Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


“Trewe Man” or “Wicke Traitour”
The Steward in Late Middle English Literature

Dinah Hazell

Despite the notoriously elusive generic definition of Middle English romances due to their variety, there is a somewhat predictable cast of stock characters, such as king, queen, knight, maiden (usually the most beautiful ever seen), all familiar friends we expect. One, however, is seldom included, although he is ubiquitous in romances: the steward. He is a plot element, usually nameless, a one-dimensional character, either good or, perhaps more often, bad. He frequently makes brief appearances, serves his narrative function, receives reward or punishment for his behavior, then disappears. The steward deserves a bit more attention.

At the least, stewards reflect their environment and serve as cultural indicators, and they should not be seen in isolation. They participate in the aspect of social commentary in romances related to complaint and protest literature that proliferated in the fourteenth century and which Madicott notes took on a previously unseen specificity because there was more to protest about (142). Through their actions and interactions, stewards raise issues of justice, trust, loyalty, generosity, charity and other values that critics and moralists perceived as eroding in the cultural and political climate through greed, corruption, and pride. In the romances, we usually see the steward at court, and through him the poet defines the nature of the society and, often, its lord.

Historically, stewards were very powerful and carried great responsibilities. On the estate, the steward directed the management of land, crop and livestock productivity and manorial finances, and might oversee village judicial proceedings. At court, in addition to the administrative steward, there was the household steward in charge of domestic affairs and perhaps others with various duties. The king had a high steward, constable and marshal, all hereditary positions held by earls. Some high stewards considered the title honorary, while others were involved in political affairs, although their responsibilities and benefits were not always clearly defined. We will see most of these stewards in the following discussions. There are too many in the romance corpus to include in a paper of this length, so we will look at a sampling, including a few in lesser known works who thus may have been overlooked.

A manorial steward is seen at work in Sir Amadace. He is knowledgeable about his lord’s holdings and finances and confers with the knight, who is deeply in debt through excessive spending. The steward advises Sir Amadace to divide his lands and reduce his retinue. However, Amadace asserts his authority and rejects the plan, since he would lose reputation and status, as well as the trust of his creditors, by living in lowered circumstances. Rather, he instructs the steward to mortgage the lands for seven years, the time it will take for his revenues to clear his debts, and he tells him to keep his condition secret. He will go out of the country during that time and leave his estate in the hands of the steward. But before departing, he once again places honor above prudence by giving rich gifts to courtiers and doles to the poor in order to maintain his appearance of wealth and generosity.

During his travels he regains his prosperity, ironically through an act of charity; he spends the last of his money to save the honor of a once wealthy, now impoverished dead merchant by giving him a Christian burial. The merchant returns as the White Knight, a “grateful dead,” and paves the way for Amadace’s marriage to a king’s daughter, with the agreement that he will share equally in Amadace’s gains. But at the last, Amadace learns the worth of human life and love over that of wealth, and that true honor rests in a man’s character, not status, when the White Knight demands not property but half of Amadace’s wife and child as his share. Amadace offers all he owns to save them and thereby passes the White Knight’s testing. In typical romance fashion, the hero is rewarded with material success for espousing non-material values. All ends happily, with Amadace keeping his family and goods, becoming debt-free, calling his men and steward to his new kingdom and giving them gold and property. Had Amadace followed his steward’s advice, his wealth would have been reduced rather than multiplied, but the counselor’s underlying philosophy is proven: riches are expendable.

Sir Orfeo also sees wealth as useless when he loses his wife; life is empty without her. When Heurodis taken by the King of the Underworld, Orfeo effectively abdicates the throne to his kingdom.1 Though his grief impels him to flee into the wild, he first rationally makes arrangements for the care of the kingdom. His magnates are summoned and told that his high steward is to protect his lands in his stead. He does not expect to return, so when news of his death is known, parliament is to choose a new king since Orfeo is heirless.

In poems where the steward is left in charge during his lord’s absence, he is seen only at the beginning and the end, while the rest of the narrative follows the hero. This is true of Sir Orfeo, although the steward, who is briskly treated in five lines when Orfeo leaves, has a prominent role and appearance at the conclusion and is at the crux of two of the poet’s concerns: monarchical succession and the proper use of power.

