Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/The Knight of the Swan

“WE rede in the auncient and autentike cronicles that sometime ther was a noble king in Lilefort, otherwise named the strong yle, a muche riche lande, the which kinge had to name Pieron. And he tooke to wife and spouse Matabrunne the doughter of an other king puissaunt and riche mervailously.” By his wife Matabrune, the king became father of Oriant, “the which after the dyscease of his father abode with his mother as heir of the realme, whiche he succeded and governed peasiabli without to be maried.”

One day King Oriant chased a hart in the forest, and lost his way; exhausted with his ride, he drew rein near a fountain which bubbled out from under a mossy rock.

“And there he sat downe under a tree, to the which he reined his horse the better to solace and sporte him at his owne pleasure. And thus as he was in consolacion there came to him a yonge damoysel moche grevous and of noble maintene, named Beatrice, accompanied of a noble knight, and two squires, with iiii damoyselles, the which she held in her service and famyliarite.”

This Beatrice became the wife of Oriant, much to the chagrin of his mother, who had hitherto held rule in the palace, and who at once hated her daughter-in-law, and determined on her destruction.

The king had not been married many months before war broke out, and he was called from home to head his army. Before leaving, he consigned his wife to the care of his mother, who promised to guard her with the utmost fidelity. “Whan the time limited and ordeined of almighti god approched that the noble and goodly quene Beatrice should be delivered after the cours of nature, the false matrone aforsaid went and delibered in herselfe to execute and put in effecte her malignus or moste wicked purpose. . . . But she comen made maners of great welth to the said noble quene Beatrice. And sodainly in great paine and traivable of bodye, she childed vi sonnes and a faire doughter, at whose birthe eche of them brought a chaine of silver about their neckes issuing out of their mothers wombe. And whan Matabrune saw the vii litle children borne having echone a chaine of silver at necke, she made them lightli and secretli to be borne a side by her chamberer of her teaching, and than toke vii litle dogges that she had prepared, and all bloudy laide them under the quene in maner as they had issued of her bodye.”

Then Matabrune ordered her squire Marks to take the seven children to the river and drown them; but the man, moved by compassion, left them in the forest on his cloak, where they were found by a hermit who “toke and lapped them tenderly in his mantel and with al their chaines at their neckes he bare them into the litle hous of his hermitage, and there he warmed and sustened them of his poore goodnes as well as he coulde.” Of these children, one excelled the others in beauty. The pious old man baptized the little babes, and called the one who surpassed the others by the name Helias. “And whan that they were in the age of theyr pleasaunt and fresshe grene yougth thei reane all about sporting and playinge in the said forest about the trees and floures.”

One day it fell out that a yeoman of Queen Matabrune, whilst chasing in the forest, saw the seven children sitting under a tree eating wild apples, each with a silver chain about his neck. Then he told Matabrune of the marvel he had seen, and she at once concluded that these were her grandchildren; wherefore she bade the yeoman take seven fellows with him and slay the children. But by the grace of God these men’s hearts were softened, and, instead of murdering the little ones, they robbed them of their silver chains. But they only found six children, for the hermit had taken Helias with him on a begging excursion. Now, “as soone as their chaines were of, they were al transmued in an instaunt in faire white swannes by the divine grace, and began to flee in the ayre through the forest, making a piteous and lamentable crye.”

Helias grew up with his godfather in the forest. The story goes on to relate how that the hermit was told by an angel in vision whose the children were; how a false charge was brought against Beatrice, and she was about to be executed, when Helias appeared in the lists, and by his valour proclaimed her innocence; and how Matabrune’s treachery was discovered.

