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Sir Lewis Morris's Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen

1. This entry includes several variant spellings of Gilbert Becket’s name; I have reproduced the spelling used by each author in the pertinent section. Thus, for Morris, I use “Beckett,” for Dickens, I use “à Becket.” The other Victorian historians use the modern spelling, “Becket.”


Sir Lewis Morris's Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen

Sir Lewis Morris (1833-1907) was well-known in his day for both his interest in educational reform and his literary endeavors; he was also deeply invested in Welsh cultural life and published several articles on the subject.  His popularity as a poet, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, is due in large part to his “cheerful optimism about this world and the next which appealed, in particular, to the morality of middle-class Victorian England.” In the late nineteenth century, Morris published several volumes of poetry, including Songs Unsung, Songs of Britain, Songs Without Notes, and The Epic of Hades. “Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen” first appeared in the second series of Songs of Two Worlds, which was first printed in 1874.1 It was subsequently reprinted in The Works of Sir Lewis Morris, printed in 1904 and reprinted in 1907, shortly before the poet’s death. Although the majority of Morris’ poems do not focus on England’s (or Wales’) medieval past, his other works include Sir Galahad, published in Harvest-Tide in 1901.

The subject of “Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen” is the supposed capture and release of Thomas à Becket’s father while on Crusade in Palestine. This purely fictitious story originated in the centuries after Becket's death; in Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, W. H. Hutton relates that “later centuries, seeking to cradle their hero in wonders, told that 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” (4). This legend seems to have appealed to the Victorian imagination; it appears in a number of nineteenth-century biographies of Becket. Although Morris does not cite his source, a version of the tale appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England. Dickens relates that “a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert à Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord;” he is released only by the agency of the lord’s daughter, who “wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country” (72). The faithless Gilbert, however, only returned her love until he found an opportunity to escape and flee to England.

During his captivity, according to Dickens’ version of the legend, Gilbert had taught the lady two words: “London” and “Gilbert.” Armed only with this knowledge, the lady sets out to find him: “She went among the ships, saying, ‘London, London!’ over and over again, until the sailors understood that she waned to find an English vessel that would carry her there . . .and paid for passage with some of her jewels, and sailed away” (73). By similar means, she eventually locates the merchant in London. Gilbert’s servant Richard, who was also held captive in the Holy Land, runs into the counting-house one day to inform his master that “[A]s I live, the Saracen lady is going up and down the city, calling ‘Gilbert, Gilbert!’” (73). Despite his callous abandonment of the lady, the merchant is moved by this demonstration of persistence and fidelity:
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 into 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 happily ever after. (73)
Dickens’ phrasing in this passage transforms this legend into a quintessential Victorian scene: woman’s constancy and tenderness transforms the erring man, and the woman herself, despite her earlier fortitude, falls into a ladylike swoon. By means of this well-timed ladylike collapse, Dickens creates the opportunity for the man to step into the proper role of a Victorian gentleman, who acts as a manly support for the weak frame of his wife. Dickens concludes his version of the legend by informing his readership that this Saracen lady was the mother of Thomas à Becket. Without pausing to question the historical authenticity of this legend, Dickens then promptly transitions straight into an account of Becket’s ascent to high status in the court of Henry II.

Dickens’ unquestioning inclusion of this legend is not typical of nineteenth-century historians and biographers. James Anthony Froude, a prominent Victorian historian, confines his version of the legend to a footnote. In The Life and Times of Thomas Becket, Froud relates that “The story that [Becket’s mother] was a Saracen is a late legend. Becket was afterwards taunted with the lowness of his birth. The absence of any allusion to a fact so curious if it was true either in the taunt or in Becket's reply to it may be taken as conclusive” (16). Froude’s acknowledgement of the legend suggests that it did circulate generally in nineteenth-century England—and therefore required debunking—but that its inaccuracy was also fairly well known. Likewise, the American Henry Hart Milman includes the story in his 1860 biography of Thomas à Becket, but notes its existence as evidence of subsequent generations' desire to surround Becket’s birth with romance and mystery. Milman informs his readership that:
Popular poetry, after the sanctification of Becket, delighted in throwing the rich colors of marvel over his birth, legend, and parentage. It invented, or rather interwove with the pedigree of the martyr, one of those romantic traditions which grew out of the wild adventures of the crusades, and which occur in various forms in the ballads of all nations. That so great a saint should be the son of a gallant champion of the cross, and of a Saracen princess, was a fiction too attractive not to win general acceptance. (9)
Milman’s description of this “attractive fiction” suggests that the romantic encounter between the crusader and the virtuous Saracen lady is an appropriate foundation for sainthood. This link between sainthood and the Saracen lady also appears in Morris’ “Gilbert Becket and the Fair Saracen,” one of very few nineteenth-century crusades romances that portrays the fruitful consummation of a miscegenic relationship. In Morris’ text, however, the mythical Saracen lady, rather than her famous son, is the direct object of the author’s canonization. Morris’ recreation of this legend centers itself firmly within the boundaries of female virtue and constancy, moving beyond the unconventionality of the poem's narrative trajectory to reinforce traditional mid-Victorian values.