Believing his kingdom to be in trustworthy hands, Orfeo reduces himself to poverty; taking only his harp he departs, with no plan to seek or find his wife. Yet he does, more by providence or coincidence than effort, and once spurred by her sight, he rescues her from the Underworld. They return to their city, Winchester, but after ten years of exile in the woods, he is unrecognizable. Taken in by a poor beggar who lives on the edge of town, Orfeo asks about the state of the kingdom; many things could have happened, such as the disruption of the harmonious court he had created by power-seeking individuals or factions, usurpation of the throne, mismanagement of the lands, corruption of officials, and exploitation of the people.

But none of these or other disorders are reported by the beggar, so Orfeo sets out to see for himself, dressed in rags and carrying his harp. He is ridiculed by the burgesses who pass him on the street, until he meets the steward, who responds to the seemingly destitute minstrel’s plea for help with an invitation, for “Everich gode harpour is welcom me to / For mi lordes love, Sir Orfeo” (“Every good harper is welcome to me / For the love of my lord, Sir Orfeo”; 517-18). There are minstrels and musicians at the castle during the meal, but Orfeo holds them all spellbound with his music. The steward recognizes the harp and asks how the stranger has come by it. Although it is clear by now that the steward has preserved the king’s court and kingdom well and is loyal to his lord after ten years, Orfeo still finds it necessary “for-to asay thi gode wille” (“to test your good will”; 568) and in a rather cruel manner, by telling him that he found the harp in the wilderness by the body of a man ravaged by lions and wolves. The steward is so distraught over the loss of his lord and the manner of his death that he swoons and falls to the ground, and thus proves himself “a trewe man” (554) who loves his lord as he should.

Orfeo’s motivation for the testing at first appears unclear and unnecessary. A lack of trust seems unlikely since Orfeo had left his kingdom in the steward’s care, but perhaps from his knowledge of court politics he is being overly cautious, wary of hidden agendas. As it turns out, it is not a test of stewardship but of kingship, for having found the steward true, he names him as successor; had he failed, he would have been banished. It is also a demonstration of Orfeo’s success as a monarch, able to inspire strong loyalty, including from his baronage, who have faithfully perpetuated Orfeo’s court and respected the man who acted in the king’s place. Orfeo has chosen his man well and assures continuity despite the lack of a rightful heir.

Considering the disastrous results of monarchical succession in the fourteenth century, choosing a ruler based on character and ability rather than lineage would seem a tempting alternative. Edward II and Richard II are hardly endorsements for rightful succession. Part of the scholarly discussion over the date of Sir Orfeo involves Edward II’s deposition in 1327.2 Whether written during or soon after his reign, the poem reflects the tumultuous reaction to inept monarchical rule. Pearsall’s “fear that a New Historicist will come along one day and prove that Sir Orfeo is a poem about parliamentary power and legitimate succession” (55) ironically hits the mark. Written in the early fourteenth century, Sir Orfeo presents a kingship antithetical to that of Edward II, particularly the relationship between monarch and royal steward. Orfeo’s officer is an exemplar in opposition to Edward’s, Thomas of Lancaster. Although first cousin to the king, Thomas fought for increased political power and led oppositional movements against Edward. Their conflicted history was marked by temporary uneasy respites, but civil war eventually resulted, in which “o cosyn to that other / . . . eche to morder other / With wille” (“cousins [relatives] murder each other with will”; The Simonie B 561-63). Lancaster was executed in 1322; a cult formed around him for acting on the people’s behalf, and he was unsuccessfully proposed for sainthood.

In the next tale, Sir Gowther, it is the hero who approaches sainthood after reformation sparked by a steward. The penitential knight Sir Gowther has committed unspeakable atrocities under the influence of his biological father, a devil. His mother had unsuspectingly lain with a demon, who had taken on the human form of her husband and returned to his own appearance afterwards. She reveals this to no one, and as predicted by the devil when the child was conceived, Gowther is violent and sadistic from his youth. His murderous acts include raping and burning nuns and throwing friars off cliffs. Everyone lives in terror of him, including his mother, and his nominal father dies of sorrow. But one courageous man, an old earl, confronts Gowther with the people’s belief that he is a fiend’s progeny.

