By Minjie Su
You have heard of the Knights of the Round Table. You have heard of the Order of the Garter. I am sure that you have also heard an awful lot about other chivalric orders, be they fictional or historical. Yet there is one that you may not have heard of: the Knights of Franc Palais.
The Knights of Franc Palais (“Noble Hall”) have their roots in the fourteenth-century Le Roman de Perceforest, a massive prose romance (six tomes in total in its modern English edition) that recounts the rise and fall of a legendary dynasty in pre-Arthurian Britain. Unfortunately, we do not have the author’s identity, but there can be no doubt that this is someone well versed in the romance genre and in history in general. Perceforest makes use of a variety of works – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century bestseller Historia regum Britannicae (“The History of the Kings of Britain”), the Arthurian romances, the Alexander romance, and Suetonius’ De vita Caesarum (“The Twelve Caesars”), to name but a few.
Post-dating most of the Arthurian materials, the pre-Arthur Britain described in Perceforest draws lavishly from the Arthurian corpus to foreshadow the coming of Arthur in every possible way. Most notably, Perceforest has a circular table made of black marble that can accommodate 300 knights. This table is meant to be the precursor of the Round Table. In the fictional world, it predates and prefigures the establishment of Arthur’s Round Table, while in the real world, it serves as a model for Edward III’s round table, built in 1344 to house his knights in Windsor; it has also been argued that Perceforest may be the inspiration behind the founding of the Order of the Garter.
As it is impossible to cover six tomes’ worth of stories, let’s just stick to the most relevant instead and focus on three key events: the beginning, the founding of the Order, and the end.
The Beginning: Who is King Perceforest?
Even for someone who does not speak French, Perceforest does not sound like a personal name. Indeed, it does not start as one – it is more of a symbol, a commemoration of an adventure, and a token of prowess and power.
Perceforest starts in the same way Geoffrey of Monmouth starts his Historia, tracing Britain’s history all the way back to the fall of Troy. Some refugees fled the city and landed on the shores of this not-yet-sceptered isle. But, deviating from Geoffrey’s genealogy of glorious kings, the early kings of the world of Perceforest are weak and useless; the land is gradually wasting away in their idleness. Change only comes when Alexander the Great arrives – never mind why he, travelling eastwards, ends up in the northwest corner of Europe, but he apparently does. To rectify the situation, as well as to expand his conquest, King Alexander installs two of his protégés on the throne of this new kingdom: Betis, crowned as King of England, and his brother Gadifer, as King of Scotland. With their wise rule and their knights, the isle begins to thrive.
Despite its beauty and its fertile soil, the land of Britain is not free from peril and trouble – far from it; the forests are strewn with the children of Darnant the Enchanter, who kidnaps whichever woman he fancies. This gives Darnant an incredibly large army of bastards, all of whom wield magical power as their father does. No one who values their life dares to enter the woods. However, Darnant is not invincible; it has been prophesied that he will be killed by a king called Perceforest. Darnant knows about this prophecy (being a magician and all), so he sends spies to find out the new king’s name; when he sees it is not Perceforest, he is certain that he still has many years to live.
King Betis is fully aware of the fear caused by the woods – it has become a tad inconvenient when his workmen refuse to fell trees to build the first castle in England. Urged by a dwarf who scolds him in a vision-like dream, Betis rides into the forest alone, determined to solve the problem once and for all so that he can get his timber. It is no surprise that he soon encounters Darnant the Enchanter and the two are engaged in a heated battle. Darnant manages to confuse Betis several times by conjuring up some optical illusions; at one point, he even transforms into Betis’ wife!
But Betis eventually gets the better of him; although badly wounded himself, he kills Darnant, and thus frees all the creatures of the forest – hence, he is hailed as “King Perceforest”. It turns out that the prophecy should be understood in reverse: it is not that a king named Perceforest shall rid the forest of Darnant, but whichever king kills Darnant shall earn the name Perceforest. The name itself has a double meaning: the Old French verb percer means “pierce, penetrate”; “percer-forest” therefore refers to Betis’ physical act of “piercing” the forest that no one dared to enter. But percer also extends to the meaning of “purge, cleanse”: by killing Darnant, Betis has purged the forest of his evil.
The Founding of Franc Palais
After the death of Alexander the Great, King Perceforest falls into a deep depression that lasts eighteen years. This is indeed a dark time for Britain, for, with King Gadifer of Scotland crippled by a boar at about the same time, both kingdoms are practically kingless. Yet peace is maintained by the valiant knights at the two kings’ courts.
When King Perceforest is finally restored to health and activity, one cannot even begin to imagine the joy throughout the whole land. A tournament and a great feast are to be held, hosted by the king and queen, to celebrate his recovery and return. During the feast, the door and the windows of the great hall are suddenly shut by an invisible force, and noise can be heard from inside, as if there were a troop of smiths hammering metal. Just as the entire court surrounds the hall in amazement, twelve maidens ride into the hall, each carrying a covered shield. They pass by the feast table, addressing no one, and enter the hall; the door closes behind them. After the maidens’ departure, driven by curiosity, King Perceforest summons a handful of knights and the queen and his sisters to enter the hall. They find 300 silver hooks nailed to the wall, with the shields of the twelve most distinguished knights hung thereon. The queen finds a verse engraved upon the door:
Let all me know from this day
This is the door to the Franc Palais.
Where honour on the worthy shall be bestowed
And the worthless shall dishonour know.
They interpret this marvel as a token from the “Sovereign God” and reckon something significant is going to happen.
