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Chronicles of Gretna Green
Chapter II

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 Gretna.

The marriage of Sir Gawaine: and
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 goal.

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 Carlisle,
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 stood,
And fenced with many a spell;
No valiant knight could tread thereon,
But strait his courage fell.

"Forth then rushed that Carlisle knight—
King Arthur felt the charm;
His sturdy sinews lost their strength,
Down sunk his feeble arm.

"Now yield thee ! yield thee ! King Arthur;
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 hand,
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 west,
And did of all inquire
What thing it is all women crave,
And what they most desire.

"Some told him riches, pomp, or state,—
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 Gawajne,
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 all awry,
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 Sir Gawaine,
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 Sir Kay,
'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 fair,
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.

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