Kay the Seneschal

Cai, Caie, Caius, Cay, Cayous, Cei, Che, Cheudo, Chieso, Cheix, Coi, Gues, Kae, Kai, Kaye, Kaynus, Kayous, Kazin, Ke, Kei, Keie, Keii, Keis, Kenis, Kes, Keu, Keul, Keuls, Keux, Keuz, Kex, Key, Keye, Keys, Koi, Kois, Ky, Qes, Quei, Queis, Ques, Quex, Qui, Quio, Quois

Son of Sir Ector and foster-brother of Arthur.

He becomes the king’s high Seneschal of England, and a knight of the Round Table. Kay is noted for his sour temperament. In the earliest legends Kay is an heroic knight, but in later versions he becomes Arthur’s irascible steward. In Perlesvaus, he murdered Arthur’s son Loholt and joined Brian des Illes in a rebellion against Arthur.

The obscure Welsh poem Pa gur may imply that he killed the Cath Palug. He married Andrivete, daughter of King Cador of Northumberland. Kay is credited with sons called Garanwyn and Gronosis and a daughter called Kelemon. His horse was named Gwinam Goddwf Hir. Geoffrey says he was made Duke of Anjou. In the Chroniques d’Anjou et du Maine by J. de Bourdigne, we are told he was a Saxon who served Uther and hated other Saxons because, unlike them, he was a Christian. In Welsh tradition he was a member of the party formed to help Culhwch in his quest to locate Olwen.

There are different accounts of his death: throughout Welsh literature it is claimed that he was killed by Gwyddawg who was, in turn, killed by Arthur; but he is also said to have been killed in battle with the Romans in Bretagne (Brittany) by the young Roman emperor Lucius. As revenge Arthur cut his head in two down to his teeth. Another ending is that he was killed in the war against Mordred. One source lists him among the knights killed by the escaping yet unarmed Lancelot when the latter had been caught in compromising circumstances in Guinevere’s bedchamber.

Whereas Gawaine’s character underwent a degradation from the time of Chrétien to that of Malory, Kay’s remained remarkably constant – perhaps because his surly, jaundiced attitutde and freakish attempts at glory-grabbing provided so perfect a foil for the chivalric ideal. In some ways, one might opine that Kay serves the same dramatic function in Arthur’s court that Loki serves, up to a point, in Asgård, the chief differences being that Kay’s sharp-tounged sallies and occasional trickery [in Chrétien’s Lancelot he puts on quite an elaborate act in order to be the first knight to try rescuing Guenevere from Meliagrant (Meleagaunce)].

There is his famous attempt to claim credit for drawing the sword from the stone, almost invariably win him either contemptuous retorts, or embarrassment and even bodily injury – and that Kay never goes bad, but remains loyal in his unpolished way, to Arthur to the end. Ronan Coghlan’s Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends mentions that in the Perlesvaus Kay joins a rebellion against Arthur, but this is surely an exceptional treatment and, from Coghlan’s description, I gather that it reflects simply another reworking of the Sword in the Stone incident.

Moreover, studies leaves the strong impression that seneschals often served as scapegoats for their liege lords: any adverse sentiment that the public feared to voice, perhaps even to think, against a ruler, they directed against the ruler’s seneschal instead. Heaven forfend, of course, that we imagine the populace could ever have felt any grievance against so wonderful a king as Arthur! Nevertheless, if seneschals in general came to have a certain reputation, it might have rubbed off on even Arthur’s officer. Whatever the reason, throughout most of the medieval romances I have examined, Kay can be depended upon to speak rudely, boast a lot, bully young hopefulls like GarethPercival, and La Cote Male Taile, and be unhorsed in usually every joust.

D.D.R. Owen surmises that Chrétien took Kay’s personality from some lost source. All that seems certain, however, is that Chrétien gave us our earliest extant portrait of this cranky version of a hero who in presumably more ancient lore coulde breathe nine days and nights under water, or make himself as tall as the tallest tree. His stature was heroic in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and the old Welsh myths which spell his name Cai or Cei. Both his heroic and churlich aspects appear in Malory.

