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?


Martin Parker’s ‘The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines’ (1660) (24th February 2018)

Next Meeting: Saturday 24th February 2018 – Gregynog Hall

king A

The MEMORI Reading Group is, this month, meeting at Gregynog, as part of the MA in English Literature’s Postgraduate Conference. In this away fixture, we will be reading Martin Parker’s The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines (1660), as well as a short extract from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, subtitled ‘The Reassurance of Fratricide’. The references for these texts are as follows:

  • Martin Parker, The Most Admirable Historie of That Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur King of the Britaines (London: Francis Coles, 1660)
  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991)

Below is a brief sketch of Martin Parker, largely taken from the May 2017 blog post on the MEMORI Reading Group’s blog entitled ‘Martin Parker: Ballads and Broadsides.

Martin Parker was the most celebrated and famous balladeer of the seventeenth century. His extant corpus contains over eighty ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, and chapbooks, but it is hard to judge the true size of his canon. His first ballad appeared in 1624, and tells the story of a Cornish murder, while the text we’re reading was a chapbook entitled The Most Admirable Historie of that Most Renowned Christian Worthy Arthur, King of the Britaines, entered into the Stationers’ Register on the 5th April 1660, the last time Parker’s name would appear there. Before 1660 the last entry to bear his name was a chapbook published in 1647. This thirteen-year silence coincided with a clampdown on ballads and balladeers by the Government, led by Captain Bethan; Parker is also believed to have died during this period, probably sometime in the early 1650s. A satirical elegy for Parker appears in 1656, within a book entitled Death in a New Dress, OR Sportive Funeral Elegies and references in the 1653 and 1654 editions of Merlinus Anonymous suggest that Parker had died.

Parker is believed to have been an innkeeper for parts of his life, possibly while active as a writer, and there are also suggestions that he occasionally fell on the wrong side of the law. Parker’s later work contains strong royalist themes, which angered Puritans and earned him the title ‘The Prelates Poet’, not an uncommon insult for the King’s supporters at the time. He is thought to have taken over the running of the royalist newsbook Mercurius Melancholicus after its editor John Hackluyt was arrested and imprisoned.

Parker is chiefly remembered as a balladeer, though he published work in other genres, including journalism, royalist broadsides, romance, and more serious poetry.

The Admirable Historie is a retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian narrative, contained within Geoffrey’s wide-ranging mythical account of the Kings of Britain, entitled Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Parker’s text is unusual amongst seventeenth century Arthuriana in that it is, more or less, complete, telling Arthur’s story from his childhood right through to the tragic implosion of the Round Table and Arthur’s death. This is in stark contrast to the Arthurian literary fractures that litter the period – Milton’s abandoned epic, Dryden’s multiple literary attempts, and Blackmore’s frequently ridiculed ‘heroick poems’. Parker’s text also stands out because of its adherence to the established Arthurian narrative, again unusual during the seventeenth century. Like many other Arthurian texts, however, the Admirable Historie was written during a time when authority, in this case royal authority, was under pressure; this pressure came in the form of the Interregnum (1649-60) that followed the English Civil War (1642-51), and which ended with the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II acceded to the throne.

Round Table

Some Brief Notes on the Restoration

Oliver Cromwell ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-58, dying on 3rd September 1658, and was succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, but it soon became apparent that the son did not have the same skills as the father, and would not be able to hold onto power. There were a few small pro-royalist rebellions between 1658 and 1660, but the restoration would not truly get under way until General George Monck made his move. Monck, who commanded the army in Scotland, saw this and did not support Richard Cromwell militarily. Instead he waited and watched as confusion reigned. Charles II had already written to him in 1655, asking for support in an attempted restoration, but Monck had not obliged. This time, however, Monck supported the exiled king. He marched his army south on 2nd January 1660, and entered London on 3rd February 1660, having met little opposition. No one knew exactly what Monck’s intentions were, for he seemed to be playing both sides. Soon it became cleaer that he had taken the side of Charles II. Monck organised the Convention Parliament, which met for the first time on 25 April 1660, and he was elected an MP for both Devon and Cambridge University; he was now master of the situation.

On 4 April 1660, after communications and collaboration with Monck, Charles II signed the Declaration of Breda, in which he made several promises in relation to the reclamation of the crown of England.

