Back to top

Kings and Commoners: Introduction

1 See Geraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. J. S. Brewer, Rerum Britannicarum Medii Ævi (Rolls Series) 21, vol. 4 (London: Longmans, 1873), pp. 213–15.

2 Snell, “Undercover King,” p. 147. Her source is Chronicon Henrici Knighton, 2, 137, translated in R. B. Dobson, ed., The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1970), p. 186.

3 Birrel, “Medieval English Forest,” p. 80.

4 For discussions of the manuscripts and their ownership, see the introduction to The Tale of the Basin for Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 5. 48, and Ohlgren,“'lewed peple loven tales olde’”; the introduction to Sir Corneus for Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61, and the discussions by Shuffelton (Codex Ashmole 61, pp. 4–6) and Blanchfield (“Romances in MS Ashmole 61”); also Blanchfield, “Rate Revisited”; for the Percy Folio Manuscript, see the introduction to The Boy and the Mantle. For the allusions by Scottish poets Gavin Douglas, William Dunbar, and Sir David Lyndsay, see the introduction to John the Reeve. The three poets themselves all had connections to the Scottish court.

There are three king and commoner poems in this collection: King Edward and the Shepherd, John the Reeve, and The King and the Hermit. Only one of these, John the Reeve, is complete. The other two poems break off before their ending. The three, together with the fifteenth-century Scottish poem Rauf Coilyear, share the motif of a king incognito meeting the humblest of his subjects. The king takes on an assumed name and usually is reluctantly entertained by a poor man (though in King Edward and the Shepherd, Adam the Shepherd invites the sympathetic merchant to his home). The subject is initially prickly but warms up to his guest and eventually feeds him good wine and rich foods, including venison poached from the king’s forest. In return for his host’s hospitality, the king invites the peasant to court, where the latter realizes his guest’s identity and fears punishment for poaching the king’s deer. But instead he is rewarded. King Edward and the Shepherd is incomplete, ending before Adam the Shepherd is rewarded; The King and the Hermit breaks off even earlier, before the hermit friar goes to court.

King Edward and the Shepherd and The King and the Hermit are alike in that the king in both stories has to learn a nonsensical drinking salute: “passilodion” has to be answered by “berafrynd” in King Edward and the Shepherd, “fusty bandyas” by “stryke pantner” in The King and the Hermit. This feature of the story goes back to the early thirteenth-century Speculum Ecclesiæ by Geraldus Cambrensis, in which a Cistercian abbot entertains an incognito Henry II, and abbot and monarch toast each other with “pril” and “wril.”1 In both Geraldus and King Edward and the Shepherd, and also presumably in the lost ending of The King and the Hermit, the unusual toasts are given again at court. In Rauf Coilyear and John the Reeve there is no such exchange, but in these poems too the king is introduced to new customs: he is scolded for lack of courtesy, a charge brought on by Charlemagne’s excessive and out-of-place conde­scension to his host in Rauf Coilyear and by Edward’s speaking in Latin to his companions in John the Reeve. The humor of the pieces derives not only from the churlishness, suspicion, and discourtesy of the commoners (from the point of view of those used to admiration for the manners of the court) but also from the awkwardness of the king introduced into a society with social rules he does not yet know and has some trouble learning.

Other English stories of a king and commoner, whether contemporary to these (like the fifteenth-century King and the Barker) or later (like the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century versions of The King and the Tanner and the seventeenth-century King Henry II and the Miller of Mansfield), differ in deriving their humor entirely from the rusticity of the peasants. For an account of the English king and commoner poems, see F. J. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5.1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1894), article 273. Elizabeth Walsh discusses the analogues, including Rauf Coilyear, in “King in Disguise.”

