8

A popular legend about the parents of Thomas Becket (1118–1170), Archbishop of Canterbury, is retold by Charles Dickens in A Child's History of England:

Once upon a time, a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert À Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord. This lord, who treated him kindly and not like a slave, had one fair daughter, who fell in love with the merchant; and who told him that she wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country. The merchant returned her love, until he found an opportunity to escape, when he did not trouble himself about the Saracen lady, but escaped with his servant Richard, who had been taken prisoner along with him, and arrived in England and forgot her. The Saracen lady, who was more loving than the merchant, left her father's house in disguise to follow him, and made her way, under many hardships, to the sea-shore. The merchant had taught her only two English words (for I suppose he must have learnt the Saracen tongue himself, and made love in that language), of which London was one, and his own name, Gilbert, the other. She went among the ships, saying, "London! London!" over and over again, until the sailors understood that she wanted to find an English vessel that would carry her there; so they showed her such a ship, and she paid for her passage with some of her jewels, and sailed away. Well! The merchant was sitting in his counting-house in London one day, when he heard a great noise in the street; and presently Richard came running in from the warehouse, with his eyes wide open and his breath almost gone, saying, "Master, master, here is the Saracen lady!" The merchant thought Richard was mad; but Richard said, "No, master! As I live, the Saracen lady is going up and down the city, calling Gilbert! Gilbert!" Then, he took the merchant by the sleeve, and pointed out of window [sic]; and there they saw her among the gables and water-spouts of the dark, dirty street, in her foreign dress, so forlorn, surrounded by a wondering crowd, and passing slowly along, calling Gilbert, Gilbert! When the merchant saw her, and thought of the tenderness she had shown him in his captivity, and of her constancy, his heart was moved, and he ran down into the street; and she saw him coming, and with a great cry fainted in his arms. They were married without loss of time, and Richard (who was an excellent man) danced with joy the whole day of the wedding; and they all lived happy ever afterwards.     (p. 61)

Several other literary works refer to this story. For example:

  • Lewis Morris's "Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen," in his Songs of Two Worlds (second series, 1874), is a narrative poem on this subject.

  • Agatha Christie's They Came to Baghdad (1951) also references this legend. Christie's protagonist is Victoria Jones, an intrepid if incompetent typist who leaves London for Baghdad in order to track down a young man named Edward. Her previous interaction with Edward has consisted only of a brief conversation in a park, but she fancies herself in love. Finding herself in Baghdad with a grand total of four pounds and seventeen shillings to her name, she ponders her situation:

    With a sense of annoyance she realized that she was quite unaware of Edward’s last name. Edward—Baghdad. Very much, Victoria reflected, like the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England.” A romantic story—but certainly inconvenient. True that in England at the time of the Crusades, nobody, Victoria thought, had had any surname at all. On the other hand England was larger than Baghdad. Still, England was sparsely populated then.     (p. 160)

  • A more recent retelling is Leon Garfield and John O'Brien's 1991 children's book, The Saracen Maid.

Biographers, however, note that this story has no factual basis. W. H. Hutton writes:

Later centuries, seeking to cradle their hero [Thomas] in wonders, told that [Gilbert] Becket was a knight who had been on Crusade and his wife a Saracen princess, who had followed him alone to England knowing only the words Gilbert and London: but the story belongs to three centuries after his birth.     (pp. 2–3)

Three centuries after his birth indicates that the legend dates back to the turn of the fifteenth century. What is the earliest reference to this story? Is there a Middle English hagiography of St. Thomas Becket that includes it? Or is it alluded to in some other work from the era that we know of?

References:

  • Christie, Agatha. They Came to Baghdad. 1951. Ebook. New York: Harper, 2011.
  • Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England. 1851–1853. London: Chapman and Hall, 1906.
  • Garfield, Leon (author), and John O'Brien (illustrator). The Saracen Maid. 1991. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
  • Hutton, William Holden. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Pitman, 1910.
  • Morris, Lewis. "Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen." Pp. 135–144 in Songs of Two Worlds: Second Series. London: Henry S. King, 1874.
9

The story of Gilbert and the Saracen woman is part of the South English Legendary, a Middle English collection of lives of the saints and martyrs in verse. This work is sometimes attributed to the author of a metrical chronicle of England (known as ‘Robert of Gloucester’), based on similarities in language and verse form. The earliest surviving manuscripts of the South English Legendary date to the late 13th century, so that Hutton’s estimate of “three centuries” for the legend to appear is too long by half.

