This brief overview of Josian’s role in the Middle English version of the romance of Bevis of Hampton was created for a banner-making event which took place in Southampton UK in August 2012.
Josian is an Armenian princess in the famous romance of Bevis of Hampton.
A romance in this sense is a medieval adventure story about a knight.
There were many versions of the Bevis story all over Europe. It probably began as an Anglo-Norman tale sometime after 1066 and before 1300. Many 14thC versions exist.
- It is found in Old Norse, in Welsh and Irish, in Middle High German and in Yiddish.
- It is not unusual in 14thc for great heroes to be linked to real places: Guy of Warwick, Sir Gawain in North Wales and Cheshire, Sir Orfeo in Winchester.
- The story was so famous that writers like Chaucer mention Bevis.
- These tales of heroes and their adventures were enjoyed as a change from all the Arthurian stories.
In the best-known Middle English (medieval) version of the story Josian is not a princess who stays at home and waits for her knight to return. She is clever, determined and brave.
She first meets Bevis after he has been sold into slavery by his wicked mother. She has had his father, the earl of Southampton and the Isle of Wight, killed and wants to get rid of their young son and give his lands to the man she loves.
The boy Bevis is presented as a slave to Josian’s father, the king of Armenia, and because he likes the lad he has him trained to fight. When a foreign king invades and threatens to kidnap Josian she persuades her father to make Bevis a knight because by now he fights very well.
Lake any medieval noble lady she helps to present the new knight with his weapons and armour. She gives him his gonfanon – a pennant or banner that carries his coat of arms to show his identity in battle. Bevis’s coat of arms is 3 blue eagles on a gold background. It is on his shield too.
She gives him his hauberk – a chain mail shirt, that is very valuable, and a padded jacket to wear under it that will stop any sword or lance. Then she gives him his famous horse Arondel. The name probably comes from the French Hirondelle – meaning ‘a swallow’. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Arundel in Sussex, but the story pretends it does.
Bevis goes to fight the invading king and overcomes him but is badly wounded. Josian prepares a soothing bath and tends his wounds. She is already in love with Bevis, but now she goes to his chamber door and calls to him and tells him she loves him. Bevis is embarrassed and pretends to be asleep by making snoring noises.
Eventually Josian wins his love, but a conspiracy in the Armenian court means that Bevis ends up in a foreign dungeon while Josian, like any medieval princess, has to marry the man her father chooses. However, she wears a magic ring so this man cannot touch her.
After 7 years in the dungeon Bevis escapes and rescues her. They flee on Arondel, but Josian is starving and begs Bevis to go hunting. While he is gone she shelters in a cave where she is attacked by 2 lions. But because she is a princess and has always been faithful to Bevis they cannot harm her.
Meanwhile Josian’s husband has sent the giant Ascupart to find and return her. Bevis comes back to the cave and Josian offers to hold on to one lion until Bevis has killed the other. He is horrified at this idea – it will be an insult to his honour if she can control a lion. He manages to kill both lions unaided, and then fights and overcomes Ascupart. Josian begs Bevis not to kill him but to make him their servant. This act of mercy is not a good move.
Bevis and Josian go back to the Isle of Wight so he can reclaim his father’s lands with the help of his uncle Saber. There Josian and Bevis are married, but things do not go well.
Bevis enters a race at Whitsun on his horse Arondel, after promising to build a castle in its honour if they win. Arondel outstrips the other horses, and the king’s son becomes envious of him. He tries to steal the horse but Arondel kicks him to death. Bevis has to flee with Josian, but now she about to give birth. While Bevis is absent (she has sent him away) she gives birth alone to twin sons, but almost at once she is abducted by the treacherous giant Ascupart.
Because she has just given birth she tells him she needs to wash in private. The giant allows her to turn aside as they travel through a forest. Out of sight, she finds herbs she knows will make her look as though she has leprosy.
Ascupart takes her on to her husband, who is horrified and angry at being presented with this ugly woman.
Meanwhile Bevis has returned to find his baby sons all alone. Grieving, he entrusts them to foster parents. It is Bevis’s uncle who rescues Josian and kills the treacherous giant. Then together they set out to find Bevis who has gone away in despair.
Eventually Josian is reunited with Bevis and they claim back their sons from the foster parents. One called Guy, grows up to inherit the throne of Armenia when Josian’s father dies. The other son, Miles, marries King Edgar’s daughter. (This detail pretends to set the story in real English history)
After some years of living peacefully together Josian, Bevis and Arondel all die on the same day.
- Josian’s faithfulness to Bevis, and her strength and intelligence parallel his honour and strength as a knight