History of the Holy Grail

General Information

(N)IMEV: *842.5
Form: Couplets
Date of Composition: 1420s
Place of Composition: London
Keywords: Animal, Bedchamber, Conquest, Conversion, Crusade, Disease, Disguise, Dreams, Exile, Familial Discord, Friendship, Incest, Jerusalem, Marriage, Military Combat, Penance, Pilgrimage, Quest, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Rome, Sacrament, Saracen, Secular Spaces, Siege, Supernatural, The Orient, Travel, Treachery, Urban Spaces

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

The only surviving manuscript of Henry Lovelich’s translation into English of the French Vulgate Estoire du Saint Graal is Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 80, fols 1r-88v. Th. leaves containing the beginning of the story are missing and F.J. Furnivall, its editor, fills this gap, and a missing passage later in the text, with excerpts from the French version of the Estoire in British Library, London, MS Royal 14 E III. These French excerpts, summarised and translated into English, are presented below within square brackets.


This romance tells the story of the origins of the Holy Grail in the cup of the last supper and how it was brought to England after the crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea and his son, Josephes, the first bishop, in the company of the converted Saracens Mordrains, formerly Evelach , king of Sarras, and his brother-in-law Nasciens, formerly Seraphe. Much of the narrative is concerned with the tribulations of the Grail-bearers and with the earliest conversions in Britain. It foreshadows the Arthurian story of the Holy Grail (La Quête del Saint Graal) which takes place hundreds of years later. Lancelot and his son Galahad, the Grail knight, are direct descendants of Nasciens. Galahad will retrieve the sword of David from Solomon’s ship; and Mordrains, unlike the other leading characters, does not die at the end but will live until Galahad encounters him.


[After Christ’s crucifixion Joseph of Arimathea, a knight of Pilate, puts Christ’s body in his own tomb, collecting some of Christ’s blood in the cup used at the Last Supper. Joseph is imprisoned for 42 years until he is released by Vespasian. Christ appears to Joseph and tells him to take the holy vessel to foreign lands preaching the gospel, with his son Josephes. Joseph and his family are baptised and go to Sarras, where the Saracens come from. The Saracen king, Evalach, under threat of attack from Egyptians led by king Tholomes, offers the new arrivals hospitality. Christ consecrates Josephes as the first Christian bishop. Joseph and Josephes tell Evalach about Christ].
111 words.

Tholomes invades Evalach’s lands and Josephes, reminding Evalach of his origins as a herdsman’s son in Meaux, gives Evalach his white shield, with a cross of red silk tacked to it, to protect him. Tholomes routs Evalach’s army when they try to raise a siege, but Evalach’s brother-in-law, Seraphe, arrives with reinforcements. They head for Orcauz, which is attacked by Tholomes, but Evalach and Seraphe triumph against Tholomes’s exhausted men. Then Tholomes receives reinforcements and attacks Seraphe, who is saved by Evalach’s prayers, displaying great prowess. Evalach and his nephew rout Tholomes’s men who fire poisoned arrows as they flee, gaining the upper hand. Seraphe manages to rescue Evalach once but Seraphe is taken prisoner, badly wounded. When Evalach prays, a knight on a white horse appears, carrying a white shield with a red cross. He unhorses Tholomes, who is captured by Evalach, and rescues Seraphe. Tholomes’s army retreats, decimated.

In Sarras, Evalach’s wife, Sarracynte, tell Joseph that she is a secret Christian. Twenty-seven years previously a hermit healed her mother, the duchess of Orbery, and baptised her. Sarracynte also converted, and she and her mother received the host daily from a white box. On her mother’s death, Sarracynte took the box back to the hermitage and met a man in black there who told her that the hermit had died. They buried him and the man took the hermit’s place. Sarracynte admits that the open practice of her faith would anger Evalach.

Meanwhile, Tholomes submits to Evalach, who sends him to Orcauz and returns with Seraphe to Sarras. There Seraphe asks for baptism, taking the name Nasciens, and converts Evalach, who is baptised as Mordrains, while Sarracynte reveals that she is already a Christian. Josephes baptises many inhabitants of Sarras and then Joseph, going to Orcauz, learns that Tholomes has been killed there. Panicking, many of the people of Orcauz become Christians but others die attempting to escape. An angel wounds Joseph in the thigh with a spear, embedding its head, as a punishment for not baptising those who died. Joseph eventually converts all of Nasciens’s country and chooses bishops, and then brings the bodies of the hermit and the man in black to Orbery and Sarras.

