Guy of Warwick and the Dun Cow
PUBLISHED: 12:26 14 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:26 14 July 2020
© David Irwin
The tales of two of Warwickshire’s most famous legendary figures and their calamitous clash on Dunsmore Heath
With the lockdown ongoing at the time of writing, this is once more a virtual journey. It’s a story that involves many places and could suggest quite a number of walks when the lockdown eases.
Our tale starts many, many years ago with a giant in Shropshire, and his shining white cow. This cow was enormous, as big as a house, with 18 teats – just right for a giant – and her milk was ever flowing. The cow travelled the length and breadth of Britain, giving away her milk for free. The giant didn’t mind – so long as she came back now and then to give him some! The cow had only one rule: people were only allowed one pail of milk per household. Sounding familiar? Most people respected the rule. Back in those days, without fridges or freezers, you couldn’t hoard milk.
But there’s always one, isn’t there? There was a woman who only had small pails. When she saw families lugging huge bucketfuls away, it felt most unfair. One day, she took two small pails and decided to try her luck at getting more milk. But the cow had a sixth sense. She knew exactly when the first pail was full, stopped the flow of milk, and no matter how much the woman tried to get milk into the second pail, that was that.
The woman knew it might be months before she saw the cow again. She began to plan her revenge. When the cow at last came back, the woman was ready. The queue of folk with pails kept the cow going all day; it was near sunset when the woman came forward. She sat down and began to milk. And how she milked! On and on it went. The cow could sense nothing to say the pail was full, so she kept on giving milk. Until there was none left.
The woman gave a cackling laugh and raised up her pail. Except it was no pail – it was a sieve! And all the cow’s lovely milk had soaked into the thirsty earth. She let out a bellow of rage, her eyes misted red, and her skin faded to a dreary brown. That was the end of the benign milch cow and the beginning of the reign of terror of the dreaded Dun Cow!
Meanwhile, in Warwick, there lived a young man called Guy. The son of the steward of the Earl of Warwick, he had the misfortune to fall for Felice, the daughter of his lord. Sent away with a flea in his ear, he travelled abroad to win renown. He saves the King of Greece from the Sultan, he kills a dragon, he kills the treacherous Duke of Pavia, and heads back to England to win Felice. On the way, he kills more dragons and a giant boar at Windsor… and as he re-entered Warwickshire he heard of the terrible Dun Cow.
The beast had made Dunsmore Heath her home. Guy went straight there. The beast was as big as a church, with rolling red eyes and bared teeth. A fine chase the Dun Cow led Guy – the length and breadth of Warwickshire, all the way to the Gloucestershire border at Mickleton, where he managed to wound her. Back to Dunsmore he chased her. There he cornered the exhausted creature, and killed her. But as he regarded the beast’s face, peaceful in death, he felt a surge of remorse.
He continued back to Warwick Castle and married Felice. But their happiness was short-lived. Because of his remorse at all the killing he’d done, he departed within weeks on pilgrimage, leaving Felice bereft and, unknown to him, carrying his child. Guy had many adventures on his pilgrimage – with, despite his best intentions, a bit more giant and monster killing!
When eventually he returned, England was at war. The Danes had invaded. A giant, Colbrand, was their champion. Guy found the English army at Winchester praying to God for deliverance. Of course, he puts himself forward and, after a hard fight, kills the giant with his own sword. The King wanted to heap rewards upon Guy, but all he accepted was the return of his pilgrim’s cloak.
Back at Warwick, Guy was ashamed once more that he hadn’t stuck to the holy life of a pilgrim. He didn’t reveal himself to Felice. He accepted alms from her at the castle gate, then took himself off to a cave just outside the town to become a hermit. He lived there in prayer and poverty the rest of his days. Eventually, Felice realised who the beggar was, and went to the cave. She found 70-year-old Guy on the point of death and held him in her arms as he passed away. Then, broken-hearted, she cast herself off the cliff into the Avon.
The tale of the Dun Cow is known from the Isle of Lewis, through Shropshire and Wales, to Bristol and beyond – wherever you find a Dun Cow Inn, as at Dunchurch, near where the beast was slain. It seems an ancient, mythic tale, perhaps dating back as far as the Stone Age, when people first started domesticating cows for their milk. It’s also redolent of legends of the white cows that helped saints and cities in times of need – like the one that led the monks from Winchcombe Abbey to the grave of St Kenelm, and the one that gave her milk to save the people of Bristol during a famine.
But why Dunsmore Heath? There’s an old theory the Warwickshire Dun Cow may derive from a misunderstanding of Anglo-Saxon ‘Dena Gau’, meaning ‘the Danish area’. It’s interesting that Guy of Warwick supposedly defeated the Danes’ champion. Maybe the slaying of the Dun Cow was a folk memory of another battle against the Danes. But Dunsmore is more likely to mean ‘the heath belonging to Dunna’, Dunna being an Anglo-Saxon name meaning someone with a brownish complexion.
On Dunsmore Heath, mothers used to scare their children with bogey tales of the Dun Cow still haunting the place. She’s a restless, noisy spirit. At Mickleton she’s associated with the Mickleton Hooter that booms from there to Meon Hill. Does a ghostly Dun Cow roam there – or does the noise come from a pack of ghostly hounds? ‘Hooter’ is an old Warwickshire word for such beasts. Most threatening are reports she roams the grounds of Warwick Castle: if she’s seen, it augurs the death of someone in the Earl of Warwick’s family. In the 19th century the Marchioness of Devonshire saw the Dun Cow on the lawns, and just weeks later the Earl was dead!
Warwick Castle held what was said to be one of the beast’s ribs. Celia Fiennes described it in 1697: ‘as bigg as halfe a greate cart wheele’. This relic, possibly a mammoth’s rib, made its way to a pub near Rugby, where it became the pub’s sign. Other relics from our tale which are still at the castle belong to Guy. His armour and weaponry – and even Lady Felice’s slippers – are on display.
But the best place for relics of Guy is at Guy’s Cliffe, above the river Avon. By the ruins of a great house is the cave in which he lived. It’s said there was once an Anglo-Saxon inscription on the cave wall which read, ‘Cast out, thou Christ, from thy servant this burthen.’ The well that Guy drank from is there still, and said to never freeze, and you can visit the spot where Felice jumped down into the Avon. It’s claimed there was an oratory here in the sixth century, founded by St Dubricius, the bishop who crowned King Arthur!
In 1423, Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, endowed a chantry chapel near the cave, in which he placed an eight-foot statue of Guy. A more recent statue of Guy stands in the town, with not the Dun Cow but another vanquished beast, the Boar of Windsor Forest. Would Guy have wanted to be remembered this way? This was a man who renounced his killing sprees and devoted himself to the spiritual life in his later years. Perhaps the hermit’s cave is a better memorial.
Acknowledgements: Huge thanks to Caroline Irwin and David Irwin for permission to use their images of Warwick and Guy’s Cliffe.
Maps: For Warwick: OS Explorer Map 221: Coventry & Warwick. Dunsmore Heath: OS Explorer 222: Rugby & Daventry. Mickleton: OS Explorer 205: Stratford-upon-Avon & Evesham.
Refreshments: The Dun Cow in Dunchurch (closed at the time of writing).
Warwick Castle: warwick-castle.com
Kirsty Hartsiotis is a Stroud-based storyteller and writer. Her books include Wiltshire Folk Tales, and Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. Kirsty is also the curator of decorative and fine art at The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, Cheltenham.