The Squire of Low Degree: Introduction


1 E.g., Spenser and Shakespeare. For a more extensive list, see Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead, p. xiii.

2 For more examples of structural incongruities, see Tigges, "Romance and Parody," p. 143.

3 Fewster argues in favor of a diptych structure (Traditionality and Genre, pp. 139-43).

4 Hornstein, "Miscellaneous Romances," p. 157.

5 Fewster, Traditionality and Genre, p. 139.

6 Spearing, Medieval Poet as Voyeur, p. 177.

7 Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead, p. lxxx.

8 Spearing, Medieval Poet as Voyeur, p. 177.

9 See Kiernan's "Undo Your Door and the Order of Chivalry" and Seaman's "Waning of Middle English Chivalric Romance," respectively.

10 Seaman, "Waning of Middle English Chivalric Romance," p. 187, argues the point more extensively.

11 Fewster, Traditionality and Genre, pp. 132, 136.

12 Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead, p. xl.

13 Mark Twain also elaborates upon this in Chapter 12 ("Slow Torture") of his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

14 Compare Kiernan, "Undo Your Door and the Order of Chivalry," pp. 352-55.

15 For discussion of the mixed audience of Squire and other later fifteenth-century English romances see Pearsall's astute essay, "Audiences of the Middle English Romances."

16 Squire of Low Degree, ed. Sands, p. 250.

17 For an extensive comparison of the two versions, see Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead (pp. xiv-xvi).

18 Also in the Percy Folio dialogue takes up two-thirds of the poem, but it is here rather differently distributed: the squire has 9 percent, the lady 40 percent, and the king 15 percent of the text.

19 Mead goes so far as to say that "[The Percy folio] is not a compact, homogeneous original but a mangled and clumsily condensed form of an earlier version" (Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead, p. xix).

20 See Squyr of Lowe Degre, ed. Mead, pp. xvii-xviii. In view of the high number of lines in the Percy Folio for which there is no equivalent in Copland's edition it seems unlikely that the Percy Folio is directly based on Copland.
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The Squire of Low Degree: Introduction

Unlike practically all other Middle English romances, The Squire of Low Degree is known from printed editions only: there is one complete text, comprising 1132 lines, printed by William Copland around 1560, while two fragments, of 60 and 120 lines respectively, survive of an earlier edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde c. 1520. Beside these printed texts there is a much later and much shorter version of 170 lines, which has been recorded in the Percy Folio Manuscript (c. 1650). Both the Copland and the Percy texts are presented here.


Over a hundred years ago, in his introduction to what is still the standard edition of The Squire of Low Degree, William Edward Mead argued that the language of the poem was that of the London area of the fifteenth century, and represented "the common literary language of the day" (p. lii). On the basis of the vocabulary he further specified the date as "about 1450, possibly a decade earlier" (p. lxxvi). More recent critics have tended to put it somewhat later (but not much later than 1500), and a date in the late fifteenth century will now meet with little opposition.

The continued popularity of the poem is evinced not only by the two sixteenth-century editions but also by numerous references to it by authors in that century, and even in the seventeenth.1 And in addition to these there is of course the abbreviated version in the Percy Manuscript.

That the text printed by William Copland is based on Wynkyn de Worde's edition becomes clear when one compares the surviving fragments of the latter with the Copland text. The two are identical except that Copland has reset the entire text, meanwhile updating the spelling and making a number of corrections. A few lines from the opening passage will illustrate this (lines 5-8):
Wynkyn de Worde
He serued the kyng her fader dere
Fully the tyme of seuen yere
For he was marshall of his hall
And set the lordes bothe grete and small      
William Copland
He serued the kyng her father dere
Fully the tyme of seuen yere
For he was marshall of his hall
And set the lords both great and small
In the process of adjusting his exemplar Copland himself made a few mistakes, e.g., by leaving out words, thus marring the meter, while in other cases his modernization of the spelling sometimes led to a faulty rhyme (for examples, see the notes). But on the whole Copland's interventions are limited and do not lead to any basic changes in the text.