On 8 May the Convention Parliament proclaimed that King Charles II had been the lawful monarch since the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. Constitutionally, it was as if the last nineteen years had never happened. Charles returned from exile, leaving The Hague on 23 May 1660 and landing at Dover on 25 May 1660. He entered London on 29 May, his birthday. To celebrate his Majesty’s Return to his Parliament, 29 May was made a public holiday, popularly known as Oak Apple Day He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661, St George’s Day.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The literary histories of the Arthurian legend classify this text as a prose romance. Is this text a prose romance or more of a chronicle? What elements does it draw from each form?
  2. How does the preface work in the The Most Admirable History? Does its insistence of Arthur’s historicity affect the way we read the text?
  3. Given that Parker’s Admirable Historie was published posthumously, and before the Restoration, how much can this text be described as a restoration fantasy? Is it clear that it was written before the Restoration of Charles II in 1660?
  4. How does Anderson’s theory of reassuring fratricide help us to read the Admirable History? Look particularly at the tournament scene, how it foreshadows the text’s end, and recalls England’s recent past.
  5. What is the effect of the presence/absence of usual Arthurian figures in this text? Who is missing? What roles do they play, and why?
  6. How does Merlin feature in this text?
  7. What is happening in Chapter X? Why does Parker break with the traditional Galifridian narrative of European conquest in order to send Arthur on crusade? Why does he not complete the narrative laid down in the contents page?
  8. How is succession treated?
  9. Is this a well-produced text?
  10. What do you make of the front cover image, and the image of the Round Table?


The Life of St Margaret of Antioch in Middle English (31st Jan 2018)

Next Meeting: 29th January 2018 – Room 2.46 – 3pm-5pm

By Megan Leitch

StMargaret&DragonDetail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, British Library Add MS 18851, f. 406v

They do not die easily, these zealous adolescents […] who are flayed and burned and drowned and maimed and shaved and insulted and disemboweled and roasted and have their tongues and breasts torn off, their guts and bones exposed, and are then proposed to, whereupon they answer spiritedly: no. Their endurance is superhuman – indeed, surreal. They survive ordeals that would kill any of us ten times over. Yet there is a moment of truth that no saint survives, for the coup de grâce is, most often, decapitation.

– Sheila Delany, Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham (OUP, 1998), p. 71

This month we are reading the life of St Margaret of Antioch, the virgin martyr who defeats a dragon and remains strong in her faith despite horrific bodily torments. Our central focus is on Osbern Bokenham’s fifteenth-century verse Legend of St Margaret, and we will also consider the thirteenth-century prose Seinte Margarete from the Katherine Group. The texts are scanned from the following editions:

  1. Osbern Bokenham, Legendys of Hooly Wummen, ed. by Mary S. Serjeantson, EETS OS 206 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938). We will be giving particular attention to lines 1-868, which together form Bokenham’s Prologue and the Vita of St Margaret; these 868 lines will be the required reading for students on Transgressive Bodies (Week 8). The PDF also includes Bokenham’s narrative of what happens to Margaret’s body and relics after her death (lines 869-1400), which will be provided in the Transgressive Bodies course reader and discussed in the lectures. Do also have at least a glance at this interesting ‘afterlife’ section – the EETS ‘reader’s digest’ marginal comments may prove useful here.
  2. Seinte Margarete, in Medieval English Prose for Women, ed. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). This edition includes the original thirteenth-century English prose alongside a facing page modern English translation. You are welcome to just have a quick read of the translation in preparation for the reading group – we can then have a closer look at points of interest during the discussion.

St Margaret of Antioch probably never existed, but her cult was very popular throughout the central and late Middle Ages. Narratives of her life are extant in Greek, Latin, and many European vernaculars. Like other virgin martyrs whose legends were re-told for later medieval audiences, St Margaret was positioned as a victim of the Diocletianic persecutions of the third and early fourth centuries, in which Christians in the Roman Empire lost their legal rights and were forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods or be subject to persecution (e.g. imprisonment or death). Margaret was put to death in AD 304; her feast day is July 20 in the Roman Catholic Church (July 17 in the Eastern Orthodox Church). In the version of St Margaret’s life that circulated widely in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, or the Golden Legend (the expansive hagiographical collection composed c.1260 in Latin that also survives in various vernaculars and over 1000 MSS), Margaret’s ability to survive being eaten alive by Satan in the form of a dragon is described as apocryphal. Yet this episode was central to narrative and iconographic depictions of her life, and due to the way in which she emerges unscathed after being swallowed whole by the dragon, she was widely revered as the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women – if somewhat counter-intuitively, since when she is ‘birthed’ from the dragon’s insides, the dragon explodes.

