Tyranny, Tyrannicide and Medieval Political Theories of Kingship (31 October)


Gustave Doré’s 1857 illustration of Canto XII from Dante’s Inferno, depicting tyrants submerged in a river of boiling blood

The medieval period was obsessed with notions of kingship and tyranny. Writers from across western Europe, in both Latin and vernacular languages, interrogated concepts of legitimate leadership across a great variety of forms and genres. The ‘Mirror for Princes’ genre was one of the most well-known (and most direct) forms of such interrogations. Examples of this genre – emerging from as early at the ninth century – typically offered actual or imaginary leaders advice on the conduct of kings, often through forms of historical, legendary and biblical exempla. The great histories of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries similarly could employ examples of the reigns of former kings as mirrors to their own times, often using the obliqueness of time to both codify and conceal contemporary political commentaries. Those same centuries saw the flourishing of a new body of political treatises that would address kingship in even more direct fashion, including such works as John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1160) and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno (1267), which we will read this month.

Medieval notions of kingship and tyranny were influenced by a vast, and ever-growing, spectrum of texts, including the Bible, the works of Augustine, classical and contemporary histories, and the works of classical philosophers, such as Cicero and Aristotle. These political theories wove together divergent currents of thought that were both ancient and modern, attempting to reconcile theological discourses with philosophical concepts of natural law and the all-important question of tyrannicide. Moreover, they were also written for a wide spectrum of audiences, dedicated to Kings, Chancellors, and Archbishops, and read at both European courts and the Papal curia. The breadth of this readership meant that the didacticism inherent in any work on kingship must be carefully moderated and modulated in accordance with the demands of those leaders. Furthermore, the fascination with legitimate kingship and its tyrannical (but not altogether indistinguishable) other extended beyond the philosophical treatise, textbook and Latin history, and the genres of romance, fable and hagiography, among others, would frequently interrogate and dramatize notions of correct leadership, political legitimacy, usurpation and tyrannicide.

The Intellectual History of Tyranny

The word ‘tyrant’ originally derives from the Greek word ‘tyrannos’ (τύραννος), meaning ‘monarch’ or ‘leader of a polis’. In its earliest-recorded context, the term signified a authoritarian ruler, free of negative or illegitimate connotations. It was not until around the fifth century BCE that a distinction arose between a legitimate ruler, who ruled with the support of government and a tyrant, who did not. The first major interrogation of tyranny was conducted by Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BCE), who argued that, just as subjects had a duty to obey the laws, the ruler had a duty to ensure that laws were made honestly and with legitimate reason. Once one of these precepts were violated, the ruler was deemed a tyrant and the contract between polis and ruler was broken. This left subjects free to break the law in the service of the common good and, in certain situations, justified tyrannicide.

This view was broadly corroborated and expanded by later classical intellectuals, including Plato (c. 428 – c. 347), Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) and Cicero (106 – 43 BCE). However, despite the post-Classical importance and prevalence of both Platonism and Neoplatonism, very few of either Plato’s or Aristotle’s works were available in the Middle Ages. As a result, the structuralist conception of government laid out in Book Seven of Plato’s Republic was glimpsed only through the works of Cicero, whose own De re publica was written in imitation of Plato’s great work and, emerging later still, through the works of Aristotle.

In contrast to the relatively clear-cut and homogenous attitude to tyranny (and, indeed, tyrannicide) evidenced by Classical philosophers, these theories became complicated with the emergence of Christianity, and especially the Church’s prohibition on murder. For instance, despite his familiarity with the works of Cicero and Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) wrote nothing that could properly be termed political theory. As a result, both medieval and modern scholars have tended to extrapolate theories of statesmanship, kingship and tyranny from arguments on legitimate rule in a bid to construct something akin to an Augustinian theory on tyrannicide. These arguments have typically centred on Book XIX of his City of God. In Chapter 14 of that book, Augustine establishes a broad framework for the relationship between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’, arguing that ‘those who care for the rest rule (the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants); and they who are cared for obey (the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters)’ (City of God, XIX, 14). Although Augustine argues that slavery itself (in this interpretation analogous to the subjects of a ruler or tyrant) is only possible in a postlapsarian world, he argues that it must be tolerated because:

the apostle admonishes slaves to be subject to their masters, that they may themselves make their slavery in some sort free, by serving not in crafty fear, but in faithful love, until all unrighteousness passes away, and all principality and every human power be brought to nothing, and God be all in all. (City of God, XIX, 15)

This passage, read in this interpretive framework, has been broadly interpreted as Augustine’s belief that a tyrant, or unjust ruler, must be tolerated in this world because anything temporal is secondary to eternal life.

As a result, whilst tyranny remained a discourse that was both available to and utilised by medieval writers and historians, it would not become the subject of interrogation or theorisation in the Latin Middle Ages until 1159, when John of Salisbury (c. 1120 – 1180), one of the most important figures of the twelfth-century renaissance, completed his Policraticus – a political treatise dedicated to then-Chancellor Thomas Becket. A long, wide-ranging work that covers such issues as the body politic, kingship, contemporary history, the vices of the court and contains a sustained attack on flatterers, the Policraticus is most famous for its defence of tyrannicide. John’s is a powerful and comprehensive theory of tyranny, arguing that there are different types of tyrant: private tyrants, ecclesiastical tyrants and monarchical tyrants.

Whilst the Policraticus had a relatively small reach in the years following its completion, by the thirteenth century its influence was so wide that Frédérique Lachaud has rightly defined the text as ‘a cultural phenomenon’.[1] The full text survives in 60 manuscripts, and many more in abbreviated forms. More broadly, it was summarised, paraphrased, quoted, and even directly plagiarised, throughout the coming centuries and influenced the work of many twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians, legalists, historiographers and poets, including: Peter of Blois (c. 1130 – c. 1211), Nigel Longchamp (d. 1200), the anonymous author of The Song of Lewes (1264), and Henry of Bracton (d. 1268), author of an extensive treatise on common law. It continued to be of influence in the early modern period, being printed at least twice in the sixteenth century (Paris, 1513; Leiden, 1593), and was almost certainly known to Ben Jonson who drew much material from it in Timber.

By the thirteenth century, however, the intellectual world was being revolutionised again by the mass translation of the works of Aristotle, including the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. These translations, and the commentaries that soon followed, galvanised intellectual – and, consequently, political – thought and life; many of the men responsible went on to write significant commentaries on tyranny, applying the structural analyses of Aristotle to their own political circumstances. Robert Grosseteste, the influential Bishop of Lincoln, was responsible for the first extant Latin translation of the Nicomachean Ethics and notably sent an abbreviatio of his memorandum on tyranny to Simon de Montfort in May 1250. However, it was the Dominican Friar, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who truly epitomised and championed the synthesisation of Aristotelian thought with the principles of Christianity.

