The Picts.— First Gretna
Nuptials. — Origin of Chaucer's "Wife's Tale."—Arthur and the Grim
Baron.—The Grim Lady.— The Secret revealed.—Gawaine's Magnanimity.— Fetehing
the Bride.—The Reward of Friendship.—The Bride's Tale.—The First Marriage at
The marriage of Sir Gawaine:
Important 'tis, I ween;
Because this is the first that e'er
Was done at Gretna Green.
In former times the modern
territory of Gretna Green, now about to be celebrated, formed part and
parcel of the Roman province of Valencia, so called by Tacitus. Then, in
aftertimes, came the Picts, picking their way from the north country ; and
nice pickings they got from the bones of their predecessors, who had retired
but a short space before : here awhile they feasted and battened, until such
time as they had picked the said bones clean, when they crossed the river
Sark for more, broke over the works of Severus, and invaded the merriment
that ever reigned with King Arthur in merry
Carlisle. Then, behold, arose, like an exhalation, this mirror of chivalry,
and his notable paladins; and the herein-before-mentioned territory became
the district of Reged in the kingdom of Strath-Clyde and Cumbria, famous
also as having been the land over which Rhyderc, or Roderic, the
Magnificent, reigned with great pomp and circumstance, and also wherein the
enchanter Merlin prophesied.
Now about this era the great
Spirit of Affection breathed violent love into the atmosphere of these
parts, so that knights were heavy of heart when the day was light, and then
essayed to become lighter when it was dark, by speaking amiable words to
fair forms, which appeared at turret windows o'' nights. Every state of
existence hath "an end in view;" every undertaking a wished-for consummation
; every race a winning post; and* every project a goal: wherefore, no man
ever falleth into honourable love but what his "end in view,"—his
consummation, his winning post, and his goal, will be matrimony. Thus it has
been with many a doughty hero ; and it now becomes us to record the nuptials
of that famous Round Table Knight Sir Gawaine, whose espousals were
celebrated here, in a region which has ever since his day been so renowned
both for love, and for love's end in view, consummation, winning-post, and
On these nuptials we lay
great stress, because they are the first of any note actually occurring in
or near Gretna, which we can narrate from authentic chronicles for the
information of the companionable reader, and consequently their importance/
in a historical point of view, will be readily accorded by him or her,
seeing that they stand up like a beacon of a dark night, shining brightly
through the surrounding obscurity of such remote ages, and at the same time
offer a fair precedent to commence from.
"King Arthur lives in merry
And seemly is to see;
And there with him Queen Guenever,
That bride so bright of blee."
Thus begins the chronicle
above alluded to ; a chronicle, as antiquaries tell us, which furnished the
venerable Chaucer with the theme for his " Wife's Tale." At the date of our
story, these sovereigns were revelling in Christmas festivities, dispensing
hospitality to all the brave and the gentle of their court: and one day,
whilst they sat at the well garnished board spread upon the dais, behold a
young and beautiful damsel entered the hall of the castle, and threw herself
at the feet of the king, craving of him " a boon." This, according to the
usage of chivalry, was incontinently granted, without stopping to inquire
what pains or penalties it might impose upon the granter: and then the lady
proceeded to say, that a " grim baron," whom they met by hazard the day
before, had sorely misused her, and had carried away her lover captive to
his " bower." This wanton outrage kindled the ire of the company, and Arthur
loudly called for his horse, and his sword Excalibar, swearing that he would
avenge the maiden, and never leave the grim baron until he had made him
quail. Wherefore, having accoutred himself, he hastened away in search of
his foe : but, alas and well-a-day for chivalry and King Arthur ! the
baron's castle stood upon enchanted ground—and what mortal man, be he
vavasour or villain, could ever contend against witchery?
"On magic ground the castle
And fenced with many a spell;
No valiant knight could tread thereon,
But strait his courage fell.
"Forth then rushed that
King Arthur felt the charm;
His sturdy sinews lost their strength,
Down sunk his feeble arm.
"Now yield thee ! yield thee !
