Sir Eglamore of Aira Force

I recently read about the legend known as ‘Emma and Sir Eglamore’ connected to Aira Force (a waterfall) near Ullswater in the Lake District and wondered if it had anything to do with the Middle English romance of Sir Eglamour of Artois (14th-15th century).[1] The modern version of this legend, now considered folklore, is given on the Visit Eden website:

In medieval times a girl called Emma lived near Aira Force. She was betrothed to a renowned knight called Sir Eglamore. He had to leave her to follow the Crusades and Emma became so disturbed that she started sleep walking to Aira Force. Sir Eglamore returned unexpectedly from his travels, and found Emma at the top of the force where she tumbled into the depths. He was so distraught at losing his love that he became a hermit and lived in a cave above the force for the rest of his life. He built a little bridge across the raging beck so that no one else should topple over in the same way.’ [2]

Although the basic story of Emma and Sir Eglamore has no parallel in the medieval romance, the reappearance of the same name seems more than accidental. I also wondered if the insistence on the ‘medieval’ setting was a conscious effort to associate this Sir Eglamore with the Middle English hero.

The medieval Sir Eglamour, though his character is ‘of Artois’ (in France), is only known in English. This is relatively unusual amongst the Middle English romances, which often have French counterparts.

The surviving manuscripts suggest widespread popularity in England, and Northern or Midlands origins. Since Middle English romance was one of the most widely known and read literatures of the medieval period, for Sir Eglamour to especially stand out is a strong claim for its widespread fame at this time.

Although there is no known medieval version of the legend of Aira Force, it seems likely that the name ‘Eglamour / Eglamore’ survived from the medieval period due to its popularity. Eglamour / Eglamore in the popular imagination as a knightly hero, and might have come to be associated with Northern folklore in particular.

Yet in the present day, the name has passed into obscurity save for the relatively specialised knowledge of Middle English romance or the Aira Force legend itself.

Where does this particular legend of ‘Emma and Sir Eglamore’ come from, then?

A web search immediately reveals that the legend is the subject of a poem by Wordsworth (of course!) entitled ‘The Somnambulist’ (1833).[3] More on that in a moment. Quite quickly it becomes clear that Eglamour / Eglamore enjoyed a continued currency in the post-medieval period, thanks to a few important breaks.[4]

The first is the transition of the Middle English romance, previously circulated only in manuscript form (or oral storytelling), into print. The second is the inclusion of a ‘Sir Eglamour’ in Shakespeare’s play, Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare’s Sir Eglamour has a relatively small but significant role, as one of Julia’s suitors and aiding Silvia’s escape into the forest. [5] Since the romance had made the transition into print by 1500 and copies were still being produced until 1570 at least, it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare and his earliest audiences would have had this Eglamour in mind when Two Gentlemen of Verona was written and staged around 1590.

You can see some lovely illustrations of Eglamour in an early print edition via the Bodleian Library’s online LUNA collection: http://bodley30.bodley.ox.ac.uk:8180/luna/servlet/s/ydn00e

The third event is the inclusion of the poem in the so-called Percy Folio dated c. 1650. This was fortuitous for Eglamour’s survival because the Percy Folio was one that attracted the attention of early scholars of medieval romance in the eighteenth century, notably forming the basis of Thomas Percy’s popular Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765). Although Sir Eglamour was not one of the poems Percy included in his Reliques, he did mention it in his notes. William Wordsworth was amongst the many famous literary figures who owned and read Thomas Percy’s work.

The presence of Sir Eglamour in a Shakespearean drama has probably provided the most secure legacy for the name in cultural memory, even if modern audiences no longer recognise him in the way that the Elizabethans would have.

And yet the character in Shakespeare’s play bears no more resemblance to the Eglamore of Aira Force than the Middle English romance hero.