Aquinas’ theories of kingship and the construction of society are based largely on Aristotle’s own distinctions (Monarchy, Autocracy/Tyranny, Aristocracy, Democracy, Oligarchy). Drawing, again, on the works of Aristotle, Aquinas argues that man is an inherently social and political creature. Unlike animals, which are each equipped with the necessary senses and instincts to survive entirely alone, man, he argues, is equipped with the reason necessary to gain knowledge, materials, aid and services from others better suited to each task than himself. This necessitates the existence of a collective, which, he argues, must be governed and led – preferably, as we will see, by a single individual. This Aristotelian and structuralist conception of society is the principal framework for his theories of both kingship and tyranny. Although Aquinas addresses these themes in a number of his works, including his Commentary on the Sentences (1252-56), and Summa Theologiae (1265-74), it receives its most extensive and exclusive treatment in the De regno (1267). This was Aquinas’ longest exclusively political work and was originally intended for Hugh II of Lusignan, King of Cyprus. However, following the intended recipient’s death in 1267, Aquinas abandoned the work, completing only the first Book and the first six chapters of Book Two. The work was taken up and completed by Tolommeo of Luca.

Today we are reading extracts from John of Salisbury’s Policraticus and Thomas Aquinas’ De regno to interrogate how political thought on both kingship and tyranny evolved over the course of the Middle Ages.


Questions/Topics for Consideration:

  • How do these texts present a) kingship and b) tyranny? To what extent are the two constructions inter-reliant and interrelated? How do these constructions vary between texts?
  • To what extent are these texts similar? Different? What are the effects and meanings of these similarities and differences?
  • How do these texts negotiate authority – whether secular, religious, textual, patristic?
  • What do they mean for contemporary kingship and constructions of kingship?
  • As texts fundamentally to do with power, how does the nature of the dialectic between text and power function in each source?
  • How political are the texts themselves?
  • Thinking of your own research and what you know of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century contexts of these texts, how do their theories (and the repercussion of those theories) impact or reflect broader societal and literary concerns?
  • How do these texts make use of their authorities both implicitly and explicitly?

[1] Frédérique Lachaud, ‘The Medieval Afterlife of the Policraticus’, in A Companion to John of Salisbury, ed. by Christophe Grelland and Frédérique Lachaud (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 377-438 (p. 377).


Medieval Ghost Stories: miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa (August 15, 2018)


Ghost, spectre, wraith, spirit, shade, spook, phantom, apparition, poltergeist, bogey, haint – the profusion of terms, with their different origins and linguistic histories, with sometimes distinct but often overlapping meanings, testifies to a continuing, evolving but seemingly fundamental anxiety concerned with the possibility of an afterlife and, more specifically, the idea of a restless soul or spirit of the deceased. From the vapours of Homer’s Odyssey to Plutarch’s account of the ghost of a murdered man, haunting the baths at Chaeronea, whose groans and shrieks caused terror amongst the people, or from the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father urging vengeance to Sweet William’s Ghost (Child Ballad 77), begging his still-alive fiancée to free him from his promise to marry her, literary ghost stories have taken a plethora of forms and functions.

Medieval ghost stories are both like and unlike earlier and later spectral traditions. Predominantly taking the form of unquiet spirits – souls of men and women caught between heaven and hell – they have often been seen as inhabiting a textual space somewhere between Christian teaching and vernacular belief, though as this month’s reading testifies much theological thought could be bound up in the spectral matters, while popular folkloric beliefs existing beneath – and separate to – Christian orthodoxy are rarely easily apparent, despite the best efforts of some historians of medieval popular culture. While the modern ghost story often aims to entertain the reader by frisson, the pleasurable enjoyments of medieval ghost stories are often various: they could be morally edifying, spiritually consoling, and occasionally downright terrifying.

Early Church writers and Latin historians are largely quiet on ghostly matters. St Augustine of Hippo in the De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420-22) was adamant that the dead could have no influence on the lives of the living; and gave little credence to accounts of the spectral return, whether in dream or in waking life. At best, such visions of the dead were the workings of God; usually they were the manifestations of error. Pope Gregory the Great in his Dialogi of c. 592, however, seems to have accepted the presence of ghosts – specifically, restless, penitent souls – as part and parcel of the Christian experience. Nonetheless, Augustine’s views seem to have held sway – or perhaps it was simply that, in that age of Christian expansion, tales of spectres and the restless undead were too close to non-Christian belief systems.

Whether it was a result of the doom-laded portents surrounding the year 1000, the development of the concept and place of Purgatory in the early twelfth century, or the great outpouring of Latin literature – and especially the historiographical renaissance of the 1100s – that reanimated earlier suppressed vernacular beliefs in ghosts and other folkloric anxieties, from the turn of the first millennium the ghost returned to haunt the pens and imagination of many Latin writers.

Some Churchmen saw the potential for capital – both spiritual and financial – in the fascination with ghost stories. Peter the Venerable (c. 1092-1156), abbot of Cluny, at the zenith of its power under his authority, included several tales of ghostly apparitions in his De miraculis, representing ‘the pinnacle of the twelfth-century use of the ghost story for the specific institutional advantage of a monastic foundation. Many of these stories demonstrate Peter’s “external” political concern to defend Cluny’s interests as a territorial and financial unit’. In one tale from the De miraculis, for instance, the ghost of a baron appears, begging the forgiveness of the abbot for encroaching on lands near the abbey’s holdings.

Many other writings were less materialistic in orientation. Jacques Le Goff ties the outpouring of ghostly complaints to the consolidation of the belief in Purgatory around the twelfth century. Certainly a common theme of such tales at this time centre on spirits condemned for a specific time to Purgatory to atone for transgressions in their life, and who seek the help of the living to alleviate their torments – typically through intercessional prayer.

The narratives of these ghostly miracula show evidence of the influence of Gregory the Great. Other writers, such as William of Malmesbury and Gervase of Tilbury, seem to recount stories of the undead in a different, but never wholly unrelated, form of the mirabilia, or marvel. Such tales of wonder could serve many purposes. William, for instance, recounts his ghostly tales as means of registering his disquiet over necromancy and, perhaps, to associate it with certain forms of continental speculative philosophy. Gervase of Tilbury, however, adapted the form to a less strenuously ethical mode: for him, mirabilia were predominantly tales of sophisticated court entertainments. Related to mirabilia are the prodigiosa or ‘unnatural marvels’ of William of Newburgh, contained within his Historia rerum Anglicarum, and which are, perhaps, neither as didactic as William of Malmesbury’s ghostly tales, nor as overtly entertaining as Gervase’s slightly later spectral diversions.