“But for to returne to the subject of the cronykill of the noble Helias knight of the swanne. It is to be noted that the said Helias knight of the swanne demanded of Kyng Oriant his father that it wolde please him to give him the chaines of silver of his brethern and sister, that the goldesmith had brought. The which he delivered him with good herte for to dispose them at his pleasure. Than he made an othe and sware that he wolde never rest tyll he had so longe sought by pondes and stagnes that he had founde his v brethren and his sister, which were transmued into swannes. But our Lorde that consoleth his freendes in exaltinge their good will shewed greatly his vertue. For in the river that ranne about the kinges palays appeared visibly the swannes before all the people. —And incontinent the kynge and the queene descended wyth many lordes, knightes, and gentilmen, and came with great diligence upon the water syde, for to see the above sayde swannes. The king and the queene behelde them piteousli in weeping for sorrow that they had to se theyr poore children so transmued into swannes. And whan they saw the good Helias come nere them they began to make a mervaylous feast and rejoyced them in the water. So he approched upon the brinke: and whan they sawe him nere them, they came lightli fawning and flickering about him making him chere, and he playned lovingly their fethers. After he shewed them the chaynes of silver, whereby they set them in good ordre before him. And to five of them he remised the chaynes about their neckes, and sodeynlye they began to retourne to theyr propre humayne forme as they were before.” But unfortunately the sixth chain had been melted to form a silver goblet, and therefore one of the brothers was unable to regain his human shape.

Helias spent some time with his father; but a voice within his breast called him to further adventures.

“After certayne tyme that the victoryous kynge Helyas had posseded the Realme of Lyleforte in good peace and tranquilite of justice, it happened on a day as he was in his palais looking towarde the river that he apperceived the swanne, one of his brethren that was not yet tourned into his fourme humayne, for that his chaine was molten for to make Matabrune a cup. And the sayd swanne was in the water before a ship, the which he had led to the wharfe as abiding king Helias. And when Helias saw him, he saide in himselfe: Here is a signification that God sendeth to me for to shew to me that I ought to go by the guyding of this swanne into some countrey for to have honour and consolacion.

“And when Helyas had mekelye taken his leave of all his parentes and freendes, he made to here his armures and armes of honoure into the shyppe, with hys target and his bright sheelde, of whiche as it is written the felde was of sylver, and thereon a double crosse of golde. So descended anon the sayd Helyas with his parentes and freendes, the which came to convey him unto the brinke of the water.”

About this time, Otho, Emperor of Germany, held court at Neumagen, there to decide between Clarissa, Duchess of Bouillon, and the Count of Frankfort, who claimed her duchy. It was decided that their right should be established by single combat. The Count of Frankfort was to appear in person in the lists, whilst the duchess was to provide some doughty warrior who would do battle for her.

“Than the good lady as al abasshed loked aboute her if there were ony present that in her need wolde helpe her. But none wolde medle seynge the case to her imposed. Wherefore she committed her to God, praying Him humbly to succour her, and reprove the injury that wickedly to her was imposed by the sayd erle.”

The council broke up, and lords and ladies were scattered along the banks of the Meuse.

“So, as they stray’d, a swan they saw
   Sail stately up and strong,
 And by a silver chain she drew
   A little boat along,
 Whose streamer to the gentle breeze,
   Long floating, flutter’d light,
 Beneath whose crimson canopy
   There lay reclined a knight.

“With arching crest and swelling breast
   On sail’d the stately swan,
 And lightly up the parting tide
   The little boat came on.
 And onward to the shore they drew,
   And leapt to land the knight,
 And down the stream the little boat
   Fell soon beyond the sight.”
                     Southey’s Rudiger.

Of course this knight, who is Helias, fights the Count of Frankfort, overcomes him, and wins the heart of the daughter of the duchess. Thus Helias became Duke of Bouillon.

But before marrying the lady, he warned her that if she asked his name, he would have to leave her.

At the end of nine months, the wife of Helias gave birth to a daughter, who was named Ydain at the font, and who afterwards became the mother of Godfrey de Bouillon, King of Jerusalem, and of his brothers Baldwin and Eustace.

One night the wife forgot the injunction of her husband, and began to ask him his name and kindred. Then he rebuked her sorrowfully, and leaving his bed, bade her farewell. Instantly the swan reappeared on the river, drawing the little shallop after it, and uttering loud cries to call its brother. So Helias stepped into the boat, and the swan swam with it from the sight of the sorrowing lady.

The romance of Helias[1] continues the story to the times of Godfrey de Bouillon, but I shall leave it at this point, as it ceases to deal with the myth which is the subject of this article. The story is very ancient and popular. It is told of Lohengrin, Loherangrin, Salvius, and Gerhard the Swan, whilst the lady is Beatrice of Cleves, or Else of Brabant. In the twelfth century it seems to have localized itself about the Lower Rhine.

