Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bevis in London

Bevis of Hampton is one of my favourite Middle English romances. Wildly popular in the Middle Ages, it tells the story of an English knight exiled from England at age seven and raised by Saracens, and details Bevis’ travels all over Europe. Yet it is Bevis’ travels closer to home that I find particularly interesting.

Towards the end of the romance, Bevis is forced into a fierce battle in the City of London, during which many civilians are killed and which results in the marriage of the King’s daughter to Bevis’ son as a peace treaty. The London episode is unique to the Middle English versions of the romance which differ in detail, with some versions offering as many as eleven London locations, and others only nine, six or seven.

The places mentioned in Bevis include: Londen; Potenhite [Putney]; Temse flode [river Thames]; Westmenster; Tour street [Tower street]; Chepe [Cheapside]; Bowe (or ‘seynte Marye [at] Bowe’, a parish church built in 1080); and Londegate [London gate]. So far, so simple: these are locations we would recognise even today. Yet some place are less easily recognisable.

The mention of ‘Godes lane’ is unique to the Auchinleck version of the romance. In all other Middle English versions of Bevis, this is given as ‘Goos lane / Gooslane / Gooselane except for one version, which substitutes ‘Bredstrete’ (both of which are streets in the Cheapside area). Modern editions of Bevis usually correct ‘Godes lane’ to read ‘Goose lane’, as there appears to be no record of a ‘Godes lane’ in London. Yet given the detail and care with which the Auchinleck Bevis describes locations in London, I do not assume that this is simply a scribal error.

Henry Harben, in his Dictionary of London mentions a ‘Gutter lane’ located ‘north out of Cheapside’, not far from the other Cheapside locations in Bevis. He notes spelling variants including; ‘Goderunelane’ (1278-9); ‘Goderes lane’ (1284-5); ‘Godrunes lane’ (1285); ‘Godrenelane’ (1291); ‘Godrun lane’ (1293-4); ‘Goderon lane’ (1303-4); ‘Goderonne Lane’ (1323); and ‘Gudrunlane’ (1322-3) which, whilst not identical to Bevis’ ‘Godes lane’, are similar enough to suggest a correlation. Harben also lists two ‘Golden lane’s; one located ‘north out of Barbican […] partly in Cripplegate Ward Without, partly in the Borough of Finsbury’, the other ‘north out of Holborn Hill, in [the] parish of St. Andrew Holborn, west of the Fleet’.

‘Godes lane’ may, of course, be a location of which we have no surviving record. However, whilst the variants Harben gives for these streets are also similar to ‘Godes lane’ (‘Goldynglane’ (1324); and ‘Goldinelane’ (1291-2)’ and ‘Golde lane’ (1293) respectively), geographical distance from other locations listed in Bevis and the proximity of ‘Gutter lane’ to Cheapside suggests, I argue, that ‘Gutter lane’ is a more likely location. This is supported by the romance itself, as Bevis tries to flee from Cheapside along ‘Godes lane’ [Gutter lane], which is located off Cheapside heading north (see map below):

Beves prikede forth to Chepe,
The folk him folwede al to hepe;
Thourgh Godes lane he wolde han flowe

[Bevis galloped forth to Cheapside
The people followed him as a mob;
He would have fled through Godes lane] (4395-7).

So whilst Bevis could have escaped down ‘Goose lane’, which Harben locates ‘South out of Bow Churchyard to Twelve Bell Court’, it may be that in the Auchinleck version of Bevis ‘Godes lane’ refers to Gutter lane and not, as has been assumed, to Goose lane’.

Also unique to Auchinleck is ‘the ledene halle’ [Leadenhall] to which Bevis travels with his family after the battle is over. Herzman et. al. note the MED’s citation of Ledynhall as a specific place name, noting that it is also referred to as Laurence Hall. I believe that ‘the ledene hall’ in Bevis refers to ‘Leadenhall’ of which Harben writes: ‘before this property came into the hands of the Mayor and Commonalty and was converted into a market it had formed a considerable estate in private ownership, and was for some years in the possession of the Nevill family, although it seems probable that the hall may have been leased to the City authorities from an early period. The earliest mention of it seems to be in 1296, when it is referred to in a will as ‘La Ledenehalle’. […] In 1315, […] it was in possession of Dame Margaret de Neuill’.

Finally, occurring in three Middle English versions, is ‘Londen ston’. The ‘London stone’ is allegedly a marker used to measure distances from London, referred to in maps as early as 1198, which would seem to fit well with the themes of travel in Bevis. Harben notes ‘the stone is frequently alluded to in London records to mark the situation of adjacent houses and property’ and has been referred to as ‘a "Milliarium" or milestone, from which the British high-roads radiated and from which the distances on them were reckoned, similar to the one in the forum at Rome’. So associating the incessant traveller, Bevis, with a geographical marker of journeying and distance, may serve to underscore his nomadic lifestyle and estrangement from London and, consequently, the England of his birth.

An interesting aside: there is a street in London called ‘Bevis Marks’, just north of Leadenhall street and east of Cheapside. Variant names include ‘Bewesmarkes’ (1407) ‘Bevys Marke (1450); ‘Bevesmarkes’)1513); ‘Bevers-market’ (1630); and ‘Beavis Markes’ (1677). It has been claimed that the street was named after the Abbots of Bury, Buries Markes, corruptly ‘Bevis Markes’, yet the similarity to ‘Bevis’, not to mention the geographical proximity to the battle in the romance, is suggestive.

The astonishing level of detail and specificity in Bevis of Hampton is unusual for a romance, and gave me the wonderful opportunity to Google Map Bevis’ potential journey around Cheapside (click to make the map bigger). Following his journey as it is laid out in the romance, and providing approximate modern day markers for the location in the romance, Bevis travels from ‘Potenhite’ [Putney] (line 4290) along the ‘Temse flode’ [river Thames] (4294) to ‘Westmenster’ (4295). The map below picks up Bevis’ journey at ‘Tour street’ [Great Tower street] (4320), from where Bevis travels to ‘Chepe’ [Cheapside] (4328). After being accosted in Cheapside, Bevis attempts to flee along ‘Godes lane’ [Gutter lane] (4397) but is prevented by his attackers. Bevis’ hear of their father’s predicament and rally to assist him, setting fire to Londegate [Ludgate]. The romance describes battle occurring between Bowe [Bow Lane] (4495) and Londen ston’ [near Milestone House, Cannon Street] (4495). After the battle, Bevis and his family retire to ‘the ledene halle’ [Leadenhall Market] (4534).

Obviously these are approximate markers, connecting modern day London with a romance dating to 1330 – almost seven hundred years ago. Furthermore, I am far from an expert on London history; I am sure that this observational study could be much enhanced by further engagement with the history of London. Yet I find the geographical detail in this romance fascinating, as well as the proximity of the locations: this is a journey that could feasibly have taken place. What is most significant for me, is the evidence that romances, such as Bevis of Hampton, can provide very detailed outlines of routes and geography, contradicting the argument that geographical locations in Middle English popular romances were hazy, inaccurate and irrelevant.


Line references for the Auchinleck version of Bevis of Hampton are from Bevis of Hampton, ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, Four Romances of England (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999). Available online:

Henry Harben, Dictionary of (the City of) London (1918). Available online:

BBC, “The London Stone”, 23 December 2002,