Osbern Bokenham, an Augustinian friar at Clare Priory in Suffolk, was a late contemporary of the East-Anglian monk John Lydgate and, like Lydgate, one of Chaucer’s self-described literary disciples. Bokenham studied at the University of Cambridge, receiving his BA in 1423, and later travelled to Italy (at least twice) and Spain. In the 1440s, Bokenham wrote the first all-female legendary in English, featuring thirteen saints, ten of whom were virgin martyrs. His other works include the Mappula Angliae, a c.1440 translation of part of Ranulf Higden’s early fourteenth-century Polychronicon. Bokenham wrote for the East Anglian gentry: he mentions twelve patrons in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen, almost all of whom are laypeople, and eight of whom are women. However, the sole surviving copy of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, BL Arundel 327, was compiled for presentation to a convent. In her seminal study of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, Impolitic Bodies, Sheila Delany argues that Bokenham offers a ‘moral-theological critique of Chaucer’ (69) and a multifaceted response to the Legend of Good Women.

The ‘Katherine Group’ Seinte Margarete was also written for a female audience. This group of five thirteenth-century Middle English texts is addressed to anchoresses, and includes two other virgin martyr narratives, the lives of St Katherine of Alexandria and St Juliana of Nicomedia. This unprecedented grouping may have been selected to tie in with the names of the three sisters who were the first audience for the Ancrene Wisse, the guide for anchoresses written in the same early thirteenth-century West Midlands dialect as the Katherine Group. The author of this version of Seinte Margarete elaborates on his Latin source, explaining points of theology for his audience, and adding sections such as the account of the Devil’s attacks on chastity and the defences against lechery, which Margaret wrings from the fiend while she tramples him underfoot.

These are some of the many insular medieval retellings of the life of St Margaret of Antioch, whose popularity was sustained in part by the assistance she was thought to give in pregnancy and childbirth, and the help and intercession she was understood to offer, especially to those who wrote or retold her legend. This popularity was reinforced in the Christian west after the First Crusade’s capture of Antioch in 1098, after which a number of relics associated with Margaret of Antioch were brought to Western Europe.

Virgin martyr tales have a self-evident emphasis on the body, as the protagonist seeks to preserve her virginity (as consecrated to God), but also prioritises her soul over her body when she refuses to change her faith despite the horrific tortures to which she is submitted. Some scholars view the graphic descriptions of tortured female flesh that this genre offers as constituting an almost pornographic form of voyeurism for medieval readers, though this view has its critics too.

Topics for discussion:

  • Purity, beauty and torture: how can we understand edifying religious literature that features shockingly graphic violence?
  • What are Margaret’s virtues, and who might be expected to emulate them?
  • What roles do emotions play in this text?
  • What about the gaze? (Voyeurism? Witnessing?)
  • What displays of power shape the narrative?
  • What is the significance of the dragon?
  • How does Bokenham’s version compare to the thirteenth-century Katherine Group version? (Explication, exemplarity, torture?)
  • How do the text and its genre negotiate traditional gender roles?
  • In what ways does the text align with feminist or anti-feminist readings?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s response to Chaucer? Formal choices, literary models, name-dropping?
  • What are the implications of Margaret’s prayer for those on whose behalf she will intercede after her death, and the divine response (834-54) – for both Margaret (in the narrative) and Bokenham (as writer of the narrative)?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s discussion of translatio (linguistic and hagiographic)? How are writing and relics connected here?



Mischief and Magic: The Fairy King Oberon and Otherworld Encounters


Image: ‘Oberon and Puck’, Kenny Meadows (1846), from the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.

Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,
For Oberon is passing fell and wroth

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.19-20)

The King of the Fairies features in late medieval and early modern literature as a figure of mischief and mayhem, most often going by the name of Oberon. He is a commanding figure throughout his textual history, and one that Helen Cooper describes as a ‘judge or arbiter, though his arbitration may show more of arbitrariness than of justice’.[1] Romances explore his magical influence, and the ways in which his otherworldly fairly kingdom interacts with, and is encountered by, the more mundane world. This month, we are reading a selection of poetry, prose and drama from the fourteenth century to the late sixteenth, in which the King of the Fairies can be found meddling in mortal lives, for better or for worse: the anonymous Sir Orfeo, Lord Berners’ Duke Huon of Burdeux, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We begin with the fourteenth-century Auchinleck Manuscript, which holds the earliest-known Middle English version of Sir Orfeo. At only 604 lines long, this brief verse romance is a retelling of the Orpheus myth, best known in the Middle Ages through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this version, the death of Orpheus’s wife is reimagined as a kidnapping, in which the Fairy King approaches Orfeo’s wife, Herodis, while she sleeps beneath a tree and demands she return the next day to ‘live with ous evermo’ (l. 168). Though Orfeo tries to prevent this organised kidnapping, Herodis is snatched from him and taken to the fairy otherworld. This otherworld is a space of great wonder, with precious stones, intricate and impossible palace buildings, and spaces of unrivalled natural beauty.[2]

The Fairy King in Sir Orfeo is never named, and he receives only limited textual attention at the expense of Orfeo’s own quest:

The king o fairy with his rout
Com to hunt him al about.

(‘Sir Orfeo’, ll. 283-4)

Despite his kidnapping of Herodis, the Fairy King is arguably no grand villain; Orfeo persuades him to return Herodis with little protestation. This version of the story places no constraints upon Orfeo or Herodis upon their journey out of the otherworld, and the pair are able to return to their kingdom. It is a remarkably happy ending that follows the original Greek version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, in which there is no second fall upon the return from the underworld.[3] Orfeo’s quest, however, takes a full ten years, and his return requires a full re-coronation from a society that moved on during Orfeo’s absence.

The other two texts we are reading grant the King of the Fairies a greater narrative role and a name, Oberon, which first appeared in the thirteenth-century Old French chason de geste, ‘Huon de Bordeaux’. In this text, which provides the source for a later (and longer) prose version, Huon undertakes a penitential journey to Babylon and along the way encounters Oberon, who foregrounds his historical and mythical family connections.[4] In particular, he describes himself as the child of Julius Caesar and Morgan le Fay:

Jules Cesar me nori bien soué;
Morge li fée, qui tant ot de biauté,
Che fu ma mère, si me puist Dix salver.
De ces II fui concus et engerrés.

(‘Huon de Bordeaux’, p. 104)[5]

Oberon’s story was offered to an English audience when a later French prose version of the chanson was translated by Lord Berners as The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux and printed first in 1515 and again in four further printings throughout the sixteenth-century.[6] In this English text, Morgan le Fay is not named as Oberon’s mother, but she (referred to only as Arthur’s sister) does appear at his court.[7] Oberon in Duke Huon of Burdeux is grounded in realism, and in the crusading nature of the Eastern journey narrative, through his steadfast Christian faith. He is at once the image of a powerful Christian king and of an unknowable and unpredictable fairy ‘other’.

‘yf ye speke to hym ye are lost for euer / and ye shall euer fynde hym before you.’

(Huon of Burdeux, p. 63)

Huon of Burdeux was printed in England until 1601 and dramatized in 1590, and both Shakespeare and Spenser—along with their respective audiences—would have been familiar with the character of Oberon.[9] Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1595/6, shortly after Spenser’s The Faerie Queene was published and reprinted. Shakespeare offers the conflicts of the Fairy kingdom as a counterpart to the ongoing romantic struggles of the ‘real’ world, presenting an Oberon who is aloof, magisterial, and wronged. Shakespeare’s Oberon rules over the enchanted fairy world of the forest and any mortals that stray within it, and is embroiled in a dispute with his queen, Titania, that stems from his desire for possession of a human boy. However, his influence extends beyond his own realm, as he interferes in the lives and fates of those humans that he encounters throughout the play. In all three of our texts, the King of the Fairies interacts and interferes with the mortal, ‘real’ world, and these texts raise a variety of issues, and intersect with discourses of gender, race, and otherness.

