Sir Aldingar [Child 59]
DESCRIPTION: Aldingar, spurned by the Queen, puts a (blind/drunk) leper in her bed and shows the king. She will be burned and the leper hanged. She finds a (child) champion who defeats Aldingar. He confesses. (The leper is made whole, becomes steward.)
EARLIEST DATE: 1765 (Percy)
KEYWORDS: royalty knight adultery trick disease reprieve
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Child 59, "Sir Aldingar" (3 texts)
Percy/Wheatley II, pp. 54-67, "Sir Aldingar" (2 texts, one the original from the Percy folio and the other the retouched version in the _Reliques_)
Leach, pp. 185-196, "Sir Aldingar" (2 texts)
OBB 4, "Sir Aldingar" (1 text)
Whitelaw-Ballads, pp. 163-167, "Sir Hugh le Blond" (1 text)
Morgan-Medieval, pp. 108-114, "Sir Aldingar" (1 text)
DT 59, SIRALDGR
NOTES [2871 words]: The single most important book about this ballad is probably still Paul Christophersen, The Ballad of Sir Aldingar: Its Origin and Analogues, cited in the bibliography. It includes texts of the English-language versions, translations of the Scandinavian versions, source notes, and comparisons to sundry romances. On the other hand, it gets so deeply into the weeds of just how a particular name moved from one language to another that it frankly often seems completely irrelevant to the English ballad. And many of its conclusions are based on Chambers and Entwistle, also cited in the bibliography. I have referred to the discussion of Chambers and Entwistle, rather than Christopherson, as far as I can.
One interesting point that Christopherson makes, on p. 109, is that "the modern British versions show no verbal resemblance to the Scandinavian ballad; but what is more remarkable, they show no mutual resemblance. I cannot find a single line or phrase which the two British versions may be said to have in common." This raises a genuine question of whether the two are truly one song or are merely two different framings of the same legend. The strongest argument that they're the same, it seems to me, is just the number of ways they both differ from the European analogues of the song (discussed on p. 110 of Christopherson). A rather weak case for unity....
The theme of the calumniated queen, specifically the queen and a servant being falsely accused of familiarity, is Thompson K2121.2, and is surprisingly common. There is apparently a whole book on it by Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens. Fellows, pp. xvi-xvii and note 52, observes it in the Middle English romances of "Sir Tryamowre/Tryamour," "Octavian," "Emare," and "Valentine and Orson." In the case of "Sir Tryamour," Hudson, p. 145, notes also the theme of a faithful dog which occurs in this ballad as well.
Child connects this ballad with the story of Gunhild, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (reigned 1039-1056). Certainly the Scandinavian analogues mostly feature a woman named Gunhild or something like it (Christophersen, p. 16). A certain superficial similarity may be granted.
Gunhild (or Gunnhild, or Gunnhildr) was the daughter of King Canute (Cnut) and his more-official wife Emma of Normandy (see genealogy in O'Brien, p. viii). This made her the full sister of the future king Harthacanute (Hardacnut, etc. -- I'm going to stop with the alternate spellings now) and the half-sister of Swein and Harold I Harefoot, Canute's sons by his less official wife Aelgifu of Northampton. (Canute had married Aelgifu as his first wife, out of love or at least lust, then married Emma, the second wife and widow of the old king Ethelred II "the Unready" out of politics -- Canute was a conqueror, and marrying the old king's wife smoothed his way. But he did not set aside Aelgifu).
Interestingly, there was folklore that Emma of Normandy was also accused of infidelity and subjected to a trial by ordeal (walking through fire), and also proved her innocence (Christopherson, pp. 33-34). Child mentions this, and briefly refers to a (lost) song about it. Christopherson, p. 34, suggests that this is the piece cited in Piers Plowman, which contains the lyric "Dieu vous saue, Dame Emme," which might be another candidate for Earliest English Ballad (or, at least, Earliest Ballad in England), if only we had its text. The line in Piers Plowman is found at:
A text: Prologue, line 103 (so Langland/KnottFowler)
B text: Prologue, line 224 (so Langland/Bennett) or 225 (so Langland/Schmidt)
C text: Passus I, line 225 (according to Christopherson, p. 34)
There was ballad on Emma's ordeal sung in 1338 (Christopherson, p. 34; Langland/Bennett, p. 103). However, Langland/Schmidt, p. 413 says the song in Piers Plowman "may allude to the 'wise woman' Dame Emma of Shoreditch referred to in [Passus] XIII 339 rather than Cnut's virtuous queen. In neither case, of course, does it refer to Emma's daughter Gunhild.