The answer to the question of the origin of the Aira Force legend seems to lie with Wordsworth himself. The full poem is a little too long to quote in full, but can be found in digitised editions of Wordsworth’s work at archive.org.[6]

His version of the story is essentially the same as the one given above, from Visit Eden, but with some additional details. The poem explains that Eglamore, returning home and seeing what he perceives to be a spectral figure wandering above Aira Force (actually Emma), he calls to it and in doing so awakes her; she loses her footing and falls. Incidentally, the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for ‘somnambulist’ gives as its earliest reference the words of Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘It was dangerous to awaken a somnambulist on the brink of a precipice’.[7] Quite!

However, Wordsworth’s own introduction to the poem is the most telling. He writes:

‘This poem might be dedicated to my friends, Sir G. Beaumont and Mr. Rogers, jointly. While were making an excursion together in this part of the Lake District we heard that Mr. Glover, the artist, while lodging at Lyulph’s Tower, had been disturbed by a loud shriek, and upon rising he had learnt that it had come from a young woman in the house who was in the habit of walking in her sleep. In that state she had gone downstairs, and, whole attempting to open the outer door, either from some difficulty or the effect of the cold stone upon her feet, had uttered the cry which alarmed him. it seems to us all that this might serve as a hint for a poem, and the story here told was constructed and soon after put into verse by me as it now stands’.

In Wordsworth’s own words, he ‘constructed’ the story of Emma and Sir Eglamore with his companions at Ullswater. Whether he truly invented the story from scratch or adapted a pre-existing folktale remembered after Mr. Glover’s anecdote, it is hard to say.

But in either case: enchanted by Aira Force and this odd anecdote to compose a poem about romantic tragedy, Wordsworth lighted on Eglamour, the knightly hero of medieval romance recently re-discovered as a literary ‘relic’ but possibly still known in the area where Wordsworth lived and imagined much of his poetry.[8] In doing so, he impressed upon the literary record evidence of the enduring appeal of Eglamour in English poetry and storytelling for more than 400 years.

* * *

A fairly cursory survey suggests plenty of scope for further research (I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more). Comments, suggestions, corrections, questions welcome!

P.s. Aira Force is well worth a visit. Wordsworth actually wrote several poems about it, and the surrounding area was the spot that inspired ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ Photos above kindly supplied by Joyce Timperley. Showing Aira Force in spring, autumn and winter when frozen (almost) solid.

NOTES:

[1] A full edition and introduction to the Middle English poem is freely available online via the wonderful Middle English Texts Series project: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hudson-sir-eglamour-of-artois-introduction

[2] http://www.visiteden.co.uk/explore-eden/myths-and-legends-of-eden

[3] A ‘somnambulist’ is ‘one who walks, etc., while asleep’ (OED).

[4] These aren’t the only things I found, and I’m sure there’s plenty more that I haven’t uncovered. The index of Helen Cooper’s The English Romance in Time (Oxford University Press, 2004) was a very helpful starting point.

[5] He might have been played by an actor ‘doubling up’ in other roles. I’d love to do a bit more work on this, considering the early stage performances of Eglamour and his characterisation in comparison / contrast with the medieval romance hero.

[6] For example, the 1901 Riverside Press, Cambridge edition by Andrew J. George: https://archive.org/details/completepoetica01georgoog

[7] Mary Wollstonecraft, An historical and moral view of the origin and progress of the French Revolution; and the effect it has produced in Europe, I. 275 (1794).

[8] Again, an opportunity for much more research here – perhaps someone has already done it?! – investigating Wordsworth’s sources and comparing the various incarnations of Eglamour through time.

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Author: gtimperley

PhD University of Manchester researching disinheritance and heirs (unknown heirs / illegitimacy) in Middle English romance. Working for Chetham's Library & Dimensions. Personal site.

5 thoughts on “Sir Eglamore of Aira Force”

  1. Fascinating post… Makes me think of the folk song by Kate Rusby too… ‘Sir Eglamore was a valiant knight… ‘

    Like

    1. Thank you! I didn’t know the song before and spotted it while Googling – it looks like it might be based on the poem? But I’d like to find out!

      Liked by 1 person

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