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The Christmas Cherry Tree
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This charming medieval story shows that a true knight has more virtues than just courage. The hero, Sir Cleges, is generous, perhaps too generous. He celebrates Christmas in such style every year, that eventually he falls into poverty. When he is at his lowest ebb, cherries appear in his garden, even though it is snowy and out of season. His wife points him in the direction of the Court of King Uther, and he is on his way to restore his wealth.
For a detailed introduction see Teams Middle English Texts.
Read by Natasha. Version by Bertie. Duration 14.46
My Lords and Ladies, you shall hear of one who lived many generations ago, in the time of King Uther Pendragon, father of the famed King Arthur. I speak of a knight, hardy and strong, tall and fair, brave and noble. In all the world there lived no one as courteous, noble or generous as he. To land owners, who struggled in times of war, he gave gold. To poor farmers who rented lands from him, he gave food and good cheer. A spare place at his table was always laid just in case anyone might pay a visit to him.
This knight had a gentle wife, the best a man could wish for. No woman was more beautiful, or more noble in her heart than she. Dame Clarys was her name. Of goodness, she had truly. Together they brought gladness to many a soul. No man, rich or poor, felt any ill will against them.
Every year, Sir Cleges – for that was the name of this noble knight – would hold a feast at Christmas time. No King celebrated that day in greater style than he. Rich and poor came to his feast. He would turn away no man. Friars payed him with blessings, minstrels with music – those were the highest prices he would ask for his food. And when the feasting was over, the guests would not leave without gifts. He gave freely of robes, horses, silver and even gold. All this he did in honour of Him who was born in a manger on that day.
But his wealth dwindled with each passing year. He would not give up his feasting or his gifts. He let, mortgaged, even sold his lands to pay for his generosity, until at last he had almost nothing left. The Christmas feasting had to end. He lived meekly with his good wife and two children – and of luxuries, they knew no more.
One Christmas Eve, Sir Cleges was walking up and down in his garden, when he heard the sound of trumpets, pipes, drums, harps and cymbals. He could hear carols and dancing. The sound of merriment brought back memories of his past feasts and festivities. He knew well that the music came from the court of King Uther, who was at Cardiff for Christmas. But the King had not invited his loyal knight to join his table for the festivities. . He had either forgotten him, or thought that he was dead. Sir Cleges wrung his hands began to pray piteously:
“Oh Jesus, heavenly king, you made everything out of nothing. I thank you for times past, for the the merriment I used to make . I gave freely for your sake. I fed both rich and poor. Those who dined at my table did not lack for any meat or game, or good drinks. Of the cost I thought nothing. And now, here I stand, a poor man at your service, overlooked and forgotten by all mortal men, high and low.”
As he stood mourning so, his wife came to him, and enfolded him in her arms. She kissed him with glad heart and said,
“My true husband, I heard what you were saying. It does not help to have sad thoughts. So let your sorrow be gone. Every one should be happy on this day, and be glad with what they have got. So let us go inside, and be merry and eat our dinner joyfully. “
“Of course,” said Sir Cleges. And with somewhat better cheer he quickly wiped the tear from his cheek and went inside to eat his food. After they had eaten, they took great delight in playing with their two children. And at midnight they went to church and asked God to keep them clothed and fed.
On Christmas morning, Sir Cleges went into his garden. He kneeled on the snow covered ground before his favourite cherry tree, and prayed once again. When he had finished, he reached up for a branch to help him stand. As he arose, the bough broke in his hand. He noticed that it bore green leaves, and that there were ripe, round cherries clustered around it.
“Dear God. What manner of berries are these that grow at this time of year? And then he picked a cherry and tried it. It was the most delicious fruit he had tasted since he was a small boy. He cut off a little branch and took it to his wife to show her.
“My dear, here is a novelty,” he said. “I found these growing in our garden. Cherries in mid winter. I am afraid it is some ill omen, a warning to me for my sorrow and grieving. “
“Why no,” said his wife, “Rather it is a sign that goodness is coming to us. Tomorrow at first light, take the cherries to Cardiff and the King. He will have no better gift than this. “
When it was daylight, she prepared a large basket full of cherries. She told their eldest son to carry it on his back, and walk behind his father to Cardiff. And so they set off, not on a steed or pony, but Sir Cleges’ walking stick was his only support.