Texts and Extracts

  • Sir Orfeo – Whole text
  • Huon of Burdeux
    • Extract 1: When Huon first encounters Oberon
    • Extract 2: At the court of Babylon, when Huon calls upon Oberon for help
    • Extract 3: At the journey’s end, when Oberon resolves the corruption of Charlemagne’s court
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • Extract 1: (2.1, ll. 18-187) Introduction to Oberon and Titania’s conflict
    • Extract 2: (4.1, ll.1-99) Resolution of Oberon and Titania’s conflict


Questions for Discussion


  1. Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the Orpheus myth with a happy ending. To what extent can we see the influence of this myth, or others, in the later texts?
  2. Is magic mischievous, malevolent, or something else entirely?
  3. How do the representations of magic in these texts differ? What do these representations suggest about respective audiences?
  4. How can we read the geography of the otherworld in each of these texts? To what extent is the otherworld a tangible place?
  5. To what extent do these encounters with the Fairy King share enough context and commonality to read them as a single, evolving meme?
  6. How do the connections between Oberon and Morgan le Fay in Huon influence our reading of his magic? To what extent are these connections visible in the other texts?
  7. How do each of these texts portray the King of the Fairies as an outsider or an ‘other’, and to what extent is this pejorative?
  8. What intersections do we find with anxieties about race and religion?
  9. Are these texts consistent in their portrayal of the power that the Fairy King has over the ‘real’ world?
  10. How does the natural and pastoral setting of MSND impact our understanding of magic as a ‘supernatural’ force?
  11. Does the name ‘Oberon’ in Huon and MSND presume a prior literary knowledge of the Fairy King?
  12. What are the roles of queens in these texts, fairy or otherwise?



[1] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 176.

[2] Aisling Byrne, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 1-9.

[3] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 174, n. 22.

[4] S. L. Lee, ‘Introduction’ in The English Charlemagne Romances, Parts VII and VIII, EETS ES 40 & 41 (London: Trubner, 1882)

[5] F. M. Guessard (ed.), Huon de Bordeaux: chanson de geste (Paris: F. Viewig, 1860), p. 104.

[6] Joyce Boro, ‘The Textual History of Huon of Burdeux: A Reassessment of the Facts’, Notes and Queries, 48:3 (2001), 233-7, p. 233.

[7] Martha Driver, ‘Reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream Through Romance’, in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray (London: MacFarland & co., 2009), p. 154, n. 31.

[8] James Wade, Fairies in Medieval Romance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 20-1.

[9] Helen Cooper, ‘Malory and the Early Prose Romances’, in A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, ed. Corinne Saunders (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).

[10] Kenny Meadows, ‘Oberon and Puck’, in Michael John Goodman, The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive [21 November 2017].

Bevis of Hampton: From Medieval to Early Modern (25th October)

Images taken from The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691)

Next Meeting: 25th October, Room 1.19 of the John Percival Building, 2:30-4:30pm 

Bevis of Hampton was one of the most successful medieval romances; it has survived in six manuscripts, each of which are different enough that A.C. Baugh declared there to be ‘at least five versions [of Bevis of Hampton], each of which is entitled to be considered a separate romance’.[1] The medieval extracts we are reading are taken from the Bevis contained within the Auchenleck Manuscript, as it is the most complete and generally considered to be the best. As well as these extracts we are reading The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (1691), and the ‘Epistle to the Reader’ from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (1689). As late seventeenth texts, these versions of the Bevis story were published towards the end of the period of almost continuous publication enjoyed by the Bevis tradition.

Bevis of Hampton is often classified as a dynastic romance, because it concerns the reclamation of lost, familial estates by the rightful heir.  It is a romance that ‘has it all: a hero whose exploits take him from callow youth to hard-won maturity to a serene and almost sanctified death; a resourceful and appealing heroine; faithful servants and dynastic intrigue; a parade of interesting villains, foreign and domestic, exotic and local; a geographical sweep which moves back and forth from England to the Near East and through most of Western Europe; battles with dragons and giants; forced marriages and episodes of domestic violence; a myriad of disguises and mistaken identities; harsh imprisonments with dramatic escapes, harrowing rescues, violent urban warfare; and, last but not least, a horse of such valour that his death at the end of the poem is at least as tragic as that of the heroine, and almost as tragic as that of Bevis himself’. [2]

The earliest extant version of Bevis of Hampton is the Anglo-Norman Boeve de Haumtone, generally dated to the latter half of the thirteenth century, and from there it became one of the most successful and enduring romances, with the last metrical edition appearing in 1711. Once Wynkyn de Word, Richard Pynson, and William Copland published editions of Bevis the story solidified and showed remarkable consistency, with all further editions seemingly relying on either the Pynson or the Copland edition.[3] Jennifer Fellows has suggested that both Pynson’s and Copland’s editions probably derived from a de Worde print; unfortunately, only fragments of de Worde’s Bevis prints now survive.

