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Item 41, King Edward and the Hermit: Introduction


1 On the folktale origins, see Walsh, “King in Disguise.” The drinking game motif of King Edward and the Hermit has its own long ancestry, dating back at least as far as the thirteenth century; see Giraldus Cambrensis, Opera, pp. 213–15.

2 These include “The King and the Barker,” “King Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tam­worth,” and “King Henry II and the Miller of Mansfield”; Child prints all of these in the entry for ballad number 273 in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5:67–87.

3 The only surviving copy of King Edward and the Shepherd breaks off before the shepherd is rewarded, but it likely concluded much as John the Reeve does. Rauf Coilyear adds a bizarre episode involving the newly knighted Rauf’s battles with an infidel riding on a camel, who is eventually con­verted to Christianity.

4 Poaching itself, Hanawalt argues, is a “manly game” that needs both watchful foresters and cunning poachers to make it “an opportunity to display male virtuosity” (“Men’s Games, King’s Deer,” p. 193). King Edward and the hermit play similar games in their conversation and their drinking, both involving their manhood and their identity as hunters.

5 For Piers Plowman and medieval concerns about undisciplined hermits, see Hanna, “Will’s Work.”

6 On the unstable relationship between these comic tales and the larger genre of romance, see Snell, “Undercover King,” pp. 135–38.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

This tale breaks off incomplete on the last surviving leaf of Ashmole 61; unfortun­ately, it survives in no other manuscript. But what survives is long enough to be both recogniz­able and enjoyable. No more than one or two leaves would have been necessary to com­plete the text, and the basic outline of the conclusion can be guessed on the basis of several other closely- related comic tales. Two of these surviving analogues, John the Reeve and King Edward and the Shepherd, were composed in the North or northern Midlands, a likely place of origin for King Edward and the Hermit ; the third analogue, Rauf Coilyear, is Scots. All appear to be fifteenth-century compositions but derive from older folktale traditions of “the king in disguise.”1 Many ballads (and Shakespeare’s Henry V) continued using the king in disguise motif well into the eighteenth century.2

In all four stories the king (either Edward I, Edward III, “good king Edward,” or Charle­magne) encounters a stranger in the countryside, usually as a result of having been separated from his hunting party. The stranger does not recognize the king, and when the king asks for lodging, the stranger either churlishly refuses him or warns that he will only get meager fare. When the king is grudgingly given lodging, his rustic host eventually reveals that he has been poaching and the amused king is treated to a feast of his own game. The king, when asked his name and profession, offers a pseudonym and explains that he “lives in the king’s court” (or makes a similar evasion). Some form of rustic entertainment follows the meal. In John the Reeve, the king learns a country dance; in both King Edward and the Hermit and King Edward and the Shepherd, the host teaches the guest a drinking game that involves nonsense words. The following morning the king leaves, pleased with his lodgings, and reminds the host that he has promised to come to court and receive reciprocal hospitality.

This is where King Edward and the Hermit breaks off, but the remainder of its plot pre­sumably followed the outline of the analogues. When the rustic arrives at the court, he asks for the king by the pseudonym used before, and usually must endure scorn from some of the courtiers. In King Edward and the Shepherd, the rustic and the court resume the drinking game, before the king finally reveals his identity. After some amusement at the rustic’s dread, the king then rewards him lavishly.3

Of these analogues, King Edward and the Hermit most closely resembles King Edward and the Shepherd, concentrating on the comic possibilities of the sly exchanges between the king, who suspects his host is a poacher, and the host, who protests his innocence at appropriate length before revealing the enormous profits of his poaching. Both feature the drinking game, though only in King Edward and the Hermit is the king initially inept at playing it.

The poem does not take up some of the usual comic motifs inherent in the setting of the other “king in disguise” tales. The element of class humor dominant in the other stories is largely absent; usually the host combines crude, rustic manners with pom­pous self-satisfaction. In John the Reeve the titular hero boldly suggests his daughters as good marriage companions for two of his guests, the king and the earl of Gloucester, and wishes he could bestow the benefice of the parish church on the bishop of Durham. Rauf Coilyear knocks Charlemagne to the floor for a perceived breach of etiquette and reminds his guest, “Thow suld be courtes [courteous] of kynd, and ane cunnand courteir” (line 163). In King Edward and the Hermit, King Edward finds himself subject to unfamiliar social rules, but they are only the rules of his host’s drinking game, not the crude man­ners of the peasant class. The lengthy description of the hunt at the outset of the tale and King Edward’s choice of pseudonyms — Jake Fletcher (or Jake the Arrow-maker) — only emphasize the common bonds between the poacher/host and his royal guest.4 Hermits, unlike peasants, were essentially outside the bounds of class.