Despite some of these generic, formal considerations of miracula, mirabilia and prodigiosa, it should be noted that any distinctions are hazy, and insisting on easy classifications is a pointless task. Ghost stories, like ghosts themselves, are liminal entities, existing at the margins of generic classifications, or buried deeply – though perhaps not too permanently – within a morass of other textual matters and materials. Tales of spectres rarely stand alone. Just as modern ghost stories may be contained within horror fiction, stories of the supernatural, or tales of the paranormal, or within a range of larger genres – weird fiction, thrillers, the gothic – so medieval ghost stories exist within a multitude of literary forms and genres: religious exempla, theological textbooks, the histories of a people, specula of marvellous phenomena, romances, sagas. They could be, and usually were, grouped with other miraculous, marvellous or ‘unnatural’ phenomena – tales that many, of later generations, might want to describe as uncanny. Indeed, there is something curiously pervasive in the ghost story, as it reappears again and again in new forms, alongside new tales, and contradictory theologies.

This month’s reading consists of selections from five important, and diverse, writers. Though the extensiveness of medieval writings on spectres is at least as wide as modern and contemporary writings on ghosts, I have here selected only clerical writings in Latin. A future reading group may wish to consider later vernacular writings on spectral encounters, and in a wider range of genres.

The first set of extracts are taken from two of the most important Latin Church Fathers, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Pope St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). Though their respective writings on spectral afterlives are short, their influence on later ecclesiastical writers was profound. Crucially, they assumed very different positions of the possibility of ghostly hauntings. For Augustine, famously, the dead, by their very nature, have no ability to interfere with the lives of the living. The spirits of the dead, awaiting judgement, have no ability to appear to the living – at least of their own volition. For Gregory, as so often, the position seems to have been different. Not only can the unquiet spirits of the dead appear (at least to learned, pious men), but they can also ask for service from the living. The extracts are taken from Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420), a letter written to his fellow bishop, Paulinus, detailing the care to be had for the dead, and the fourth book of Gregory’s Dialogi (c. 593), which deals with the souls of ordinary Christians. The latter proved influential on later writers’ use of the ghost story as miracula, ‘in that they are not hagiographical accounts of saintly episodes but stories which use the extraordinary – the appearance after their death of ordinary people – to uphold and exemplify theological or moral points which the writer wishes to emphasise.’

The second group of spectral tales come from three English writers of the twelfth and early thirteenth century: William of Malmesbury, William of Newburgh and Gervase of Tilbury. William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143) was an enormously important historian of the twelfth century – at the very vanguard of the historiographical renaissance that was to include Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Newburgh. His De gestis regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) was begun in 1125 and, indebted to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731), represents highpoint in the revival of English literary and intellectual culture following the post-Conquest years. As Rodney M. Thompson notes, ‘in his scholarly and literary achievement William is on the one hand unique and outstanding, on the other representative of his concerns, traditions, virtues and limitations of Benedictine monasticism. He was living near the end of the great age of Benedictine scholarship, and though he apparently sensed that new forces were at work, associated with the continental Schools, he had little contact with them.’ Within his broad gestis are various anecdotes of the deeds of supernatural events, which are notably free of historical scrutiny. Also noteworthy is William’s disapproval of certain acts of necromancy (communication with, and/or summoning of the dead), which in the tale of Two Clerks of Nantes he associates with speculative philosophy.

The Yorkshire canon, William of Newburgh (1136-98), included a short collection of prodigiosa, or unnatural marvels, within his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs). The subject of previous MEMORI reading groups [here], William’s work is of great importance to historians of the twelfth century, as well as students of historiography. His famously well-balanced, considered and at times idiosyncratic history of contemporary English affairs led him to be described as ‘the father of historical criticism’ by Edward Augustus Freeman in the nineteenth century. Parts of his work has also proven attractive to those working in folklore studies (as well as more dubious historians of the paranormal) for its depiction – questioning, open-minded, sometimes hesitant – of revenants, vampires and the famous ‘green children’ of St Martin’s Land. In his account of the Buckinghamshire Ghost, the Berwick Ghost and the Hound’s Priest, several critics have seen what they estimate to be Scandinavian influence – and a general belief in the former Danelaw in the existence of monstrous nightstalkers. Unlike several other monastic depictions of ghosts at this time, it is notable how important the role of lay persons – as opposed to the priests – are in the resolution of the narratives.

Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1150-1220) was an English canon lawyer, statesman and writer. Born in Tilbury, Essex, a manor in the hands of Henry II, Gervase spent most of his working life within the extensive Angevin network across northern and western Europe. He travelled widely, taught canon law at Bologna, found service in the court of William II of Sicily, Henry of Anjou, and William of Champagne, Archbishop of Reims. Sometime after the death of William II of Sicily, Gervase settled in Arles, and was later made Marshal of the Kingdom of Arles by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor (and grandson of Henry II). Between 1210 and 1214 Gervase wrote Otia imperialia (Imperial entertainments) for his patron, as well as some devotional works. The Otia imperialia is an encyclopaedia of mirabilia (or marvels), and an important example of speculum literature. As a survey (speculum), the book is divided into three parts – history, geography and physics – and contains a wealth of many tales and wonders, including several ‘ghost stories’, all of which were devised as courtly, intellectual entertainments for Otto’s court.

Questions for discussion
1. How do Augustine and Gregory negotiate what we may loosely consider as ‘classical’ (or, in other instances, Judaic) traditions relating to funerary rites, and/or conceptions of the spectre?
2. What are the purposes/roles of Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings?
3. Is it possible to reconcile Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings on spectres, or are they mutually exclusive?
4. Do (all) these Latin writers present similar or very different conceptions of (a) ghosts and (b) ghost stories when compared to modern and contemporary presentations of spectres and spectral narratives?
5. Consider the corporeality (or incorporeal nature) of the ghosts in these texts
6. Ghost, revenant, spectre, spook, apparition, nightstalker, shade – is a taxonomy of ‘ghosts’ possible? Is it useful?
7. To what extent do these texts reveal an interplay between Church teaching and popular folklore?
8. Miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa – to what extent do the generic literary presentations of these ghost stories affect the way we understand them?
9. Given all this generic and formal play – messiness, might be a better word – the obvious question is, what counts as a ghost story?


King Lear’s Endings: What Makes A Tragedy? (18th July)

By Richard Davies

Cordelia death

Textual Provenance and Problematic Versions

‘King Lear presents the most fascinating, important and contentious textual issues of the entire Shakespeare canon. The play exists in two early authoritative texts, the Quarto (Q1) of 1608 and the Folio (F) of 1623. For many years, it was presumed that each text was an imperfect and incomplete version of a lost, longer original. Consequently, King Lear was usually printed in a “conflated” text: that is, in an attempt to give readers and audiences as many as possible of Shakespeare’s words, editors combined the two texts into a version of the play that was longer than either of the early texts’.[1]

These opening lines from the textual introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare provides an appropriate overview of the scale of task we are presented with when we consider the textual provenance of King Lear. Why is it that scholars seem resigned to the study of a play that is an amalgamation of versions? What is most striking about this is that the question of studying the hybrid version of the text was not considered in any real depth until Michael Warren and Gary Taylor edited The Division of the Kingdoms in the late 1970s; such an approach was commonplace and considered as usual, not out of the ordinary. In the grand scheme, this is a remarkably recent shift in the academic paradigm.