Rather than killing the earl immediately, which would have been Gowther’s usual reaction, there is something about the man’s character that makes Gowther consider the accusation and seek the truth. He has the earl guarded until he forces his mother at knife point to confirm the people’s suspicions. Gowther suddenly regrets his deeds and nature and resolves to go to Rome to learn a better way of life and save his soul. Before leaving, he hastily but wisely appoints the earl as steward of the castle he inherited from his nominal father, the duke. Gowther’s choice is presumably based on the old earl’s bravery and concern for the people. And, perhaps, for his role as catalyst in Gowther’s recognition of the need for repentance, reformation, and identity renewal, which has already begun; once his “human” nature is revealed, it immediately tends toward the good.

Gowther’s penance requires abject humility and the proper use of prowess. His major role in defeating the Saracens earns him forgiveness, as well as marriage to an emperor’s daughter. When he returns home, he rewards the earl for his loyal stewardship by giving him the country, the dukedom and his mother to wed. He makes more than ample reparation for his misdeeds, rules long and well as emperor, and is so loved as defender of the Christian people that he nears sainthood after his death. All of this begins with the old earl’s confrontation, “Syr, why dose thou soo?” / We howpe thou come never of Cryston stryn, / Bot art sum fendys son” (“Sire, why do you act this way? We suspect that you come not from Christian kind, but are some fiend’s son”; 204, 206-07).

The choice of steward or other official entrusted with the lord’s property and affairs is crucial, especially during the lord’s absence. In Havelok, the absence is permanent, as the narrative begins with the death of two kings, one of England and the other of Denmark. Neither appears married and both have young children and must decide how their kingdom and sons and daughters will be cared for until the heirs are old enough to reign. The kings do not seem to have a steward or seneschal in place or if they do, consider them unsuitable for the responsibility. When death is imminent, the kings call on their peerage for advice; in each case a man of high station and strong reputation is recommended and accepted. But the counsel is faulty.

Both men—Godrich, Earl of Cornwall in England, and the earl Godard in Denmark—are charged with the stewardship of royal lands and heirs, which they solemnly swear to protect. But the seemingly trustworthy guardians seize the kingdoms as soon as the kings die and dispose of the rightful heirs, Goldboru and Havelok, and plan to rule in perpetuity. The majority of the tightly structured parallel narrative recounts the eventual destruction of the wicke traitours and the restoration of the monarchies by Havelok.

Some speculative attempts have been made to connect historical figures with Godrich and Godard. Shepherd removes “God” from the earls’ names and conflates the remaining “rich” and “ard” into “Richard,” whom he associates with Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272), Earl of Cornwall from 1227, the younger brother of Henry III. Richard’s inconstant siding with the baronage to limit the king’s powers made him unpopular, so it is possible that he is represented by the earls in Havelok (Shepherd 13n). However, assuming the poem was written sometime between 1295 and 1310 and, according to Shepherd, Richard’s rebellious activities occurred between 1227 and 1238, the time difference may make Richard a remote suspect, though memories are long in Middle English literature.

A more viable suggestion comes from Stuart, who theorizes that Havelok may have been written to appeal to the crown rather than the nobility, the middle class and perhaps the peasantry as suggested by some other critics. He offers Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, marshal and constable respectively. Both led baronial opposition against King Edward I in 1297, for his heavy taxation and military summons without parliamentary consent. And both had been deprived of their hereditary positions by the king. Baronial resistance to Edward’s policies persisted during the last years of his reign to the point of civil war, and Stuart theorizes that “the fall of two powerful earls in Havelok might have been especially comforting to a king whose policies were tending toward the despotic . . . and might be used as a warning to discontented earls” (358).

The Havelok-poet presents some of the more complex characters found in romance, like Godard, who slits the throats of Havelok’s young sisters and cuts them into pieces, but then takes perverse pity on the pleading boy and cannot kill him with his own hand but delegates the act. The Danish justiciar Ubbe is particularly perplexing. When Havelok gains the crown of England through marriage, and Denmark as the legitimate heir, he remains in his wife’s country and must assign someone to watch over Denmark. His choice of Ubbe is puzzling, at least to the audience. Mills suggests that at a certain point the poet (and Havelok) view Ubbe as a “potentially dangerous figure” (34), although Mills attributes Ubbe’s villainous role to narrative function, as the fears generated by threatening characters once they “fall below the threshold of the narrative consciousness” (32) are displaced onto Ubbe. But some of Ubbe’s previous actions give him a dubious nature.

Unfortunately, the introduction to Ubbe is contained on a missing manuscript page, so his past and character are not known.3 Shepherd points to the Anglo-Norman L’Estoire des Engleis by Geffrai Gaimar, an earlier version of the story in which Ubbe’s parallel character, Sigar Estalre, had been seneschal to the usurped Danish king (317). French and Hale identify Ubbe as a Danish earl (127). He is identified as the “justise” (justiciar) in the text (1628 and 2202), which explains his power over people, and it may be conjectured that their fear of him results from severe and/or corrupt judicial conduct.4

Ubbe’s grasping acceptance of the rich gold ring Havelok gives him in exchange for trading privileges in the area suggests avarice and possible corruption, though both parties know that mede is part of the system. Without pressing it too far, Ubbe’s playful choice of Goldboru as a dinner partner may have been more than jovial hosting. His concern over her welfare on the roads was well founded but perhaps also driven by his own appreciation of her beauty. The coincidence of ten knights and sixty men provided by Ubbe as escorts, then a sixty-one man attack on Havelok’s lodgings by “sergaunz, the beste that mithen gon” (“best men-at-arms”; 1929), who may be Ubbe’s depending on how the lines (1926-29) are edited and interpreted,5 is surely suspicious.6 Yet Ubbe repeatedly expresses love for Havelok before the discovery of his royalty, though hypocrisy does not seem outside his reach; he is loyal to Havelok and fights bravely beside him, but only after he becomes aware of Havelok’s royal lineage.

What does Havelok’s choice of Ubbe as justiciar of Denmark in his absence tell us about the king, whose chief focus has been revenge and regaining rightful succession? His chief attributes have been physical strength and bravery with little political experience, though he is astute enough to join the two countries through marriages. Is he naively rewarding Ubbe for his loyalty and trusting him to act fairly and wisely, or is he aware of Ubbe’s ambiguous nature and using his previous, albeit possibly mercenary, strength and experience knowingly? Havelok supports proper judicial procedure in the trials of Godard and Godrich rather than condemning them without due process, and his stern instructions to Ubbe to guard Denmark “so that no pleynte come him to” (“so that he receives no complaints”; 2960-61) may refer to matters about Denmark or his conduct, or both.

In the romances stewardship is not always a guarantee for success given court politics, as seen in Sir Launfal. Launfal served Artour as steward for many years based on the knight’s largesse and generosity, important aspects in the courtly socioeconomic system. But that is no protection against Gwennere’s inexplicable antipathy towards him upon her arrival at court. Ironically, she expresses this by excluding him from her gift-giving, the protocol for which Launfal holds his position with the king. Although Artour treats Launfal with generosity and kindness when the humiliated knight leaves court on another pretext, the king tolerates Gwennere’s inappropriate and divisive action, which foreshadows his later judicial failure.

Launfal later returns to court and is asked to serve as steward of the hall and manage the noble guests during a forty-day feast because of his knowledge of largesse. That, and his other attractive and admirable features bring peril not security, this time from Gwennere’s desire instead of enmity. When Launfal rejects her advances and is accused by her for attempting seduction and denigrating her beauty, the court is divided; many take Launfal’s side because of his good character and Gwennere’s bad reputation as an adulteress. Others are willing to pervert justice to please the wrathful king, who demands Launfal’s execution before and during the trial, out of personal pride and partiality towards his wife. With a steward at the center, the trial exposes Artour’s disregard for judicial process, and the instability of the court as factions develop without a strong, unbiased leader to maintain unity. Justice is finally administered, but by a supernatural agent, and Launfal rejects Artour’s world. Again, the poem resonates with contemporary conditions, here Richard II’s failed rule, including favoritism and judiciary dictatorialism.

As in real life, the romance steward had to contend with court politics, which could be extremely factious, and he needed to be free of ambition for power, or at least able to control it. An extreme literary negative example is found in Havelok, and in history there is Thomas of Lancaster. Another, perhaps more typical representation is the vengeful steward in Ywain and Gawain. When Gawain defeats the guardian of the fountain and becomes trapped in the dead lord’s castle, the maiden Lunet rescues him from the knights seeking revenge; she gratefully remembers his courtesy towards her during an earlier visit to Arthur’s court when everyone else ignored her. With the lord gone, there is no one to protect the land, and an attack by Arthur is expected imminently, so a replacement is needed soon. When Ywain sees and falls in love with the widow, Alundyne, Lunet is quick to see the solution.

Lunet is Alundyne’s confidante and counselor, a position the steward probably had with the lord and may have expected to continue with the lady, but Lunet has the influence. When she finally convinces Alundyne, after much wheedling, of the need for a new husband and Ywain’s suitability, the lady presents Ywain to the court and has the steward rehearse the situation to the baronage, whose assent to the marriage is required. Based on Alundyne’s report of Ywain as a doughty knight and the son of a king, and their admiration of his appearance, the marriage is approved and quickly performed. The dead lord, for whom vengeance was initially sought by pursuing his killer, is forgotten and Ywain is proclaimed to be worth three times his predecessor and loved much more by the baronage.

Arthur arrives but when he finds Ywain is lord, it is a celebration, not an attack. Gawain convinces Ywain to continue his chivalric quests, and Alundyne grants her husband a one-year leave. He overstays and loses all, driving him to madness, poverty and maturing experiences. Because Lunet instigated the marriage, she is charged with betrayal and treason. According to her, the steward’s accusation is motivated by hatred because of Alundyne’s love for Lunet and reliance on her for advice. She is to be tried by combat rather than judicial process, but she has been unable to find a champion and will therefore be burned at the stake. When Ywain learns her story, he promises to fight incognito for her innocence and right, and it is the steward himself and his two brothers he faces and defeats. Alundyne’s position in the situation is cloudy, though she apparently tolerates and/or endorses it, since Ywain “made the saghtelyng” (“brought reconciliation”; 2644) between the two women, indicating a rift of some kind that needed mending.

After Ywain gains the attributes necessary to be a lord and husband, he returns and all are happily reunited through Lunet’s machinations. She becomes honored by everyone in the land and has mastery over all things after the lord and lady, a position any steward would covet. While the ending is a romance fiction, much in the poem is courtly reality. Favoritism, shifting loyalties, competition for power and position were endemic, and influence was often used for self-serving ends. Although Lunet’s maneuvers lack mercenary motives, they are politically pragmatic, performed for the land’s welfare, as is Alundyne's marriage, which has a contractual aspect. She needs a protector, and acquisitiveness lurks underneath Ywain’s sworn love for her. The gaining of property and title through marriage was prized, especially by landless knights; as Ywain invites Arthur to stay for a visit, his pride centers more on his “purchace” (“acquired property”; 1368), his castle and tower, than on his wife.

Moving from the realm of internal court politics, romances also reflect conditions in the world of the commune. Corrupt royal and manorial officials at every level were a commonplace target in complaint literature and protest songs and also appear in the romances. Though we have seen some exemplary stewards, they function as a sort of speculum for their far more numerous opposites, who had an extensive array of exploitative methods. One is depicted quite clearly in King Edward and the Shepherd: the tally stick, a piece of wood used for recording debt. The transaction was marked on the stick, which was broken in half and divided between debtor and creditor, and the system was much abused. The king’s officials had leave to sequester goods from the peasantry as allowed by the king arbitrarily (purveyance). Theoretically, the goods were to be paid for by the crown, but this was often avoided, as with Adam the shepherd.7

Adam lives in the woods near Windsor, one of king Edward III’s favorite residences. The shepherd meets the king one day, who is hunting in disguise; Edward presents himself as a merchant named Joly Robyn8. During their conversation, Adam tells Robyn how the king’s officials have taken his livestock and given him a tally stick, but he is unable to collect the money owed him. Edward says he has connections at court and will help Adam and tells him to come the next day. In the meantime, the king goes to the shepherd’s home and feasts on food fit for the aristocratic table, much of which Adam has poached from the king’s preserves. Robyn swears to keep the shepherd’s illegal hunting secret and even encourages him to catch a few rabbits as they pass through the king’s warren.