We do not know when Gunhild was born, but it obviously must have been after Canute assumed the throne of England in 1016. This would make her no more than ten in 1027 when she went to Rome with her father. She may well have been much younger. But she was probably betrothed there to Henry, son of the Emperor Conrad II. It was a logical match; Canute, as King of England, Denmark, and Norway (O'Brien, p. xvii) was one of the strongest monarchs in Europe. The marriage may have helped seal a bargain; the Emperor ceded the province of Schleswig to Denmark at that time (Linklater, p. 139)
But the marriage had not yet taken place when Canute died in 1035. This led to a real mess in England; the presumably-official heir, Harthacanute, had been governing Denmark for his father, and while he succeeded at once to the Danish throne, his absence allowed Harold Harefoot to take the English throne (O'Brien, p. xix). Suddenly Gunhild, as the half-sister of the king rather than his daughter, was worth less in the marriage market. But, somehow or other, the marriage went through (O'Brien, p. 169).
O'Brien, pp. 170-171, tells the rest: "According to William of Malmesbury, after a fairy-tale beginning Gunnhhild's marriage went horribly wrong. Although she was reputedly a dutiful wife, Gunhild was accused of adultery. In William's story she was offered a chance to prove her innocence through man-to-man combat. [This although trial by combat reportedly was not allowed in English law at this time; Head, p. 77.]
"Gunnhild herself was not expected to participate; the informant of her alleged infidelity would take on a representative to fight on her behalf. The accuser, William claims, was a man of gigantic proportions and against this daunting individual Gunnhild could find no one willing to defend her except a small pageboy, who was the keeper of a pet starling she had brought with her from England. However... the pageboy won and, triumphant, Gunnhild refused ever to sleep with her husband, Henry, again. William writes that she subsequently divorced him, become a nun, and lived 'to a leisurely old age...'"
She and Henry had stayed together long enough to have a daughter, Beatrice (Barlow, genealogical table I in endpapers), but the girl too ended up in the church (O'Brien, p. 171).
The marital alliance by then hardly mattered anyway. Harold I Harefoot had died in 1040. Harthecanute had followed him on the throne, but died in 1042. Canute's dynasty was extinct (except for poor Gunhild, whom everyone apparently ignored). The English witan gave the throne to Edward the Confessor, the son of the old English king Ethelred II. Edward was the son of Emma, so he was Gunhild's half-brother -- but Emma was by this time pretty much forgotten; the link meant very little.
The similarities between Gunhild's story and the plot of this ballad are obvious, although we note that "Sir Aldingar" gives a motive for the accusation against the queen, while there seems to be none in the historical case.
Entwistle goes beyond even Child, ringing in William of Malmsbury's statement that a poem about this event circulated in England in his time (twelfth century):
"William of Malmesbury states definitively that a poem about Canute's daughter Gunhild, falsely accused before her husband the Emperor Henry III [emperor 1039-1057] and unexpectedly delivered, was 'nostris adhuc in triviis cantitata' (c. 1140). Brompton (c. 1350) names her accuser and defender, Roddyngar and Mimicon; Mathhew of Westminster gives us Mimecan. There is no doubt that these references are to a poem of traditional nature and content identical with the ballad of Sir Aldingar" (quoted by Chambers, p. 154; Cristopherson, p. 31, also seems to think several chroniclers referred to a ballad even if William did not). On p. vii of his revised volume, Entwistle draws a specific comparison of three versions, Middle English, Danish, and this ballad, arguing that the "Sir Aldingar" names came about because the king was identified as Henry II of England. In the Middle English version, the king is Emperor Henry III, in Spire; the accused is Gunhild daughter of Canute; the accuser is the giant Roddyngar, and the defender is a boy, Munecon/Mimecan. In the Danish, the equivalents are Duke Henrik the Lion, Gunhild (in Spire, Ravengaard/Raadengaard), and Mimering. In two English versions the king is always Henry II, the woman is either Elinor (Eleanor of Aquitaine) or just "Queen"; the accuser is Sir Aldingar or Roddingham, and the defender is a little child or Sir Hugh le Blond.
