Who Made You King? – The Faerie Queen as Bestower of Sovereignty

“She is the mighty Queen of Faerie, … Throughout the world renowned far and neare, My liefe, my liege, my Soueraigne, my dear” (The Faerie Queene, Book II.ix:4).


Faerie Queens – they are mysterious, powerful, enchanting, liminal beings who fascinate us all with their tales.  Across Europe there are numerous stories of different Faerie Queens, but I would like to focus on a particular quality associated with many of them, that of bestower of sovereignty.  Implicit in this role is the fact that the Faerie Queens are intimately connected with the land, and as such they have the right to choose a suitable ruler to do the best for the land, and ultimately also to remove them if they do not do a good enough job.  Also as bestower of sovereignty, the idea of what sovereignty represents on an individual level is challenged by the Faerie Queens.  To demonstrate the persistence of this theme I have chosen a range of tales, many of which are not as popular or well-known in modern times as they would have been in centuries gone by.

This theme was particularly prominent when I was working on the research for my essay on Melusine in the anthology The Faerie Queens (Avalonia, 2013) which I co-edited.  Melusine is a classic example of the bestower of sovereignty.  Not only does her husband Raymondin become a powerful lord ruling over lands he gains through her, but most of their ten sons also go on to become rulers across Europe.  Indeed many of the royal and noble families of Europe claimed descent from Melusine.

This claim of ancestry to the serpentine Faerie Queen Melusine even found its way into the English royal family.  In 1464 King Edward IV (1442-1483) married Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492), whose mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg (the duchess of Bedford) traced her ancestry to Melusine.[1]  Bingham notes of Elizabeth, described as the most beautiful woman in Britain, that she was “Famously beautiful with ‘heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon’,”[2] and it is surely no coincidence that such a term should have been used in describing her.

The myth was further played out in the English crown with Edward and Elizabeth having ten legitimate children, mirroring the ten children of Melusine and Raymondin.  Even more strikingly, on Edward IV’s death, his brother, who became King Richard III, had the marriage to Elizabeth declared illegitimate and subsequently claimed the throne for himself.  He was the last of the Plantagenet line, which died with him, in the manner that Melusine had predicted her line would die out after she was betrayed by her husband.

In Ireland too many noble families claim descent from Faerie Queens such as Aine and Aoibheall, who following the death of king Brian Bóru, (who had foretold his death in the manner of the banshee) decided which of his sons should gain the sovereignty and become king.[3]

The bestowing of sovereignty is also traditionally associated with Celtic goddesses associated with the faerie as Faerie Queens, such as the Morrigan, Rhiannon and the Cailleach.

Of course faerie gifts seldom come free, and a price must be paid for such a handsome gift as sovereignty!  There are many examples of the Faerie Queen assuming the form of a hideous hag when offering sovereignty, to see if the man can judge on more than appearance, and will bestow his gifts universally, i.e. be a worthy ruler.  The questing hero also has to be willing to surrender his own sovereignty, the ultimate sacrifice, to truly prove his worthiness.  This theme is found throughout medieval tales across Europe, occurring in tales such as The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, The Marriage of Sir Gawain, The Ballad of King Henry, The Ballad of Kemp Owyne and The Ballad of the Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter.

Chaucer covered this theme in The Wife of Bath’s Tale.[4]  An unnamed knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden and is condemned to die, but Guinevere intervenes and sets him a question that he has a year and a day to find the answer to.  The question is “what is it that women most desire?”  The knight searches high and low for the answer to no avail.  On the way to the court at the end of the year he rides through a forest and sees twenty-four women dancing.  Eager to ask them the knight approaches, for them all to vanish and leave an ugly hag to answer him.

