General Information

(N)IMEV: 2312
Form: Couplets
Date of Composition: 1420s
Place of Composition: London
Keywords: Conquest, Disguise, Familial Discord, Forest, Friendship, Hunting, Incest, Marriage, Military Combat, Other-world, Quest, Rape, Sacrament, Saracen, Secular Spaces, Sexual Encounters, Siege, Steward, Supernatural, Tournament, Travel, Treachery, Urban Spaces

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

The only surviving manuscript of Henry Lovelich’s translation into English of the French Vulgate Merlin is Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 80, fols 88v-200v. An unknown number of leaves is missing at the end of the manuscript and the translation stops half-way through the French source. There is no way of knowing whether Lovelich translated the whole text.


The romance tells the story of Merlin’s origins, and Arthur’s conception, his accession to the throne, his early battles against the Six Kings, the formation of the group of knights that became the Round Table, and his betrothal to Gonnore [Guinevere].


Merlin is the son of a devil and a human woman with predictive powers which he uses for good ends. He assists Uter to sleep with Ygwern, from which union Arthur is born and placed by Merlin with foster parents. When Uter dies and a new king is sought, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone, proving his right to the throne. Rebel kings do not accept Arthur’s authority and Merlin advises him to summon kings Bors of Gawnes [father of Lionel and Bors] and Ban of Benoic [father of Lancelot and Ector] for support. Arthur, Bors and Ban defeat the rebel kings in battle and, on Merlin’s advice, go off to defend a neighbouring king, Leodegan, against attack from king Rion. Meanwhile pagan Saxons invade Britain, entering the lands of the rebel kings. The young princes, Galachim, Gawain and his brothers, Sagremour and the two Iweins, decide to serve Arthur rather than support their fathers in rebellion against him. In Arthur’s absence, they fight against the Saxon invaders, receiving guidance from Merlin, often in disguise. Arthur, Bors and Ban rout Rion and his supporters and Arthur is betrothed to Leodegan’s daughter Gonnore, as Merlin had predicted. Arthur, Bors and Ban return to London where they meet Gawain and the other princes who are knighted by Arthur. Merlin goes to Ban’s kingdom of Benoic where he falls in love with a young woman, Nimiane, and teaches her magic. Warned by him that Benoic is under attack, Arthur and all his followers head there and Arthur routs the attackers, led by Merlin with his dragon standard.


The devils, jealous of Christ, decide to create a human with equivalent powers. One of them has intercourse with a young woman while she sleeps, engendering Merlin. She is tried for incontinence and faces death. The precocious Merlin claims that the judge’s mother is guiltier than his and, indeed, she admits adultery with a priest. Merlin acknowledges that his father was a devil from whom derives his ability to know past and future but, because of his mother’s goodness, he uses his gift for God. He predicts, correctly, that the priest will drown. The hermit, Blaise, his mother’s confessor, makes a book about Merlin’s life.

When Constantine, king of Britain, dies, his eldest son Constantine succeeds him but is unsuccessful, and the people ask Vortigern, a lord, to be king. He refuses as long as Constantine lives, so twelve volunteers kill Constantine. His younger brothers, Pendragon and Uter, escape to safety. Once crowned, Vortigern has the murderers killed, which makes him hated. Vortigern builds a tower to protect himself but it keeps collapsing. Astrologers say that the blood of a fatherless child must be placed in the foundations, so messengers seek the fatherless child and find Merlin. He demonstrates that the tower falls because two dragons, red and white, are fighting underneath it. The white dragon, who represents Pendragon, burns the red one, who represents Vortigern, and then dies. Merlin says Pendragon and Uter are returning for vengeance.

The brothers arrive and Pendragon becomes king. Vortigern is killed. Merlin appears to Pendragon and Uter in different shapes, to their amazement. Their enemy, Augwis, is killed by Uter, after a warning from Merlin who becomes the brothers’ counsellor, accurately predicting the death of a jealous baron. Merlin warns Pendragon that the brothers will defeat Augwis’s men in a forthcoming battle but that one brother will die. Augwis’s men attack and are defeated but Pendragon is killed and Uter becomes king. Merlin brings huge stones from Ireland and tells Uter of Christ’s round table of the last supper and of Joseph’s round table of the Grail, advising him to make a third.