This poem features a twist upon the conflict between domestic, national, and military values that is traditionally central to the nineteenth-century crusades romance. Morris begins the poem with a description of the end of the crusade and the victory of the Muslim armies over the western, proclaiming that “No more the Paynim grew afraid—The crescent floated o’er the cross” (104). The sympathetic interest of the poem, however, lies not in the defeat of the Christian armies, but in the broken heart of the Saracen lady who loved Gilbert Becket. Morris writes: “But to one simple Heathen maid/ Her country’s gain was bitter loss,” laying the groundwork for the fundamental alienation of domestic and military values. The poem does continually emphasize the race of the lady; Morris observes that she had been bound by “love, which knows not race or creed,” but includes numerous small markers that constantly remind the reader of the lady’s race. For instance, he tells his reader that “‘twas pity bade the brown cheek glow,” and, shortly thereafter, “the liquid eyes / Still gazing seaward, large and meek, / Took something of a sad surprise” (104). Although they mark the writer’s sympathy for the lady’s plight, these descriptors also reinforce her exotic status within the text. Even amidst his sympathetic description of the lady’s journey, Morris demonstrates her potential to function as an erotic object:
And sometimes sottish boors would rise
From wayside tavern, where they sate,
And leer from heated vinous eyes,
And stagger forth with reeling gait,
And from that strong unswerving will
And clear gaze shrink as from a blow. (106)
This stanza demonstrates the ability of the virtuous woman, Eastern or otherwise, to reverse the eroticizing gaze of her male audiences. In a nineteenth-century context, the Saracen lady possesses two attributes—homelessness and exotic beauty—that frequently signal sexual fall. The intrinsic virtue of the lady, however, overrides both of these markers. The “leer” of the “sottish boors” attempts sexualize the wandering woman’s racially marked body, but her “clear gaze” indicates her inaccessibility to all sexual corruption.

Thus, although she retains the physical markers of exoticism, this lady’s Victorian virtues transcend her racialized representation and permit the fulfillment of her romantic designs. Even amidst his descriptions of her “brown cheek,” Morris associates this lady with the love, pity, sighs, and tears, designed to secure the reader's sympathy for her plight and establish her traditional nineteenth-century English femininity. After describing the abandonment of the lady by the “lowly English squire,” Morris writes that:
I know not if as now ‘twas then,
Or if the growing ages move
The careless, changeful hearts of men
More slowly to the thoughts of love;

But woman’s heart was then, as now,
Tender and passionate and true.
Think, gentle ladies, ye who know
Love's power, what pain that poor heart knew. (104)
Through this appeal to nineteenth-century “gentle ladies,” Morris constructs the lady’s claim to interest through the constancy of female virtue, which connects Victorian and medieval women through a continuous chain of sympathy. Sympathetic feminine discourse, according to this poem’s formulation, thus erases both temporal and racial boundaries.

Later in the poem, Morris further emphasizes the consistency of this woman’s love. As the lady wanders through England, searching for London and her faithless Gilbert, she encounters curiosity from the “white-plumed knight or long-haired page” and fear from the friar, who “would cross himself and say/ His paternosters o’er and o’er” (106). The virtuous women of England, however, responded with recognition and sympathy:
But tender women, knowing love
And all the pain of lonelihood,
Would feel a sweet compassion move,
And welcome her to rest and food,
And walk with her beyond the hill,
And kiss her cheek when she must go. (106)
In order to further reinforce the lady’s deserving virtue, Morris presents a version of the story that, unlike Dickens’, erases all commercial transaction from the lady’s journey to England. Whereas Dickens reports that the lady sold some of her jewels in order to secure her passage, making a significant sacrifice of personal wealth in order to achieve her aims, Morris’ virtuous Saracen lady is distanced from all such transactions. Morris writes that “Some good English seaman bold, . . . Put gently back the offered gold/ And for love’s honour bade her come” (105). The seamen’s honor and ready assistance—they also “shelter her from harm and ill / And guide her safe through wave and storm"—signals the redemption of masculinity within the poem. Gilbert’s honor is ultimately redeemed as well; the lady waits nervously outside of the gates while a stranger fetches the faithless merchant. “[A]nd he was true,” Morris concludes (105).

Rather than ending the poem with the successful union of Crusader and virtuous Saracen, however, Morris moves outside the boundaries of the legend to consider its impact. The two concluding stanzas of the poem fundamentally reshape its narrative. The majority of the poem, following the course set by its heroine's desires, focuses on the fulfillment of a romantic quest; the mutual conversion of the Saracen lady and the merchant—she to Christianity, and he to honor—appears to be the object of the poem. The penultimate stanza, however, suggests that the cultures may, after all, be incompatible:
Poor child! They christened her, and so
She had her wish. Ah, yearning heart,
Was love so sweet then? Would you know
Again the longing and the smart?
Came there no wintry hours when you
Longed for your native skies again,
The creed, the tongue your girlhood knew,
Aye, even the longing and the pain? (107)

Primary Source:

Morris, Lewis. "Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen." Songs of Two Worlds, Second Series. London, Henry S. King, 1874.  [Reprinted in The Works of Sir Lewis Morris. London: Kegan Paul, 1904.]

Secondary Sources:

Dickens, Charles. “England under Henry the Second.” A Child’s History of England and Miscellaneous Papers. London: Estes and Lauriat, 1880.
Froude, James Anthony. The Life and Times of Thomas Becket. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1878.
Hutton, W. H. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. London: Pitman and Sons, 1910.
Lewis, Morris. “Gilbert Beckett and the Fair Saracen.” The Works of Sir Lewis Morris. London: Kegan Paul, 1904.
Milman, Henry Hart. Life of Thomas á Beckett. New York: Sheldon and Co., 1860.
Stephens, Meic. “Morris, Sir Lewis (1833–1907).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.