Adam goes to court the next day to collect his money and is overwhelmed and uncomfortable there. Edward instructs the steward to pay Adam, which he does, but he protests to Adam that he has no matching stick and is paying only because he must. Otherwise, Adam would have been cheated again. The shepherd wants to leave but the king insists he stay for a meal, and has made secret plans to mock him because of his rustic manners. The steward seats the shepherd at a special table where he can be viewed by the courtiers so they can laugh at his boorish behavior.

When the king reveals a secret drinking game learned from Adam, the shepherd realizes he has been betrayed, which is worsened when he learns Robyn’s true identity. He begs mercy for his poaching but leaves disillusioned and bitter, even though he has his money. The king is aware that his officials exploit the peasantry, and although he helps Adam, it is obvious that the offenses are not controlled, and that many others like Adam lose their goods, tally stick notwithstanding.

Extortion is the method used in Clegesike Amadace and Launfal, Cleges is a spendthrift knight who has lost his wealth. A knight of “hy statoure” (10) in King Uther’s court, he and his wife are devoted almsgivers who turn away no one in need. Their big event is the lavish and merry Christmas feast in honor of the Lord, held for rich and poor. When Cleges’ fortunes turn, he mortgages his lands so that he can keep giving feasts and finally becomes impoverished.9

Not being able to continue his Christmas tradition and charity causes Cleges great sorrow, which his wife, ever patient and optimistic, soothes and they spend a pleasant family Christmas. As he goes into his garden to give a prayer of thanks for the help he had been able to give others in the past, he finds a cherry tree miraculously covered in fruit. He interprets this as a sign of more trouble to come, but his wife sees it as potential good fortune and sends Cleges and their son to the palace with the treasured fruit in hope of reward.

The two men are so poor they must walk to the castle, the son bearing the cherries on his back in a basket. They first encounter the porter at the gate, who contemptuously sends them to the beggars’ line or he will beat them. When Cleges explains his errand and shows the cherries, the porter admits them in return for a third of any reward Cleges receives. The same happens with the usher and steward, so that Cleges will have no benefit from his gift to the king.

Uther is indeed pleased with the amazing, sweet fruit and shares it with the court. He gives Cleges his choice of any reward, but rather than the lands and vassals offered by the king, Cleges requests twelve strokes to deliver to his enemies at court. Uther thinks it a poor choice and is angered but honors his promise. Cleges inflicts four strokes each to the steward, usher and porter as their reward. The beatings are savage and bone-breaking, matching or surpassing those threatened by the three extortionists. Although Cleges was a stalwart knight in combat when he had been in Uther’s company, as a lord he was renowned for his kindness; “No man he wold buske ne bete; / Meke as meyd was he” (“He would not argue with or beat any man; / He was as meek as a maid”; 20-21). The steward and other servants bring out an uncharacteristic violent and vengeful side of Clege’s nature.

Only after the beatings does Uther ask for an explanation which, when given, elicits riotous laughter from the courtiers over Cleges’ “nobull wytte” (“noble wit”; (521). But Uther should have responded to Cleges’ initial charge of having adversaries at court and administered the punishment to his corrupt officials himself. His castigation of the steward for not having asked for the reward “be the law” (“according to procedure”; 525) is proper but seems mild, perhaps because of the injuries the man has already received from Cleges. The usher and porter escape the king’s admonishment but admit to having learned a lesson in decorum from their “reward.”

A minstrel recognizes Cleges, whom Uther had thought long since dead and is overjoyed to find his knight. Cleges is made high steward and his son a squire. His wealth is restored, his debts paid, and his reputation for nobility and goodness revived. Another happy ending, but does rectification neutralize the intervening events and didactic purpose? We are supposed to be left with a good feeling, but the king’s rash promise and his lack of attention to Cleges’ predicament, the corruption of the servants and their scorn for the poor, the courtiers’ amusement at the clever but brutal outwitting of their underlings, and Cleges’ cruel retribution are settled, but remain unsettling.