At first sight The Squire of Low Degree is no different from all the other romances that were produced in the fifteenth century, except that the poem begins, most unromancelike, in medias res: there is no call for silence or attention, no initial prayer, not even a few lines to introduce us to the protagonist, his parents, or his court. With the first lines we are plunged right into the story: "It was a squyer of lowe degré / That loved the kings doughter of Hungré" (lines 1-2). We never learn where the squire came from, how he came to be at the court of the king of Hungary, or how, as a young man from the lower ranks of the nobility, he achieved his position as the court's master of ceremonies. Nor are we told anything about the princess or her father.

Wynkyn de Worde, followed in this by Copland, apparently considered the text as complete, judging by the fact that he provided the first word with a five-line decorated initial, the only one for the entire text. This is different in the Percy text, where we do get some essential information on the squire's past:
It was a squier of England borne,
He wrought a forffett against the crowne,
Against the crowne and against the fee;
In England tarry no longer durst hee,
For hee was vexed beyond the see
Into the kings land of Hungarye. (lines 1-6)
Considering that the Percy manuscript presents what is on the whole a heavily condensed version of the story, it seems probable that a longer, more complete text once existed but was not known to either Wynkyn de Worde or Copland.

But there is more to it: not only is the poem headless, there are also numerous incongruities within the text. The most glaring one occurs in the following passage.2 The treacherous steward has revealed to the king that his daughter is secretly seeing the squire, and that he would certainly have spent the night with her had he, the steward, not suddenly come in. The king's reaction is very indulgent: he knows the squire as a courteous and loyal young man, even worthy to win his daughter. Therefore he has no objection to their meeting; his daughter may even kiss him. But if the steward should catch them "with the dede" (line 390), he may arrest or kill him. To keep an eye on her the steward gets thirty-three men. That same day the squire asks (and obtains) leave from the king to "passe the sea, / To prove my strenthe with my ryght hande / On Godes enemyes in uncouth land," and to win himself a reputation as a "venterous" knight (lines 472-78). When he and his men have arrived at their first night's lodging he suddenly realizes that he has forgotten to say farewell to the lady. He immediately rides back to the castle, where, we are told, the steward is lying in ambush outside the lady's room.

There are ample opportunities here for the author to create suspense, and he makes a promising start: the squire, confident that no one has seen him, enters the castle by a back access, unaware, unlike the audience, of what is awaiting him. If he had been, he would not have come there all by himself, the author assures us (lines 521-24). And then the smooth narrative begins to falter: if the lady had known he was coming to her room
She would have taken hym golde and fe,
Strength of men and royalté. (lines 527-28)
What exactly is meant by these lines is not clear. Most likely the author wants to express that if she had known where the squire was and what his intentions were, she would have taken gold and a group of armed men, and gone out to meet him somewhere, away from the castle.

When the squire arrives at the lady's chamber he asks her: "Undo your door! I am beset with many a spy!" (lines 534-36). This comes as a surprise since so far we have not heard anything about the squire discovering the steward, and certainly not of a fight; it is left to the audience to work this out. Even more curious is what happens next: at first the lady does not recognize her squire, and she orders him to go away, as she will open her door only for the man whom she loves and who will marry her. The squire at once assures her that it is he, but instead of quickly unlocking her door and letting him in, the lady embarks on a seemingly endless monologue, in which she repeats, sometimes even verbatim, the instructions she had given him earlier in the poem, when she first promised him her love. Small wonder that the steward and his men can meanwhile approach and attack the squire.


The poem as we have it has an almost natural tripartite structure.3 In the first part the squire is introduced, a young man of insignificant nobility and little financial means, but in love with the king's daughter. Often he withdraws to the garden, where this time the lady overhears his lament, comforts him by giving him her love, and also instructs him on how to win her. While they are talking the steward overhears them. Next we hear that the squire serves the king at table; the steward reveals to the king the love of the squire for his daughter; the squire asks the king permission to go abroad, and he leaves (lines 1-488).

In the second part the squire returns to say farewell to the lady, a decision that leads to the catastrophic encounter with the steward, with the lady as a blind witness behind her door. The steward is killed, the squire arrested, and the lady embalms the body of the steward. Having put the squire into prison, the king attempts to cheer up his daughter (lines 489-858).

