Carle of Carlisle

General Information

Form: Rhyming couplets
Date of Composition: 1500-50
Place of Composition: Uncertain
Keywords: Animal, Bedchamber, Forest, Friendship, Hunting, Marriage, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Sacrament, Secular Spaces, Sexual Encounters, Supernatural, The Third Estate

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

Arthur and his court are staying in Wales. The king requests Bishop Baldwin to say a mass and then sets out with his knights to hunt. Gawain, Kay and Baldwin become separated from the group and decide to seek shelter in the castle of the Carle of Carlisle, who is well known for mistreating his guests. Kay threatens to repay any ill-treatment with violence, but Gawain insists that they behave courteously. He covers up Kay’s rudeness to the porter, and they stable their horses before entering the hall. Their host is a hideous giant, but Gawain greets him politely and he welcomes the knights, reminding them, however, of his animosity to Arthur. The Carle calms his pets (a bear, a boar, a bull and a lion) and his beautiful wife appears, sitting on his knee and singing songs about love: Gawain politely compliments her, but the Carle admonishes him for thinking of ‘villainy’.

One by one the knights leave the hall to check on their horses. Kay and Baldwin both turn the Carle’s own palfrey out of his stable, and are rewarded for their discourteous behaviour with violent buffets from their host. Gawain, however, covers the horse with his cloak and is thanked courteously. Back in the hall, the Carle calls for an enormous cup of wine, and they all drink.

As they dine, the Carle bids Gawain throw a spear at him. The knight obeys with such force that, when the Carle ducks, it shatters against the wall. He then leads Gawain to a chamber where his wife is lying in bed, instructing him to kiss her three times but go no further. Gawain complies and becomes aroused, but his host stops the knight and leads him to his daughter’s chamber, ushering him into her bed and locking the door. In the morning, the Carl shows Gawain the bloody armour and bones of his former victims, then when the knight politely attempts to leave, insists that he stay for another meal. Afterwards, he presents Gawain with a sword and tells him to cut off his head. Gawain obeys and the Carle is transformed into a normal man. He thanks Gawain for breaking a curse that has lasted forty years, promising to found a chantry for his victims and welcome all future guests. Baldwin marries Gawain to the Carle’s daughter, and their host presents them with rich gifts, begging them to invite Arthur to dine with him. The king agrees, and the following day they all return to the Carle’s castle, which has been decorated for a lavish feast. The Carle promises to treat the king with ‘great courtesy’, and Arthur is so pleased that he knights the Carle before returning to his court.

Edition: Thomas Hahn, Sir Gawain, Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamazoo: TEAMS, 1995.
Manuscript: London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (Percy Folio).


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London, British Library, MS Additional 27879 (Percy Folio) (folio: pp. 448-55.)c. 1650, Lancashire. Unique copy. 500 lines.

Modern Editions

Frederic Madden, ed., Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance-Poems by Scottish and English Authors Relating to That Celebrated Knight of the Round Table (London: Bannatyne Club, 1839)Pp. 256-274. Edited from Percy Folio.
John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall, eds., Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances, 3 vols. (London: N. Trübner, 1867–68)Vol 3. Pp. 275-294. Edited from Percy Folio.
Thomas Hahn, ed., Eleven Gawain Romances and Tales (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995)Pp. 375-391. Edited from Percy Folio.Available online at: