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Athelston: Introduction


1 In Athelston: A Middle English Romance, EETS o.s. 224 (London: Oxford University Press, 1951) A. McI. Trounce argues that Alryke resembles Stephen Langton more than Thomas Becket but also sees a strong historical resemblance between Alryke and William Bateman of Norwich (1344-53).

2 See also Kurt Beug, "Die Sage von König Athelstan," Archiv 148 (1925), 181-95, for a discussion of the relevance of the Queen Emma legend and the existence of a historical Wymound found guilty of simony in 1102.

3 See Laura Hibbard Loomis, Mediæval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cycle Metrical Romances (New York: Burt Franklin, 1960), pp. 143-46.

4 Donald B. Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966), p. 130.

5 Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 148.

6 A. Inskip Dickerson, "The Subplot of the Messenger in Athelston," Papers on Language and Literature 12 (1976), 121.

7 Kevin S. Kiernan, "Athelston and the Rhyme of the English Romances," Modern Language Quarterly 36 (1975), 340-41.

8 Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, "The Female Body Politic and the Miscarriage of Justice in Athelston," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 17 (1995), 79-98.

9 Rowe, p. 88.

10 W. R. J. Barron, English Medieval Romance (London: Longman, 1987), p. 81.

11 Sands, p. 131.

12 See Derek Pearsall, "The Development of Middle English Romances," Medieval Studies 27 (1965), 91-116.

13 Dickerson, p. 121.

It would seem that Athelston, a relatively brief romance of 812 lines dating from the late fourteenth century, should pose few problems for the modern editor, existing as it does without any known direct source and surviving in only one manuscript. But that is not the case. Rather, this short romance perhaps even more than the longer romances presented in this volume raises a number of questions about historical backgrounds, sources and analogues, the poet's agenda, as well as textual and aesthetic matters. Early scholars, for instance, have seen in it references to events ranging in date from the tenth to the late fourteenth centuries, including the struggle between Henry II and Thomas Becket and the challenge of the barons to Richard II.1 Still others point to a historical Wymound, found guilty of simony in 1102, or to the events taking place during the reign of King John. The poem's source is also contested. A. M. Trounce claims repeatedly that there is a French original lurking in the archival shadows, despite the obvious local colors, place names, and details of English custom and law.2 Laura Hibbard Loomis argues that the poem's origin resides in the legend of Queen Emma and the Ploughshares, a story of the mother of Edward the Confessor.3 A frequently mentioned literary analogue is the Middle English Amis and Amiloun, but several of the poem's motifs are common to other works. The diversity of scholarly views on these matters suggests the presence of an amazingly complex intertextuality and interpretive potential for this seemingly simple romance.

Neither is the plot as straightforward as it appears to be at first. Rather, the poem's unfolding of betrayal and treachery is brought to a happy resolution only after a series of deferrals and unveilings, made more suspenseful by the intensified action and heightened psychological intrigue, an effect the poet gains by mirroring characters' identities and constructing vivid and dramatic narrative events. The poem begins simply enough: four men, described as messengers, swear an oath of brotherhood and truth to each other. One of them, Athelston, becomes king when the king his cousin dies. Athelston then makes two of his sworn brothers earls and the third Archbishop of Canterbury. Here is where the intrigue begins with something akin to sibling rivalry. One of these earls, the Earl of Stone, remains true to him; the other, however, the Earl of Dover, is false, betraying his brother by accusing him of treachery to the king. The king believes the Earl of Dover, and resolves to kill the alleged traitor and his family, but before he does the queen sends a messenger to the Archbishop who comes to London to plead for the life of his friend. The king first refuses to listen, and there follows a fierce struggle between the king and the archbishop. It seems as though the king is going to win, but he relents when the archbishop gains support from the people. An ordeal by fire establishes the innocence of the Earl of Stone and the guilt of the traitor; the romance ends with the spectacle of the traitor's death.