In the last part the king releases the squire, and allows him to undertake his journey. After the agreed period of seven years he returns to the king, having done exactly as the lady had advised him. The king now accepts him as his son-in-law, but first goes to his daughter to test her love for the squire. He overhears her lament and reveals the treachery of the steward. The couple are finally united, and the story ends with their wedding and the squire's coronation (lines 859-1132).

The poet frequently alerts the audience to a shift of scene by such phrases as "But leve we of the stewarde here, / And speke we more of that squyer" (lines 301-02), or "Leve we here of this squyer wight, / And speake we of that lady bryght" (lines 669-70, repeated in reverse order in lines 859-60).


If the form of the poem was unusual, it also shows uncommon features in other respects. A summary, e.g., as provided by Hornstein,4 would give us the impression that it is full of the conventional knightly activities, with the obligatory pursuit of love and display of doughtiness in battle, and with the hero fulfilling the central role.

It is not that these things are absent from The Squire, but the emphasis, as Carol Fewster observed, "shifts from actions as actions, to action as narrated, and even to narration without action."5 When the lady overhears the complaint of the squire, and admits that she loves him in return, she advises him in a long address (over one hundred lines) what she expects him to do to win his spurs. Her sermon is amusingly undercut as the squire, while she pontificates, is struggling against the steward for his very life. When, much later in the story and seven years later in time, her father releases the squire from prison to let him go on his journey across the sea, we are told about his exploits in various countries, and his return to Hungary, in a mere fifteen lines. Moreover, what there is in the way of action (whether real or intended) is practically always prompted by one person overhearing another. As A. C. Spearing has argued "there is perhaps none [of the English romances] in which secrecy, spying, storytelling, and the relationship among them are of such importance as in The Squyr of Lowe Degre."6

Not surprisingly, then, the poem is characterized by an abundance of direct speech: it takes up two-thirds of the text. However, instead of creating the impression of reported drama, with dialogues linked by the "voice-over" of the poet, the text presents a series of monologues, with short intervals of dialogue, connected by the narrator's account of events and his comments. The division of direct speech among the four main characters is also surprising: the speeches of the lady and the king each amount to about 27 to 28 percent of the text, whereas those of the squire add up to no more than 7, and of the steward to 2 percent. The squire makes only two speeches of any length: the first is his lament, at the beginning of the story, of twenty-one lines, the second his address to the lady (in fact another lament) of thirty-three lines. The lady on that occasion advises him with a monologue of 128 lines, the gist of which she repeats when the squire is outside her door (seventy-six lines). Finally, when she is making up her mind to bury the bodily remains of what she thinks is the squire, she has a last monologue of thirty-eight lines. The king is given even more to say: his words to the steward on how to go about watching his daughter are given in two monologues of forty-seven and forty lines respectively. When he tries to cheer up his daughter he uses 114 lines, and another forty-nine when, at the end of the poem, he gives her an account of all that has happened. In other words, if the squire is the focus of attention, he is practically always the subject of a speech by the king or the lady, and not the agent propelling the events. As Mead put it: "The squire is the central figure - or is intended to be. Yet . . . he has little or nothing to do."7 Another consequence of this narratological device is that the story is entirely centered on the court as the place where everything happens, for it is here that
- the lady tells the squire where to go and what to do
- the fight between the squire and the steward takes place
- the king puts the squire in prison (and later releases him)
- the lady embalms the wrong body
- the king tries to comfort his daughter with a long list of possible diversions
- the squire reports back to the king
- the wedding and coronation take place.
In fact, the story moves away from the court only twice: on the two occasions that the squire leaves to go overseas. But although the first time he returns the same night, and the second after seven years, the difference in time span does not show in a difference in the number of lines used, fewer than twenty in either case. The court remains firmly the center of our attention, and with it the father-daughter relationship.