On Merlin’s instruction, Kay’s father Sir Ector gave the infant Arthur to his wife for nourishing and put Kay out to a wetnurse; this indicates an age difference of no more than a few years in the boys. There is no evidence in Malory that either Kay or Arthur realized they were not born siblings; there are, however, indications of real brotherly affection between the two.

To help find the man who would prove himself King by pulling the marvelous sword from the stone and anvil, Merlin and the Archbishop of Canterbury called a great tournament in London on New Year’s Day. Sir Ector brought Kay, who had been knighted on All Hallowmass two months before, and Arthur, who appears to have been serving as Kay’s squire. On the way to the tournament, Kay discovered he had left his sword at the house where they were lodging and sent Arthur back to get it. When Arthur arrived,

the lady and all were out to see the jousting. Then was Arthur wroth, and said to himself, I will ride to the churchyard, and take the sword with me that sticketh in the stone, for my brother Sir Kay shall not be without a sword this day. ... And as soon as Sir Kay saw the sword, he wist well it was the sword of the stone and so he rode to his father Sir Ector, and said: Sir, lo here is the sword of the stone, wherefore I must be king of this land.

Sir Ector saw through Kay’s claim and insisted on taking both young men back to the churchyard (which had providentially been abandoned by the men who were supposed to have been guarding it) and repeating the experiment.

Curiously, the closest thing to a rebuke Kay seems to have recieved was that Ector made him “swear upon a book how he came to that sword”, after which he requested as his only favor from his foster-son, who was having some trauma accepting the situation, that Arthur make Kay his seneschal. Promising “that never man shall have that office but he, while he and I live”, Arthur carried this out at his coronation.

The first serious threat of rebellion was made at Pentecost, and, on Merlin’s advice, Arthur sent for Kings Ban and Bors as allies. At the feast celebrating their arrival, on All Hallowmass, Kay served in the hall, assisted by Sirs Lucan and Griflet – which seems to be noted as an honor for all parties. At the tournament following this feast Kay “did that day marvellous deeds of arms, that there was none did so well as he that day”, but was finally unhorsed by one Sir Placidas, at which Griflet and other knights in Kay’s party angrily avenged his fall. The kings awarded the prize of this tournament to Kay, Griflet, and Lucan. Kay proved his worth in practical warfare during the bloody battle of Bedegraine against the rebel kings, and again in the battle against Nero and King Lot before Castle Terrabil.

Kay’s greatest moment of glory came during the invasion of the five kings of DenmarkIreland, the Vale, Soleise, and the Isle of Longtains. While Arthur, his wife, and his army were camped by the Humber River, the enemy army surprised them with a night attack. Trying to get the Queen to safety, Arthur, Kay, Gawaine, and Griflet were trapped on the edge of the rough water.

And as they stood so talking, Sir Kay saw the five kings coming on horseback by themselves alone, with their spears in their hands. ... Lo, said Sir Kay, yonder be five kings; let us go to them and match them. That were folly, said Sir Gawaine, for we are but three [maybe Gawaine is not counting the King] and they be five. That is truth, said Sir Griflet. No force, said Sir Kay, I will undertake for two of them, and then may ye three undertake for the other three. And therewithal, Sir Kay let his horse run as fast as he might, and struck one of them through the shield and the body a fathom, that the king fell to the earth stark dead.

Inspired by his example, Gawaine, Arthur, and Griflet each struck down another of the five invaders.

Anon Sir Kay ran unto the fifth king, and smote him so hard on the helt that the stroke clave the helm and the head to the earth. That was well stricken, said King Arthur, and worshipfully hast thou holden thy promise, therefore I shall honour thee while that I live ... [and] always Queen Guenever praised Sir Kay for his deeds, and said, What lady that ye love, and she love you not again she were greatly to blame; and among ladies, said the Queen, I shall bear you noble fame, for ye spake a great word, and fulfilled it worshipfully.