Merlin chooses fifty knights for Uter’s round table, warning that one seat must be left empty, but Uter allows it to be filled and the knight who sits in it disappears, for which Merlin reproves Uter. At the Christmas festivities Uter desires the duke of Tintagel’s wife, Ygwern, but she refuses him and the following year, with Uter still pressing her, tells her husband. They return to Tintagel and Uter invades the duke’s lands. Unsuccessful, he seeks the help of Merlin who, on an unspecified condition, enables Uter to take on the likeness of the duke of Tintagel. Uter has intercourse with the unknowing Ygwern, leaves, and news arrives of the real duke’s death in battle. Merlin’s condition is that the son of this union will be given to Merlin. Uter assents.

Uter, wishing to make amends for the duke of Tintagel’s death, marries the duchess, while her daughter marries king Lot of Orkney. Merlin reminds Uter of their agreement. After their marriage, Ygwerne admits that she has been impregnated by a man who looked like her husband and agrees to surrender the child, whom Merlin gives to Antron and his wife. He is christened Arthur. Time passes, Igwerne dies and Uter suffers from gout. Enemies attack and he is, on Merlin’s advice, taken to battle on a litter. He is victorious, distributes his goods to the poor, and on his deathbed is told by Merlin that Arthur will be king and will fill the round table. His barons disagree on the succession and summon Merlin.

Merlin advises them to pray at Christmas for a sign from God and they do so. Arthur and his foster-brother, Kay, go to London with Antron. A stone appears in which a sword is lodged, with an inscription saying that whoever can draw the sword shall be king. All who try to draw it fail. Kay sends Arthur to fetch his sword for a tournament and, unable to find it, Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and brings it to Kay. Antron, learning about this, tells Arthur that he is not his father, but the barons refuse to have a low-born man as king even though Arthur repeatedly draws the sword. They are finally convinced by Arthur’s virtuousness and he is crowned at Pentecost. The stone disappears.

Six kings come to Arthur’s court and are warmly welcomed but they disdain Arthur’s low birth and drive him away. Merlin arranges a meeting between Arthur and the kings, at which Merlin explains that Arthur is Uter’s son. The people support Arthur but the kings are contemptuous of his illegitimacy and civil war threatens. Merlin advises Arthur that unless he goes to the aid of his neighbour, king Leodegan, who is being attacked by king Rion, Arthur’s kingdom will be attacked next. Merlin also advises Arthur to marry Leodegan’s daughter, Gonnore. The six kings jointly confront Arthur and his men but are routed after hard fighting, in which Arthur bears the sword from the stone, Escalabort.

Arthur holds a parliament in London. Merlin tells Arthur about his own history, about Arthur’s conception and birth, about his five sisters, and about Gawain and Iwein, both sons of kings defeated by Arthur, who will become Arthur’s knights. Merlin tells Arthur to summon two kings, Bors of Gawnes and Ban of Benoic, whose sons will be mighty knights and who have a hostile neighbour, king Claudas. Messengers to Bors and Ban traverse Claudas’s lands, laid waste by the two kings, and are challenged by Claudas’s knights whom they defeat. The messengers are greeted at Benoic by two knights whom they recognise as old friends, and Bors and Ban set out for Britain.

The two kings are received by Arthur in London with great festivity. A huge tournament takes place with fourteen hundred knights in two teams, including three hundred from Benoic. The winners are Kay, Lucan the Butler and Girfles. Bors and Ban meet Merlin, who asks them to take Arthur as their overlord. They ask whether Arthur is Uter’s son and Merlin says that he is and agrees to swear to this. Next day Merlin swears on the sacrament that Uter is Arthur’s father and Bors and Ban do homage. Merlin proposes that they and Arthur support Leodegan against Rion and that Arthur marry Gonnore, after they have all defeated the rebellious kings. Merlin raises an army from Ban’s and Bors’s lands and Arthur assembles ten thousand mounted men. The six rebellious kings, who have regrouped and increased their numbers to eleven since their earlier defeat, head to where the opposing army is encamped. Meanwhile Merlin brings Arthur, Bors and Ban from London. A mighty battle ensues in which Arthur, Bors and Ban, among others, fight magnificently and the rebel kings are defeated. Merlin departs to tell Blaise his story.

Arthur divides the spoils of battle among his followers. He, Bors and Ban encounter a roughly-dressed old man in the fields carrying a bow, with birds hanging from his girdle. The man contemptuously gives Arthur some birds, accusing him of meanness and claiming to know Merlin. Three of Arthur’s knights recognise him as Merlin, and Arthur, Bors and Ban marvel at his appearance. Merlin resumes his familiar form and they all laugh. A maiden, Lysanore, arrives to do homage to Arthur and he sleeps with her, begetting Loost, who becomes a knight of the round table.