When the steward reports on the squire's meeting with his daughter the king reacts in an almost unmedieval manner. In the first place he does not readily believe the steward in his accusations, which in most romances he would, and he even tells him that if the squire should win the lady's consent to marry her, he would be worthy to have her (lines 369-72). He even goes so far as to say that there is nothing against their meeting secretly outside her room, and kissing. Only if the squire should attempt to break into her room, or harass her, should the steward immediately arrest him. Concern for the well-being of his daughter also makes the king guess the cause why she is losing her beauty and good humor, and it is equally manifest in the many diversions he suggests to give her back her joy of life. Seven years later he releases the squire from prison and allows him to leave and win himself the desired reputation, while after the squire's return, again after seven years, he brings the couple together, renouncing the throne in favor of the squire and thereby making his daughter both queen and his successor.

The emphasis on the poem's concern, in the words of Spearing, "with social mobility and the contribution of wealth to social status"8 had earlier been signaled by Kiernan and was later worked out in more detail by Seaman.9 When the squire is first introduced he is called "curteous and hend" (line 3), and "an hardy man . . . and wight, / Both in batayle and in fyght" (lines 9-10); in other words, he has all the right qualifications, except one: he is "of lowe degré" (line 1) and poor (line 19). When he makes his lament in the orchard, under the lady's window, the first thing he complains of is that he is not rich enough to marry the lady (lines 68-70), and that is also what he ends with: "Wayle a waye! / For poverté passeth all my paye!" (lines 87-88). The lady initially behaves more like the typical romance heroine in that she tells him that if he wants to win her "With chyvalry ye must begynne, / And other dedes of armes to done, / Through whiche ye may wynne your shone" (lines 172-74). But she deviates from that image when she not only describes in great detail what will make him an accomplished knight but goes on to offer him the financial means to do it (lines 273-74). That it is, in the end, not the lady herself but her father who provides the squire with the necessary resources and company of men does not detract from the intrinsic importance of money for the squire's social advancement.

Here an interesting discrepancy crops up in the way in which on the one hand the squire, and on the other the lady and the king, assess the situation: the squire thinks that the combined factors of his poverty and humble descent constitute an insurmountable obstacle to a marriage with the lady, while she and her father find the squire unacceptable only because he has not yet made a name for himself. Either of these concerns sounds familiar in a romance context and yet they are, in their combination, quite unlike those of the more traditional romances, which emphasize "inherited, blood-based nobility of character and behavior" for their heroes.10 Regarding this difference between The Squire of Low Degree and these earlier poems Fewster has observed: "The Squyr evokes a sense of narrative convention and of genre in its allusion to other romances" but it does so "without necessarily being wholly within or defined by that style."11 The questions raised by the poem make it distinctly different from, though not independent of, the established romance tradition.


Both Wynkyn de Worde and William Copland printed a large number of books, often illustrated, e.g., Copland's Valentine and Orson, which contains a famous series of seventy-two splendid woodcuts. It is therefore noteworthy that his edition of The Squire of Low Degree is a rather poor affair. It is a small and thin booklet, containing only the text of this poem, and illustrated with two woodcuts, one the frontispiece and the other facing the first page of the text. As is clear from the surviving de Worde fragments, the latter, showing a nobleman and a lady, had already been used by de Worde for his edition, and even then it was a 'recycled' illustration: he had adapted it from his edition of Chaucer's Troylus and Cresyde of 1517 by erasing the names of the two protagonists, originally written in two balloons over their heads, from the woodblock.12 To produce a book in this manner is a clear indication of its intended audience: the not-so-wealthy commoners, who had only just started to read and buy books, and who were more easily contented than the members of the upper class or the rich merchants.

Apart from such indications provided by the outward appearance of the book, the text itself has a number of features that point in the same direction. When the lady sets about to instruct the squire how he may "win his spurs" (line 174), she begins by describing in some detail the hardships of the outdoor life of a questing knight (lines 175-85). This is a subject apparently quite deterring to outsiders like the lady, for whom it was not a daily reality, but one that in the regular medieval romances receives very little attention.13 Another element is the coat of arms that the lady designs for the squire. The vocabulary she uses is replete with heraldic terms and yet the resulting arms are not even remotely like a correctly blazoned escutcheon.14

