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dence is complicated by questions about the groups or social levels that
enjoyed these stories about kings, knights, and yeomen.18
Understanding this issue of audience means again recognizing a unique fea-
ture of medieval England: social structure was much more ¬‚uid, much less
rigidly hierarchical than that across the Channel. Lines of demarcation in the
upper social ranks tended to blur, producing more community of feeling
among all ranks of the privileged, from great lords through country knights
and squires (sometimes even a notch below) and not excluding the more
important mercantile layers.19 The pattern of landholding helps to explain this
characteristic of English society; even the great held estates scattered widely by
continental standards, where relatively compact territorial holdings were more
common. A lord or a lordling who held a single manor here, partial rights to


See the evidence and interpretation in Harding, ˜Early Trailbaston Proceedings™; Kaeuper,
17

War, Justice, and Public Order, 184“268.
The theme of England™s differences is developed in Maddicott, ˜Why was England
18

Different?™ and in Kaeuper, War, Justice, and Public Order, 315“47. The theme of audience is dis-
cussed in Mehl, Middle English Romances, 2“13; Barron, English Medieval Romance; Crane, Insular
Romance; Green, Poets and Princepleasers; and Coss, ˜Cultural Diffusion™.
It is striking, for instance, to note the ease with which Sir John Clanvowe, a knight at the
19

court of Edward III and Richard II, used mercantile images in his treatise, ˜The Two Ways™: see
Scattergood, ed., Sir John Clanvowe, 60“1.
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another there, and half a mill in another county would have a highly developed
interest in the royal role in peacekeeping and in the details of the emerging
common law. Kingship, the common law coming into being and into effect
through royal courts, a particular pattern of estates”all helped to make the
social and political context in England different from that on the other side of
the Channel.
It comes as no surprise, then, to ¬nd that the literature of this society
re¬‚ected and helped to generate and generalize this unusual degree of royal
capacity and social ¬‚uidity. These factors surely help to explain, in turn, why
there is less attention paid in English than in French literature to those trou-
blesome, talented men of modest social status who carried wands of of¬ce and
issued orders, no doubt in a voice just a bit too shrill. It certainly helps to
explain why English literature, unlike French romances, does not stress the
social and cultural separation of knights from everyone else.
The unusual qualities of the literature, however, have led some scholars to
suggest that romances were written in twelfth- and thirteenth-century
England for bourgeois audiences, or for even humbler groups raising tankards
in some tavern. Others have suggested, more convincingly, that the in¬‚uence,
as so often in the Middle Ages, came from the top of society, but that it is here
mediated and diffused downward throughout privileged society generally by
unique features of English social, tenurial, and political life.20
If we step aside from the details of such discussions, the important fact
seems to be that there was not an exclusively chivalric literature in England on
the pattern we have just considered in France, a literature which reinforced a
strong sense of a caste or class of knights as different as they could imagine
themselves to be from the sub-knightly. To the contrary, in England a
˜knightly™ point of view must be considered within a broader consensus of
views informing the minds of those in the upper social layers, from substantial
village landowners up the scale to the very great. In short, we must ask what
privileged society in general”knights included”thought of the power of
kingship advancing so inexorably and of the framework of law that kings and
their advisers at least claimed to elaborate and enforce. Framing our questions
in these terms, the literature patronized can show us the ideas celebrated, the
questions debated.
This reading recalls another important historical fact: though kings and
knights had differing agendas, only their cooperation allowed the early con-
struction of something like sovereign power in England. Whatever quarrels