Probably the most ancient mention of the fable is that of William of Tyre (1180), who says: “We pass over, intentionally, the fable of the Swan, although many people regard it as a fact, that from it he (Godfrey de Bouillon) had his origin, because this story seems destitute of truth.” Next to him to speak of the story is Helinandus (circ. 1220), quoted by Vincent de Beauvais[2]: “In the diocese of Cologne, a famous and vast palace overhangs the Rhine, it is called Juvamen. Thither when once many princes were assembled, suddenly there came up a skiff, drawn by a swan attached to it by a silver chain. Then a strange and unknown knight leaped out before all, and the swan returned with the boat. The knight afterwards married, and had children. At length, when dwelling in this palace, he saw the swan return again with the boat and chain: he at once re-entered the vessel, and was never seen again; but his progeny remain to this day.”

A genealogy of the house of Flanders, in a MS. of the thirteenth century, states: “Eustachius venit ad Buillon ad domum ducissae, quae uxor erat militis, qui vocabatur miles Cigni[3].” Jacob van Maerlant (b. 1235), in his “Spieghel Historiael[4],” alludes to it—

“Logenaers niesdaet an doen,
 Dat si hem willen tien ane,
 Dat tie ridder metter swane
 Siere moeder vader was.
 No wijt no man, als ict vernam
 Ne was noint swane, daer hi af quam
 Als ist dat hem Brabanters beroemen
 Dat si van der Swane siin coemen.”

And Nicolaes de Klerc, who wrote in 1318, thus refers to it in his “Brabantine Gests:” “Formerly the Dukes of Brabant have been much belied in that it is said of them that they came with a swan[5].” And Jan Veldenar (1480) says: “Now, once upon a time, this noble Jungfrau of Cleves was on the banks by Nymwegen, and it was clear weather, and she gazed up the Rhine, and saw a strange sight: for there came sailing down a white swan with a gold chain about its neck, and by this it drew a little skiff . . .”—and so on.

There is an Icelandic saga of Helis, the Knight of the Swan, translated from the French by the Monk Robert, in 1226. In the Paris royal library is a romance upon this subject, consisting of about 30,000 lines, begun by a Renax or Renant, and finished by a Gandor de Douay. In the British Museum is a volume of French romances, containing, among others, “L’Ystoire du Chevalier au Signe,” told in not less than 3000 lines.

The “Chevelere Assigne,” a shorter poem on the same subject, was reprinted by M. Utterson for the Roxburghe Club, from a MS. in the Cottonian library, which has been quoted by Percy and Warton as an early specimen of alliterative versification. It is certainly not later than the reign of Henry VI.

The next prose romance of Helias is that of Pierre Desrey, entitled “Les faictz et gestes du preux Godsffroy de Boulion, aussi plusieurs croniques et histoires;” Paris, without date. “La Genealogie avecques les gestes et nobles faitz darmes du tres preux et renomme prince Godeffroy de Boulion: et de ses chevalereux freres Baudouin et Eustace: yssus et descendus de la tres noble et illustre lignee du vertueux Chevalier au Cyne;” Paris, Jean Petit, 1504; also Lyons, 1580. This book was partly translated into English, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde, “The hystory of Hilyas Knight of the Swann, imprynted by Wynkyn de Worde,” &c., 1512; and in full by Caxton, under the title, “The last Siege and Con- queste of Jherusalem, with many histories therein comprised;” Westmester, fol. 1480.

It is from the first thirty-eight chapters of the French “Faits et Gestes,” that Robert Copland translated his Helias, which he dedicated “to the puyssant and illustrious prynce, lorde Edwarde, duke of Buckynghame,” because he was lineally descended from the Knight of the Swan. This duke was beheaded, May 17th, 1521.

We need hardly follow the story in other translations.

The romance, as we have it, is a compilation of at least two distinct myths. The one is that of the Swan-children, the other of the Swan-knight. The compiler of the romance has pieced the first legend to the second, in order to explain it. In its original form, the knight who came to Neumagen, or Cleves, in the swan-led boat, and went away again, was unaccounted for: who he was, no man knew; and Heywood, in his “Hierarchies of the Blessed Angels,” 1635, suggests that he was one of the evil spirits called incubi; but the romancer solved the mystery by prefixing to the story of his marriage with the duchess a story of transformation, similar to that of Fionmala, referred to in the previous article.