The extensive catalogues may belong here as well: in essence they are comprehensive lists, enumerating more examples or aspects of a general concept than are ever found together elsewhere. In the description of the orchard, the list of trees comprises sixteen species (among which are some flowers and shrubs), while the list of birds has nineteen. The king's suggestions for entertainment to his daughter include minute descriptions of the luxurious objects with which the nobility are surrounded and which are indicative of the rich ambience in which they live. Thus the litter in which his daughter might go hunting is described with all its precious details, as are her clothes, both the ones she will wear during the hunt and those for evensong, the rich pavilion for her supper, with its costly tapestries, delicious dishes, and seventeen different wines, and especially her bedroom to which she will retire for the night. When, at the end of the poem, the squire and his lady are finally united there is "myrth and melody" (line 1069) with seventeen different musical instruments. Neither in their immediate context, nor in the poem as a whole, do these lists serve any obvious narratological function; rather, their main purpose seems to be to impress an audience with the wealth of a social group to which they themselves do not belong.

In spite of all that has been said in the previous paragraphs, the contemporary audience of the poem, and that of later ages, apparently found qualities in it that ensured its lasting success.15 Maybe its source was nostalgia for a genre of which this poem has been called, in our days, the swan song.16 But the effect is, likewise, surely comical in its indulgence.


When a narrative that with 1132 lines was not complete is reduced to a mere 170 lines it must necessarily suffer some losses. In the Percy version, the treacherous steward has completely disappeared as have the exploits of the squire. What is left is a truncated story in which, nevertheless, the basic structure of the original can be discovered:17
- the unhappy squire withdraws to the orchard
- the lady overhears his complaint under her window and advises him
- the squire is attacked by twenty men stationed at the lady's room by her father (no reason is given), and in vain asks her to open her door
- the squire is arrested and a dead man is taken from the gallows, his face mutilated and the body placed before the lady's door
- the lady embalms (parts of) the body, thinking it is the squire
- her lament is overheard by her father, who asks for whom she is mourning
- the king offers all kinds of diversions but none are acceptable to his daughter
- finally the king reveals that the one she loves is kept in his prison
- when she asks why he did all this to her the king answers that he had hoped to marry her to a king
- the lady's wedding concludes the story.
In this highly abbreviated version the role of the lady is even more prominent than in the longer one: the squire never leaves the court, and his active part is restricted to his lament in the orchard and his fight with the king's men. At the end the dialogue is entirely focused on the lady and her father, and it is her marriage that is described, without any reference to the squire, let alone to a possible coronation.18

One aspect, though, has remained: the squire still sees lack of money and noble descent as impediments to his marrying the lady. She apparently agrees, since after delineating how he may win himself a reputation and successfully woo her, she gives him a hundred and three pounds to meet the costs.

Due to the condensation of the narrative the reader is left with a number of questions, such as: Why did the king install twenty men at his daughter's chamber? Why did she not open her door to the squire, with whom she had just been talking? And what is it that marginalized the young man? Beside this there seems to be a break in the time span of the story. In her monologue over the dead man's corpse, the lady says that she will cast his fingers and hair in wax, bury his bowels, and set up the remainder at the head of her bed (lines 93-98). In the same breath, however, she announces that she will put him in a coffin and bury him, as he cannot be kept any longer (lines 99-103). One gets the impression that this is a vestige of the original story, in which there is a lapse of seven years between the embalming and the dialogue of father and daughter.19

In spite of the numerous differences between the texts, there can be no doubt that they are two versions of the same original, a conclusion that is corroborated by the amount of lines they share, sometimes with exactly the same words.20


The text of The Squire of Low Degree is presented here as it occurs in William Copland's edition, that of The Squier as in the Percy Folio Manuscript. Variant readings from Wynkyn de Worde's edition are given in the notes to The Squire of Low Degree.


Indexed as item 1644 in Brown and Robbins, eds., Index of Middle English Verse:
  • London, British Library MS Additional 27879 (the Percy Folio Manuscript), fols. 444-446. (P)
  • Wynkyn de Worde, "Here begynneth vndo your Dore." San Marino, CA, The Huntington Library, Rare Books 62181 (3 fragments). (W)
  • William Copland, "The Squyr of Lowe Degre," or "Here begynneth vndo youre dore." London, British Library, C.21.c.58. (C)

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