This is one of the themes of Crane, Insular Romance. For extended discussion of this issue in
20

a single romance, see Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, 17“19.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 113
were writ large in tumults and civil wars, kings and knights found much com-
mon ground, in concert with all other privileged groups in society.
The most famous tale from medieval Britain provides our best evidence.
The oldest surviving tale of Robin Hood, the Geste, merges the social ranks of
the knights with sturdy yeomen and places issues of law and justice ¬rmly in
the foreground.21 Robin Hood is not a knight; the text pointedly calls him ˜a
gode yeman™. But he shows many qualities we associate with ideal knighthood.
His prowess is constantly displayed and is never in question. His loyalty, seen
in his steadfastness, contrasts with the Sheriff of Nottingham who breaks his
sworn word. Robin dispenses largesse with an open hand, never mind that the
wherewithal comes from others™ purses. The text shows”and comments on”
his courtesy time and again; he regularly removes his hood and drops to one
knee in the presence of those of more exalted rank. He is devoted to the
Blessed Virgin and will harm no company in which ladies are present. He
dines not only on the royal venison, but on swans, pheasants, and other fowl”
all elegant fare. In a faint parallel to King Arthur himself (who always delayed
dinner until he learned of some marvel or adventure), he will not sit down to
table before he has found some guest. His piety also requires him to hear three
masses before dining.
Moreover, one axis around which the story revolves is Robin™s aiding a
knight, Sir Richard atte Lee, who, if poor, is clearly the genuine article, much
admired. When Robin Hood, learning of his poverty, thinks out loud that his
entry into knighthood must have been recent, that he has been forced into the
rank (by ˜distraint of knighthood™) or has wasted his resources foolishly or
wickedly, Sir Richard answers stoutly:
˜I am none of those.™ sayd the knyght.
˜By God that made me;
An hundred wynter here before
Myn auncestres knyghtes have be.™22

It comes as no surprise that Sir Richard™s prowess, and that of his family, is
quickly asserted. Financial troubles arose because his son killed ˜a knyght of
Lancaster and a squyer bolde™ in a tournament; the ¬nancial drain of the effort
˜For to save hym in his right™”legal costs, bribes, or an out-of-court settle-
ment, we must assume”has devastated his resources. The father has matched
his son™s valour. Sir Richard has been a crusader and is considering it as an
honourable outlet should he lose his lands to the wicked Abbot of St Mary™s,
as he fears. Called a false knight by the Abbot, he bristles:

Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. Ibid., ¬t 47.
21 22
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114
˜Thou lyest,™ then sayd the gentyll knyght,
Abbot, in thy hall;
False knyght was I never. . . .
In ioustes and in tournement
Full ferre than have I be,
And put my selfe as ferre in press
As ony that ever I se.™23

He has endangered his body with the best, thrusting himself into the press of
opposing warriors in the most worshipful way. Who can justly call a man of
prowess false?26
Yet justice is far to seek, a state of affairs which has, of course, made Robin
and his men outlaws in the ¬rst place. The effective agents of the king in the
region, the sheriff of the county, and the ˜hye justyce of Englonde™ are false to
the core; the latter is even in the pay of Sir Richard™s dread enemy, the Abbot
of St Mary™s, and wears his livery, as he openly tells the knight: ˜I am holde
with the abbot, sayd the justyce, / Bothe with cloth and fee.™25 Robin Hood™s
largesse saves Sir Richard from ruin and their combined righteous violence
checks the sheriff and his men. Yet the only hope for a lasting solution, even
after Robin has put a clothyard shaft through the sheriff ™s body, rests with the
king himself, with ˜Edward our comly kynge™.26
Of course, once the king and the king of outlaws meet, in famous scenes of
disguise and game-playing, all goes well. The king, recognizing Robin™s qual-
ities and his unfeigned devotion, forgives all and takes him back to court.
Despite all local corruptions, the fountain of justice runs pure at the centre.
Good yeomen (marked by chivalric qualities), a good knight, a good king,
have brought right order back into the world.27
This concern for justice within several layers of society, coupled with an
abiding belief in the role of the king, also appears prominently in the body of
tales traditionally known as the Matter of England romances. These tales, writ-
ten in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, show a consistent fascination
with political arrangements and a concern for good royal governance
grounded in law. In no small measure they are stories about kingship.28


Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood, ¬ts 114, 116.
23

For prowess linked to loyalty and other qualities, see the discussion in Chapter 7.
24

Knight and Ohlgren, Robin Hood, ¬t 107.
25

Ibid., ¬t 353.
26

This being an outlaw tale, Robin tires of court and goes back to the greenwood, and to his
27

murky end as a victim of the Prioress of Kirklees. Yet the sense of basic resolution of justice and
of peace between Robin and the king remains.
For general discussions see Barron, English Medieval Romance, 63“89, and Crane, Insular
28

Romance 1“92.
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 115
Order is secured by strong and wise kings: the theme appears indirectly, in
speeches by leading characters, or directly, in outright admonitions to the
audience. The author of Havelok the Dane, in a classic example that merits
extensive quotation, gives his audience an idyllic picture of the conditions
obtaining in a well-governed realm:
It was a king by are dawes,
That in his time were gode lawes
He dede maken and full well holden;
...
He lovede God with all his might,
And holy kirke and soth and right
...
Wreyeres and wrobberes made he falle
And hated hem so man doth galle;
Utlawes and theves made he binde,
Alle that he might ¬nde,
And heye hengen on gallwe-tree;
For hem ne yede gold ne fee;
In that time a man that bore
Well ¬fty pund, I wot, or more,
Of red gold upon his back,
In a male white or black,
Ne funde he non that him missaide,
Ne with ivele on hond layde.
...
Thanne was Engelond at aise;
Michel was swich a king to praise
That held so Englond in grith!

(There was a king in former days who made and fully kept good laws. . . . With all his
might he loved God and Holy Church and truth and right. . . . Traitors and robbers he
brought low and hated them as much as gall; he bound all the thieves and outlaws he
could catch and hanged them high on gallows, taking no gold or goods [in bribes]; at
that time a man carrying ¬fty pounds of gold or more in a black or white bag on his
back found no one troubled him nor lay an evil hand on him. . . . Then was England at
ease; such a king should be much praised, who held England in peace.)29

This imagined ¬‚ower of English kingship (˜Engelondes blome™, l. 63) so
loved right himself and so hated wrong in others that he did uncompromising
justice on anyone who dared trouble the fatherless, ˜Were it clerk or were it
Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 27“30, 35“6, 39“50, 59“61; my translation. An inter-
29

esting argument for the importance of local legend in the origins of the text is given by Bradbury,
˜Traditional Origins™.
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116
knight™ (l. 77). Any man who troubled widows, ˜Were he nevre knight so
strong™ (l. 80), was soon fettered and jailed. Whoever shamed virgins swiftly
suffered castration.
The references to knights catch our eye, and they continue. The king him-
self was ˜the beste knight at nede / That evere mighte riden on stede / Or
wepne wagge or folk ut lede™ (or bear weapons or lead folk out to war).30 Yet
his licit mastery over other knights is explicitly and fulsomely praised:
Of knight ne havede he nevere drede
That he ne sprong forth so sparke of glede,
And lete him knawe of his hand-dede
Hu he couthe with wepne spede;
And other he refte him hors or wede,
Or made him sone handes sprede
And ˜Loverd merci! loude grede.™

(He feared no knight, so that he could spring forth like a spark from the coals and make
him know the strength of his hand and how he handled weapons; he either deprived
the knight of horse or harness or made him cry out loudly, with hands outspread [in
submission], ˜Mercy, Lord!™)31

In these passages royal correction of wrong serves to stabilize medieval
English society. Yet many Anglo-Norman and Middle English poems deal-
ing with kingship stress the other side of the coin and show instead the dan-
gers of strong kings distorting the framework of the law as they blatantly
effect their private will rather than communal good. In these tales, the hero,
not the king, embodies this common good even as he pursues his own pri-
vate ambition; only his triumph will bring back ideal stability and the good
old law.32
Yet the hero usually becomes king himself, in the process reinforcing the
valid and essential role of kingship: only let the right man wear the gold
crown. Havelok™s right could scarcely be in doubt: he emits a marvellous light
while sleeping and bears a glowing birthmark in the shape of a cross on his
right shoulder.33