General Consensus

The Division of the Kingdoms is a seminal text in the study of ‘new bibliography’ or ‘new textuality’ and the collection of essays contained therein proffers a collective argument that the texts in question, namely the Q1 of 1608 and the Folio of 1623 “represent independent and coherent versions of the play which should not be combined.”[2]The very first essay in said collection is a contribution by Steven Urkowitz entitled ‘The Base shall to th’ Legitimate: The Growth of an Editorial Tradition.’ That word ‘tradition’ is one that continually occurs in the writings surrounding this subject matter raising the prospect that the plays exist in collated formats because of the tradition of doing so. By the end of the twentieth century, Ioppolo notes, such a tradition had begun to be challenged:

There was a general consensus that the two texts were sequential – that is, that the Quarto represents a first complete stage of the play and the Folio represents a later stage, which may be Shakespeare’s revision of his own play.[3]

I do not wish to address the matter of revisionism here, rather consider the fact that these plays are now thought to be different versions of the same play. Such a consensus must lead scholars to question the validity and, indeed, the value in pursuing a composite which is highly unlikely to represent anything seen on the early-modern stage.

Variations and Different Lears

There is significant variance between the two versions of Lear not just in terms of layout and spelling but also significant differences in content: over 1,000 words differ between the texts and Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1 and F1 a further 100 lines not considered in Q1. Composite versions, I contest, cannot really be considered to be Shakespeare’s King Lear but, moreover, a synthesis of parts of Lears that generations of editors have stitched together. As Stanley Wells puts it:

‘To split asunder the two texts of King Lear is a work of restoration, not of destruction. We shall lose it no more than a wraith born of an unholy union; we shall gain a pair of legitimate – though not identical – twins’.[4]

To further the metaphor, rather than representing a ‘best fit’, a collated Lear is more akin to a garment that has been woven together from two separate items of clothing so the finished article is neither one thing nor the other – a hat that nobody really wants.

Tragedy and Endings

Michael Neill has commented on Early-Modern theatre that “Elizabethan tragedy showed itself unusually knowing about the relation between mortal and narrative endings.”[5] If we are to go along with the consensus first argued for in Divisions of the Kingdom, the question is how this affects the content of the plays. ‘Tragedy’ encompasses a range of definitions and is primarily, in this context, used as a label for a distinct set of Shakespeare’s plays including King Lear. A question that occurs is how far the concept of tragedy is affected by the changes described above; how the notion of tragedy alters and shifts between these respective editions. Endings are significant moments in Shakespeare’s plays but contain significant moments in themselves. I want to get to the bottom of how they vary across versions and editions and to what extent that affects our perspective on tragedy. The Prince’s lament, “Never was there a tale of more woe / than this of Juliet and her Romeo”, Mark Antony’s rallying war-cry, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” and Othello’s blood curdling statement to Desdemona, “Sweet soul, take heed of perjury. / Thou art on thy deathbed” are each significant moments in Shakespearean tragedy – none of these is identical across editions, however and I want to ask the question of how they do change an audience’s perception of the action as it happens on stage.

‘Howling’ Lear

To use a specific example, no moment of tragedy is more significant than the figure of Lear entering on stage “with Cordelia in his arms” (Q1;F.V.iii.SD253;SD230) shouting “Howl, howl, howl.”[6]Or, if we are to follow the example of Q1, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The inclusion, or exclusion, of a single word makes it quite different. The triad of howls with which audiences are familiar is concise and it adequately conveys Lear’s torment and anguish. The trio of howls presents a clear insight into his mind which, after all the ravishes of mistreatment to which he has been subject in the thrust of action in the play, he is now able to see clearly and admonishes those responsible, “Oh, you are men of stones!” (Q1;FV.ii.253;231) Consider, though, that in Q1, his unbroken quartet of howls might be considered more in-keeping with the levels of grief that he experiences – his sobbing is uncontrolled and one might argue that this is precisely how he feels given that he enters the stage carrying the lifeless corpse of his youngest and truest daughter. If ever an event were designed to make a man mad, surely that is it. It is curious that even this most famous of Shakespeare’s moments of tragedy differs between versions.

Texts 1 & 2 – Norton ‘Concurrent’ Lear and ‘Arden’ Lear

The Norton Shakespeare publishes the Q1 and Folio editions concurrently so the variants between the texts are evident whereas Text 2 is a standard example of what a modern, conflated text looks like. Changes in Lear more generally are briefly touched on above. My dissertation concentrates on the very final passage of the scene from Lear’s entry through to the final speech by Edgar/Albany. You need not read all of each of the scenes; I have included them for context.

Text 3 – ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies as Working Scripts’

A brief text raising a lot of key questions about the Lear texts with which modern scholars work. The piece provides some insight and broad brushstroke overview of ‘new bibliography’ without overloading the reader with jargon.


Questions for consideration

  1. How do we define tragedy? Does such a definition differ depending on whether we focus on Shakespeare relative to others? Does it differ within Shakespeare itself?
  2. How many ‘significant moments’ can be said to be present in the relative final scenes? Is this important?
  3. Michael Neill has claimed that ‘tragedy never wants to end’; writers continually wish to defer the end of the writing process as it leads, necessarily, to oblivion. Is this a sentiment which is obvious in the extracts or in one extract more than the others?
  4. Does one character more than the others evoke more dramatic sympathies in the relative extracts?
  5. What are your thoughts on the very final speech being allocated to Albany and Edgar respectively in the various scenes?



[1]Grace Ioppolo, ‘Textual Introduction to King Lear’ in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 2327-2329 (p. 2327).

[2]The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[3]Ioppolo, p. 2327.

[4]Stanley Wells, ‘Introduction: The Once and Future King Lear’ in The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 1-22 (p. 20).

[5]Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 206.

[6]I have used quotations from The Norton Shakespeare. The play is published contemporaneously in this edition. F.V.iii.231

Arthurian Masques in the Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson and John Dryden (27th June)

This month we are looking at two Arthurian masques from either end of the seventeenth century. The first is Ben Jonson’s Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610) and the second is the masque that ends John Dryden’s Arthurian semi-opera, King Arthur; OR The British Worthy (1691).

Jonson and Dryden were among the preeminent writers of their days, with both writing for their respective kings, James VI of Scotland and I of England and Charles II. Both also wrote dramatic Arthurian texts, though neither was written for the king you might expect. Jonson’s Speecheswas written on the occasion of James’ eldest son, Prince Henry, being invested as the Prince of Wales, while Dryden’s semi-opera was eventually performed for William III, of whom Dryden disapproved, despite the text originally being meant to honour Charles II, and then James II.