There are substantial differences between the manuscripts of the Legendary. In MS Laud 108 (c. 1300), in the Bodleian Library, the legend begins like this:

Wolle ʒe nouþe i-heore þis englische tale : þat is here i-write
Of seint Thomas of Caunterburi : al-hou he was bi-ʒite
Of londone is fader was : A bordeys hende and fre,
Gilbert Bekat was is name : þe bok tellez me.
Ake is Moder was of heþenesse. : nov sone ʒe mouwen i-heore
Al-hou heo cam into engelonde : are heo i-cristned were,
Gilebert him bi-þouʒte : þe Croiz for-to fo
In-to þe holie lond : his penaunce þe bet to do
So þat, þo he þudere cam : he was sone i-nome,
Ase A sclaue forth i-lad : and i-don In prisone,
And faste was i-gwiued : he and manie mo,
And i-wuet wel sikerliche : þat he ne scholde a-wei go.
In þe Amirales prisone : heo hadden i-beo so longue,
To ʒeres and an half : In bendes swiþe strongue,
So þat god ʒaf þe Amiral : boþe heorte and wille
þe more to louien Gilebert : for he was meoke and stille.
Eche daie ʒwane þe Amiral : to is mete wolde go,
he bad, Gilebert to is mete : scholde come also—
gret auantage, for-soþe, it was : þat he miʒte so gon;
Ake euere he hadde ane peire feteres : faste him up-on.
And ofte-siþes þe Amiral : dude for Gilebardes loue
Auantage to is felawes : þat with him weren In prisone.
hit bi-fool þat Amiral : Ane faire douʒter hadde—
Childrene of is owene : none mo for-soþe he nadde.

Carl Horstmann, ed. (1887). The Early South-English Legendary, pp. 106–107. London: Early English Text Society.

In this version of the legend, the heroine is named Alisaundre (Alexandra): see line 141.

In Harley MS 2277 (c. 1300), in the British Library, the legend of “Gilbert patris Sancti Thomae martiris” (“Gilbert, father of Saint Thomas martyr”) begins on the last two lines of folio 195v, shown below. (Click for larger images, or visit the British Library for the full digitized manuscript.)

Harley MS 2277 folio 195 verso, running heading "Gilbert patris" in red ink and the first two lines of the poem at the bottom of the page with capital G in green ink, much fadedHarley MS 2277 folio 196 recto, running heading "Sancti Thomae Martiris" in red ink

Here’s the opening of the legend in this manuscript:

Gilbert was Thomas fader name: that truë was and god,
And lovede God and holi churche: siththe¹ he wit² understod.
The croicĕ³ to the holie lond: in his ʒunghede⁴ he nom⁵,
And mid⁶ on Richard, that was his man: to Ierusálem com.
There hi dude here pelrynage⁷: in holi stedĕs⁸ faste⁹,
So that among the Sarazyns: ynome¹⁰ hi were atte laste,
Hi and other Cristene men: and in strong prisoun ido¹¹,
In meseise¹² and in pyne¹³ ynouʒ¹⁴: of hunger and chile¹⁵ also.
In strongĕ swynchĕ¹⁶ niʒt¹⁷ and dai: to ofswynche¹⁸ here metĕ¹⁹ stronge:
In such swynch and hardĕ lyve: hi bilevede (hem thoʒte) longe.
For ful other half ʒer²⁰: greate pyne hi hadde and schame,
In the Princes hous of the lawe: Admiraud was his name.
Ac²¹ Gilbert of London: best grace haddĕ there,
Of the Prince and allĕ his: among alle that ther were.
For oftĕ al in feteres: and in othe[r] bende²²,
The Prince he servede atte mete: for him thoʒte hende²³.
And ofte the Prince al so god: in consail him wolde drawe,
And of the manere of Engelond: him eschce²⁴, and of the lawe.
So that me²⁵ wolde his felawes: moche god oftĕ do,
For his love, and hi furde²⁶: the bet²⁷ for him also.
And nameliche²⁸ thurf²⁹ a maide: that this Gilbert lovede faste,
The Princes douʒter Admiraud: that hire hurte al upe him caste;
That lovede him in durnĕ³⁰ love: in gret murnynge³¹ and in wo.
For the Princes heir heo³² was: for he nadde³³ children no mo.³⁴

William Henry Black, ed. (1845). The Life and Martyrdom of Thomas Beket, Archbishop of Canterbury, p. 1. London: Percy Society.

¹since ²reason ³cross ⁴youth ⁵took ⁶with ⁷pilgrimage ⁸places ⁹fixed ¹⁰captured ¹¹put ¹²distress ¹³pain ¹⁴enough ¹⁵cold ¹⁶toil ¹⁷night ¹⁸gain by toil ¹⁹meat ²⁰year ²¹but ²²constraint ²³courteous ²⁴ask ²⁵moreover ²⁶fared ²⁷better ²⁸especially ²⁹through ³⁰secret ³¹pining ³²she ³³had not ³⁴more.

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    Thanks! Do we know whether this is the first appearance of this story? I.e., scholars have no knowledge of any version of the story predating the Legendary? – verbose Mar 21 at 0:41

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