For all the similarities in their stories, the three versions collected here vary in their degree and focus of social satire. King Edward and the Shepherd is probably earliest and is by far the most directly tied to current events, specifically concerns of the English court of Edward III in the mid- to late 1340s. It is apparently an occasional poem, written for one of Edward’s many court celebrations and including prominent members of the court in its storyline. It appears to be indebted to the Latin Speculum Regis Edwardi III by William of Pagula, a pair of open letters from 1331 and 1332 that castigate Edward and his court for abuses of purveyancing. William was a parish priest in Winkfield, about three miles from Windsor.

John the Reeve also mentions a specific king, Edward Longshanks, who was Edward I, and two prominent nobles, the bishop of Durham (who had extraordinary civil powers in northern England rivaling those of the king) and the earl of Gloucester. But the lines that give us the identity of the king also make clear that the poem was written long after his rule:
Of that name were kinges three,
But Edward with the long shankes was hee.
(lines 16–17)
Edward I died in 1307; his grandson Edward III died in 1377, and the poem must have been written between the latter’s death and the accession of Edward IV in 1461. After a lapse of more than seventy years, the circumstances of the rule of Edward I, and a specific earl and bishop, are not being portrayed. But there may be hints of the concerns of the period of Richard II, notably the common man voicing resentment of the use of Latin:
Speake English, everyche one,
Or else sitt still, in the devilles name:
Such talke love I naught.
Lattine spoken amongst lewd men —
Therin noe reason doe I ken;
For falshood itt is wrought.
(lines 493–98)
The insubordination of John is also reminiscent of the newfound resistance to exploitation of the peasantry expressed in the revolt of 1381. Rachel Snell quotes the chronicler Henry Knighton’s account of the aspiration of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the revolt, that
throughout the kingdom the poor as well as the rich should be free to take game in water, fishponds, woods and forests as well as to hunt hares in the fields — and to do these and many other things without impediment.2
But both the resistance to Latin and the desire for freedom from restrictive legislation continue beyond Richard’s reign into the next century. The poem voices a series of John’s complaints about restrictions governing what he is free to eat and drink (lines 136–59, 199–205, 482–86), even to burn (lines 193–98), but they are not easily identified with specific legislation, despite John’s reference to “statutinge” (line 155). He resists subordination to lords (lines 115–20), to his guests (172–74), to courtiers and porters (656–93, 724–73), to the queen (782–86), and to the king himself. Characteristically, John’s first reaction to the discovery of his guest’s identity is irony (lines 782–86). His second (lines 787–95) is to stand on his rights and claim what the king has promised. Only after the king shows generosity to him does he finally kneel (lines 811–13).

John the Reeve, unlike King Edward and the Shepherd, is no more tied to a specific place than it is to a specific time. Both poems are explicitly set near and at Windsor, but there is nothing about Windsor or its area exploited by the poem, except that it is a likely setting for a king and for some implied poaching and fuel-gathering in a royal forest; the village where John lives is apparently jointly owned by the bishop of Durham, the earl of Gloucester, and the king (lines 178–79, 125), an unlikely combination in the south of England.

The King and the Hermit has another Edward (“god Edwerd,” line 13) as king, perhaps meaning Edward III. Its hermit is not a peasant but a friar, and thus likely originally of a noble or gentry family rather than a peasant one. The poem is set in Sherwood Forest, known to some medieval readers and most modern ones as the home of Robin Hood. Here the setting is chosen because, like Windsor Forest, Sherwood Forest was one of the many royal forests of England, protected by legislation from hunting and harvesting. The hermit’s clandestine diet of bread, broiled meats, and alcohol is a good deal more basic than the rich foods of both John the Reeve and King Edward and the Shepherd, and clothing and fuel-gathering are not an issue at all. But the hermit is very suspicious of his guest’s attempts to draw him out on hunting in the king’s forest:
The armyte seyd, “So mote thou go,
Hast thou any other herand than so
Onto my lord the kynge?”
(lines 250–52)
He is doubtless aware that by the late Middle Ages the main function of Forest Law was to provide an income to the king in the form of fines.3

