The White Lady

By Christine Smith

(From her book “The White Lady”)

The legend of the White Lady goes back countless centuries.  It is very much a part of local folklore, and is a tale bound up in Arthurian legend, but most unusual of all, it was actually supposed to have happened in Tamworth.  All the many other stories concerning King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table occurred in various places all over these islands, some identifiable, some still baffling the historians, but this is the only known local one.

A ballad was composed about this tragic romance of the white lady and Sir Tarquin, probably dating from the Middle Ages but now unfortunately lost.  In the 15th century a fresco of huge proportions was painted on the north wall of the great hall of the castle depicting the scene when Sir Lancelot de Lac and Sir Tarquin, two knights of the Round Table, fought a duel in the meadows below the castle of Tarquin, which Lancelot won.   The white lady may have been the subject of a rescue bid by Lancelot, but she had not apparently wanted to be rescued and after her lover was slain, she died of grief, her distraught spirit, it is said, haunting the meadows still.  This tale is included in the Arthurian legends re-written in the Middle Ages but does not apparantly mention the site of Tarquin`s castle where Sir Gawain and other knights had been held captive and who were then freed by Lancelot.

Despite being deeply entrenched in local tradition, this version of a local Arthurian legend has never been taken very seriously. It isn`t known who first suggested Tarquin`s castle was at Tamworth, but the story took hold on the  local imagination.  However, it has only been after intensive research carried out by many writers, that King Arthur has emerged in more recent years as a real, historical person. And many of the other characters are also taking their place in history.  The places in the stories, are also now being identified as known towns whose names were changed by the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.

Since the fresco was painted, many books and articles on the local area have propigated the story, yet the town has never otherwise been associated with Arthurian legend.  In fact there are historians who still maintain Tamworth was just a small and insignificant settlement at the confluence of two rivers by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and that it had not grown very much a few centuries later.  To suggest there might have been an early castle here, three centuries before the known palace of King Offa of Mercia, of the 8th century, has been constantly dismissed. This is strange since in various places around the town there is evidence of a continuous occupation from the Stone-Age.  During the Iron-Age (1000 or so B.C. to about 100 A.D. just after the Romans had arrived) there were settlements, forts, field-systems, paths and barrows in which the dead were buried with ceremony, that can still be traced today.  Most of these villages were joined in some way to the one that became known as Tamworth, the “settlement above the flooding river”.

Glascote is now part of Tamworth but was once a village not far out of town on the road that led over the Bolebridge.  It stretched uphill to Glascote Heath, which was up until earlier this century as its name implies, a vast hilly area of heathland, where coal and clay were mined.  It is the only place-name of British origin in the area, so its name was retained either because it was so small and isolated within dense woodland, or else because it was of some importance.  “Glas” could mean either green or blue, but implied a “shimmering” colour.  From this word we get the modern word “glass”. Although “cote” could mean cottage, in the British language, “Coit” meant a wood.   Glascote was a settlement in the green wood with high pasture around, above a river plain, in an area rich in minerals.

The Glascote Torc is kept at the Birmingham Museum, and proves the antiquity of the settlement in the green wood.  This neck ring of twisted strands of gold-alloy has been associated in local legend with Queen Boadicea of the Iceni whom some believe fought her last battle with the Romans, as the Roman writers themselves stated  “somewhere along the Watling Street”.   The archaeological findings however are that this adornment, undoubtedly made locally, would have been worn by a chieftain as it was an emblem of someone in authority, had it not been rejected by the craftsman because of a fault in the connection of the strands to one of the terminals. The goldsmith cast it aside, and that is where it lay until found in a boat-yard by the canal during the war.     It has been dated approximately 1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.   Although a search was made for other evidence at the time, there has been no in-depth study of the area, and it isn`t known what may have been found when the canal was built in the 18th century that has now been lost.

The high heath of Glascote would have been ideal as a meeting-place of the early kings.  In Romano-British times a building usually had to be found in which to hold meetings, a sort of early town hall where civic dignitaries met.  However, when the Anglo-Saxons started arriving in the 5th cent., the  chieftains usually gathered on a high plateau where they would set up camp and light signal-fires to guide retinues of leaders there. These meetings were obligatory and Tamworth was one of several, the local ones being Breedon-On-The-Hill, Penkridge and Lichfield.

As archaeology grows more technical, and more old documents are being translated, and the public grow more interested in finding out about their ancestry all sorts of new discoveries are being made at present that will help us understand our distant past. 

Arthurian Legend of Tamworth

Sir Lancelot du Lac had supposedly been introduced into these stories in the 12th century, and many knights tried to emulate this chivalrous newcomer to the court of King Arthur.  As the Anglo-Saxons applied that name to him, meaning “elf-arrow”, however, it appears he was known before the Normans came, and if that was not his real name then his identity must be sought according to new research, among the kings of Wales.

THE FRESCO IN TAMWORTH CASTLE

It was according to some historians, in the 14th century after refurbishment of the castle that the resco was painted on the north wall of the great hall depicting the two knights Lancelot and Tarquin duelling.  Others maintain it was during the time of Thomas Ferrers who inherited the castle when he married Elizabeth de Freville, in 1423, or during that of his son Sir Thomas Ferrers of the late 15th century.  Which would appear the most likely?  We shall see further on.