The last steward we will see appears very briefly but he illuminates those around him. We return to Sir Gowther, and his penance from the pope: he may eat food only from a dog’s mouth and cannot speak until God sends a sign of forgiveness. He travels to a far country and enters the castle of an emperor; there is no usher or porter at the gate, so Gowther mixes in with the company going to the hall for their meal. He sneaks under the high table and sits on the floor. The steward, probably the household manager, sees Gowther and threatens to beat him if he doesn’t leave. He is undoubtedly doing his job of keeping undesirables out of court, though by harsh means.

When the Emperor asks what is under the table, the steward reports it is a very fair man. They are unable to make Gowther speak or eat, and the Emperor guesses it might be due to penance and allows him to stay. When the Emperor, Empress and courtiers see him take a bone from a spaniel’s mouth, they send him food in that manner, and he is given a little chamber for sleeping at night. The courtiers call him “Hob hor fole“ (“Hob, their fool”; 368) and he becomes a fixture at court, sitting at the feet of the Emperor and fed by dogs. The steward’s initial callousness is countered by the compassion of the court and Emperor, from which Gowther learns social behavior and interaction, and the love and loyalty that eventually bring him God’s forgiveness.

At the beginning of this paper, it was asserted that most stewards in romances are either good or bad, and we’ve seen both. And on the surface, it might follow that in general good stewards are found with good lords and vice versa, though we’ve also seen some complex characterizations and situations that create ambiguity, as in Sir Gowther. The Emperor’s steward seems neither good nor bad but sternly zealous in his duty, and the Emperor does not reprimand him but takes a different approach to treating Gowther. This leads us to the examination of a lord’s attitude towards his steward’s character and actions and how it reflects his own.

In some romances, “bad” stewards are punished, while in others they are tolerated, perhaps because their methods are effective. As Knight notes, court stewards are “often treated with hostility in romance—Sir Kay is the archetype” (107). Kay’s career is too long and complex to include here and, like some historical royal stewards he is related to the king. Nevertheless, in Ywain and Gawain he is upbraided by the queen for his rudeness and contentiousness: “It war gude thou left swilk sawes / And noght despise so thi felawes” (“It would be good if you gave up such words / And not despise your fellows”; 83-84). She apologizes for the “kene karping of Syr Kay; / Of weked wordes has he bene ay, / So that none may him chastise” (“Sir Kay’s keen carping; / He has always been wicked in his speech / But no one can chastise him”; 127-29). Kay may be tolerated largely on account of his kinship to Arthur, and his character as seneschal is exceptional in that he is a member of the Arthurian corpus, whereas most stewards appear only in individual romances. Yet the snippet from Ywain and Gawain shows the friction he creates at court, the response of his fellow courtiers, and the conciliatory role of the queen as she fulfills her responsibility to help maintain social stability.

King Edward as Joly Robyn admits that he knows of his officials’ dishonesty, but Adam may be rare in receiving restitution. The steward is not chastised and is made conspirator in humiliating the shepherd. On the other hand, in Sir Cleges the courtiers may find the knight’s treatment of the servants laughable because deserved punishment is finally exacted. But whether or not the king had been aware of corruption in his court, unlike Edward he makes it right by choosing a new steward he knows to be trustworthy.

In Ywain and Gawain, Alundyne’s attitudes are less clear. How does she feel about the steward’s accusation of Lunet? Does she truly feel betrayed by the maiden, or is her mercenary side, revealed in her marriage “bargain” with Ywain, demanding revenge for his lack of trouthe by sacrificing Lunet? Or is she pressured by the steward, and does she detect his self-serving motives and is too weak to oppose him, or does she simply accept it as part of courtly culture? The people are pleased to see the steward and his brother defeated, and Alundyne doesn’t mourn their death. All wish to have the unknown victorious knight stay with them, again shifting their interests to the hero of the hour.