We shall put aside the story of the swan-children, and confine our attention to the genuine myth.

The home of the fable was that border-land where Germans and Kelts met, where the Nibelungen legends were brought in contact with the romances of Arthur and the Sangreal.

Lohengrin belongs to the round table; the hero who releases Beatrice of Cleves is called Elias Grail. Pighius relates that in ancient annals it is recorded that Elias came from the blessed land of the earthly paradise, which is called Graele[6]. And the name Helias, Helius, Elis, or Salyius, is but a corruption of the Keltic ala, eala, ealadh, a swan. I believe the story of the Knight of the Swan to be a myth of local Brabantine origin. That it is not the invention of the romancer is evident from the variations in the tale, some of which we must now consider.

1. Lohengrin.

The Duke of Limburg and Brabant died leaving an only daughter, Else or Elsam. On his deathbed he committed her to the care of Frederick von Telramund, a brave knight, who had overcome a dragon in Sweden. After the duke’s death, Frederick claimed the hand of Else, on the plea that it had been promised him; but when she refused it, he appealed to the emperor, Henry the Fowler, asking permission to assert his right in the lists against any champion Else might select.

Permission was granted, and the duchess looked in vain for a knight who would fight in her cause against the redoubted Frederick of Telramund.

Then, far away, in the sacred temple of the Grail, at Montsalvatsch, tolled the bell, untouched by human hands, a signal that help was needed. At once Lohengrin, son of Percival, was sent to the rescue, but whither to go he knew not He stood foot in stirrup, ready to mount, when a swan appeared on the river drawing a ship along. No sooner did Lohengrin behold this, than he exclaimed: “Take back the horse to its stable; I will go with the bird whither it shall lead!”

Trusting in God, he took no provision on board. After he had been five days on the water, the swan caught a fish, ate half, and gave the other half to the knight.

In the mean while the day of ordeal approached, and Else fell into despair. But at the hour when the lists were opened, there appeared the boat drawn by the silver swan; and in the little vessel lay Lohengrin asleep upon his shield. The swan drew the boat to the landing, the knight awoke, sprang ashore, and then the bird swam away with the vessel.

Lohengrin, as soon as he heard the story of the misfortunes of the Duchess Else, undertook to fight for her. The knight of the Grail prevailed, and slew Frederick. Then Else surrendered herself and her duchy to him; but he would only accept her hand on condition that she should not ask his race. For some time they lived together happily. One day, in a tournament, he overthrew the Duke of Cleves and broke his arm, whereat the Duchess of Cleves exclaimed: “This Lohengrin may be a strong man and a Christian, but who knows whence he has sprung!” These words reached the ears of the Duchess of Brabant; she coloured and hung her head.

At night, Lohengrin heard her sobbing. He asked: “My love, what ails thee ?”

She replied: “The Duchess of Cleves has wounded me.”

Lohengrin asked no more.

Next night she wept again; her husband again asked the reason, and received the same answer.

On the third night she burst forth with: “Husband, be not angry, but I must know whence you have sprung.”

Then Lohengrin told her that his father was Percival, and that God had sent him from the custody of the Grail. And he called his children to him, and said, kissing them: “Here are my horn and my sword, keep them carefully; and here, my wife, is the ring my mother gave me never part with it.”

Now, at break of day, the swan reappeared on the river, drawing the little shallop. Lohengrin re-entered the boat, and departed never to return.

Such is the story in the ancient German poem of Lohengrin, published by Görres from a MS. in the Vatican; and in the great Percival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, verses 24,614—24,715.

2. The swan-knight of Conrad von Würzburg resembles Lohengrin and Helias in the outline of the story, but no name is given to the hero. He marries the daughter of the deceased Duke Gottfried of Brabant, and fights against the Duke of Saxony. His children are the ancestors of the great houses of Gelders and Cleves, which bear a swan as their arms.

