain; most castles in the region – like Beeston itself – are accretions of different styles built over centuries rather than castles finished in “the best manner”.
Hautdesert’s “deep double ditch” allows the possibility of the poet's own cultural and architectural exposure coming into play, perhaps reflecting castles seen on his travels. Helmsley in the North Riding immediately springs to mind, although its double ditches are dry, not wet. Another possibility is the Black Prince’s own palace at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, although here the castle's architecture is of a much earlier period.
At its heart, Hautdesert touches on aesthetics, on magic and imaginative possibility. As such, we might see the architectural statements of Bodiam and Nunney as holding the key to understanding how the poet envisaged his creation.
We cannot be certain of the Gawain-poet's literary or aesthetic background but we might assume it was wide, drawing not only on English texts and experience but on a much broader aesthetic corpus centred on France. If Hautdesert itself is French in name, might it also be French by nature?
By the fourteenth century, castles were increasingly becoming homes, palaces and statement pieces; we can see from the evidence of the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry that higher society valued the aesthetics of such places as fundamental.
In such an assessment, Hautdesert finds its best expression. It represents an idealised castle, the welcoming home of a knowledgeable owner of taste. Such castles were created for their landscape, fundamentally designed as expressions of magic and beauty set in rings of water as jewels among the trees.
Such castles were not fantastic, they were real and made possible by an aristocracy with profound aesthetic values. These values were portrayed in illuminated manuscripts of the highest order; they were also ingrained in the minds of English lords finally settling down after years fighting in France.
Hautdesert may at first glance appear to have been an ideal castle, but it was also one which was possible. In his magnificent castle pared from paper, the Gawain-poet was capturing the zeitgeist of his time.
Photographs in this article and images from the Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry are all available in the public domain. For the originals and public licence details, click on the appropriate link: Bodiam Castle; Nunney Castle; Tres Riches Heures image from July; image from December.
About the Author
Michael Smith is a translator and illustrator of medieval literature. His books, including his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, are available through all the usual outlets.
Signed and personally dedicated hardbound copies of the book, as well as limited copies of the book's original illustrations and other linocut prints (such as the one above) are available directly from Mythical Britain.