Now yield thee unto me:
Or fight with me, or lose thy land:
No better terms may be."
These terms imposed by this
"grim baron," were hard terms certainly for the King of Britain and the
prince of knighthood; but one loophole of escape still remained, and one
proviso was still offered to the prostrate Arthur. If, indeed, he would
swear by the Rood and promise by his faye, that he would return upon next
New Years Day and bring his enchanted conqueror word, "what it is that all
women most desire," then in that case he would be allowed to depart and
return to Carlisle. This condition was to be his ransom, and cruelly he was
constrained to wound his honour and submit.
"King Arthur then held up his
And sware upon his faye;
Then took his leave of the grim baron,
And fast he rode away.
"And he rode east, and he rode
And did of all inquire
What thing it is all women crave,
And what they most desire.
"Some told him riches, pomp,
Some raiment fine and bright,—
Some told him mirth, some flattery,—
And some a gallant knight."
In this perplexity he sped
about over the wilderness sorely troubled with doubts and misgivings ; for,
as each person "told a different thing," he could in no wise satisfy his
mind, and come to a conclusion. As he rode, ruthfully across a moor, he
espied a lady sitting between an oak and a green holly, dressed in " red
scarlet," but she was so dreadfully deformed of person and so uncomely of
feature, that no one could look at her without disgust and loathing.- Her
nose was crooked, her chin was all awry, she had an eye, not in her forehead
like Polyphemus, but where perhaps it was, if possible worse, that is, even
where her mouth ought to have been ; and her hair, like serpents, clung
about her pallid and cadaverous cheeks. As he approached, she accosted the
King in seemly language, but he was- so stricken with her disgracious
appearance, that he was unable to reply. Somewhat moved to anger at his
silence, she demanded what wight he was, that did not deign to speak ?
adding, that perchance she might be able to ease his pain, albeit " foul to
see." Encouraged by this possibility of alleviation, he addressed the "grim
lady," by declaring, that if peradventure she could help him in his need, he
would grant her any favour she might ask of him. She then revealed to him
the important secret that should serve as his ransom from the baron; and
which, in fine was, that "All women like to have their will—this was their
chief desire;" at the same time reserving to herself, as a reward for her
service, that he should find some courtly knight who would come and marry
her. Arthur returned to Guenever his queen, and to his paladins, rejoiced,
of a verity, that he had been rescued from the wizard powered lady who had
communicated the secret; in the first place, believing that no knight would
ever, from disinterestedness, and scarcely from loyalty, wed so loathsome a
creature; and, secondly, it pained him much even to suffer any friend, who
might be willing from magnanimity, to make so great-a sacrifice of his
happiness, as to become united to her merely out of pure love to his prince.
And surely, any one who could start up and offer himself on such a shrine,
were indeed a pattern for true friendship, allegiance, and devotion. These
perplexing matters he duly set forth when he reached Carlisle city; but his
generous nephew, Sir Gawaine, to the astonishment and admiration of all then
present, and of all posterity ever since, arose and resolutely offered
himself as his uncle's deliverer, as ye may here see in the legend :
"Then bespake him Sir Gawaine,
That was ever a gentle knight:
' That loathly lady I will wed,
Therefore be merry and light.'
"'Now nay, now nay, good Sir
My sister's son ye be;
This loathly lady's all too grim
And all too foul for ye.' "
Then the tortured uncle
recapitulates the appalling catalogue of her deformities; but still his
kinsman, stedfast in his virtue, persists in sacrificing himself for the
sake of Arthur. He proceeds—
"'What though her chin stand
And she be foul to see,
I'll marry her, uncle, for thy sake,
And I ll1 thy ransom be!'
"'Now thanks, now thanks, good
And a blessing thee betide;
To-morrow we'll have knights and squires,
And we'll go fetch the bride.'"