It was after this battle that Kay became a companion of the Round Table, on the advice of Pellinore, who pointed out,

for many times he hath done full worshipfully, and now at your last battle he did full honourably for to undertake to slay two kings. By my head, said Arthur, he is best worth to be a knight of the Round Table of any that ye have rehearsed...

When, on his way to fight Emperor Lucius on the Continent, Arthur stopped to exterminate the giant of Saint Michael’s MountBrittany, Kay and Bedivere were the two companions he chose to take on the secret expedition. Having slain the giant, Arthur assigned Kay the task of cutting off the head and bearing it to Howell. In the battle with Lucius, Kay was among Arthur’s personal bodyguard.

From about this point Malory’s Kay slides downhill. He turns up among the knights rescued from Sir Turquine, and when Lancelot departs suddenly after vanquishing Turquine, Kay takes an oath with Lionel and Ector de Maris to find him again. Kay’s next action on being released from prison may be typically stewardly: he sees to supper.

[T]here came a forester with four horses laden with fat venison. Anon, Sir Kay said, Here is good meat for us for one meal, for we had not many a day no good repast.

In an often-retold incident, Kay, having become separated from Ector and Lionel, is set on by three knights at once beneath the window which happens to be of Lancelot’s bedchamber. Lancelot descend by a sheet, rescues Kay, and in the morning, before Kay is awake, leaves with Kay’s horse and armor, whether accidentally or on purpose. Lancelot thus gets the chance to strike down several knights who mistake him for

the proud Kay; [who] weeneth no knight so good as he, and the contrary is ofttime proved.

Lancelot’s reputation, on the other hand, is already such that Kay, disguised perforce as Lancelot, makes it back to court without being challenged.

Kay’s treatment of Gareth, whom he nicknamed Beaumains, is one of the most widely known and typical of the seneschal, though it is usually glossed over that, despite his bullying, Kay seems to have taken a certain pride in Beaumains. When Gareth displayed his strength in courtyard sports, “[t]hen would Sir Kay say, How liketh you my boy of the kitchen?” Kay’s mockery of La Cote Male Taile and of Percivale is in similar vein, though neither of them came under his authority as Beaumains did, and for most of Percivale’s story we must go outside Malory, to tales stemming from Chrétien’s Perceval.

During the rambling adventures of Malory’s book of Tristram, in which Kay occasionally appears, Tristram, meeting him by chance, pretty well sums up his reputation:

[N]ow wit ye well that ye are named the shamefullest knight of your tounge that now is living; howbeit ye are called a good knight, but ye are called unfortunate, and passing overthwart of your tounge.

In fairness to Tristram, this is said in response to Kay’s repetition of the old saw about no good knights ever coming out of Cornwall. On the other hand, some chapters later, when Kay finds Ywaine treacherously and gravely wounded by Mark, the seneschal makes sure of getting Ywaine safely to the Abbey of the Black Cross for healing.

Kay plays no part in the Grail Adventures except to remind Arthur, shortly before Galahad’s arrival on Pentecost, of the King’s old custom of never sitting down to dinner on the feast day until they have seen some adventure. Malory mentions him as one of the guests at Guenevere’s small dinner, as the chief of three knights whom Arthur sends to bring in the barge bearing the body of Elaine of Astolat, as one of the small party of unarmed knights who ride a-Maying with Guenevere and are ambushed and kidnaped by Meliagrant, and as one of those who attempt to heal Sir Urre.

This is the last we hear of Sir Kay in Malory’s pages; perhaps he becomes confused with Sir Kainus le Strange, who is killed by Lancelot and his party during their rescue of Guenevere from the stake.

The Vulgate fills in further details. Kay got his sharp tounge from his nurse, apparently the one who took charge of him when his own mother took over Arthur’s nursing. On more than one occasion he bore Arthur’s standard into battle. He was deeply devoted to Guenevere, although in a more platonic way (in practice if not in desire) than Lancelot.