Before revealing that “something,” however, a few words are needed regarding the “Sovereign God.” We must remember that, taking place in the time of Alexander the Great, Perceforest and his knights are by no means Christians. But, being the heroes of the story, and precursors of King Arthur, neither can they be implicated in paganism. To reconcile this, the author lets Perceforest convert to an unnamed, monotheistic religion that centers on a “Sovereign God” who is not the Christian God but remarkably similar. This new, unique religion serves as the transition between pagan belief and Christianity, just as their Britain sees the land’s transition from a weak country to the glorious land of Arthur and his knights. This solution also conforms to the idea of the virtuous pagan in other medieval works. In short, pious pagans tend to be favored over those who have reservations regarding their gods, however false they are. What matters more is not which god(s) one worships, but one’s capacity for piety. If you cannot observe all the dos and don’ts of a religion, you probably cannot do well with the religion. The underlying logic is the same as: if one cannot be loyal to their lord, they probably cannot be loyal to any lord. A traitor is always a traitor.
So, it is from this “Sovereign God” that the hammering and the hooks came. The circular table was already in the hall, but it is now made higher and richer with another verse inscribed on it:
Pay good heed to this warning:
No man should sit at this table
Unless his shield be hung on the hook above –
If not, I cannot protect him
From the gravest harm.
I have no wish to see him in trouble
And advise him not to sit in any of these seats
I hope he will take these words to heart.
Let him go and sit at the tables below,
For there he will be safe.
In other words, only those who are handpicked by God can be assigned a seat. All the worthy will be recognized, and the unworthy will be identified so that they may better themselves. The king greatly rejoices over the sign and opens the hall to all the knights.
However, not everyone interprets this strange occurrence as favorably as the king. Some knights jest about it, including Verminex, a powerful lord from the Isle of Vermin (seriously, you can guess what sort of person he is by where he comes from). Unable to find his own place among even the lower ranks, Verminex becomes extremely angry and decides to sit at the circle table no matter what. Just when he is about to order food, a hand clenching a sword appears from above, striking off the haughty knight’s head. Perceforest decides to hang the head in the middle of the hall to admonish against the sin of pride.
After the tournament, Perceforest suggests leaving the matter (again) to God. He orders everyone to put their shield in the hall, including his, and locks the door. The court enters the hall after a while; to their surprise, they find 63 shields on the hooks. This means only 63 of the present knights are worthy enough to occupy a place at the Franc Palais. The rest must strive towards a more virtuous life, so that they may be fortunate enough to become one of the remaining 237.
The Fall of Perceforest and the Franc Palais
Unfortunately, since Perceforest and his knights only exist to foreshadow the coming of Arthur and the coming of Christianity to Britain, the dynasty and the chivalric order are doomed to fail no matter how virtuous they are. But even in their fall, the author manages to incorporate the Perceforest material into a larger (romanticized) history: having started with Troy and Alexander, it ends with Rome and the Ides of March.
The ambition of Julius Caesar, who is at Gaul at that time, brings destruction to King Perceforest and the Franc Palais. The eldest son and heir of Perceforest falls madly in love with a Roman girl called Cerse, but little does he know that she is a traitor and a spy. This leads to the deaths of Perceforest, Gadifer, and many of the noble knights; yet the son of the Scottish king and the Fairy Queen manages to survive, flees to Rome incognito, and rises to eminence there. When his son Ourseau comes of age, he sails to Britain to discover his identity and ancestry. There, he also learns the horror of Caesar’s invasion, and of the tragic deaths of Perceforest and Gadifer. His grandmother, the Fairy Queen, gives him the lance that Caesar used to kill Perceforest and bids him to avenge their deaths. The lance has been splintered into twelve pieces, each as sharp and fine as a needle. Ourseau must use these needles to kill Caesar.
Having returned home, Ourseau shares what he has seen and heard with the rest of the family. But instead of marching against Caesar, whose fortune and power are on the rise, they decide to bide their time, for Zephir the trickster (a fallen angel who turns to good, and a Merlin-like figure) has prophesied that, although Fortuna is on Caesar’s side, being fickle and inconstant, she will withdraw from Caesar for one day and one night only. They shall know the hour by an omen.
So King Perceforest’s kinsmen wait for many years, until Ourseau’s nephew Ursus Bouchesuave has grown up and become a member of the Senate. One night, they hear a great storm break over Caesar’s palace. Ursus rides to the palace – and guess who he meets? Cassius and Brutus, who for some reason are related to Ursus through his mother. Remembering their kinsmen dead at Caesar’s hand, the three young men decide on that fateful night to kill Caesar. They recruit another nine members of the Senate for the deed; each of them is given one piece of the lance, which they use as their stylus – that Caesar is stabbed by styluses is, curiously, only mentioned in Suetonius. Ursus strikes the first blow.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, a grandson of Perceforest becomes king. Both King Gallafur and his queen trace their bloodline all the way back to Alexander the Great, making Arthur a direct descendent of the great conqueror. Gallafur’s dynasty falls too, but not before he leaves a sword in a stone and prophecies of the coming of a king who will restore the glory of Perceforest. Thus, the road is paved and the foundation laid. All wait for King Arthur, the Once and Future King.
You can read more of the story in A Perceforest Reader: Selected Episodes from Perceforest: The Prehistory of Arthur’s Britain, translated by Nigel Bryant.
Dr. Minjie Su studies Old Norse (and some other old things), and researches werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. She is a self-labelled artist of the Post-Pre-Raphaelites and is also a knower of cats. You can follow Minjie on Twitter @Aethelcat_su
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: 15th century manuscript of Le Roman de Perceforest – Free Library of Philadelphia Lewis E M 42:22