In his introduction to his edition Donald Sands implies that Athelston has an overly high reputation. He suggests that the poem is indeed very impressive on first reading but that the closer one looks, the less one sees.4 As an introduction to the poem, this is not a bad characterization, suggesting as it does that the poem depends on a kind of surface attraction, which is surely there. But it is probably not an altogether just estimation. Sands is no doubt correct when he states that one will not find overly subtle character portraits in the work, though the credulity of the king, the resoluteness of the archbishop, and the villainy of the traitor all show touches which go beyond simple fairy tale opposition between good and evil. Dieter Mehl is not wrong when he says that the characters are both memorable and individualized.5

Not only are the four main characters - Athelston the King, the Earls of Dover and Stone, and the Archbishop - memorable for their powerful positions, personalities, and confrontations with one another, but the supporting characters are also unforgettably drawn. The messenger, who is employed by the king, the queen, and several earls, is described early in the poem as a "foundling" but later, as a "noble man," stands in stark contrast, even acts as an alter-ego, to the king whose name he bears.6 His stalwart endurance and professional integrity in delivering messages to the right people at the right time despite the grueling distances between stops exposes the lack of steadfastness in the king. The messenger does not waiver in his moral obligations - the king does. The very office of messenger resonates with the four main characters; described as messengers from "dyvers cuntré" they come into England to fulfill the obligations of their profession - one of which is the necessity for conveying the truth, the very oath they swear to seal their bond of brotherhood. A subsequent elevation in status - a result of Athelston's fortuitous rise to kingship - confers political power on those who otherwise would not have it and prepares the way for testing the integrity of their oath to one another. The inevitable corruptive forces accompanying such a quick rise in prestige follow, as Wymound soon falls prey to envy; true nobility is not associated with rank and social status, but rather with moral character.

The typical tail-rhyme stanza in Athelston consists of four rhymed couplets, each of which is followed by a tail rhyme which remains constant throughout the stanza, so that the rhyme scheme of the twelve-line stanza in the poem is aab ccb ddb eeb. Perhaps taking his cue from Chaucer's parody of romance in The Tale of Sir Thopas, Sands is also critical of the rhyme scheme of the work, objecting both to what he sees as the monotony of tail rhyme and also to the apparent inconsistency of several irregular stanzas. Here too his judgment is probably overly harsh. Kevin Kiernan contends that this stanzaic structure helps account for the integrated character of the work and that variations in the poem are purposeful. He stretches his point, perhaps, when he says that the poem is more closely knit than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but he nonetheless makes a convincing case for the artistry of the work.7 A. M. Trounce sees tail rhyme as an opportunity to exercise the imagination; poetic diction often generates a number of interpretative possibilities. The tail-rhyme poets also have a flare for the dramatic - the scene of cruelty to the queen, the unrobing and extended trial by ordeal, including the testing of the earl's two sons and pregnant wife, the birth of St. Edmund immediately following the ordeal, the spectacular execution of Wymound, a traitor every bit as treacherous as Ganelon or Judas. His body, singed by fire, hanged, and left dangling by decree, marks the point at which the poet makes his conventional exit.

Like the noble messenger, the female characters are models of integrity and perseverance. Dame Edyff, awaiting the impending birth of a third child when Wymound's false message arrives, refuses to stay at home where safe delivery would be more certain. Rather, she decides to accompany her husband and sons to London in order to witness what she expects to be a great honor. Instead, the entire family is taken into custody at the order of a king whose good judgment, by this time, has been transformed by Wymound's treachery. Despite the hardship of captivity, however, Dame Edyff not only manages to survive but shortly thereafter endures the onset of labor in the midst of the ordeal by fire. It is only after she has successfully walked over the burning ploughshares that she gives birth to another son, the child-saint Edmund. Just as the deeds of the noble messenger reveal the lack of integrity in Wymound, the birth of Edmund recalls the cruelty of the king to his pregnant wife and her subsequent miscarriage of the rightful heir to the throne. Like Edyff, the queen endures great suffering. Unlike Edyff, however, her purpose in the narrative is to dramatize the extent to which the king has fallen from rational judgment. As Elizabeth Ashman Rowe argues, the queen's miscarriage signifies beyond the tragedy of the event itself; it points directly to the king's miscarriage of justice.8

In the struggle between the king and the archbishop, an English audience would no doubt be reminded of the encounter between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the famous conflict which ended with the murder of Becket in 1170. Other probable historical analogues in the poem would include the name Athelston itself (hero of the battle of Brunanburh), and the reference to the birth of St. Edmund (of East Anglia) at the end of the poem. Rowe locates the poem in a specific fourteenth-century context. For Athelston the King we may substitute the tyrannical Richard II, who dispensed with due process for his rivals, whom he then unlawfully imprisoned, exiled, or executed.9 The specificity of these historical allusions should not allow us to overlook the larger issues which the poem embodies. Indeed, one of the signal strengths of the poem is that the legendary material out of which it is constructed has become the vehicle for embodying some of the large concerns of the Middle Ages. Clearly the most central of these is the relationship between the secular and the ecclesiastical spheres. This struggle provides the central dramatic conflict in the poem in its vivid and energetic presentation of threat and counter threat by king and bishop. Its implications are far wider than the probable specific allusion to the Becket controversy, however much it may follow the contours of that controversy in insisting on distinct limits to royal power and in seeing ecclesiastical privilege as a check on royal tyranny. As W. R. J. Barron has pointed out, the defiance of tyranny in the name of brotherhood and the importance of the rule of law emerge as key themes in the work.10

Another of the larger issues is contained in the way the poem handles the question of good and evil. The poem provides a clear statement of the cause of the betrayal of King Athelston and the Earl of Stone. The Earl of Dover committed his sin not out of greed, but out of envy. As he poignantly tells us immediately before his death (speaking of the king's relationship to the Earl of Stone and to himself): "He lovyd him to mekyl and me to lyte; / Therfore envye I hadde" (lines 799-800). At this point, the moral implications are more important than the political ones, or perhaps to put it in slightly different terms, this ending shows us how, as in most significant medieval narratives, the moral and the political cannot be meaningfully separated from each other.

Sands states that the audience of Athelston must have been made up of small tradesmen, "very conscious of the history of their country, very well aware of its traditions, and very sensitive to the authoritarian habit of kings."11 It is not necessary to be quite this restrictive in recreating the audience of Athelston, especially since the poem is one of many poems written in English for an emerging, influential middle-class.12 There is, in fact, some evidence of a middle-class perspective, particularly if we look to the amusing presentation of the hard-working messenger. Of all the characters a middle-class audience might identify with in the poem, he is the most probable, since the king himself, in his rashness, gullibility, and stubbornness, is not especially sympathetic.13 Whether or not we want to accept this parallel, it should at least open us to the possibility of a work which is very carefully structured and whose structure, like many medieval romances, is dependent on the careful paralleling of large and small units of meaning.

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Select Bibliography


Caius College Library, Cambridge MS 175. Fols. 120r-31r. [The MS also contains Richard Coeur de Lyon, Sir Isumbras, the Life of St. Catherine, a short work entitled Matutinas de cruce, Beves of Hampton, and De Spiritu Gurydonis. Athelston appears before Beves of Hampton.]


French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice Hall, 1930. Pp. 179-205.

Hartshorne, C. H., ed. "King Athelstone." In Ancient Metrical Tales. London: W. Pickering, 1829. Pp. 1-34.

Hervey, Lord Francis, ed. Corolla Sancti Edmundi: The Garland of Saint Edmund King and Martyr. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1907. Pp. 525-55.

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966. Pp. 130-53.

Trounce, A. McI., ed. Athelston: A Middle English Romance. EETS o.s. 224. London: Oxford University Press, 1951. [A critical edition, including comprehensive notes and introductory materials.]