When they arrived at the gates of the castle, the porter saw his poor clothing and said :
“You shall turn around and leave smartly without delay, or by God and St. Mary, I shall break your head. Go and stand in the beggars’ row. That’s the place for you.”
But Sir Cleges said:
“Good Sir. I pray you, let me go in. I have a present for the King. Here look.”
And the porter went over to the basket and lifted the lid. When he saw the cherries he marvelled and said:
“If I let you pass, you must promise me a third of whatever reward the King shall grant you for this gift, be it silver or gold.”
And Sir Cleges replied : “I consent” and he went through the gate into the castle On his way to the banqueting hall he met an usher of the court who said:
“Go, vassal, get out of my sight, and if I find you again within these walls I shall beat your head and your limbs without a moment’s regret.”
At this, Sir Cleges said:
“Good Sir. Stay your anger. Be gentle and good. For I have brought a present for the King. See here, these fruits grew this Christmas season in my garden. They are the fairest cherries that ever man did see.”
And when the usher saw the cherries, he was amazed and said: “If you grant me a third part of what ever you may win for these, then you may indeed go on.”
And as Sir Cleges had no other choice, he agreed to the usher’s terms, and into the hall he went with his son and the basket.
As they entered the Hall, the Steward saw them. He went up to Sir Cleges and said:
“Who made you so bold as to come in here uninvited? Turn around smartly and get out.”
And Sir Cleges replied : “See, good sir, I have a gift for the King.” And when the Steward saw what he had brought he exclaimed:
“By Mary I never saw such fruits at this time of year. You shall go before the King, but only if you promise me a third part of whatever you shall receive.”
Sir Cleges stood and thought to himself that betwixt these three men, he would divide all that he received. For all his trouble he would win nothing. As he did not reply right away, the Steward demanded:
“Have you no tongue? Give me your answer without delay or I shall beat your rags with my stick!”
And seeing that he had no other choice, Sir Cleges said: “Very well, whatever the King shall reward, you shall have a third part.”
The steward brought Sir Cleges before the king, where he knelt and uncovered the basket:
“Great King,” he said. “These fruits grew in my garden this christmas time, and I have brought them to you as a gift. “
The King saw the cherries, fresh and new, and said: “Truly this is the work of our Lord.” And he commanded Sir Cleges to sit down and join the feast. The King sent a portion of the cherries to a radiant and fair lady in Cornwall, and he commanded the rest to be served around the hall. When all had eaten and were glad, the King commanded:
“Bring before me the poor man who gave me the cherries.” And Sir Cleges knelt again before the King. And the kind said:
“I thank you heartily for the gift you have brought me. It has honoured my feast. Whatever you will have, I will grant you. Whatever your heart desires, be it lands, or serfs or goods.”
And Sir Cleges replied.
“Great King. I ask nothing but 12 strokes of my stick that I might give freely to my enemies around this castle.”
On hearing this the King was angry and said. “I am sorry that I granted you this gift. Better that you asked for silver or gold, for you have more need of it. Nevertheless, if that is your wish, let my debt to you be paid with blows.”
And Sir Cleges went into the hall and sought the steward to give him his reward. He dealt him such a blow that he knocked him down. And then he gave him three more. On leaving the hall he found the usher and told him: “Here’s the third part of my gift that I promised you!” and he beat him four times with his stick. And then he found the porter and gave him his reward with the words. “I keep bargain. Take this, and this, and this and this!”
And while Sir Cleges was busy paying back his enemies, the King sat in his chamber and listened to a minstrel. The minstrel sang of a great knight who had served him in years past, one who was full of fortune, nobility and grace. His name was Sir Cleges. And as the king listened, memories came back to him, and he realised that he had seen the good knight that very evening.”
“Why, was that not him who knelt before me in the hall? “ exclaimed the King.
“Sire, indeed it was,” replied the minstrel.
When word reached the lords and ladies of the court of how Sir Cleges had paid back the porter, the usher and the steward, they all laughed heartily and thought that it was good sport.
The King called Sir Cleges before him, and this time he gave him lands, and forests, and a cup of gold to take to his wife. He made his son a squire and gave him fine clothes to wear.
Every year after that, Sir Cleges and his wife celebrated Christmas with good food, music, merriment and gifts, and they lived in great happiness until the Lord sent for them.
Text copyright Hugh Fraser (for Storynory) 2009.