There were over ten editions of the Bevis story, both metrical and prose, published over the course of the seventeenth century, which represents a much more prominent position in the literary landscape than is held by any other medieval romance.  Only two metrical English romances managed to survive the influx of continental, primarily Spanish, romances that flooded the market, the other being Guy of Warwick, Bevis’ closest rival. Even the King Arthur legend cannot boast such a consistent publication history – at least in terms of narrative – as the Bevis tradition.

While the basic narrative elements of Bevis texts remained broadly consistent, the seventeenth century readers of Bevis would not have brought the same experiences or worldviews to the narrative as the thirteenth century readers of Boeve de Haumtone. Helen Cooper argued, in The English Romance in Time, that ‘the familiarity of the memes of romance, its standard episodes and motifs and phrasing, make possible a much greater and more concise subtlety of response than could be achieved by invention from scratch. The originality lies in an author’s handling of his materials, his (on very rare occasions, her) ability to disrupt, to startle, to shock. The shock may come from upset expectations, but it may also come from the recognition of something long known but in circumstances that defamiliarise it, that makes you recognise it for the first time. Such defamiliarisation can come even from an unchanged text if it is read in new conditions’.[4] Those who wrote Bevis of Hampton texts in the seventeenth century would have had to infuse them with a meaning that was readable to early modern readers, while maintaining the original memes that makes the story recognisable.

The Gallant History was published three years after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and Mary replace James II as monarchs of Britain, while The Famous and Renowned History was published in 1689, just one year after William and Mary took the throne. The Bevis story was resilient to the turbulent politics that characterised the seventeenth century, continuing to be published through the death of Elizabeth I, the reigns of James I, Charles I, the English Civil War, the Interregnum, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and into the eighteenth century.

Images taken from The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689)

The Texts

Anonymous, ‘Bevis of Hampton’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 200-322, pp. 274-77, pp.   294-5.

Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston, ed. Ronald B. Hertzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), pp. 187-97.

S.J., The Famous and Renowned History of Sir Bevis of Hampton (London: W. Thackery, 1689).

Anonymous, The Gallant History of the Life and Death of that most Noble Knight Bevis of Hampton (London: A.M., 1691).

Topics for Discussion

  1. Why do you think the Bevis story managed to survive into the Early Modern period so effectively, while other medieval romances died out? How big a role did Bevis’ part as a key component of ‘The Matter of England’ play in its longevity?
  2. What does the ‘Epistle’ tell us about the reasons for writing and publishing Bevis narratives?
  3. Does the Gallant History assume existing knowledge of the Bevis story in its reader?
  4. Helen Cooper has written that, after the Reformation, romances became ‘socially dangerous. The romances were condemned for not conforming to the new theology, to the new requirements for pious and Protestant reading […]. They were condemned for having been written by those all-purpose Reformation villains, monks’.[5] Is there any discernible attempt at protestantisation in the seventeenth century versions of Bevis?
  5. Does the text care that it is part of a tradition that stretches back to the 1300s? Are the recognisably romance memes performing the same job in 1688 as they were in 1324, or do they mean something different by the end of the seventeenth century?
  6. Who do we think was reading The Gallant History in 1691? Has Bevis’ readership changed over the course of three and a half centuries?
  7. Are the seventeenth century texts invested in the Bevis story as history?
  8. How do the texts deal with betrayal?
  9. Consider the above description of Bevis of Hampton (from the introduction to to the TEAMS edition). Does The Gallant History live up to this billing, or is it too abridged?
  10. Do the various woodcuts tell us anything? Are they meant to be read, or are they simply decorative?
  11. In the end, is Bevis of Hampton just a good adventure story?



