Guy of Warwick (supp. fl. c.930), legendary hero, seems to have little or no basis in history. Possibly his name comes from the historical Wigod of Wallingford, cup-bearer of Edward the Confessor, and one or two other names recall pre-conquest traditions of battles against the vikings, but the bulk of his story is romantic fiction. Its essential elements are all to be found in the Anglo-Norman Gui de Warewic, one of the ancestral romances which provided Norman families with an ancient ancestry. It was written c.12321242 possibly by a canon of Osney for Thomas, earl of Warwick (d. 1242), heir through his mother of the d'Oilly family, constables of Oxford, and patrons of the abbey. One of Wigod's daughters had married Robert (II) d'Oilly (d. 1142); Brian fitz Count, the husband of his other daughter, defended Wallingford in 1139, and may have provided hints for some of the hero's exploits. The Middle English versions (from c.1300) derive from the Anglo-Norman. In the Middle English romance Guy, the son of Syward of Wallingford, falls in love with Felice, the daughter of Rohaut, the earl of Warwick. When he is rejected, he goes overseas to prove himself in tournaments. Sent away yet again by his beloved, he wins glory in battle, and the emperor of Constantinople offers him his daughter in marriage, but he refuses. Guy helps Tirri of Gormoise recover his lady, and after seven years returns to England, where he kills a dragon and marries Felice. After only a fortnight he leaves his bride, who is now pregnant, and sets out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He has suddenly been struck by the thought that he has never served God, who has done him much honour, in the way he has suffered hardship for the sake of his lady. Felice laments and gives him a gold ring. He kills a giant in Alexandria, and rescues Tirri, who has been falsely accused. Disguised as a palmer, he returns to England, and saves King Æthelstan from Anlaf and the Danes by overcoming the Danish giant Colbrand in an epic battle at Winchester (which in the later English tradition became the most popular incident in the story). He retires to Warwick, and lives as a hermit. On the point of death he reveals his identity to Felice by means of the ring. In grief she follows him to the grave. Meanwhile their son Reinbrun, who was born after his father left, has been carried off from Wallingford by pirates. He is brought up in Africa by the daughter of King Argus. Heraud, the faithful steward of Guy, sets out in search of him, and finds him (after fighting with him in ignorance of his true identity). After a series of further adventures they return home to England.
Chaucer made use of the romance in his parody in Sir Thopas. But for all its extravagances, it is not hard to see why its excitingly told adventures and its blend of love, chivalry, ascetic religion, and a high-minded celebration of loyalty made it immensely popular. The Anglo-Norman romance found its way into continental French, into prose, and into print in the sixteenth century. English versions were printed by Pynson, Wynkyn de Worde, and Copland, and lived on in chapbooks and other forms of popular literature until the nineteenth centuryand as children's stories, even later. There were ballads, and a play by Dekker and Day. The battle with Colbrand was treated in a separate lay; there was a homiletic version in the Speculum Gy de Warewyke (in which Guy asks Alcuin for advice on how to escape the enticements of the world).
In the early fourteenth century the chronicler Peter Langtoft worked the story of the fight at Winchester into history. Anlaf, defeated at Brunnanburg sur Humbre, fled to Denmark, but returned with Colbrand to besiege Athelstan at Winchester (combining the two invasions of Olaf Sihtricson and Olaf Tryggvason). God sent him a dream, that an old palmer would appear and undertake the battlethis was really Guy of Warwick, whose book tells how he killed Colbrand. A Latin prose account of the battle by one Gerard of Cornwall was influential. Lydgate based his version, made for Margaret, countess of Shrewsbury, the daughter of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1439), on part of this. Chroniclers such as Knighton, Hardyng, Rous, Fabyan, Holinshed, Stow, and Dugdale accepted the legend as an actual event occurring in the reign of Æthelstan, the victor of Brunanburh (937). The Beauchamp family built Guy's Tower at Warwick, and the castle still contains supposed relics of the hero. Guy's Cliffe, near Warwick, is the legendary site of his hermitage.
A. Ewert, ed., Gui de Warewic: roman du XIIIe siècle (Paris, 19323) · J. Zupitza, ed., The romance of Guy of Warwick, 5 vols., EETS, extra ser., 25, 26, 42, 49, 59 (187591) · M. D. Legge, Anglo-Norman literature and its background (1963), 16271 · M. J. Donovan and others, Romances, A manual of the writings in Middle English, 10501500, ed. J. B. Severs, 1 (1967), 2731, 21720 · R. S. Crane, The vogue of Guy of Warwick from the close of the middle ages to the Romantic revival, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 30 (1915), 12594