Rivalry arose between the two, as in the affairs of “the false Guenevere” Genievre and of Meliagrant, as to which should defend her in trial by combat. (Lancelot always won the honor.) Kay is said to have murdered Arthur’s bastard son Borre in order to get credit for killing a giant Borre had exterminated; the Vulgate “Merlin” adds that this was the only treacherous deed Kay ever committed.

In the Vulgate version, Kay plays a more prominent part in the Meliagrant affair, beginning when he comes into court armed and announces he is leaving because his services are not appreciated. Arthur and Guenevere beg him to stay, which he does on condition he be allowed to defend the Queen against Meliagrant, who has offered to free the exiles in Gore’s Terre Foraine in return for the chance to attempt Guenevere’s capture (this differs from Malory’s version, in which Meliagrant ambushes Guenevere’s party a-Maying). Meliagrant defeats Kay and later accuses Kay in particular of sleeping with the Queen (in Malory, it is a general accusation against the ten wounded knights).

Kay met his death during Arthur and Gawaine’s siege of Lancelot’s city in France – the Emperor of Rome took advantage of Arthur’s presence on the continent to invade Burgundy and advance on the British. In the resulting battle, Gawaine killed the Emperor’s nephew; the Emperor, seeking revenge, mortally wounded Kay, whereon Arthur slew the Emperor.

According to Wace, Kay was given the title of Duke of Anjou. In Sir Gawaine and the Carl of Carlisle, the Carl presents Kay with a bloodred horse swifter than any other the knight has ever seen. I do not remember ever finding a lady for Kay in the old romances; perhaps his courtly devotion to Guenvere precluded a more mundane relationship with another woman.

Despite Kay’s reputation as braggart, when he comes back to court in Lancelot’s armor, he frankly gives Lancelot all the credit for the conquests made by the knight in Kay’s armor. In the Vulgate version of the episode, volume V, near the end of the Livre de Lancelot del Lac, on the top of the incident after incident of frequently senseless and avoidable bloodshed committed by such “good” knights as Lancelot and Bors, Kay’s statement that he has not overcome any knight since leaving court strikes me as not only honest, but downright commendable.

Perhaps the contrast between Kay’s early prowess at arms and the frequent defeats of his middle and later years is explained by the performance of his duties as seneschal occupying too much of his time to allow him to keep in fighting trim. It is not hard, by reading between the lines, to see he must have been conscientious and competent in his official capacity. As for his reputation as braggart and churl, I suspect that, just as later kings needed scapegoats for popular dislike of various mistakes and politics, so did Arthur. The seneschal, largely responsible for the practical, day-to-day functioning of the court, would have been a logical candidate for the role of scapegoat. If Arthur’s bastard son Borre, or Lohot, is to be identified with Arthur’s son Anir, or Amyr, of shadowy early legends, it is interesting that, while Borre’s death is charged to Kay, Anir’s is charged to Arthur himself.

I also theorize that Kay’s mockery of and jousts with young hopefuls like Beaumains and Percivale may have been part of a program to weed out country lads who came to court with no qualifications for knighthood beyond their own aspirations; there may well have been a great many of these, especially after the easy knighting of Sir Tor, but only the tales of those who really were of noble birth and valorous worth have been preserved for us.

A popular device of old romancers was to contrast Kay’s churlish behavior with Gawaine’s courtesy, always, of course, to Gawaine’s advantage. The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawaine, with introductions and translations by Louis B. Hall, in addition to being a gold mine about Gawaine, has also a rich vein of information about Kay. It interests me that, whereas Gawaine’s reputation seems still to be slipping, various modern treatments have been rehabilitating Kay. Of course, in order to do it, most of the ones I have seen discard Kay’s medieval personality as thoroughly as most of the occasional modern versions that feature a heroic Gawaine (Hal Foster’s being a notable exception) do so by discarding Gawaine’s medieval personality.

His name is often said to be a form of the Roman Caius, but it may be of Irish origin as suggested by R. Bromwich.


See also
Kay’s Shin Bone | The Legend of King Arthur
Key of Wales | The Legend of Arthur
The poisoned apple | The Legend of King Arthur