Given the class opposition that is explicit in these poems, with their kings and members of the court on one hand and their rustic peasants on the other, the two sides having very different expectations of social behavior, the question of readership is particularly interesting. Are these poems for the gentry, so that they can look down their noses and sneer at the churls? Are they poems for the downtrodden peasantry, so that they can laugh at the king out of his element and rejoice that their oppression is being expressed aloud? Of the three, King Edward and the Shepherd is probably the earliest. It was composed by someone who was familiar with the court of Edward III, probably to use at an entertainment for that court. It would have been an entertainment with a satirical edge to it, but also flattering to Edward in that it shows him doing what an admirable king does, listening to his people. And it carefully shows him as Edward II’s beloved son, papering over Edward III’s own role, as an adolescent, in removing his father from the throne of England. It also reminds us that Isabelle is Edward’s mother, glossing over the fact that Isabelle, after the arrest and execution of her lover Roger Mortimer in 1330, was stripped of the power and income she amassed when Edward II was deposed and murdered, and for a couple of years placed in punitive internal exile by her son; it is through Isabelle that Edward III was, at time the poem was being written, claiming the throne of France. Because it does a political job of supporting Edward and his dynastic legitimacy, and because its criticisms of oppressions such as purveyancing and failure to keep order within the king­dom are deflected from accusations against Edward himself, who in the poem does not know what is going on, and who promises to fix the situation when he finds out, it is a poem that would have been more than acceptable as an entertainment at one of Edward’s many feasts and tourneys. But oddly enough, the poem is preserved not quite complete only in a manu­script owned or read more than a century later by a priest in Staffordshire, Gilbert Pilkington, in the same manuscript miscellany that contains The Tale of the Basin, at a time and place in which the poem’s original immediate political context could have been of little interest. The King and the Hermit, very similar to King Edward and the Shepherd in its drinking game, its poaching, and its comic pitting of the culture of the king’s court against the culture of the poor, has none of the earlier poem’s specific references to political context. It is found in a Leicestershire manuscript of around 1500, MS Ashmole 61, in which Sir Corneus also appears. This miscellany manuscript was compiled by someone named Rate who was likely a middle-class guildsman in Leicester. The other king and commoner poem edited here, John the Reeve, survives only in the very late Percy Folio Manuscript, so the manuscript gives us no clues as to what sort of medieval readers found it interesting. But the poem was alluded to, among other well-known poems, by Scottish poets, despite its approving references to “our king,” “Edward with the long shankes” (John the Reeve, lines 12 and 17). Since Edward Longshanks also bore the nickname “The Hammer of the Scots” this is an odd readership. Looked at as a group, the poems evidently enjoyed a very broad audience: royal and noble, clerical, bourgeois; Windsor, Staffordshire, Leicestershire, Scotland.4

These three poems, with greatest emphasis on King Edward and the Shepherd, are discussed as romances by Rachel Snell in “Undercover King,” noted above. Glenn Wright discusses King Edward and the Shepherd as having “a foot in the world of romance” but also “a conspicuous kinship with the complaint tradition” (pp. 652–54; quotation p. 652), and John the Reeve as “a jovial romp that casts no shadow” (pp. 654–56; quotation p. 656), in his “Churl’s Courtesy.” Thomas Ohlgren explores similarities of King Edward and the Shepherd and The King and the Hermit to Robin Hood poems in Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465–1560, pp. 148–49. George Shuffelton discusses all three in his explanatory notes on “King Edward and the Hermit” in his edition Codex Ashmole 61, pp. 590–96, esp. pp. 591–92. All three poems are mentioned by Melissa Furrow, “Comic Tales.”

Go To King Edward and the Shepherd: Introduction
Go To King Edward and the Shepherd
Go To John the Reeve: Introduction
Go To John the Reeve
Go To The King and the Hermit: Introduction
Go To The King and the Hermit