Guest Post by Danielle Burton: Sir Gawain's Skull at Dover Castle

I'm excited to share with you this guest post by Danielle Burton, who writes at The History Voyager and works as a project archive assistant at the Derbyshire Record Office. She has a special interest in Anthony Woodville and the Wars of the Roses and has a degree in History and an MA in Public History and Heritage. You can follow her on Twitter

The Arthurian legends are a part of British identity, but for almost as long as they have existed, there has been argument about whether they are English, Scottish, or even Welsh. A good example of this is Sir Gawain, famous for his quest to kill the Green Knight in the epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the fourteenth century. Gawain himself has been associated with all three nations, most notably in tales of his death and burial.

Gawain was important in the Arthurian realm, despite not being as well-known as other prominent characters, such as Lancelot or Percival. In fact, more medieval romances are dedicated to Gawain than any other Knight of the Round Table, including Lancelot, Tristan, and Galahad, whose names are possibly more recognised today. Gawain’s role within the Arthurian story is heavily linked to the fate of Arthur himself, as Gawain was his nephew, and his death, no matter how much it changes in different versions, is linked to the death of Arthur. His death always occurs during the final war against Mordred, which resulted in the death of Arthur at the Battle of Camlann. However, that is usually where the similarities end. 

Frank T. Merrill's illustration for A Knight of Arthur's Court or the Tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1910), Wikimedia Common

Various versions all differ as to where Gawain died and where his final resting place lay. The lasting place associated with the burial of Gawain is Dover. William Caxton, in his preface for an edition of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, which he published in 1485, makes reference to a skull held at Dover Castle, believed to be Gawain’s. This reference, alongside other Arthurian relics, is used by Caxton as prove that Arthur and his knights were real. Caxton indicates that this skull was still there on display at the time of writing his preface. It isn’t sure how long this skull was on display for, as it now longer exists in the modern day. Nevertheless, a visiting Frenchman who stopped at Dover on his journey from Avignon to Dublin in the late fourteenth century, mentioned seeing the skull in his travel memoirs. With this, as well Malory’s reference to Gawain’s body being buried in the chapel at Dover Castle, it is clear why people would have thought this was accurate, especially when you take into consideration the widespread belief of relics of all kinds, both religious and Arthurian based, throughout the medieval period. The main issue with it is that there are two chapels within the grounds of Dover Castle. If he was buried in either of the chapels, there doesn’t seem to be any clarification as to which one.

Just as many factors resulted in the discovery of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey, a similar process seems to be behind Gawain’s remains at Dover. In some versions of the legend, but not all, Gawain died after suffering a head wound, which is possibly why the head was put on display. It was this aspect that was used to create English control of the legends, in a time when wars with the Welsh and Scots was not just a physical one, but a psychological and ideological one too. Both the Welsh and the Scots had connections to the Arthurian legends and often used King Arthur as a reason to fight the English.

Edgepedia, Dover Castle (2013), Wikimedia Commons

Conflicts over Gawain’s final resting place is a good example of this ideological aspect of the wars between England and their enemies in Wales and Scotland. William of Malmesbury, a historian writing in the twelfth century, suggests that Gawain was buried in Wales, suggesting that this was accurate as William II was partly responsible for the discovery. In 1428, a Scottish manuscript by the name of Arthur, went on to suggest Gawain was buried in Scotland, alongside other Arthurian lords, on Arthur’s own orders.

Whatever may be the case, all three nations have always laid claim to the legends of Arthur in some way. Perhaps Gawain was an easy example to use as his death was treated with redeeming qualities in the tales. Whilst Gawain advocated for fighting for the misdeeds done against women, in Gawain and the Green Knight in particular, he used this to his own advantage. In more modern versions than the original medieval texts, he is portrayed as vengeful and quite arrogant. This meant that in dying for the once and future king, King Arthur, he died for a worthy cause, very much how England, Wales and Scotland, have wished their own soldiers to feel about the causes they were fighting for.


1. University of Rochester, ‘Gawain’, The Camelot Project,
2. University of Rochester, ‘Gawain’, The Camelot Project,
3. Rouse, R. and Rushton, C. The Medieval Quest for Arthur (Stroud: The History Press, 2005), p. 66; Tiller, K., ‘En-Graving Chivalry: Tombs, Burials, and the Ideology of Knighthood in Malory’s “Tale of King Arthur”’, Arthuriana, 14.2 (2004), p. 37.
4. Clas Merdin, ‘Dover Castle: Gawain’s Skull (2017), 
5. Clas Merdin, ‘Dover Castle: Gawain’s Skull (2017),
6. Rouse, R. and Rushton, C. The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 68.
7. Rouse, R. and Rushton, C. The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 67.
8. Rouse, R. and Rushton, C. The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 68.

You might also like: The Beginnings of Chess in Britain, or book reviews of Joan, Lady of Wales and the medieval fiction book based in the Welsh Marches, The Errant Hours

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