Jonson and Dryden had both held ambitions of writing an Arthurian epic, but neither succeeded in their endeavour. Indeed, it does not seem as though either got very far in their designs, both pleading a lack of funds as the greatest barrier, though Dryden did lay out how he imagined his epic would be constructed. Instead, they channelled their Arthurian efforts into musical spectacles. Both were assisted by a prominent artistic name of the period; Inigo Jones designed the set and costumes for Jonson’s masque, while Henry Purcell wrote the music for Dryden’s semi-opera.

Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Jonson was commissioned to write this masque at the behest of Henry and his mother, Anne of Demark, to celebrate his investiture as Prince of Wales, at the age of sixteen. Before this, Jonson’s royal commissions had generally come from James, and it is possible to see him trying to please two masters within the masque. Henry’s ideas of kingship were far more militaristic, and protestant, than James’, who favoured a more diplomatic, some would say passive, form of kingship, which leant further towards Catholicism. Henry was viewed by many of his contemporaries as the best hope of protestant Europe, and the court that grew up around the young Prince has been linked to the old Elizabethan war party. Henry had an interest in Arthurian matter, and it is said to have been at his request that Jonson made the masque’s theme Arthurian.

The masque features Arthur as a star, bestowing a shield on Meliadus, played by Henry, who is called forth by Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, to find the House of Chivalry in ruins. Meliadus is then treated to a brief sketch of British history by Merlin, which is supposed to teach the young Prince how to be a good king. Merlin’s history features both great military kings, but also has a focus on the economic and social benefits of peace and sound domestic governance.

As the title suggests, the masque was the prelude to Barriers, which lasted much of the night and saw Henry take a great many blows. These barriers represent the last time Arthurian drama and martial spectacle would be linked together, a tradition that stretches back to the Round Table Tournaments first held during the reign of Edward I. It seems likely that these particular barriers were staged, at least to some extent, so as to ensure Henry was not humiliated by too successful a challenger. The barriers were contested on foot, as James had refused his son’s request for horses on the ground of cost.

King Arthur; OR The British Worthy

Dryden’s wroteKing Arthurin 1685 to praise Charles II, but the Duke of Monmouth’s invasion cut its premier short, and Charles II died before the performance could be rearranged. It was then meant to be performed for James II, but he was deposed by William III and Mary II before it could be staged. Dryden claimed that by the time it was finally performed in 1691, with William III on the throne, much of the pieces’ beauty had, had to be cut because it was too complimentary towards the deposed royal house of Stuart. Dryden had no love for William, remaining a Jacobite until the end of his days, and actually resigned the Poet Laureateship because he refused to swear allegiance to the new king.

The semi-opera deals with Arthur’s final battles against the Saxons as he drives the last of them from England’s shores, and also with his romantic pursuit of the fair, blind Emmeline, whose sight Merlin returns. The text is full of spirits and magic, most of which Arthur must fight, with Merlin presiding over all things in his flying chariot. The text culminates in a dual between Arthur and the Saxon king Oswald, which Arthur of course wins. After this victory, Merlin prophesises England’s future, in masque form, detailing the kings who will follow Arthur in a not dissimilar way to Jonson’s Merlin.

The semi-opera was, at the time, the most expensive production ever put on the London stage, and the actor who played Emmeline refused to face the audience when she sang because she feared people would judge her for the faces she had to pull in order to reach the right notes.

7d25d4fc3abb060950fc5f3752b61f5aInigo Jones’ design for the House of Chivalry from Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers

Questions/Discussion Points

  • How does Jonson navigate the differing models of kingship held by James VI and I, and his son and heir Prince Henry?
  • Do we think that the Barriers could be taken wholly seriously? Is there something inherently comic about people pretending to joust whilst inside?
  • How is James VI and I constructed in Jonson’s masque? Compare him with Prince Henry’s Meliadus.
  • Can we see any criticism of William III in Dryden’s masque? Is there anything overtly pro-Stuart?
  • What purpose do we think Dryden’s masque plays at the end of the semi-opera?
  • Can the medieval Arthurian tradition be spied in either of these texts? How medieval are they? Are they more classical? Or are they not concerned about aping a particular style?
  • What is the role of Merlin in these texts? How is his character constructed?
  • How do the two versions of history constructed by the two Merlins interact? Where they disagree, what might the significance be?
  • How do you imagine the staging of these two masques? How would these work as dramatic pieces?
  • How much do either of these texts draw on the Arthurian legend?

The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions (23rd May)

Next Meeting: 23rd May 2018 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

By Rebecca Newby

Picture1.pngDetail of a miniature of Lydgate and pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, at the beginning of the prologue to the Siege of Thebes. Attributed to Gerard Horenbout. c. 1516-1523. British Library MS Royal 18 D II f. 148.

Introduction: ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’

When all this fressh feleship were com to Caunterbury, | As ye have herd tofore, with tales glad and mery, | Som of sotill centence, of vertu and of lore, | And som of other myrthes for hem that hold no store | Of wisdom, ne of holynes, ne of chivalry, | Nether of vertuouse matere, but to foly | Leyd wit and lustes all, to such japes | As Hurlewaynes meyné in every hegg that capes | Thurh unstabill mynde, right as the leves grene | Stonden ageyn the weder, right so by hem I mene (The Canterbury Interlude, ll. 1-10).


Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 at his residence near Westminster Abbey without providing his fictional pilgrims with an opportunity to reach the end goal of their journey: the city of Canterbury and the relics of St. Thomas à Becket in its cathedral. On the contrary, at the time of Chaucer’s death, the Canterbury Tales as we know it today would have been little more than a pile of rough and working drafts, fair-copies and loose leaves.[1] It most likely fell to the poet’s son Thomas Chaucer, alongside remnants of his father’s literary circle and professional scribes, to arrange the fragments of the Tales into the relatively coherent manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Many gaps in the material remained, however; not least the promised account of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury Cathedral and the return journey to Southwark.

Thomas Chaucer’s cohort of scribes and compilers were apparently hopeful that other bits of the Canterbury Tales would turn up, and left room in their manuscripts for the ends of ‘The Cook’s Tale’ and ‘The Squire’s Tale’, tales left unfinished by Chaucer. Though admirable, their optimism made little difference: no other tales or parts of tales materialised and no more of the frame narrative appeared (nothing written by Chaucer, anyway). Their optimistic pagination is useful, however, in that it tells us there was a general dissatisfaction with the incomplete state of the Canterbury Tales. The medieval ‘editors’ of the Tales were not content to allow the pilgrims to, like the ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’, the Maisnie Hellequin of old French popular superstition, wander the world on horseback debating for eternity.[2]

The Four Types of Additions and Continuations

The work of the fifteenth-century continuators suggests that this sentiment was not limited to the early ‘editors’ of Chaucer’s tales. Within a few decades, several poets had contributed their own additions to the Canterbury Tales. The modern editor of the Continuations and Additions John M. Bowers classifies the literary efforts to expand Chaucer’s work as follows: (1) The pilgrimage narrative was supplemented to allow the pilgrims to reach Canterbury, then begin their return trip toward Southwark, in John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes and in the anonymous Canterbury Interlude and Merchant’s Tale of Beryn. (2) The gaps in the intermediate frame-narrative were bridged with ‘spurious’ links for tales lacking authentic prologues. (3) Tales left incomplete (i.e. those which trail off in the middle of things) were provided with conclusions. (4) And a pilgrim who never told a tale, the Plowman, was given a chance to make his contribution. Perhaps the most memorable of these are the Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, in which Lydgate imagines himself as Chaucer the pilgrim’s replacement in the Canterbury company, and the Canterbury Interlude, which tells of the Pardoner’s misadventures with a barmaid named Kit.