Similar questions can be asked about the character of other romance lords and courts in relationship to the steward and their responses to his actions, and we have seen enough to view the steward not as topos but as explicator of the world around him, and the poets’ world as well. Though some specific historical connections can be suggested, this is often difficult due to uncertain dating of the poems. Yet the repetition of issues seen in other literature, particularly complaint and protest, connect the romances to contemporary social commentary, often with the steward as stimulus.


1Some critics see Orfeo’s placement of personal grief over his royal responsibility to his people as a flaw, but this is beyond the scope of the current discussion. See Edward D. Kennedy, “Sir Orfeo as Rex Inutilis,” Annuale Mediaevale 17 (1976) 88-110; and Erik Kooper, “The Twofold Harmony of the Middle English Sir Orfeo,” Companion to Early Middle English Literature, ed. N.H.G.E. Veldhoen and H. Aersen (Amsterdam; VU UP, 1995) 115-32. Return

2There is debate over whether Edward II abdicated or was deposed by parliament. For a detailed discussion of the procedural issues, see Claire Valente, “The Deposition and Abdication of Edward II,” English Historical Review 453 (1998): 852-81. Return

3Havelok is preserved in the Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108, which is missing a page, contains scribal errors and corrupt lines. Editors attempt to make emendations often referring to the fragments at Cambridge University Library to correct mistakes and retain the sense of the poem, but many passages remain difficult. Return

4Presumably, he serves under Godard, whom he knows is a usurper, while in the Anglo-Norman version, Sigar develops a hatred for his former king’s usurper (Shepherd 317). Return

5Sixty-one attackers are initially reported to Ubbe (1928), but sixty and ten are later recounted by an eye witness (2026), which makes the connection between the escorts and attackers, and Ubbe’s involvement, stronger. Mill’s contention that the confusion over the bodyguard/thieves/vassals passages is caused by one of the “discontinuities” he sees in the poem, here resulting from the author’s “weakened recollection” of the fight and its preceding events taken from another source and not integrated properly (28), is not convincing. Return

6Bernard, Havelok’s host, believes that the attackers are thieves come to rob him, while Hugh, Havelok’s foster brother, thinks they are after Goldboru (1868-70). Return

7See J. R. Maddicott, The English Peasantry and the Demands of the Crown 1294-1341, Past and Present: Supplement 1 (Oxford: The Past and Present Society, 1975) for a discussion of the system of purveyance, as well as the levy on moveables and demands for military service placed on the peasantry. Return

8This tale has been told about several kings; here it is Edward III, who was known to have traveled the countryside incognito. Return

9Aristocrats are seldom included in the vision of medieval poverty. And although they generally do not become as poor as depicted in romances, they faced financial reversals, particularly post-Plague when the economic trends were adverse to the upper classes and favorable for the lower. Return

Works Cited

Chestre, Thomas. Sir Launfal. Middle English Romances. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995. Havelok. Middle English Romances. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

King Edward and the Shepherd. Middle English Metrical Romances. Ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale. Vol. II. 1930. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1964.

Knight, Stephen. “The Social Function of the Middle English Romances.” Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History. Ed. David Aers. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press Ltd, 1986. 99-122.

Maddicott, J. R. “Poems of Social Protest in Early Fourteenth-Century England. England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium. Ed. W. M. Ormrod. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1986. 130-43.

-----. Thomas of Lancaster, 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Havelok’s Return.” Medium Ævum 45 (1976): 20-35.

Pearsall, Derek. “Madness in Sir Orfeo.” Romance Reading on the Book: Essays on Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills. Ed. Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillian Rogers and Judith Weiss. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1996. 51-63.

The Simonie: A Parallel-text Edition. Ed. Dan Embree and Elizabeth Urquhart. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991.

Sir Amadace. Six Middle English Romances. Ed. and introd. Maldwyn Mills. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973.

Sir Cleges. The Middle English Breton Lays. Ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

Sir Gowther. Six Middle English Romances. Ed. and introd. Maldwyn Mills. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1973.

Sir Orfeo. Middle English Romances. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Stuart, Christopher. “Havelok the Dane and Edward I in the 1290s.” Studies in Philology 93 (1996): 349-64.

Ywain and Gawain. Middle English Romances. Ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.