Joseph shows Mordrains (Evalach) and Nasciens (Seraphe) the ark containing the grail, but Nasciens lifts the cover and is blinded. An angel appears with the lance that struck Joseph and removes its head from Joseph’s thigh. Blood drips on to Nasciens’s eyes, restoring his sight, and Joseph explains that when the lance bleeds the secrets of the grail will be revealed. He orders Mordrains to destroy the statue of a beautiful woman he keeps in his chamber. Later Mordrains has a disturbing dream, which neither Nasciens nor any churchman can interpret, about a lion and nine rivers flowing from the body of Nasciens’s son. The palace begins to shake and, amid terrifying sights and sounds, a voice cries ‘Here is the beginning of dread’. Meanwhile Mordrains is taken from his bed. Sarracynte comes home and is overwhelmed to find the whole household collapsed, Mordrains missing, and Nasciens in tears. A false knight, Calapher, accuses Nasciens of killing Mordrains and Nasciens is imprisoned.

Meanwhile Mordrains is taken by the Holy Ghost to a rock in the ocean. It was formerly held by pirates, but the Roman emperor, Pompey, killed them all before going to Jerusalem where he stabled his horses in the holy temple. St Peter afterwards shamed him by calling this conduct as bad as piracy. Mordrains, desolate, sees a ship approaching with a fair man in it and a cross. The man lands and tells Mordrains that his name is One and All Only, warning him to trust in God, before disappearing. Another ship approaches, and a beautiful woman lands. She says that his faith is false, that Seraphe is dying, and that she can free him if he does her will. Mordrains refuses and she sails off into a storm that sinks her ship. Next day the fair man returns and tells Mordrains that the woman was once in his household but she became so proud that he expelled her and now she works against him. He warns Mordrains against temptation and disappears. The woman returns and offers Mordrains riches, but he refuses and she leaves. Thunderbolts ensue and Mordrains prays. He is about to eat some black bread when a phoenix, symbolising Christ, swoops by and knocks it from his hand, wounding him, and Mordrains swears to eat only God’s bread in future. The man and woman visit him daily until an empty ship appears, containing his and Nasciens’s shields and a horse that he took from Tholomes. Seeing a corpse that looks like Nasciens, he faints and on awakening finds the ship empty and adrift. The man appears and warns him against tempters.

[Meanwhile Nasciens remains imprisoned, guarded by Calapher]. Then a white hand carries Nasciens out of the castle, followed by Calapher who is, however, prevented from catching him and collapses with incurable injuries. In revenge, he throws Nasciens’s son Celidoine from a tower, but nine white hands catch him and Calapher is killed as the tower falls. Sarracynte hears of Nasciens’s escape and sends messengers to him, whil. Nasciens’s wife, Flegentyne, evicted by Calapher, also learns of Nasciens’s and Celidoine’s escape and, seeing Nasciens in a vision, sets off westward to find him. Meanwhile, the white hand carries Nasciens to the Turning Island where he suffers uncomplainingly. He has a dream in which he flies with two white birds, removes his heart and gives it to them. Waking, he finds the island turning in the water. (The story of the grail was written by Christ, after his resurrection). Then a ship arrives, bearing an inscription saying that only those who are full of faith may enter. Nasciens boards and finds a rich bed with a crown at the head and a partly-drawn sword at the foot. On a cloth is written that the sword shall be drawn by the best man who ever lived, and springing from the bed are three rods, white, red and green, whose story follows:

When Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise after eating the apple, Eve took a branch of the tree of life. It grew and, when Abel was conceived under it, turned from white to green. It turned from green to red when Cain killed Abel while he was sleeping under it. The tree lasted till the reign of King Solomon, who was told that his last descendant would be the best knight. He therefore built a ship that would endure for 4000 years and on a bed he left David’s sword, to be drawn from its scabbard only by the last of his line. He also left David’s crown and three rods from the tree of life, with a letter for his descendant. Angels sprinkled the ship with water signifying that it was God’s new house and a sign warned that no-one could enter unless he was of steadfast faith. The ship sailed away.

