04 February 2023
And did those feet: did Alexander the Great visit Britain?
As our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, demonstrates, Alexander has been the protagonist of countless legends across the world and from the time of his birth to the present. Perceforest, a mysterious and dramatic 14th-century romance, conceivably the longest in all medieval French literature, is a prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain. It provides a dynastic link between two great legendary figures, as Alexander the Great fathers an ancestor of King Arthur with Sibile, the Lady of the Lake.
Alexander and his army arrive in Britain, in La Treselegante, Delicieuse, Melliflue et tresplaisante hystoire du tres-noble, Victorieux et excellentissme roy Perceforest (Paris: Nicolas Cousteau for Galliot du Pré, 1528): British Library, 85.k.5–6, vol. 1
Perceforest takes in a vast sweep of British history and tradition from the mythical founder, Brutus, through Alexander and up to Joseph of Arimathea’s arrival, bearing the Holy Grail that became the subject of the famous quest in Arthurian legend. The six volumes, each the length of a thick novel, contain an entertaining mix of scenes of love, horror and action infused with the merveilleux. Across 530 chapters, successive generations of kings, knights and ladies take part in wild adventures that include fording a magic river, giving birth to a marvellous child with a crossbow in his hand and fighting, a beast of many colours.
The first printed edition was produced in Paris in 1528, a beautifully bound set of volumes containing detailed woodcut images, borders and initials, and with a space left for the coat of arms of a potential owner to be inserted. Because of the immense undertaking, modern editions and translations in French and English have been lacking until relatively recently, meaning that previous scholars had to use this 16th-century edition.
The gilded knight meeting the beast of many colours in Perceforest, vol 3 (Bruges, late 15th century): Royal MS 19 E II, f.. 166r
The enchanted island of Britain in Perceforest is a land of amazing beauty and awesome marvels, home to the Sheer Mountain, the Temple of the Noble Guard, and the Passage of Three Rivers. It is ruled by the descendants of Brutus, who came from Troy to found a new dynasty, although a succession of weak and treacherous rulers have allowed the forces of evil to dominate. But help is at hand: Alexander the Great, his ships blown off course by a storm en route from Epheson to attend the coronation of Porus in India, lands on the shores of Britain with his companions. The great conqueror establishes his two protégés, Betis and Gadifer as kings of England and Scotland, holding extravagant coronation ceremonies with magical crowns, dancing and the first ever chivalric tournament. He then leaves them to rule and continues his journey towards his final destination, Babylon, where he will soon die.
A tournament with ladies watching: Royal MS 19 E II, f. 305r
Soon after Alexander’s departure, darkness intrudes in the form of the enchanter, Darnant and his clan, who rule over the beautiful English forest. Betis rides out to confront them, earning the name Perceforest by freeing the forest from the evil sorcerer. The brothers, Perceforest and Gadifer, set out to restore freedom and order throughout their kingdoms, fighting off the forces of evil with the help of local knights, but suffering various setbacks. Perceforest falls into a deep depression when he hears of Alexander's death at Babylon, Gadifer is seriously wounded while hunting a monstrous wild boar and chaos threatens once again, but eventually the pair emerge stronger to create a just, chivalric society.
Gadifer of Scotland and the damsel Pierrote riding on the adventure of the Sheer Mountain, in Perceforest, vol 2: Royal MS 19 E III, f. 275v
Sadly, Perceforest’s son falls under the spell of a treacherous Roman woman, who helps Julius Caesar to invade Britain. It is left to Ourseau, the grandson of Gadifer, and his wife, the Fairy Queen, to take revenge by arranging Caesar’s assassination. Gallafur, another of Gadifer’s grandsons, marries Alexander the Great’s granddaughter, and a new dynasty is established. Gallafur casts out evil forces from Britain and again restores order, placing his magical sword in a stone. A new invasion once more leaves a void of good rulers until, many generations later, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and becomes king.
Arthur draws the sword from the stone, in the Lancelot-Grail (northern France, c. 1316): Add MS 10292, f. 99r
The original romance of Perceforest was composed shortly after the marriage of King Edward III of England to Philippa of Hainault in 1328, probably in the Low Countries, to emphasise the links between the two royal houses. An elaborate story tells how a book of chronicles in Latin was found by William of Hainault in a secret cupboard and how he had it translated into French. Only four manuscript copies survive; the three large volumes in the British Library are an incomplete printer’s copy of David Aubert’s version, adapted for the Duke of Burgundy and illuminated in Bruges. Together, they are the size of a small suitcase, and this is only the first half of the story! The opening page shows Aubert presenting his work to a patron, probably the Duke.
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, receiving a book from David Aubert, author of the preface with a dedication to the duke, from Perceforest, vol. 1: Royal MS 15 E V, f. 3r
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors
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