Sir Gowther

General Information

(N)IMEV: 973
Form: 12-line tail-rhyme stanzas rhyming aabccbddbeeb
Date of Composition: c. 1400
Place of Composition: Northeast Midlands
Keywords: Animal, Disguise, Exile, Familial Discord, Marriage, Military Combat, Monster, Penance, Rape, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Rome, Sacrament, Saracen, Sexual Encounters, Supernatural

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

After a discussion of devils impregnating women, the poet introduces the Duke of Austria, married for ten years but heirless. When his wife prays for a child by any means, she is visited in her orchard by a devil disguised as the Duke. After sex, it reveals its true nature and informs her that she is pregnant. The frightened Duchess conceals this by having sex with her husband that night, telling him that an angel has promised she will conceive.

The child, christened Gowther, becomes increasingly violent, killing nine wet-nurses and biting off his mother’s nipple. When Gowther reaches fifteen, his father dies of grief and his mother flees, leaving him duke. He makes himself a huge falchion and continues his violence against his barons, his subjects and the clergy, including burning down a nunnery.

When an old earl calls him a devil’s son, Gowther questions his mother about his parentage. Horrified at the truth, he decides to visit Rome and confess his sins to the Pope. Although he refuses to give up his falchion, he accepts the Pope’s penance: to only eat food taken from the mouths of dogs, and remain silent until God sends him a sign of forgiveness. Gowther leaves Rome and, after being brought food by a greyhound for three days, arrives at the court of the Emperor of Almayne. The Emperor’s men offer him food, but he continues to observe his penance and is eventually adopted as their dumb fool, nick-named Hob and fed with their dogs.

The Emperor refuses the Sultan’s request to marry his daughter, who is beautiful but cannot speak. When the Saracens declare war, Gowther prays to God for arms and is immediately provided with black armour and a black horse. He joins the battle and fights bravely with his falchion, unrecognised by anyone except the Emperor’s daughter. On the second day, he is armed in red, and on the third, when he rescues the Emperor from capture and finally slays the Sultan, he fights in white. During this final battle he is seriously wounded; this distresses the princess so much that she falls from her tower, convincing all the courtiers that she is dead. The Pope is summoned to perform her funeral, but when he arrives God causes the princess to awake, announce that Gowther’s sins are forgiven and identify him as the mystery knight. The Pope absolves Gowther and the couple is married.

Gowther returns to Austria, where he makes the old earl Duke of Austria, marries him to his mother and founds an abbey to replace the one that he destroyed. The Emperor dies, and Gowther travels back to Almayne where he rules justly and piously. When he dies he is buried in the abbey that he built, where he is venerated as a saint and his tomb performs healing miracles.

From: M. Mills, Six Middle English Romances. London, J.M. Dent, 1992.
Manuscript: Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.3.1.


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Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.3.1 (folio: 11r-28r)1475-1500. Northeast Midlands ? Missing opening lines.
London, British Library, MS Royal 17.B.XLIII (folio: 116r-131v)Second half of the fifteenth century, Northeast Midlands.

Modern Editions

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995)Pp. 263-307. Uses Advocates MS with opening lines from Royal.Available online at:
Cornelius Novelli, ed., Sir Gowther (Ph.D dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1963)Parallel text of both manuscripts.
E. V. Utterson, ed., Select Pieces of Early Popular Poetry, 2 vols (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817)
Karl Breul, ed., Sir Gowther (Oppeln: E. Frank, 1886)
Maldwyn Mills, ed., Six Middle English Romances (London: Dent, 1973)Pp. 148-68. Edited from Advocates MS with variations from Royal.
Thomas C. Rumble, ed., Breton Lays in Middle English (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965)Pp. 179-204. Uses the Royal MS.


Old French Robert le Diable (late twelfth century) ?