Historical Context

Though business was business, the unfinished state of the Canterbury Tales was more than simply an aesthetic and commercial inconvenience. As Bowers indicates, the desire to deliver a volume that at least had the appearance of completeness may also have been driven by various political motives. The Lancastrian dynasty was not secure following the deposition of Richard II and his suspicious death in 1400, and diplomat Thomas Chaucer was one of the major players in this precarious establishment, particularly under Henry V, the first English monarch since 1066 to hold court in English rather than French. The production and circulation of Chaucer’s poetry coincided with the push to promote the English language as part of a growing nationalism during the more tumultuous days of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

It also had a role to play in the domestic trouble the Lancastrian regime was having with the Lollards, the followers of John Wyclif (d. 1384), who were using homely English (rather than elitist Latin) in their quest to reform Western Christianity. For the Lollards, the production of a courtly text in English, the main subject of which was a pilgrimage, by Thomas Chaucer and the Lancastrians would have been a proverbial spanner in the works. The continuations and additions to the Tales can thus be read as a commentary on contemporary social anxieties and the larger dynastic imperatives at work in the early fifteenth century, which saw Geoffrey Chaucer posthumously inaugurated as the father of the English language.


John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes (c. 1420), BL Arundel 119, fols. 1a-4a

John Lydgate was born in c. 1370; he became a monk in 1385, and was then ordained as a priest in 1397, when Chaucer would have been in the later stages of writing the Canterbury Tales. Lydgate probably also encountered Thomas Chaucer around this time. According to Bowers, an allusion to the Treaty of Troyes at the end of Lydgate’s poem and its general address to Henry V indicates that it was finished after May 1420 and before August 1422. Both Lydgate’s clerical background and his reverence for Chaucer are evident in the work.

In the prologue, Lydgate represents himself as falling in with the pilgrims at their inn in Canterbury, when he comes to the town to perform his vow to St. Thomas for recovery from an illness. He is received in the hall of the inn by the host and invited to join the company of pilgrims in their return journey to London. At sunrise on the following morning they all start off, and before they have ridden a bow-shot from Canterbury the host turns to Lydgate and asks him to tell some merry tale: he obliges with an adaptation of the Roman de Thèbes (c. 1175). The prologue to the Siege begins with a pastiche of the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue, complete with references to the zodiac, April showers and blossoming plants.

Evidently Lydgate enjoys this idea of composing an additional Canterbury Tale, and thus, as it were, taking up and continuing the unfinished work of his admired master. And as a clergyman, he is also looking to reclaim the monastic authority and integrity lost in Chaucer’s portrayal of the Monk. For most of the twentieth century, scholars dismissed Lydgate’s prologue as a cheap imitation of Chaucer’s verse. More recently, however, Lydgate’s prologue has been reassessed as ‘an intelligent commentary’ on ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which uses a calculated poetic strategy to ‘encompass all the preliminary material in a single, loosely constructed past-time unit before commencing the new narrative action’.[3] It is included here because it attempts to extend and complete the frame narrative of Chaucer’s Tales.

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn (c. 1420), Northumberland MS 455, fols. 180a-235a

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn tells of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury and their visit to the shrine of St. Thomas, the story of Pardoner and Kit the Tapster, and the company’s departure for the homeward journey back to London. All of this precedes the interpolated, non-Chaucerian Tale of Beryn, the second tale told by the Merchant, which appears in one fifteenth-century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (the Northumberland manuscript). Beryn was inserted so that it would precede ‘Melibee’, as well as the tales told by the Monk, the Nun’s Priest, the Manciple and the Parson. As Bowers observes, the anonymous Beryn poet thus expands the overall arrangement of the Tales to fulfill the design of the return trip promised in the General Prologue.

The poet revives Chaucer’s pilgrims with considerable charm, propelling them into various comically inappropriate escapades around Canterbury. It is Chaucer’s Pardoner who falls most foul of the poet’s laughing continuation of the pilgrims’ misadventures, however. He is cast in the starring role of fabliau-type quest to swindle and bed the barmaid, which leaves him, despite his perceived superiority, beaten, sexually humiliated and shivering all night in a dog’s kennel – much to his shame and embarrassment. And yet the poet’s caustic portrayal of the Pardoner’s misfortune perhaps distracts from some of the more pressing questions left unaddressed by his continuation: an update on which of the pilgrim’s tales had the ‘best sentence and moost solace’ thus far, for instance. Unfortunately, the manuscript itself is missing leaves at the end, and so the pilgrims never reached their journey’s end, their final destination back at the Tabard Inn. Indeed, because of this material circumstance, we do not even know whether the Beryn poet wrote a return to Southwark into his expansion of the frame narrative.

The Canterbury Interlude may well have been composed later than the tale it precedes. It has been dated plausibly to the year 1420 by Bowers and Peter Brown, both of whom align it with the Canterbury jubilee of that same year, celebrated every half-century since the martyrdom of St. Thomas in 1170.[4] This event was a significant and lucrative ‘tourist’ event as well as ‘a prime occasion to reassert the validity of pilgrimage rituals against the Lollards’. As both scholars argue, it is therefore tempting to believe that the 1420 jubilee provided this continuator, as well as John of Lydgate, with the religious occasion to attempt to complete Chaucer’s literary pilgrimage to Canterbury.


Questions for discussion

  • How do Lydgate and the Beryn poet adapt and/or invert some of the themes and characters in Chaucer’s text? e.g. Lydgate’s self-portrait vs. Chaucer’s Monk
  • What do you think were the motivations for continuing/adapting the Canterbury frame? Did they just want to finish it?
  • How well do the continuations resolve some of lingering questions/dangling threads left unanswered by Chaucer’s unfinished frame narrative?
  • What do you think about the treatment of the Pardoner? Is there a narrative/poetic justice at play here?
  • How do you see the relationships between the different Canterbury pilgrims shifting? As well as their relationship with the Host? What are the implications of this?
  • Do you think the arrival at Canterbury and the visit to the cathedral were the only things required to end the text? If not, what else?
  • Do these texts go any way to providing a more satisfactory ending to the Canterbury Tales?