Sands, Middle English Verse Romances, ll. 87“99. The poem similarly praises Birkabein, King
30

of Denmark, as ˜A riche king and swithe stark. / . . . He havede many knight and swain; / He was
fair man and wight, / Of body he was the beste knight / That evere mighte leded ut here / Or stede
onne ride or handlen spere.™ (ll. 341“470)
Ibid., ll. 90“7; my translation. The importance of hands as agents of prowess (or of submis-
31

sion) is noteworthy. See the discussion in Chapter 7.
A more complex and much darker view appears in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, written in
32

the late fourteenth century. See Brock, ed., Alliterative Morte Arthure. A good introductory sam-
ple of scholarly opinion appears in Göller, Alliterative Morte Arthure.
Sands, Verse Romances, ll. 586“610.
33
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 117
Villains often hold the throne at the start of the tales, however, and they can
use the powerful and characteristic English machinery of government to
¬‚atten all opposition. Early in Havelok, on the death of good king Athelwold,
the throne is seized by Earl Goodrich (intended, perhaps, to evoke memories
of the historical Earl Godwin and his son Harold late in Edward the
Confessor™s reign). He puts trusted knights into key castles, and requires oaths
of loyalty from ˜erles, baruns, lef and loth, / Of knightes, cherles, free and
thewe™. The administrative apparatus is then oiled and set in motion to trans-
mit his will from the centre out into the green countryside:
Justises dede he maken newe
All Engelond to faren thorw
Fro Dovere into Rokesborw.
Schireves he sette, bedels, and greives,
Grith-sergeans with long gleives,
To yemen wilde wodes and pathes
Fro wicke men, that wolde don scathes,
And forto haven alle at his cry,
At his wille, at hise mercy,
That non durste been him again,
Erl ne barun, knight ne swain.

(He made new justices to ride through all England from Dover to Roxbourgh. He
established sheriffs, beadles and stewards, peace serjeants with long swords to control
wild woods and roads against evil men who would do harm, and to have all at his word,
at his will, at his mercy, that none dare be against him, earl, baron, knight, or servant.)34

Here is the problem in a nutshell: a king who provides justices, sheriffs, peace-
keepers, an entire force against ˜wicke men™, is himself one of the wicked. In
effect, the plot reinforces the point, for Denmark, which also ¬gures largely in
the tale, represents a kingdom ruled by a wicked regent, Godard. It requires a
remarkable hero to right matters on both sides of the seas, as Havelok does, in
the end killing the wicked regent and burning Goodrich on earth as he was
undoubtedly expected to burn in eternity.
The king may in other tales be legitimate and of good will, but badly
informed or ill-served by local of¬cials and corrupted law in the countryside.
In the mid-fourteenth-century Tale of Gamelyn, for example, a hero whose
birth puts him just at the margins of knightly status can only recover his landed
heritage by three heroic displays of violence, ¬nally overwhelming his evil
brother John, who can manipulate the local agents of royal administration and


Ibid., ll. 263“73; my translation.
34
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118
justice. In the process, the tale manages to hint at some complexities of atti-
tude regarding the violence so integral to its story.35
Yet a belief in licit violence carried out by the right people and rewarded in
the end by the highest authority was surely the overwhelming sentiment. The
parallels with tales in which bold Robin Hood, outlaw and vanquisher of the
sheriff, receives the king™s forgiveness, friendship, and royal of¬ce are obvious
and informative.
Thus the message of all of these texts is clear: a proper king is good; his law
properly enforced is good for society as a whole. This is the advice to his
daughter put into the mouth of the Roman Emperor in William of Palerne:
bi ti lif, as tou me lovest dere,
tt never te pore porayle be piled for ty sake,
ne taxed to taliage; but tenty¬‚i tou help
tat al ts lond be lad in lawe as it ouyt
tan wol al te pore puple preie for te yerne.

