Mediaeval poets arranged their romances into three great categories: the “Matter of Britain,” which recounted the stories of King Arthur and his knights; the “Matter of France,” related to Charlemagne; and the “Matter of Rome,” including all the stories that had come to them from Greek and Roman antiquity. However, if you are looking for tales with a specifically English sense of identity, there is also a handful of romances in prose and verse that belong to the “Matter of England.” Written in the Late Mediaeval period, they look back to —and show a strong continuity with— an Anglo-Saxon past before the Norman Conquest, but apart from this consistent orientation, their chronology is far from straightforward. While the original versions may indeed have come from Old English, modern readers are most likely to discover them as Middle English retellings in prose or verse, based on sources written in Anglo-Norman French. Popular plot devices recur again and again, until it is difficult to say who borrowed what from whom.
King Horn is the oldest romance to appear in Middle English, and tells the story of a young prince sent into exile when “Saracens”—probably pagan Vikings in reality—arrive in ships to lay waste to the Kingdom of Suddene. He is fostered in the Kingdom of Westerness, but has to flee again when he is accused of seducing Princess Rymenhild. Finally he returns to Suddene to avenge his father’s death and take back his kingdom. The chief characteristic by which Horn is described is a kind of mesmerising beauty that wins over everyone to whom he speaks. When he has to disguise himself as a poor pilgrim, a common plot device in mediaeval romances, the text emphasises how much effort it takes to hide his distinctive good looks.
While King Horn has a few moments of high drama, in my opinion it can’t compete with the later romance Bevis of Hampton. Familiar elements return —an exiled young man must return to England to avenge his father, he is falsely accused of seducing a princess— but Bevis infuses the story with magical, if shockingly bloodthirsty, energy. The main character’s personality is as violent as it is vibrant. At one point, when Bevis has been cast into a remote prison, he slays his jailers without troubling first to find a way to unlock his chains, and ends up trapped, nearly dying of thirst. This spirit of improvisation on the edge of catastrophe infuses the whole romance as Bevis reels across the mediaeval world, from England to Armenia, Spain to Germany, and back again. Whenever the plot seems to be winding down, more enemies show up to try to steal his horse Arondel or his lady-love Josiane, or to toss him into a pit filled with vipers.
Bevis has been sold, at the tender age of seven, to Saracens who, unlike the ones in King Horn, are at least located vaguely in the Middle East. His determination to hold onto his Christian faith has a strange pathos. When he’s fifteen, the young Muslim knights in Armenia mock him for not knowing what Christmas is; Bevis flies into a rage and slaughters them. Later, he goes to Jerusalem to make confession to the patriarch there, and the way he hangs on the man’s every word suggests to me that this is the first time that he has ever received the spiritual comforts of the church. Unfortunately, the patriarch demands that he swear an oath that seemingly prevents him from marrying his lover Josiane.
Josiane is my favourite part of this romance. Her fiery character outshines Princess Rymenhild from King Horn, who never does anything more interesting than lose her wits for love of Horn and then get him mixed up with his sworn brother. One of the funniest scenes occurs when Bevis is carrying Josiane away from her unwanted husband King Ivor, and they are attacked by a pair of lions in the forest. Since Josiane is still a virgin —miraculously, given her marriage—the lions fawn on her without harming her, so Josiane callously proposes that she hold one by the neck while Bevis kills it with his sword. He tells her sharply to sit down out of the way. Later, when she is left in Cologne while Bevis is in England avenging his father, Josiane is forcibly married a second time. Princess Rymenhild, under similar circumstances, hides a knife under her pillow but doesn’t have to use it before she’s rescued by Horn. In contrast, the resourceful Josiane pleads shyness to get out of a public bedding ceremony and then, when she is alone with her husband, murders him by hanging him from her bedrail and then coolly lies down to sleep beneath his dangling corpse. Later, her first husband kidnaps her but she repulses him by pretending to have leprosy, escapes with Bevis’s faithful uncle, and spends half a year wandering around the Middle East supporting them both as an itinerant fiddler.