[1] A. C. Baugh, ‘The Making of Beves of Hampton’, in Bibliographic Studies in Honour of Rudolf Hirsch, ed. William E. Miller and Thomas G. Waldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 34

[2] Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury, ‘Bevis of Hampton: Introduction’, in Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelstan’, ed. Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake, and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 187-97, p. 187.

[3] Jennifer Fellows, ‘Bevis Redivivus: The Printed Editions of Sir Bevis of Hampton‘, in Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills, ed. Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillain Rogers, and Judith Weiss (Cardff: University of Wales Press, 1996), pp. 251-68, pp. 251-2.

[4] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 21.

[5] Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p 38.

Queens and Queenship in Shakespeare’s First Tetralogy (9th August)


The Darnley Portrait (c. 1575)

Next meeting: 9th August / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

In 1592, the pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe wrote that the Elizabethan plays which drew their subject matter from English Chronicles should be celebrated because, through them:

our fore-fathers valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they them selves raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: which, what can bee a sharper reproofe, to these degenerate effeminate dayes of oures?[1]

Nashe was referring to those plays which we now call the ‘English history plays’, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1590s. Whether a result of nationalistic pride, anxieties about the country’s future, or otherwise, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, in particular, saw a proliferation of plays produced which dramatised events of the country’s ‘glorious’ and often bloody past. These plays were well-attended, making these iterations of history accessible to a vast number of theatre-goers. Nashe articulates a notion that dramatising English history was laudable not only for its celebratory patriotism and memorialisation of the past, but also because such plays could have a particular utility: to help to recall and revitalise traditional chivalric values, and to revive a ‘valiant’ national history for the public eye and imagination.

An additional merit of such dramatic renderings of history, Nashe suggests, derives from the fact that they could provide ‘sharp reproof’ of the more indulgent, less masculine Elizabethan days of the early 1590s. In this view, the valour demonstrated in history plays was made all the more vivid by their contrast to the supposedly ‘effeminate’ contemporary moment of their dramatic construction and production. Carol Banks titles an article after Nashe’s words, and provides some discussion of the broader, sixteenth-century connotations of the term ‘effeminate’.[2] According to Banks, Nashe uses the word ‘effeminate’ to mean not only ‘womanish’ – or, perhaps, ‘unmanly’ – but employs its wider definition as ‘a virtual antonym to military valour and honour’. Indeed, there are numerous moments of nostalgia for this apparently dead or dying chivalric code throughout the first tetralogy (perhaps most notably, but not exclusively, through the person of Talbot in 1 Henry VI).

At almost the same moment that Nashe was writing these words, William Shakespeare (possibly with collaborators, and perhaps even with Nashe himself) was writing some of his earliest plays and contributing to the increasingly popular history play genre. In 1591 to 1592, Shakespeare wrote his ‘first tetralogy’ of history plays. He probably began with The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (more commonly known as The Second Part of Henry VI, or simply 2 Henry VI), then Richard Duke of York (The Third Part of Henry VI, or 3 Henry VI), before returning to First Part of Henry VI (or 1 Henry VI). Though usually performed in isolation, The Tragedy of King Richard III (more commonly just Richard III) follows on from events of the Henry VI plays to complete the tetralogy; this play was also likely to have been written last of the four.[3] The first tetralogy dramatises a telescopic version of the ‘Wars of the Roses’, the period of civil unrest that followed the death of the great English martial king, Henry V. Shakespeare begins with the coronation of Henry VI, depicts the ongoing battles against the French, shows the emergence of a Yorkist line of claimants to the throne and the battles that result from these factionalist divisions, dramatises Richard III’s machinations against his own family, and ultimately concludes with his defeat and the ‘healing’ of ‘civil wounds’ with the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York that is symbolised by the marriage of Henry Tudor (the new King Henry VII) and Elizabeth of York.