(on your life, as you love me, you will never rob the poor for your own ends, nor tal-
lage them, but attentively see to it that all this land be led in law as it should be; then
all the common people will gladly pray for you.)36

Yet violent self-help, a show of prowess carried out even against local royal
of¬cials and law, is licit, even praiseworthy, whenever the king or the law does
not merit obedience. If the English framework of powerful kingship and com-
mon law was widely approved; that is, its operation and especially its person-
nel needed occasional adjustment carried out with sword, staff, noose, or
longbow.
Matter of England romances and Robin Hood tales have shown a basic
respect for kingship and royal law, a reserved sphere of licit violence despite
the king™s law or its agents, and worries over the balance between recourse to
courts and outright brutality. The same pattern emerges clearly from the
Arthurian tradition in Geoffrey of Monmouth™s History of the Kings of Britain
(c. 1136, Latin), refashioned especially in Wace™s Roman de Brut (1155, French)
and Lawman™s Brut (c. 1199“1225, Middle English).
Each book sings the praises of wise kings who provide good laws and secure
order. One imagined king after another works this causal sequence, culminat-
ing in the great Arthur, of whom Geoffrey says ˜[he] fostered justice and peace,
the maintenance of the laws and decent behaviour in all matters throughout
his kingdom™. Constantine, according to Geoffrey, ˜maintained justice among
his people, moderated the rapacity of footpads, put an end to the oppressive
Text and analysis in Knight and Ohlgren, eds, Robin Hood. Cf. Kaeuper, ˜Tale of Gamelyn™.
35

Bunt, ed., William of Palerne, ll. 5123“6; cf. this theme in ll. 1311“15, 1371, 5238“49, 5475“84.
36
English Kingship, Chivalry, and Literature 119

behaviour of local tyrants and did his utmost to foster peace everywhere™.37
Wace pictures Arthur, in conquered France, spending nine fruitful years
putting down the proud (mainte orguillus home) and restraining felons.38
Writing about actual historical time in his Roman de Rou, he pictures Anglo-
Saxon courtiers similarly stressing kingship in the maintenance of peace and
justice.39 Lawman is even more enthusiastically positive.40 Of the dawn of
British kingship under Dunwallo he notes,
[He] was the ¬rst man whom they put a golden crown on,
Here within Britain since Brutus™s men came here.
He made such a peace, he made such a truce,
And laws which were good and [long] afterwards stood;
He established a settlement and with oaths he secured it,
So that each peasant at his plough had peace like the king himself.44

Lawman links proud and competitive knighthood with disorder. One early
king, he says, disliked his knights because they kept desiring war. Another king
lost his good fortune when all his noble earls and all his great barons fomented
unrest: ˜they refused altogether to keep the king™s peace™”a phrase echoing the
pax domini regis from the legal language of Lawman™s own day, of course. The
succeeding ruler then
settled the land, he worked for peacefulness,
He established strong laws; he was stern with the foolish
But he loved those people whose lives were law-abiding;
Every single good man he honoured with property;
He enforced peace and truce upon pain of limb and life.42

Lawman™s most striking passage about knights and order comes in his expla-
nation of the origin of the Round Table. Before its construction, Arthur™s mid-
winter feast had been disrupted by quarrels over precedence: blows were
struck, loaves of bread and even goblets full of wine ¬‚ew through the air as
missiles; knight seized knight by the throat. Arthur retired to his chamber to
think of a solution and the knights got their hands on the carving knives; sev-
ered heads hit the ¬‚oor amidst ˜an enormous blood-shed, consternation in the

Thorpe, tr, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 124, 132. Local tyrants appear more than once in the writ-
37

ing of this period. See the comments of Suger on tyrants in Chapter 1 above.
Arnold, ed., Brut de Wace, II, 532“3: ˜Es nuef anz que il France tint / Mainte merveille le
38

avint, / Maint orguillus home danta / E meint felun amesura.™
Holden, ed., Rou de Wace, II, 100“1.
39

Allen notes that Lawman™s contribution to the story creates ˜a picture of “merry Britain”

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