Making the poacher/host character a religious recluse also alters another comic element of the other stories, in which the host complains bitterly about the depredations of the king’s agents before treating his guest to a lavish dinner. In King Edward and the Hermit, the hermit naturally makes no such complaints — his (false) poverty is entirely voluntary, and the joke drifts closer to the many medieval satires of worldly pleasure-loving monks (none more famous than Chaucer’s Monk). Langland’s Piers Plowman repeats several accusations occasionally made about hermits in this period, claiming that many were simply escaping work rather than retreating from the world.5 While the picture of the hermit in King Edward and the Hermit is incomplete, his boast of having often forced his way into charitable dinners at the royal court recalls such allegations.

Yet the hermit/poacher remains entirely likeable, a sly rogue who fends off all of the king’s persistent questions about his livelihood but whose instinct for merriment gets the better of him. In the silent pause between lines 284 and 285, after the host and guest have ended their meager meal and settled down to bed in the dark, the hermit suddenly relents, realizing that the opportunity to have fun with a good “felow” comes only too rarely in a hermitage.

King Edward also behaves somewhat differently from his counterparts in the other tales. Charlemagne suffers Rauf Coilyear’s rude cheer with bemused detachment, and in John the Reeve the king and his two noble companions whisper in Latin to each other before John up­braids them for their bad manners. But in King Edward and the Hermit, the king “was never so servysable,” and performs his chores before dinner with the enthusiasm of a visitor to a dude ranch (line 177). Without the conclusion, it is impossible to assess the tale’s tone with complete confidence, but it generally seems less interested in contrasting rustic buffoonery with courtly etiquette than the other tales, and more interested in enjoying the interaction between two sly “felows,” likeable men with a knack for deception and a taste for fine living.

Manuscript Context

Were King Edward and the Hermit to end as Rauf Coilyear, John the Reeve, and King Edward and the Shepherd do, the hermit’s arrival at the king’s court would be preceded by various aggressive encounters with the king’s courtiers. If so, this would only strengthen the more general connections between this tale and Sir Cleges (item 24), a story that also ends with a poor visitor’s trials in a rich court. Both tail-rhyme narratives blend comedy and some of the motifs of romance.6 Both achieve some of their effect through the use of detail and clever dialogue. Both are also connected to the themes of hospitality, table manners, and courtesy that run throughout the manuscript.

But King Edward and the Hermit lacks the religious undertones of Sir Cleges, and in many respects lies closer to the burlesque of Sir Corneus (item 22). That tale also hinges around a drinking game and is also in the popular tail-rhyme form. Insofar as King Edward and the Hermit makes any serious comment on drunkenness, it resembles The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools (item 16) as a satiric portrait of drinking likely to be enjoyed by an audience with drinks close at hand.

Since Ashmole 61 breaks off before the completion of the tale, we cannot know if this text was intended to be the final one. But comparing estimates of how many lines of the poem were lost and the number of missing leaves at the end of the volume suggests that King Edward and the Hermit probably was the last text. If this text and Saint Eustace (item 1) were indeed bookends, the manuscript exhibits a curious symmetry, beginning and ending with a stories of deer-hunting and strange encounters in the woods.


Since no other manuscript preserves this text, it has been emended very conservatively; nevertheless, a few defects are plainly evident. Several of Furrow’s emen­dations have been adopted. A few of the 12-line stanzas are missing lines, and in at least one case Rate seems not to have recognized all of the northern forms of his exemplar (see textual note to line 366). It is impossible to tell exactly how much Rate has revised his copy, but since he nearly always preserves the rhyme in each stanza, it seems likely that he has refrained from major alterations.

Printed Editions

Child, F. J., ed. English and Scottish Ballads. 8 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1857. 1:24–34.

Furrow, Melissa M., ed. Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems. Pp. 237–69. [Also prints John the Reeve, pp. 185–234.]

Hartshorne, Charles Henry, ed. Ancient Metrical Tales Printed Chiefly From Original Sources. London: William Pickering, 1829. Pp. 293–321.

Hazlitt, William Carew, ed. Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England. 4 vols. Lon­don: John Russell Smith, 1864–66. 1:35–49.

Adaptations and Modernizations

Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language Incorporating the F. J. Norton Collection. Part A, vol. 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. Pp. 418–23. [Based on Hazlitt’s translation.]

Hazlitt, William Carew, trans. Tales and Legends of National Origin or Widely Current in England From Early Times. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892. Pp. 223–34. [In prose.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 1764
MWME–69, 3495–96
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. [See K1812 and 1812.1.]

See also Birrell, Hanawalt (1988), Herrtage (1882), King Edward and the Shepherd, Lupack (1990), Snell, Wailes, and Walsh in the bibliography.

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