3. Gerard Swan.

One day Charlemagne stood at his window overlooking the Rhine. Then he was ware of a swan floating on the water, drawing a boat by a silken band fastened round its neck. When the boat came alongside of the quay, the swan ceased to row, and the emperor saw that a knight armed cap-a-pie sat in the skiff, and round his neck hung a ribbon to which was attached a note. Navilon (Nibelung), one of the emperor’s men, gave the stranger his hand to help him out of the bark, and conducted him to Charlemagne. The monarch inquired of the stranger his name; for answer he pointed to the letter on his breast. This the king read. It stated that Gerard Swan sought a wife and lands.

Navilon then unarmed the strange knight, and the king gave him a costly mantle. So they went to table. But when Roland observed the man, he asked who he was. Charlemagne replied, “He is a godsend;” and Roland observed, “He seems to be a man of courage.”

Gerard proved to be a worthy knight; he served the monarch well. He soon learned to talk. The king was very fond of him, and gave him his sister Adalis in marriage, and made him Duke of Ardennes[7].

4. Helias.

In the year 711 lived Beatrice only daughter of Dietrich, Duke of Cleves, at her castle of Nymwegen. One bright day she sat at her window looking down the Rhine, when she saw a swan drawing a boat by a gold chain. In this vessel was Helias. He came ashore, won her heart, became Duke of Cleves, and lived happily with her for many years. One thing alone interfered with her happiness: she knew not whence her husband came, and he had strictly forbidden her to ask. But once she broke his command, and asked him whence he had come to her. Then he gave his children his sword, his horn, and his ring, bidding them never separate or lose these legacies, and entering the boat which returned for him, he vanished for ever[8]. One of the towers of Cleves is called, after this event, the Swan-tower, and is surmounted by a swan.

5. Salvius Brabo.

Gottfried-Carl was King of Tongres, and lived at Megen on the Maas. He had a son named Carl-Ynach, whom he banished for some misdemeanour. Carl-Ynach fled to Rome, where he fell in love with Germana, daughter of the Proconsul Lucius Julius, and fled with her from the eternal city. They took ship to Venice, whence they travelled on horseback to Burgundy, and reached Cambray. Thence they proceeded to a place called Senes, and finding a beautiful valley, they dismounted to repose. Here a swan, at which one of the servants aimed an arrow, took refuge in the arms of Germana, who, delighted at the incident, asked Carl-Ynach the name of the bird in his native tongue. He replied “Swana.” “Then,” said she, “let me be henceforth called by that name, lest, if I keep my former name, I be recognized and parted from thee.”

The lady took the swan with her as they proceeded on their journey, and fed it from her hand.

They now reached Florimont, near Brussels, and there Carl-Ynach heard that his father was dead. He was therefore King of Tongres. Shortly after his arrival at Megen, his wife gave birth to a son, whom he named Octavian, and next year to a daughter, whom they called Swan. Shortly after, Ariovistus, King of the Saxones, waged war against Julius Caesar. Carl-Ynach united his forces with those of Ariovistus, and fell in the battle of Besançon. Swan, his widow, then fled with his children and her husband’s body to Megen, fearing her brother Julius Caesar. There she buried Carl-Ynach, and daily fed her swan upon his grave.

In the Roman army was a hero, Salvius Brabon by name, descended from Frankus, son of Hector of Troy. Caesar rested at Cleves, and Salvius Brabon amused himself with shooting birds in the neighbourhood. One day he wandered to the banks of the Rhine. On its discoloured waters swam a snow-white swan, playfully pulling at the rope which bound a small skiff to the shore. Salvius leaped into the boat, and cast it loose from its mooring. Then the bird swam before him as a guide, and he rowed after it. On reaching the castle of Megen, the swan rose from the water, and flew to the grave of Carl-Ynach, where its mistress was wont to feed it. Salvius pursued it, bow in hand, and was about to discharge an arrow, when a window of the castle opened, and a lady cried to him in Latin to spare the bird. Salvius consented; and casting aside his bow and arrow, entered the castle. There he learned the story of the lady. He hastened to Julius Caesar, and told him that his sister was in the neighbourhood. The conqueror accompanied Salvius to the castle, and embraced Germana with joy. Salvius Brabon then asked the emperor to give him the young damsel Swan in marriage, and he readily complied with the request, creating him at the same time Duke of Brabant; Octavian took the name of Germanicus, and became King of Cologne, and Tongres exchanged its name for Germania, after the sister of the emperor, its queen[9].