The defeated kings learn that heathen Saxons are invading. Arthur has gone to fight Leodegan and, regretting that they do not have his support, they disperse to defend different territories. King Newtris’s son, Galachim, is told of Arthur’s parentage by his mother, Arthur’s half-sister. Galachim contacts his cousin Gawain, the eldest son of another half-sister, king Lot’s wife. (She has four sons, one of whom, Mordred, was conceived when she unwittingly slept with Arthur). She tells Gawain that Arthur is his uncle and that only he can defeat the heathens, so all the youths agree to serve Arthur. Sagremour of Constantinople, the nephew of another king, also vows to follow Arthur. The rebel kings fight against the heathens, who then invade Arthur’s lands.

Galachim meets Gawain and his brothers and they all head for London to find Arthur. They encounter four heathen kings who have robbed and burned peasants’ lands, and lead the peasants successfully into battle against them. The peasants take the heathens’ booty to London for safety, and the Londoners march out in support against the now reinforced heathen army. Gawain and his brothers kill one of the two surviving heathen kings and the Londoners arrive in time to help them defeat the second. They all go joyfully to London.

Meanwhile Arthur, with Merlin, Ban and Bors, goes – incognito – to help Leodegan against four heathen kings. Leodegan’s city is besieged. Merlin leads out a troop which attacks the besiegers and Leodegan’s army follows. Leodegan is taken prisoner amid fierce fighting, but is rescued by Arthur’s knights. Gonnore marvels at Arthur’s prowess. The heathens flee the city but the battle continues and Arthur’s 42 companions excel themselves, as does Leodegan’s steward, Cleodalis. (He has remained faithful although Leodegan raped his wife on the same night that Gonnore was conceived, begetting the second Gonnore). Eventually the heathens are overcome and flee to king Rion who summons reinforcements. The victors return to the city, and Gonnore and Arthur are attracted to each other at the celebratory feast, at which Merlin tells Arthur about the success of his nephews.

In Britain, the rebel kings are under attack. Two kings fight the heathens at Arundel, supported by the lady of Arundel castle. Meanwhile, Scotland is invaded and its king is saved from defeat by king Uriens. Uriens’s sons, Iwein and Iwein the Bastard, leave to join Gawain in London. King Newtris seeks out the heathens and a mighty battle ensues. Reinforcements arrive and Newtris withdraws. Heathens enter the lands of king Belinans and king Brangor and are met at a bridge where there is great slaughter, but king Carados arrives with his army and the enemy eventually flee. Two young men, Dodinel and Ken, leave to join Gawain. Meanwhile the defeated heathens carry out raiding expeditions and prepare to besiege two cities. King Clarion of Northumberland withstands a heathen army at the Roche.

Merlin returns to London, visiting Blaise en route, as a new invading army reaches the Humber. Sagremour arrives from Constantinople and heads for Camelot. Merlin, disguised as an old man, appears at Camelot bewailing the imminent death of Sagremour and provokes Gawain into supporting Sagremour against a Saxon attack. After fierce fighting the Saxon leader, Oriens, is unhorsed and Merlin advises Gawain and Sagremour to head for Camelot. Oriens rallies in pursuit but, after more fighting, falls again. Gawain’s brothers encounter Merlin, still disguised, who accuses them of cowardice because they are not with Gawain. They meet Gawain and Sagremour and Merlin’s horse gallops by wearing a bloody saddle. They assume the old man is dead. They reach Camelot where they celebrate Sagremour’s arrival and hear that the Saxons are in Northumberland.

Oriens lays waste the lands of king Clarion and duke Escam. They divide their armies and one section ambushes a raiding party, putting the Saxons to flight. Oriens sends out more men and a battle ensues which the Christians win. Clarion and Escam leave and separate bu. Oriens attacks Escam’s lands and so Escam returns and repels him. The fleeing Saxons blame Oriens for the deaths of so many men.

Merlin, disguised as a messenger, brings Gawain a letter purportedly from the two Iweins, asking him to help them and king Ydiers against the Saxons. Gawain and his followers enter the battle in which Ydiers is routed and regrets his disloyalty to Arthur. Gawain and his followers fight superbly and the two Iweins join the battle alongside them. Gawain’s brothers learn that the two Iweins are also Arthur’s nephews and everyone rejoices. The battle continues till nightfall and then the Saxons leave while Gawain and his followers relax. Gawain discovers that neither Iwein wrote for help and fails to find the messenger who brought the letter. News comes that Saxons have invaded Arundel and Gawain leads his followers to battle, joining with the squires of Arundel who want to be knighted by Arthur. The Christians rout the Saxons and an old man [Merlin disguised] warns Gawain to take refuge in Arundel. They are attacked by Arans, who had earlier caused Gawain’s father, king Lot, his wife and the infant Mordred to flee. The queen had been captured but the baby saved. An old knight [Merlin disguised] challenges Gawain to accompany him to the forest with his followers. They meet a squire with Mordred and then Gawain’s mother, who has been assaulted by a Saxon. Gawain rescues her and routs the Saxons. Then Gawain heads for London, where he learns of all Merlin’s disguises.