Useful Links




[1] John M. Bowers, ‘General Introduction’, The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), p. 1.

[2] Ricardus de Maidstone, ‘Notes’, Alliterative poem on the deposition of Richard II, ed. Thomas Wright (London: John Bowyer Nichol & Son, 1838), p. 53.

[3] James Simpson, ‘“Dysemol daies and fatal houres”: Lydgate’s Destruction of Thebes and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale’, in Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone, eds., The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray (Oxford, 1997), p. 25; Phillipa Hardman, “Lydgate’s Uneasy Syntax’, in Larry Scanlon and James Simpson, eds., John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England (Notre Dame, 2006), p. 25.

[4] Peter Brown, ‘Journey’s End: The Prologue to The Tale of Beryn’, Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Julia Boffey and Janet Cowen (London: King’s College London Medieval Studies, no. 5, 1991), pp. 143-74.

King Arthur and Glastonbury (18th April)

Next Meeting: 18th April 2018 / Room 3.62 / 3-5pm

Glastonbury is a village situated in a secluded spot in the marshes, though it can be reached both on horseback and on foot. It affords pleasure neither by its situation nor by its beauty.[1]

Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is a site of popular myth and legend. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey claimed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is also the legendary burial site of King Arthur.

Hagiography and Historiography

In the 1129, the monks at Glastonbury commissioned William of Malmesbury to write the official history of the Abbey, as well as the life of Saint Dunstan, who was the first abbot of Glastonbury (and later became the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury).

William’s original version of De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie has not survived. The text is extant in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. Both manuscripts include several interpolations relating to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the relics of Saint Patrick and Saint Dunstan, and the exhumation of the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. These interpolations were introduced into the text between 1171 and 1247.

In the 1130s, the Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed the Vitae Gildae for the Glastonbury monks. Caradoc claims that the sixth-century British monk ‘Gildas Sapiens’ – or ‘Gildas the Wise’ – wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae while at Glastonbury. Caradoc was also the first writer to associate King Arthur with Glastonbury, and the Vitae Gildae includes the earliest version of the story of the abduction of Guinevere.

The Exhumation of King Arthur

By the late twelfth century, Glastonbury Abbey ‘was in a state of financial and ecclesiastical crisis’.[2] In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186 or 1187; however, work on the abbey was postponed by the death of Henry II (1189), which ended financial support and royal patronage.

In order to raise funds, the monks of the abbey commenced a series of propaganda exercises, and used holy relics and the bodies of saints to promote Glastonbury as place of pilgrimage. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in the cemetery at Glastonbury in 1190 or 1191. In both of his accounts of the exhumation, Gerald of Wales recalls how a Welsh bard had told Henry II about the location of Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. Gerald was the first to explicitly identify Avalon – the resting place of Arthur – with Glastonbury.

Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies were re-exhumed in 1278. At Easter, Edward I visited the Glastonbury with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and on the 19th April he instructed the bodies to be moved to the high altar. The exhumation asserted that Edward I ‘was a legitimate successor to the Arthurian imperium’.[3] Following the conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward took possession of Arthur’s crown in 1283, and held a Round Table at Winchester in 1284. His grandson, Edward III, also visited Arthur’s tomb with his wife, Philippa of Hainault, in 1331. 

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea was popularised in thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance. In the first part of his trilogy of Arthurian romances, Robert de Boron describes how Joseph of Arimathea used the Holy Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ as he hung on the cross. Robert also claims that the descendants of Joseph brought the Grail to Britain.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the story of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated into William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. These revisions asserted that Joseph was the original founder of Glastonbury, which subsequently bolstered the reputation of the abbey. John of Glastonbury also expanded the story of Joseph in his Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie, using the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus – also known as The Acts of Pilate – and the first part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, L’estoire du Graal, as his main sources for the apostle’s life.

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea also survived into the later middle ages. In the fifteenth century, John Hardyng included the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the two versions of his Chronicle (1457 and 1464). As Edward Donald Kennedy points out, ‘[t]he account of Joseph afforded Hardyng an ideal story to use to counter Scotland’s claims to preeminence as a Christian nation’.[4] Hardyng’s Chronicle also contains a grail quest – which is unprecedented in the chronicle tradition – and Galahad’s achievement of the Grail occurs before Arthur’s war against Rome and the final battle between Arthur and Modred.


Gerald of Wales

Gerald wrote two accounts of the exhumation of King Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. The first account is contained in De principis instructione (c. 1193), while the second – and more detailed – account is included in Speculum ecclesiae (c. 1216). Gerald claims that he was an eyewitness of the exhumation, but Richard Barber has challenged his claim to authority.

Ralph of Coggeshall

Ralph was abbot of Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. He wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum in around 1223, and the entry for 1191 includes an account of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere.

Adam of Damerham

Adam was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century. He wrote a history of the abbey entitled Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, which is a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie from 1126 to 1291. Adam was also an eyewitness of Edward I’s visit to Glastonbury in 1278 when the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere was opened and their bones were moved to the high altar.

(NB: Adam’s account of the second exhumation in 1278 is taken from John of Glastonbury’s Cronica)

Vera historia de morte Arthuri (c. 1200)

Written around 1200, the Vera historia de morte Arthuri is extant in four manuscripts. Two manuscripts – London, British Library, Cotton Titus A. xix and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 186 – include materials relevant to Glastonbury, such as excerpts from the works of William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury. In Paris Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, 983, the Vera historia is interpolated between chapters 178 and 179 of the First Variant version of the Historia regum Britanniae. Richard Barber and Michael Lapidge have suggested that the Vera historia was originally composed in Wales.

John of Glastonbury, Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie (1350s)

The Cronia survives as a complete text in seven manuscripts. The main sources for John’s Cronica are William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie and Adam of Damerham’s Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus. John’s Cronia is ‘highly derivative’,[5] and he uses a selection of chronicles, hagiography, and romance to construct a history of Glastonbury Abbey.

Questions for discussion

  • What are the motivations for the exhumation in the accounts by Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Damerham?
  • What is the significance of royal and ecclesiastical authority in the different accounts of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere?
  • How does Arthur’s tomb function as a site of public memory?
  • Philip Schwyzer classifies the exhumation of Arthur as a sub-genre of the inventio topos that participates in an act of ‘colonial archaeology’.[6] How are the materials and artefacts of British history appropriated in these texts?
  • Catherine Clarke argues that local landscapes are ‘central to the fashioning of monastic identity and its connection to images of the nation’.[7] How is the landscape of Glastonbury represented in these texts?
  • Why does Gerald of Wales undermine of the myth of Arthur’s return?
  • How do the texts – particularly the Vera historia and John of Glastonbury’s Cronica – engage with models of Arthurian history in chronicle and romance?
  • How do Gerald of Wales and John of Glastonbury align the story of Arthur’s death by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Glastonbury?
  • Can the relocation of Arthur’s resting place to Gwynedd in the Vera historia be read as a response to the growth of Glastonbury legends in the 1190s?