The hag tells him the answer on condition that he will grant her request when she makes it.  At King Arthur’s court the knight boldly steps forward and gives the answer:

“My lige lady, generally, quod he,

Wommen desire to have sovereintee

As well over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to have been in maistrie him above.”[5]

He is agreed to have answered correctly, but then the hag makes her request, which is that he marry her.  She could not be persuaded otherwise, so the knight agrees, but then on the wedding night she chastises the knight for ignoring her.

She tells him to choose if he would like her to be old and ugly yet gentle and loving, or beautiful and young but false and unfaithful.  The knight gives her the choice, handing the mastery to her.  She then transforms to be beautiful and loving, giving him the best of both options because he surrendered sovereignty instead of trying to be superior.

The Tale of Florent[6] is extremely similar to The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and was written by a contemporary and friend of Chaucer.  It was published before Chaucer in 1483, and as there is no evidence of either of them plagiarizing each other it seems likely they were both recording a popular recurrent theme.

In the story Florent is the nephew of the Emperor, who has slain a man called Branchus.  Branchus’ grandmother gives him a “day and tyme” to answer the question of what women desire most or be killed. Florent subsequently meets a hag under a tree, and she offers to tell him the correct answer if he will promise to marry her.  Florent agrees and when he is summoned to answer, after giving many incorrect answers of his own, he gives the hag’s correct answer and is spared.

Florent then weds the hag in secret.  When they are in bed he turns his back to her, only to turn to her when he sees the chamber is full of light.  She has transformed and is now fair and young.  The transformed maiden gives him the choice of whether to have her fair by day and foul by night, or vice-versa.

He gives her the choice, yielding to her will, and she declares that she will always be fair unto death.  She reveals her wicked stepmother had enchanted her to be a hag until she could win the love of and sovereignty over a noble knight.

A tale from the West Highlands called Nighean Righ fo Thuinn (“The Daughter of the King under the Waves”) also contains elements that show it is a survival of the Bestower of Sovereignty tale.[7]  A loathsome hag turns up on the doorstep of the house of the Feen brothers begging a place to warm herself by the fire.

The two older brothers, Fionn and Oisin refuse her, but the third, Diarmaid, pleads that she should be allowed to warm herself.  She creeps into his bed and he puts a fold of blanket between them.  After a while he discovers to his amazement that she has changed into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

A final tale worth mentioning is from Iceland, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki,[8] showing a crossover into the Norse mythos.  King Helgi is trying to sleep in his hunting lodge in the forest during the freezing cold of winter.  Just as he is getting to sleep a scratch and a moan come from the door.

He opens the door to an ugly, thin hag wearing only a single ragged garment, who asks for shelter from the bitter cold of the elements.  Helgi gives her a bear hide to wrap herself in and tells her to sleep on the floor.  The hag initially cajoles and then demands her way into his bed, to sleep under the blankets.  As soon as he touches her she becomes young and beautiful.  She then subsequently bears him a daughter called Skuld.  It is worth noting that this is also the name of one of the Norns, the triple weavers of fate in the Norse myths, implying the sovereignty motif through control of fate.

Through the bestowing of sovereignty, the divine nature of the Faerie Queens is most apparent.  Many of the goddesses of the ancient world became viewed as Faerie Queens, from the Roman Diana, Greek Artemis and Hekate to the Irish Morrigan and Aine and the Welsh Rhiannon and many others.  Even amongst those who we cannot prove direct connections to the ancient world, can we doubt that Faerie Queens who bestow sovereignty on the land are divine in their nature?





[1] Princes and Princely Culture 1450-1650 Volume 2, Gosman, MacDonald, & Vanderjact, 2005:118.

[2] The Cotswolds: A Cultural History, Bingham, 2009:66.

[3] Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh.

[4] Lines 862-1270 of The Wife of Bath’s Tale, in The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400).

[5] The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

[6] Tale of Florent, from The Confessio Amantis – John Gower (1325-1408).

[7] Popular Tales of the West Highlands (Volume 3) – J.F. Campbell, 1892.

[8] Recorded 1400, but may be much earlier.