THE BALLAD, was one of many no doubt, popularised in those days when there was an appreciation of Arthurian legend. Whether the fresco was based on the ballad or whether the ballad was written after the fresco was painted, is not known.   From that painting on wet plaster, carried out by an artist who obviously worked with some difficulty, suspended from the ceiling for many weeks, came either the start of the legend of the White Lady or a popularising of it.

There was in fact a White Lady in the old Welsh stories of King Arthur, and it could be that the Ferrers who had access to these,  included her in the fresco as the sad heroine of the tale. It is said Lancelot met a lady on a white palfrey who told him there was a knight in a nearby castle who took on all comers.  Lancelot, apparantly looking for battle,  was then directed there.  Or this could have been some local legend of a grief-stricken White Lady that was somehow intertwined with the story of the duel between the knights, as this story in this form does not appear in the known Arthurian legends. In the usual version of these, Lancelot goes to free not a White Lady in distress from Tarquin but Gawain and a band of knights.

Shropshire and Staffordshire were once part of the kingdom of Powys, ruled by a succession of British kings, one of whom was supposed to have been the legendary King Arthur, the war-leader, who successfully pushed back the Anglo-Saxon advance by sixty years and who deterred Irish raiders who were landing on the western shores. The Anglo-Saxons eventually did continue their advance but the kingdoms of the western British preserved for the longest the traditions and beliefs of the whole of this land.

The year of the duel depicted in the fresco was quite specific; it was in 519.   The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record only one entry for that year, the battle of Certicesford, or as Phillips and Keatman maintain in “King Arthur – The True Story” the battle of Camlann in which King Arthur died.  “Certicesford” was in Hampshire, the land of Cerdic the Anglo-Saxon who had defeated the British King Natanleod in 508.  It is known that the land was called Natanleod before Cerdic came but after the battle he remembered the name of the conquered king in a large stretch of land. As many war-leaders had done, he may have married the daughter of the conquered king.  Phillips and Keatman however think this was the daughter of his ally the British King of Cornwall, Cunomorus, whom it is thought was King Mark of legend. He ruled Cornwall, with parts of Devon and Somerset.  Most of this later became Wessex. The tin for which Cornwall was famous was mined in the Iron-Age and the tin ships came from all parts of the Roman empire to trade for this rare commodity.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles compiled during the reign of King Alfred of Wessex, mention Anglo-Saxon triumphs yet it is s certain they suffered some crushing defeats! 

If the fresco had been painted during the lordship of Sir Thomas Ferrers, son of Thomas and Elizabeth, who was knighted in 1461, events at that time could have provided the impetus for this work of art. The duel between Lancelot and Tarquin was mentioned in Sir Thomas Malory`s “Morte d`Arthur”, printed by William Caxton, 1485.  This proved tremendously interesting and was circulated around a wide readership, one of the first books to be published from the earliest-known press.  The Ferrers were literate and appreciative of the arts, and may have been inspired to have the scene imprinted on the wall of the great hall.   What better as an artistic feature and a talking-point for all the eminent visitors who came to the castle?  William Caxton   (1422-91) published the epic in 1485, the year in which King Richard III was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

One of the king`s loyal knights who died beside him was Sir Walter Devereaux, whose wife had been one of the Ferrers of Chartley. His direct descendant Sir Robert Devereaux, 2nd. Earl of Essex of Chartley and of Drayton Manor who became High Steward of the Town of Tamworth and succeeded in obtaining from Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 the town`s second charter.

The Malory (Mallory) family to which Sir Thomas Malory belonged, were prosperous landowners.  They once acquired Chartley Castle, Staffordshire and also the estate of Groby, Leicestershire and a Richard Mallory held Breedon-On-The-Hill, later to be held by the Shirley and Ferrers.   In the 13th century, William Ferrers, Earl of Derby, granted Breedon-On-The-Hill to Ralph Bassett of Drayton, his brother-in-law.  Later in the 14th century Isabel, sister of the last lord Bassett of Drayton wed Sir Robert Shirley of Staunton Harold, and it was their descendant in 1653 who built the new church.  By the 17th century the Shirleys had restored to them the ancient Ferrers baronetcy, when Sir Robert Shirley was made Earl Ferrers of Chartley and Viscount Tamworth and his son Robert Shirley married Anne Ferrers of Tamworth Castle.

As already mentioned, Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, had collected all the known Arthurian legends mostly from French documents, for as a soldier abroad, he had travelled extensively, and compiled one epic poem. He became acquainted with William Caxton who had set up the first printing-press in England at Westminster in the late 15th century and who had a particular interest in translating and reproducing ancient documents.