Bent on this resolution, they
departed next day for the moor, accompanied by Sir Launcelet, Sir Stephen,
Sir Kay, Sir Banier, Sir Bore, Sir Gar-ratt, Sir Tristrem, and others of
equal renown ; and when they came to the forest, there, forsooth, they found
the lady, clad in " red scarlet'1 as heretofore, sitting beneath a
holly-tree. At the sight of her, Sir Kay, or Kai, who in all the old
romances and fabliaux is uniformly described as being very uncourteous in
speech and bearing, is sorely unmannered in his observations, until the
volunteer bridegroom calls him to account; adding, that, let her appearance
be what it may, still some one among them must take her to wife.
"'Marry, i'faith,' then said
'I' the devil's name anon;
Get me a wife wherever I may,
In sooth she shall be none.'"
The courtiers were so
disgusted at the issue of their progress, that they appear rather disposed
hastily to take up their hawks and hounds and depart, than to tarry on the
moor dallying about the lady, declaring that indeed they would not any of
them wed her " for cities, nor for towns."
Peace, lordlings, peace!' Sir
Gawaine said, 'Not make debate and strife; This loathly lady I will take,
And marry her to wife.'
"Then up they took that
loathly dame, And home anon they bring ; And there Sir Gawaine he her wed,
And married her with a ring."
An affectionate and
disinterested act to serve a friend, is never without its guerdon; and the
moral appended to this tale, and the just reward that came upon Sir Gawaine,
is passing good, as ye may here read in the stanzas following:—
"And when they were in
wed-bed laid, And all were done away,— ' Come turn to me, my own wed lord,
Come turn to me, I pray.'
"Sir Gawaine seant could lift
his head, For sorrow and for eare ; When lo, instead of that loathly dame,
He saw a young lady fair !
"Sweet blushes stained her
rud-red eheek, Her eyes were black as sloe, The ripening cherry swelled her
lip, And all her neek was snow.
"Sir Gawaine kissed that lady
Lying upon the sheet,
And swore, as he was a true knight,
That spice was never so sweet."
The bride then explains, that
her father was an aged knight, who took a "false lady" to wife, (apparently
a step-mother,) who worked her all this misfortune; who, through magic
constrained her to dwell amidst moors and mosses, woods and wilds, until
such time as some courtly knight should marry her; and who had also, out of
the same jealousy, doomed her brother to live in the practice of rapine and
oppression—to be, in short, the "grim baron," albeit he was by birth and
temperament, the heritor of everything gentle in blood and bearing. The
spell, she added, was now broken, and that she was " herself again." Her
brother also, had by the same influence become disenchanted; that henceforth
she should be "a true lady," and he "a gentle knight." In gratitude to
heaven for the good fortune that has thus unexpectedly settled upon him, and
with increased love towards her at the transformation, he gives himself up
entirely to his wife, reserving no authority, no power, no dominion, but
vowing that she shall ever " have all her will," which words, as the reader
may recall, bore away the important secret that ransomed King Arthur.
Hence we are pleasantly
instructed that to have their will, is to have that which all ladies most
desire—a fact of easy belief, seeing that if they have their will, they have
every want, wish, whim, and luxury whatsoever at instant command. Me-thinks,
that if the axiom had been extended to men, there would have arisen up but
few of that sex who would have declared it false. This ancient idea hath
been prettily worked out by a more recent versifier in the form of a laconic
epigram, as ye may here see, videlicet:
"Kind Peggy kissed her husband
with these words,
' Mine own sweet Will, how dearly I love thee!' '
If true,' quoth Will, ' the world none such affords.'
And that 'tis true I dare her warrant be:
For ne'er was woman yet, or good or ill,
But loved always best her own sweet Will."
We do not insist that this
marriage was really celebrated on the site of the present renowned marrying
establishment yeleped Gretna Hall, or "The Hall" in the vicinage; but, this
is the first execution occurring in or near this region of which we have
discovered any the most remote mention on the musty vellum. And the
importance of the first marriage happening at a place, or near a place, (for
the ancients were very bad geographers, and were not particular in noting
localities,) will be readily admitted, when we recollect that the object of
this work is to record the matrimonial transactions that have befallen on
this amorous soil.