Many of Shakespeare’s formative years as a dramatist, then, were spent writing these ‘intensely nationalistic’ (English) history plays.[4] By depicting the rise and eventual victory of the first Tudor king at the beginning of his career, Shakespeare’s earliest plays seem, ultimately, to contribute to the genre’s politically expedient, propagandist aims to contribute to the so-called ‘Tudor myth’ and ‘support the right of the Tudors to the throne’.[5] However, the first tetralogy does not simply serve to straightforwardly glorify the Tudors, aggrandise the past, or offer simple ‘reproof’ to an ‘effeminate’ present in a manner Nashe seems to deem commendable. Rather, these plays explore a number of complex issues that Shakespeare would continue to address throughout his career, for example: what is the nature of divine providence and what happens when it is meddled with? What makes a ruler (a king?) effectual or ineffectual, just or unjust? What role do (and should) women play in political and social action?

Indeed, though the first tetralogy’s primary focus is, as suggested by the plays’ usual titles, on the martial conflicts and political machinations of the kings and key male players of the Wars of the Roses, significant space and importance is also afforded to women: the wives of influential nobleman and the kings’ queen consorts. These figures occupy different and intriguing spaces in a group of plays which dramatise, primarily, a masculine, masculinised conflict. History playwrights ‘remained [largely] committed to a notion of historical truth and are bound by the received record concerning the major events of the past’,[6] ‘records’ referring to (chronicle) accounts by the likes of Thomas More (c. 1519), Edward Hall (1548), and Raphael Holinshed (1577 and 1587) among others. Nonetheless, embellishment of the historical ‘fact’ and/or emphasis on moments the playwright deemed important or interesting was common practice. When Shakespeare writes compelling female characters and addresses the matter of queenship and female rule in the first tetralogy (and in his history plays more generally), therefore, it is difficult to divorce such depictions from the knowledge that they were rendered in a moment of longstanding, independent female sovereignty, of a true Queen Regnant whose (even recent, direct) ancestors were depicted in these plays and their sources.

At the beginning of the 1590s, when Shakespeare was writing his earliest (history) plays, England had been under the rule of a female sovereign for around four decades. Though this was a lifetime for many and, indeed, a lifetime for Shakespeare himself (born in 1564, eleven years after Mary Tudor’s coronation and half a decade into what would become Elizabeth Tudor’s forty-five years on the throne), the question of female rule was no less contentious. When John Knox wrote that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature’ in his 1558 pamphlet The first blast of the trumpet against the monstruous regiment of women, he was contributing to a familiar, longstanding discourse about the (in)appropriateness of female power and authority. By dramatising the actions and voices of the women who sat on the throne of England before the Tudor queens so thoroughly, Shakespeare’s first tetralogy appears to contribute to these (continued) questions about the rights and roles of women, and encourages audiences to interrogate the actions and individuals traditionally valued in our historical accounts.

Questions for discussion

  1. Are there any significant or particularly interesting departures from, or ‘faithful’ similarities to, Hall’s Chronicle in the Shakespeare extracts?
  2. How relevant are Chronicle texts and other sources to the writing of (these) history plays? Is there a sense that Shakespeare is not just striving to represent history, but also to re-present history? If so, why?
  3. Is it appropriate to consider the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III as a cogent ‘tetralogy’? Do the portrayals of Margaret and Elizabeth vary between these plays or even between these scenes?
  4. Can we identify an aesthetic of queenship in these texts? Or, what makes a queen a queen?
  5. Are queens represented positively, negatively, or otherwise in these extracts? Does our reading change/depend on the plays’ late Elizabethan context?
  6. A lot of these scenes focus on (women’s) speech and language as a means of accessing power. Why do you think this is? Is it effective?
  7. How is marriage presented in these texts? What about love and lust?
  8. How do Margaret and Elizabeth respond to the men who proposition, befriend or antagonise them? How do these men respond to them? How are their bodies used (by themselves, or by others)?
  9. The queen’s primary responsibility was often considered to be to produce a legitimate (and preferably male) heir to the throne. How do these scenes represent the queen (as) mother or queen regents?
  10. And finally, what’s up with John Knox?


[1] Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell (1592).

[2] Carol Banks, ‘Warlike women: ‘reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes’?’, in Shakespeare’s histories and counter-histories, ed. by Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 169-181 (p. 170).

[3] Jean E. Howard’s ‘Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth’ gives a good, concise overview of the first tetralogy’s compositional dates. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton, 2008), pp. 465-474.

[4] Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1965), p. 2.

[5] Ribner, The English History Play, p. 2.

[6] Jesse M. Lander, ‘William Shakespeare: The History Plays’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 489-494 (p. 490).