Useful links

Glastonbury Abbey

Digital reconstruction of Arthur’s tomb

Glastonbury in the news

Recent excavations at Glastonbury

[1] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: Volume One: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by M. Winterbottom with the assistance of R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2.91.1.

[2] Valerie M. Lagorio, ‘The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury’, Speculum, 46 (1971), 209-31 (p. 210).

[3] John Carmi Parsons, ‘The Second Exhumation of King Arthur’s Remains at Glastonbury, 19 April 1278’, Arthurian Literature, 12 (1993), 173-77 (p. 176).

[4] Edward Donald Kennedy, ‘John Hardyng and the Holy Grail’, Arthurian Literature, 8 (1989), 185-206 (p. 197).

[5] James P. Carley, ‘Introduction’, in The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), pp. xi-lxii (p. xi).

[6] Philip Scwhzyer, Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 55.

[7] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2006), p. 68.

Saint Simon? The Death of Simon de Montfort in Contemporary Chronicles


Statue of Simon de Montfort on Haymarket Clock Tower in Leicester

Thirteenth-century England was characterised by periods of civil strife. King John’s refusal to uphold the Magna Carta, despite having signed and ratified the document only weeks earlier, brought the country to a civil war in 1215 that would last for two years. Magna Carta itself was based on Henry I’s Charter of Liberties and defended individual and ecclesiastical rights with a view to limiting the despotic nature of Angevin kingship. After King John’s death from dysentery in 1216, the nine-year old Henry III was crowned and, on 12th November 1216, the Magna Carta was reissued in his name. Although many of the barons were now reconciled with the new king, the war continued until September 1217, partially as a result of the international policies of the French Louis VII. Although conditions initially improved under the young Henry III, by the 1250s the now-older king’s reckless and uncontrollable spending, combined with his preference for foreign favourites, had sown the seeds of discontent that eventually culminated in a Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267).


Overview of Simon de Montfort’s Life and the Second Barons’ War

Simon de Montfort (c. 1208 – 4 August 1265) was the son of a Frenchman, also Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. He was brought up in France and came to England in 1229 with no knowledge of English. Upon his arrival, de Montfort gave up his right to his familial lands in France and, instead, petitioned for English inheritance, which he was accordingly granted.

His position as a close favourite of Henry was cemented when he married the King’s sister, Eleanor, in January 1238. However, the friendship was not to last and, early in 1239, de Montfort and his family fled court. Simon departed for the Holy Land as part of the Barons’ Crusade, returning in late 1241 to assist Henry in his campaign against Louis IX. Despite this reconciliation, the years following were turbulent and Simon’s relationship with the King fluctuated wildly. By 1254, Simon was at the head of baronial opposition in parliament and, at the ‘Mad Parliament’ of 1258, the barons, led by de Montfort, succeeding in convincing Henry to ratify the Provisions of Oxford, which reasserted the rights of the barons to governmental representation and demanded that parliament meet three times a year. Despite this initial success, in 1261 – and with the assistance of Pope Clement IV – Henry III revoked his assent to this legislation and, by 1263, the early battles of the Second Barons’ War were underway.

On 14th May 1264, the King and Prince Edward were taken hostage at the Battle of Lewes. Simon de Montfort became the de facto ruler of the kingdom and Henry III was, again, forced to assent to the Provisions of Oxford. Although this left the barons in a strong position, the Pope issued bulls of excommunication to de Montfort and many of his supporters (although there is considerable debate as to how official these excommunications were). In May 1265, Prince Edward escaped and amassed an army of royalists and baronial defectors, including Gilbert de Clare, de Montfort’s former ally. The massacre of Simon the Younger’s army in a night-time raid at Kenilworth further weakened the barons’ position and, at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265, they were defeated. Simon de Montfort was killed and his body mutilated. His hands and feet were cut off and sent to different corners of the country whilst his decapitated head, with his testicles ‘hung on either side of his nose’, was sent to his wife. Despite de Montfort’s death, the war rumbled on. An effort to broker peace was attempted in 1266 through the Dictum of Kenilworth (31 October 1266), which overturned the Provisions of Oxford, re-established royal prerogative and, in return, saw Henry reconfirm the Magna Carta. The final barons surrendered in the summer of 1267 and the war was over. Whilst Henry III and the papacy forbade any popular veneration of Simon de Montfort or the reporting of his miracles, his illegal, popular cult continued to garner support across the country.

Like the Becket Affair, the Second Barons’ War engendered an enormous amount of literary production. Political songs in Latin, Anglo-Norman and English were written to celebrate Simon de Montfort’s victory at the Battle of Lewes (1164) and to bewail his death a year later. Contemporary monastic chronicles of the day expanded their remits from local, institutional concerns to include an account of the conflict and miracle collections were compiled by William de Rishanger and monks at the Abbey of Evesham. The majority of these accounts were profoundly pro-baronial in their biases and many constructed Simon de Montfort as a martyr.

This month we are reading two extracts from contemporary Latin chronicles of the death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham and the fragments of two late-thirteenth century motets celebrating Simon’s sanctity.


The Chronicle of Melrose

The Chronicle of Melrose covers the period between 745 and 1270. It was written at the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose, on the Scottish border and, in the twelfth century, was a source text for a number of important chroniclers – including Roger of Hoveden. Like almost every other contemporary chronicle of the Second Barons’ War, the Chronicle of Melrose is profoundly pro-baronial in its biases.


The Westminster Continuation of the Flores Historiarum

The Westminster Continuation extends Matthew Paris’ Flores Historiarum from 1265 to 1307 and is an extremely contemporary source for the Second Barons’ War – and the only extant pro-Henrician one. The bias of this chronicle is perhaps not surprising considering that Henry III was the abbey’s benefactor and patron and his government was located next door to the abbey itself.


Miles Christi and Salve Symon

These are two late-thirteenth century fragmentary motets (a piece of choral music, usually sung unaccompanied and regularly included in liturgical offices) celebrating Simon de Montfort. They are found, respectively, in Cambridge, St John’s College, MS 138 (f. 1) and Cambridge, Jesus College, MS QB 5. These fragments illustrate that, despite the popularity of his cult, Simon de Montfort was celebrated in official liturgical offices for at least some time after his death.


Topics for discussion

  • How does each text present the reasons for the conflict? How do they construct their respective protagonists and antagonists?
  • What role does law, nationality and religion play in each of these chronicles? How are they manipulated and to what effect?
  • How does rhetoric function in these texts?
  • How do we read the rhetoric of sanctity bestowed on Simon de Montfort by the Melrose Chronicle and the two fragmentary motets? How is it legitimised? What are its purposes? How problematic is the translation of such rhetoric to a secular figure?
  • What use do the texts make of authority?
  • What is the role of an anti-monarchical and anti-papal popular saint?