Merlin tells Blaise that he is going to Benoic which is being attacked by king Claudas, prophesying that a lion will bind a leopard. Blaise asks what will happen to Britain and Merlin says a leopard will come out of Benoic and a lion out of Britain and that the adventures of the Holy Grail shall be completed in Arthur’s time. In Benoic Merlin visits Leonce, Ban’s seneschal, and warns of the serpent that will chase out the leopard. He advises Leonce to cut off Claudas’s supplies and wait for support, and then leaves to join Arthur, Bors and Ban. In a forest, disguised as a fair young man, he meets Nimiane, daughter of Dionas, a loyal supporter of Ban and Bors. Merlin demonstrates his powers, she plights her troth to him and he teaches her magic. Then he joins Arthur. (Gallina [hen] ciligo [rye] amo [love] similis [like] [i.e. Henry Lovelich] prays for a drink to sharpen his wits).

Merlin goes with Arthur, Bors and Ban to king Leodegan and tells him how to resist king Rion. Arthur is betrothed to Leodegan’s daughter, Gonnore, who arms him for battle. The kings attack Rion’s army and Arthur defeats the giant, Jonap. Bors fights Rion, and Merlin raises a wind and burns the heathens’ banners. Ban goes to Bors’s aid and Leodegan’s nephew arrives with reinforcements. Merlin criticises Arthur’s inaction. Arthur puts Rion’s army to flight and they engage in single combat but Rion escapes and joins an attack on Ban and Bors. Arthur arrives and is rescued by Bors from Rion who retreats, leaving his sword. Fighting continues. Merlin puts an enchantment on fleeing Saxons and they are engaged in battle by Bors’s old enemy, Ameus. Arthur kills many with Rion’s sword and is led by Merlin to rescue Leodegan. The heathens are routed and the kings separate. Ameus defeats the fleeing Saxons. Merlin tells Arthur to go to Benoic to meet Bors, whose castle Ameus plans to attack.

En route to Benoic, Bors and his brother Gwinebant meet a lady in a forest to whom Gwinebant vows his love, confirming this with feats of enchantment. They leave and then Bors is waylaid by Ameus who claims his castle. They agree to single combat; if Bors wins Ameus is to do homage to Arthur. They fight and Bors kills Ameus. Bors goes on to meet Arthur, and Gawain and his followers arrive to ask for knighthood. They all go to London, where Gawain and his followers are dubbed knights. Then Merlin announces that Benoic is being invaded by king Claudas and his allies, and meets Gawain in his own shape for the first time. Gawain sets out with an army and is followed by Arthur, Bors and Ban.

Meanwhile Leonce and Fariens are raising support in Benoic. King Claudas besieges Trebes castle, where queen Elayne and her sister are entrapped. Merlin arrays Arthur’s army and tells Leonce and Fariens to join Arthur at Trebes where the battle against Claudas is engaged. Arthur’s men fight magnificently. Ban fights Claudas and Bors fights his ally, Poinces. Gawain unhorses Claudas who, remounted, flees. Gawain and Ban, following him, turn aside to help some of their friends. The queens in the castle, watching the battle from the walls, learn who the besiegers’ attackers are. Leonce and Fariens arrive with their armies and great fighting ensues. Gawain, Arthur, Ban and Bors decide to withdraw to where they can catch the enemy in flight. (Claudas does not die here; he is killed later by Lancelot). The battle is evenly matched until Merlin urges Arthur and the others back into the fighting, leading the way with his dragon standard. Arthur and his followers are invincible and the enemy flee.


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Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 80 (folio: 88v-200v)Fifteenth century. Unique copy. 27, 852 lines

Modern Editions

Ernst A. Kock, ed., Merlin, a Middle-English metrical version of a French romance, by Herry Lovelich ... (AB. 1450 A.D.), EETS e.s. 93, 112; EETS 185 (London, 1904, 1932; rpt. 1961, 1971, 1973)Edited from Corpus Christi MS.


French Vulgate Merlin *