Nasciens thinks that Solomon’s ship might be a deception. It splits in two and he swims to the island, asking God for forgiveness. He prays and an old man arrives, who tells him that the ship is the church; the sea is the world; the bed is the holy table of the eucharist, the cross and Christ’s resting-place after the Crucifixion; the rods are white for virginity, red for Christ’s Passion and charity, and green for patience. Nasciens dreams that he is attacked by a serpent but saved by a worm and wakes to find the man gone.

Celidoine, meanwhile, is taken to an island where he meets the Persian king, Label, who treats him kindly and knights him. Label has an inexplicable dream of which Celidoine provides a Christian interpretation, warning Label that he will die as punishment for having killed his sister when she would not have intercourse with him. Label is amazed by Celidoine’s knowledge and takes to his bed. There he dreams of walking on a broad highway and then, with a fair man, on a green path up to a high city, where he sees his murdered sister. Turned back because he has not washed in a well, he is attacked by thieves who take him to a foul house in a waste valley. Celidoine expounds the Christian symbolism of the dream. Label is baptised and dies, but Label’s followers refuse to convert and cast Celidoine adrift in a boat with a lion. He reaches Solomon’s ship which takes him to an island where he finds Nasciens and they sail on, meeting Mordrains who joins them. Mordrains grasps Solomon’s sword, which breaks and is then rejoined. A voice tells them to leave the ship but Mordrains delays and is wounded in the shoulder as punishment.

Meanwhile, the messengers sent to find Nasciens reach Egypt where the youngest has a dream in which Joseph shows him Nasciens’s ship. They encounter another ship containing Label’s followers, all dead except for Label’s daughter. They bury the bodies and Label’s daughter joins them. Their ship crashes into a barren rock, where the messengers land. Label’s daughter says she will convert if it will help them survive and they find a rich bed and the tomb of Ypocras, whose story follows.

Ypocras, honoured as a physician in Rome, fell in love with a woman who duped him into exposing himself to public ridicule. Hearing of the miracle-worker, Jesus, in Jerusalem, Ypocras left Rome to see him, stopping en route to heal the King of Persia’s son and marry his daughter. They lived on an island where he built a castle with a magic healing bed. His wife, after several failed attempts, poisoned him and he was buried in the tomb.

On Ypocras’s island, Label’s daughter, despairing, says she will accept any help. A burning ship appears and a hideous black man offers to rescue them but they refuse. The messengers pray and an old man arrives who identifies the black man as the devil and urges them to be steadfast. Then the pagan Lady of Athens arrives and says she will save them if they do her homage. They refuse her and pray, and a boat arrives containing an old man and the lion that had accompanied Celidoine. The man stays and the others go with the lion. They meet the ship carrying Mordrains, Nasciens and Celidoine, board it, and all recount their stories. Mordrains’s wound is healed by a priest who walks to their ship across the sea; he also orders Celidoine to sail off in an empty boat, while the rest go ashore. Mordrains’s wife, Sarracynte, arrives and Nasciens goes to Sarras where he is reunited with Flegentyne. Meanwhile Label’s daughter receives baptism.

Then a voice tells Nasciens to go to sea, so he rides off in secret but Flegentyne sends a knight, Nabor, after him. Nabor finds Nasciens exhausted from fighting a giant and, killing the giant, tries to force Nasciens to return. Nasciens prays and Nabor dies. Nasciens’s followers arrive, including the lord of Tarabel who is struck dead after a voice accuses him of killing his own father. Nasciens leaves orders for Flegentyne to build three tombs for the bodies and heads for the coast, where a fair woman asks him to carry her to Solomon’s ship. He tries but cannot and she turns into a fiend. He boards the ship, where he dreams of a man who gives him a letter and Celidoine appears with nine men. Waking, Nasciens reads the letter, which lists his descendants. Celidoine, Narpus, Nasciens, Aleyn the grete, Isaiah, Jonah, Lancelot, Ban, Lancelot [du Lac] and Galahad. An old man arrives, explains that Lancelot is a sinner and Galahad is born in sin but becomes supreme in prowess and remains a virgin, and then disappears. Ashore, Flegentyne builds the three tombs and refuses to leave her castle till she hears news of Nasciens.