Wright, T., and J. O. Halliwell. Reliquiae Antiquae. Vol. 2. London: J. R. Smith, 1845. Pp. 85-103.

Zupitza, J. "Die Romanze von Athelston." Englische Studien 13 (1883), 331-414.


Rickert, Edith. Early English Romances in Verse. The New Medieval Library. Vol. 8. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966. Pp. 67-85.

Related Studies

Bennett, J. A. W. "Havelok; Gamelyn; Athelston; Sir Amadace; Libeaus Desconus." In Middle English Literature. Ed. Douglas Gray. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Pp. 154-69.

Beug, Kurt. "Die Sage von König Athelstan." Archiv 148 (1925), 181-95. [Admits the relevance of the Queen Emma legend, but points to a historical Wymound, who was found guilty of simony by a Westminster council in 1102.]

Dickerson, A. Inskip. "The Subplot of the Messenger in Athelston." Papers on Language and Literature 12 (1976), 115-24. [An analysis of the importance of the messenger - intriguingly named Athelston - who provides a kind of moral center to the work, since he stands in contrast to his namesake Athelston the king, who is easily duped and not easily dissuaded from his folly. As a middle-class character, the messenger thus provides the focus for a middle-class audience critical of abuses of royal prerogatives and power.]

Gerould, Gordon Hall. "Social and Historical Reminiscences in the Middle English Athelston." Englische Studien 36 (1906), 193-208. [Argues that the historical reminiscence is to the famous dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket, which ended in Becket's death and his subsequent beatification. Becket's cult was widespread by the fourteenth century.]

Hibbard, Laura A. [Loomis]. "Athelston, A Westminster Legend." PMLA 36 (1921), 223-44. [Argues that the source for the romance is the legendary Queen Emma and the Ploughshare, a story disseminated by monastic writers.]

--- . Mediæval Romance in England. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960. Pp. 143-46. [Places Athelston among "legendary English heroes," arguing a strong connection between the fictional hero and the historical Athelstan, King of England from 925-39, conqueror at the Battle of Brunanburh, and the "storied king for whom Guy of Warwick fought with the Danish giant Colbrand."]

Kiernan, Kevin S. "Athelston and the Rhyme of the English Romances." Modern Language Quarterly 36 (1975), 338-53. [Focuses on the artistry of the tail-rhyme stanza and argues that irregularities in the stanzaic structure in Athelston are purposeful, deliberate attempts to marry form and content in the work. Concludes that the work is among the most closely knit of Middle English romances.]

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968. Pp. 146-52. [Places Athelston within the category of "homiletic romances," and in an analysis which focuses on both the specific details of the romance and on short comparisons with a great many other works in Middle English, concludes that it is "one of the most impressive of the homiletic romances" (p. 152).]

Pearsall, Derek. "The Development of Middle English Romances." Medieval Studies 27 (1965), 91-116. [Discusses the "grammar" of romance: formal and literary conventions, social contexts, popular, non-courtly perspectives, and newly emergent bourgeois audience.]

Pigg, Daniel. "The Implications of Realist Poetics in the Middle English Athelston." English Language Notes 32 (1994), 1-8. [Considers the importance of realist - as opposed to nominalist - sign theory in relation to feudal monarchy. The Earl of Dover's false accusations threaten both the realist understanding of sign and referent and the feudal institutions that such a system of signs upholds.]
Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman. "The Female Body Politic and the Miscarriage of Justice in Athelston." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 17 (1995), 79-98. [Argues that the poem attacks the tyranny of Richard II, but not monarchy itself; the poem may thus date as late as 1399. Furthermore, Athelston uses a female/maternal metaphor for the body politic itself, which becomes silenced within the romance.]

Schmidt, A. V. C., and Nicholas Jacobs. Medieval English Romances, Part One. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980. Pp. 123-50. [General study of select romances.]

Taylor, George. "Notes on Athelston." Leeds SE 3 (1934), 24-25. [Challenges several emendations made by previous editors.]