It was in commemoration of the beautiful myth of the Swan-knight, that Frederick II. of Brandenburg instituted the Order of the Swan, in 1440. The badge was a chain from which was suspended an image of the Virgin, and underneath that a swan. The badge of the Cleves order of knighthood was also a silver swan suspended from a gold chain. In 1453, Duke Adolph of Cleves held a tournament at Lille, “au nom du Chevalier au Cygne, serviteur des dames.”

On the 13th May, 1548, the Count of Cleves presented the players with a silver swan of considerable value. Charles, Duke of Cleves, attempted, in 1615, to revive the order of the swan. When Cleves fell to Prussia, the Count de Bar endeavoured to persuade Frederick the Great to resuscitate the order, but in vain. With Anne of Cleves, the white swan passed to our tavern signboards.

The myth is a Belgic religious myth. Just as in the Keltic legends of the Fortunate Isles, we hear of mortals who went by ship to the Avalon of Spirits, and then returned to their fellow-mortals; so in this Belgic fable we have a denizen of the distant paradise coming by boat to this inhabited land, and leaving it again.

In the former legends the happy mortal lives in the embraces of a divine being in perpetual youth; in the latter, a heavenly being unites himself, for a while, to a woman of earth, and becomes the ancestor of an aristocracy.

An Anglo-Saxon story bears some traces of the same legend. A ship once arrived on the coast of Scandia, without rudder or sail; in it lay a boy asleep upon his arms. The natives took and educated him, calling him Scild, the son of Sceaf (the skiff). In course of time he became their king. In Beowulf, it is added that Scild reigned long; and when he saw that he was about to die, he bade his men lay him fully armed in a boat, and thrust him out to sea. Among the Norse such a practice was not unknown. King Haki, when he died, was laid in a ship, the vessel fired, and sent out upon the waves. And the same is told of Baldur. But the shipping of the dead had no significance in Scandinavian mythology, whilst it was full of meaning in that of the Kelts. The Scandinavian Valhalla was not situated beyond the Western Sea, but on the summit of a great mountain; whereas the Keltic Avalon lay over the blue waters, beneath the setting sun. Consequently, I believe the placing of the dead in ships to have been a practice imported among the Northern and Germanic nations, and not indigenous[10].

The classic fable of Helios sailing in his golden vessel deserves notice in connexion with the myth of Helias. That the sun and moon travel in boats of silver or gold is an idea common to many mythologies. At first sight it seems probable that Helias is identical with Helios; but the difficulty of explaining how this classic deity should have become localized in Brabant is insurmountable, and I prefer the derivation of the name Helias from the Keltic appellation of the swan.

The necessity of the knight leaving his bride the moment she inquired his race connects this story with the Grail myth. According to the rules of the order of the Sangreal, every knight was bound to return to the temple of the order, immediately that any one asked his lineage and office. In the popular legend this reason does not appear, because the Grail was a genuine Keltic myth, with its roots in the mysteries of Druidism.

Of the different editions of Lohengrin, Helias, and the other Swan-knight legends, I will give no list, as the principal are referred to in the notes of this article.

Original footnotesEdit

  1. Helyas, the Knight of the Swanne. From the edition of Copland, reprinted in Thorns: “Early English Prose Romances,” 1858, vol. iii.
  2. Specul. Nat. ii. 127.
  3. Reiftenberg, Le Chevalier au Cygne. Bruxelles, 1846 p. viii.
  4. Maerlant, Fig. 1. 29.
  5. Von Wyn, Avondstonden, p. 270.
  6. Hercules Prodicus, Colon. 1609.
  7. Northern Chapbooks of the Emperor Charlemagne. Nyerup, Morskabsläsning, p. 90.
  8. Grimm, Deutsche Sagen, 1866, ii p. 267.
  9. Jehan le Maire, Illustrations de Gaule. Paris, 1548, iii. pp. 20—23.
  10. Appendix D.