Meanwhile Joseph, delivered by God, begets Galaaz on his wife. He and his followers want to go to the land Jesus has promised them, but they have no ship. Josephes says that only the chaste can go and the rest must remain and repent, so the Grail-bearers walk across the sea while the others sail on Josephes’s shirt and they arrive in pagan Britain. Joseph’s sinful followers, left behind and now repentant, are found by Nasciens who takes them to Britain on his ship and they are all reunited with Joseph. Hungry, they quarrel over bread until Josephes miraculously feeds them all. They go to Castle Galafort where they find Celidoine, who has been living as a hermit, attempting to convert duke Gaanort.

Gaanort has a dream which Josephes explains as showing baptism, sin and hell. Lucan, a pagan philosopher, is punished for questioning the virgin birth by the Virgin herself, who makes him pull out his tongue and die. Josephes reminds Gaanort that he once saw a fleur-de-lys, out of which grew a rose-tree with foul roses on it and one beautiful rose which never opened. A man came out of this rose, even though it was unopened, and killed a serpent. The fleur-de-lys is Eve; the roses are the prophets; the closed rose is Mary, who bore Jesus as a virgin; the serpent is the devil. Then Gaanort and 1000 followers are baptised, but the rest die and Gaanort erects the Tower of Marvels over them. Joseph’s wife gives birth to Galaaz. Then the king of Northumberland, angry at Gaanort's conversion, besieges his castle, which Josephes has already left, but Nasciens and Gaanort fight the king and Nasciens kills him. The Christians destroy the Northumbrian army at the Humber.

Joseph and Josephes take the Grail to North Wales, where king Crudel imprisons them. Meanwhile in Sarras Mordrains has a dream in which Christ tells him that he, Sarracynte, Flegentyne and Label’s daughter must punish Crudel, so they all set sail with Mordrains’s white shield, reach Britain and are reunited with Nasciens and Celidoine, who tells his story. Then Mordrains, Nasciens and Gaanort go to North Wales to fight Crudel, who is killed by Gaanort and his army wiped out. Josephes is released and says mass before the Grail but Mordrains approaches the Grail too closely and is blinded. Repentant, Mordrains asks to live until Galahad, the ninth descendant of Nasciens, arrives and this is granted. Celidoine marries Label’s daughter, and Mordrains commits his wife Sarracynte to her brother, Nasciens, before entering a hermitage where an abbey is founded to await Galahad’s coming.

Joseph and Josephes go to Camelot and convert many citizens, which angers king Agrestes, who erects a cross and kills any of his people who worship it. He butchers twelve of Josephes’s followers, staining the cross with blood, and then goes mad and dies. Josephes buries the martyrs and the cross remains red until Arthur’s time. There is a space at the Grail table between Josephes and his companion Bron, to be filled only by a truly holy man but Mois, a follower of Josephes, sits there and is borne away in flames. Josephes appoints Bron’s son, Aleyn, as his successor as Grail guardian and Josephes’s good followers are fed from the Grail while the sinners go hungry. Nevertheless Aleyn catches a fish which, through prayer, feeds them all and so Aleyn earns the soubriquet ‘the Rich Fisher’. Then Joseph meets a Saracen who asks him to cure his sick brother, and so they go to the Saracen’s castle, where he is killed by a lion while Joseph is imprisoned and wounded in the thigh. The Saracen’s sick brother is brought to Joseph, whose prayers destroy pagan idols, and Joseph restores the Saracen to life. The two brothers are converted and Joseph heals the sick brother with the sword-point that had been left in his thigh. The sword, we are reminded, will not be rejoined until the coming of the Grail knight.