According to Graham Phillips in “The Search for the Grail” there was a John Rous, a 15th century priest of Warwick, who identified Warwick as the scene for the early romances. Whether Warwick was Camelot or not, and many writers have put forward theories as to where this ideal city was situated, Warwick was an ancient town, once defended by Ethelfleda of Mercia, who built a burh there on which the present castle now stands.  In the same year that Malory wrote his poem, 1480, Rous in his writings, placed Camelot at Warwick though Malory identified it as at Winchester.  Malory knew about Rous` work, after all he lived a short distance from Warwick Castle, but seemed reluctant to include his own county town in the legends, perhaps thinking that people would not readily believe this, for it does seem that most of the early poets and writers were not to all intents and purposes writing fiction; most of them believed these tales to have been based on fact.

This complicated family heirarchy shows the inter-relationships of the nobles of this area.  Its feasible there was some reason of family interest that the Ferrers had the fresco, a grandiose work of art, painted on the wall of the castle, and the tales became so firmly established in local folklore, it was taken to mean that these events had actually happened in the town.   However, its also possible that as we are still learning about the early days of Christianity in this land, there was a memory preserved by the ruling families of Tamworth of an event that did actually happen there. That this was contained in their vast collection of books and documents, that has now largely disappeared.

Charles Ferrers Palmer in his “History of the Town and Castle of Tamworth”, 1845, mentions the ballad that was circulated in Tamworth, but thought it based on Percy`s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”. He was aware of the fact that the scene in the fresco was actually supposed to have taken place below the castle, though stated there was no historical evidence for this.  Probably because although many documents were in existence on Arthurian legend, no-one had then researched the local traditions or placed them in an historical context, and no archaeology as far as is known had then been carried out.

The Gentleman`s Magazine of July, 1784, contained an article by a contributor called Observator who was obviously appalled by the loss of the fresco on his first visit, which he could just about make out beneath a coat of whitewash.  By the time of his second visit the next year it had been completely obliterated.  This was during the time of George, 4th Viscount later Marquis Townshend, which is difficult to understand, as Marquis Townshend was supposed to have been keenly interested in antiquities.

The duel was also depicted in a painting by the American illustrator Newell Convers Wyeth, in the late 19th century.  In the painting the stand-off between the two knights takes place in the meadows below a castle, and although their armour and the castle look to be of much later medieval date, that appears to be the image that was engendered of Arthurian times, by Victorian artists, especially those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who made Arthurian legend very popular by using it as the main theme for their revival of real and romantic art.

According to legend, it was the Dolorous Stroke, when one hero slew another, (or perhaps when the inner strife of the ruling British families made for civil unrest) that caused the wasteland, that sent Gawain on a quest to find the Holy Grail to restore King Arthur to health and so bring back the fertility of the land.

The wasteland. There is new evidence however, that a catastrophic volcanic eruption in south-east Asia contributed to the wasteland of legend that hit the continent and Britain. That sent the knights of the Round Table out on a quest to find the Holy Grail to restore the land to fertility, Sir Gawain being the one who eventually succeeded.  This was actually some time before Arthur, but the memory and effects of this natural disaster must have stayed with the populance for some considerable time. It also caused a vast migration to the continent, until, realising that conditions over there were just as critical, people started coming back and trying to survive as best they could until the effects of the natural disaster started to lessen. Perhaps Arthur was remembered as being a good organiser who provided for his people in times of need.

The duel between the knights

Sir Carados of the Dolorous Tower had imprisoned Gawain and a band of knights in his dungeons and after he had been slain by Lancelot, the knight of the Round Table then had to confront his brother Tarquin (or Turquoine, according to the classic version of the tale.   Some versions of the local tradition maintain that it was Tarquin who had imprisoned Gawain and the knights in his castle, at a site unknown.  In some of the Arthurian legends, the Dolorous Tower is in the north.  The idea of Tarquin being a northern knight has some similarity with King Edward the Elder, son of King Alfred, of the 9th century, who founded a fort near the Roman town of Mancio which became the modern city of Manchester.  King Edward the Elder`s statue is on the Town Hall.  This was after all the northern limit of Mercia.   However, some believe this could have been Mancetter, near Atherstone (Arthur`s town) where there is known to have been a large Roman settlement.

As some archaeologists still maintain Tamworth just was not here before the reign of King Offa of the 8th cent. its difficult to see how any archaeology can be implemented to prove otherwise.  The Glascote Torc site was not excavated due to the war and by the 1970s when the significance of the torc was realised, it was too late, the site had been built on.

My suggestion is that the very early fort of whoever ruled here in British times, may have been built on the bank of the river below Glascote.  In Roman times in fact there were often forts on either side of the river to guard river traffic.  The ancient road that stretched up the hill and went across the heath became the Pilgrim`s path between Tamworth and Polesworth in early Christian times. The fort-dwellers did not have to cross the river to reach the Roman road, and in any case most of the land on the far side of the later medieval Lady Bridge was marsh in early times.

The Bolebridge was the oldest bridge. And the gradual incline leading up to the vast heath, may have been where one of the original settlements was situated. Just as Wall gave way to Lichfield, it may be that later when the Anglo-Saxons built the burh, then the Normans the castle, the Glascote side lost some of its status as a fortified settlement and the river`s meander, as at other places, has hidden the evidence of our past.

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