Both King Horn and Bevis are pure fantasy, but other romances, while highly fictionalised, tackle serious political topics. The main characters in Athelston aren’t young men setting out on a quest but four adults, each at the peak of authority in their respective spheres, who have sworn brotherhood to each other. Their bond is tested when the wicked Wymound convinces King Athelston that Sir Egelond is a traitor. The climax of the action comes when Bishop Alrick, the fourth of these “wedded brothers,” uses his ecclesiastical authority —even to the extent of threatening to excommunicate all of England— to force Athelston to give Sir Egelond’s family a fair trial instead of executing them out of hand. “Fair trial” in this case means making them walk barefoot over red-hot ploughshares to prove their innocence, as the writer seems to have rather unflattering ideas about Anglo-Saxon justice. There is a scene of shocking domestic violence in Athelston that is hard to read; but on the light-hearted end of the scale, it also has a marvellous comical lower-class character, the Messenger, who, while everyone is racing back and forth trying to save poor Sir Egelond, is grumbling about the price of his favourite horse, and whether he will get his dinner before being sent out with yet another message.
Havelok the Dane is another romance that foregoes the pageantry of a knightly quest for a more serious meditation on power and vulnerability. The opening lines give a long description of the qualities that make a good king, a man so generous in life that at his death he didn’t own a scrap of fabric to wrap his corpse. However, both Havelok and Princess Goldboru, whom Havelok eventually marries, are children, their lives —and kingdoms— controlled by unscrupulous regents. Havelok, of all the romantic heroes, has the most realistic acquaintance with working life. While in hiding, he labours as a fisherman, porter, and kitchen scullion, before he is forced to marry Princess Goldboru after winning a shot-put contest. Goldboru objects, not from snobbishness, but because of her pragmatic need to find a husband with the strength and stature to win back her kingdom for her. But once they are wed, the redoubtable pair set to work, and are soon restored to power to rule jointly over Denmark and England.
Guy of Warwick appears in a prose version in the fifteenth century, though the complications of chronology described above make me hesitate to label it as a ‘later’ romance. Still, it is reminiscent of King Horn and Bevis in a way that feels, inescapably, like a reaction against the other tales. Perhaps the aggression with which both Rymenhild and Josiane seek the love of a low-ranking knight at their father’s court had begun to seem improper, for in this romance Guy is the one to fall in love with his patron’s daughter Felice. He swoons multiple times, and is driven out of his mind by his feelings while Felice, well in control of herself, refuses to consider his suit until he has proven himself the greatest knight in the world. The role inversion continues as Guy, over the course of his journeys, is more than once in danger of being married against his will, and has quite a narrow escape from marrying the Emperor of Constantinople’s daughter.
The mirroring of (possibly) earlier romances throws certain changing attitudes into relief. As in Athelston and Bevis, Guy of Warwick repeatedly uses the plot device of an evil counsellor trying to turn the King against the hero, but in those earlier romances the King is considered innocent. For example, after King Athelston discovers the plot, he declares that Wymound’s greatest crime was causing Athelston to become so enraged that he kicked his own wife in the stomach and caused her to miscarry. Wymound is the one executed for this crime, not Athelston. However, the wise rulers in Guy of Warwick are able to resist evil counsel. The Emperor of Constantinople refuses outright to believe that Guy would seduce his daughter, and the Duke of Lorraine initially lets himself be persuaded by Guy’s enemies, but repents almost immediately of his gullibility. In another sign of evolving attitudes, most of Guy of Warwick is concerned with what I would call “tournament culture”—while tourneys hardly ever appear in the other romances, Guy is usually found fighting in one to win renown, or in wars provoked by the grudges arising from these contests.
The romances that comprise the “Matter of England” don’t have a consistent cast of characters like the knights of King Arthur’s court in the “Matter of Britain,” but this hodgepodge of exiled knights, temperamental monarchs, and resolute young women nevertheless comes together to reveal something more than the sum of its parts. These romances form a rich and sweeping tapestry of the principal concerns, and display the imaginative power, of a country that has never stopped changing throughout the centuries.--Mary Thaler