Meanwhile Josephes and his followers cross a lake on foot, leaving behind Chanaan, a sinner, despite the efforts of his twelve brothers to get him across. Eventually he is taken over by fishermen who all drown. The company reaches a great house where Mois’s voice from within a fire begs Josephes to ease his suffering, so Josephes prays, giving Mois partial relief, but the flames will not die down until Galahad comes. Then Josephes goes to Scotland where everyone is fed except Symen and Chaanan who plot together; Chanaan kills his twelve brothers and Symen wounds Josephes’s kinsman, Piers. They are caught and punished but two burning men fly from Gales and carry Symen away. Chanaan repents and is released to build tombs for his brothers and himself, but as Piers’s wound worsens a fire appears on Chanaan’s tomb. Josephes says it will be put out by Lancelot and that Galahad will deliver Symen, Mois and Chanaan from their pains. Then Josephes resumes his travels, leaving Piers, who sails off in a ship and reaches the castle of the pagan king Orcaws, where a Christian prisoner heals his wound. The Irish king Marahans accuses Orcaws of poisoning his son. Disguised, Orcaws challenges his best knights to combat in order to choose a champion to fight on his behalf. They all lose, but Piers defeats Orcaws and so is chosen to fight Marahans whom he kills, vindicating Orcaws. In return, Orcaws converts and gives Piers his daughter in marriage. King Lucye also converts. Piers is the ancestor of king Lot of Orkney and his sons Gawain, Agravain, Gaheries, and Gareth; Lot’s supposed son, Mordred, was really Arthur’s. So Gawain descends from Joseph.

Josephes eventually returns to Galafort where his mother has died. He creates his good brother, Galaaz, king of Hostelice, which is renamed Gales in his honour, and Arthur’s knight, Uriens, is his descendant. One day Galaaz, out hunting, hears Symen’s voice coming from a fire, asking him to found an abbey where prayers may be said for him until he is released by Galahad. Galaaz builds the abbey and is later buried there. By the time Josephes returns from Gales Joseph has died and been buried in an Abbey of the Cross. Josephes goes to Mordrains’s abbey and asks for Mordrains’s shield, on which he paints a cross in blood from his nose and Mordrains’s sight is restored. The shield, which will be worn by Galahad, is to be hung over Nasciens’s tomb when he dies. Then Josephes dies and is buried in Mordrains’s abbey, and Joseph’s body is reinterred in Glastonbury Abbey.

Aleyn, bequeathed the Grail by Josephes, cures the leprous king, Galafres, who is baptised as Alphasan and builds Castle Corbenie to house the Grail. Alphasan has a vision of the Grail at a mass and is told that he is not worthy to be there; wounded in both thighs, he dies. His descendant Lambors fights king Varlans, who takes the sword from Solomon’s ship and strikes a blow that renders the land waste. Lambors is succeeded by Pellean, the maimed king, on whose daughter, Pelle, Lancelot begets Galahad.

Nasciens, Flegentyne, and Sarracynte all die on the same day. Celidoine, after saving his people from the Saxons, dies and is buried at Camelot. He is succeeded by Narpus, then Nasciens, then Aleyne the Gros, then Isaiah, then Jonah, then Aume, then Lancelot, who begets Ban and Brons. Ban begets Hector, a bastard, Lancelot [du Lac] and Bors. Ban’s father, Lancelot, loves the wife of a duke virtuously, but the duke beheads him while he is drinking at a well on Good Friday after confession. The head cannot be removed from the well because the water in it boils, and the duke is subsequently killed by a falling stone. Lancelot’s tomb is guarded by two lions until they are killed by Lancelot du Lac.

Pray for Harry Lovelich who wrote this in English because it is more clearly understood than French or Latin.


Click a title below to search for all romances in that manuscript.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 80 (folio: 197r-198v, 1-88v)Fifteenth century. Unique copy. 23,922 lines. Lacks opening.

Modern Editions

Dorothy Kempe, ed., The Legend of the Holy Grail, its Sources, Character and Development. The introduction to, and Part V of, Herry Lovelich`s verse `History of the Holy Grail`, EETS e.s. 95 (London, 1905; rpt. 1973)Edited from Corpus Christi, MS 80.
F.J. Furnivall, ed., Seynt Graal or the Sank Ryal (London: Roxburghe Club, 1861, 1863)Edited from Corpus Christi, MS 80.
F.J. Furnivall, ed., The History of the Holy Grail by Henry Lovelich, EETS e.s. 20, 24, 28, 30 (London, 1874-78; rpt. 1973)Edited from Corpus Christi, MS 80. Supplements missing passages with excepts from the French version of the Estoire in British Library, London, MS Royal 14 E III.


French Vulgate Estoire du Saint Graal *