Christopherson, p. 17, points out that it was Percy who first connected the "Eleanor" of "Sir Aldingar" with Gunhild, claiming that Gunhild was somewhere called "Eleanor." Christopherson counters that he has nowhere found Gunhild called "Eleanor."
Entwistle also mentions the account of Matthew Paris, who says that accounts of this wedding feast were still circulating in his time, another three quarters of a century after William of Malmesbury (Entwistle, p. viii; Keen, p. 34).
About this Chambers is scathing: "But surely there could be no more gratuitous hypothesis than an assumption that a poem which, like Sir Aldingar, comes to us from the Percy MS. of about 1650 can be identical in style with one known to William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century." This is especially so since the English language changed dramatically between the reign of Canute and the time of the Percy manuscript -- the writer of the folio simply would not have understood the Old English poem. Chambers grants that there may be similar legends as the source.
Despite Entwistle's categorical statement (p. viii) that "These are not conjectures," I am not absolutely convinced even of the existence of those legends, although I grant the possibility; the similarity in names seen by Entwistle is certainly interesting. Entwistle adds that "the story of Gunnhild and Roddyngar was (1) performed popularly as a sung tale with musical accompaniment" (which in his definition makes it a ballad, although in mine it makes it a minstrel piece); he points out that the accounts also tell of Gunhild's vindication in a trial by battle and that it spoke of her splendid wedding. The Danish downplays the wedding but adds another motif, the champions' choice of swords. It is at this point that Entwistle makes his Big Conjecture, that the Middle English source which the chroniclers describe, but which is no longer extant, is of ballad proportions and in ballad style. I would consider this too much hypothesis, as is his suggestion that his listeners would have liked the David-versus-Goliath motif because the English felt oppressed by the Normans.
Still, accusations of unchastity against wives are not rare -- witness the fact that the Bible prescribes a trial by ordeal for women accused of hidden adultery (Numbers 5:11-31) -- almost the only instance in the Bible of guilt being assigned without actual evidence. Julius Caesar divorced one of his wives on mere suspicion of adultery (Langguth, p. 137). There are dozens of adultery ballads. The number of Scandinavian analogs to this piece cited by Child proves that there is no necessary dependence -- there are too many possible sources for something like this, including even the King Arthur legend. And the charge of adultery levied against one who will not commit adultery goes back at least to the story of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Genesis 39. Plus Chaucer has something similar in the "Man of Law's Tale" (LindahlEtAl, p. 4).
Indeed, the whole story of Gunhild is considered a standard folklore type, usually known as "The Accused Queen" or "The Maiden Without Hands" (LindahlEtAl, p. 4); it is Thompson type AT 706. (This is to be distinguished from the individual motif of The Calumniated Queen.) Ranke, p. 212, reports versions from "the Orient, West Asia, India, Japan, North Africa, and South and North America," and compares it with the tales of Crescentia, Hildegardis, Florentia, Sibylla, Genofeva, Helena, Violetta, Hilranda, and Octovianus -- although I have to say that many of these versions, including that on pp. 84-89 of Ranke, bear very little resemblance to either Gunhild or the story in Sir Aldingar.
Zipes, p. 26, says that the motifs often come from "Byzantine and Greek tales and Medieval legends. There is some connection fo the marriage customs in the ruling houses in the pre-Hellenistic period. Other important sources are the legend of the famous eighth century king Offa, John Gower's Confessio Amantis, written in the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales." Many of these links, however, are to the incest motif, not the trial motif, and I assume the link to the Canterbury Tales is to the Clerk's Tale, where the queen is degraded but without cause.
The use of a champion is historical -- and sometimes required by law. In the Angevin period (well after Canute's time, but well before the Percy Folio was written) it was even rather normal in certain types of cases: "Trials in cases of right was theoretically by battle. The demandant could not fight his own battle, unlike in criminal cases: he had to be represented by someone supposedly a witness to the basis of his claim. The defendant could have a champion; professional champions were disapproved of in the twelfth century but were common in the thirteenth" (Mortimer, p. 58). Thus the idea represented in this song could fit the era of William of Malmsbury -- or be rather later.
Nor are boy-champions unusual; we see a sort of twisted parallel in "The Boy and the Mantle" [Child 29]. But the whole business is so obscure that not even Gunhild's mother Emma, in her self-justifying book, mentions the poor girl (O'Brien, p. 124).
If there is a historical connection, it has been heavily distorted, because the king and queen in "Sir Aldingar" are Henry and Eleanor (either Henry II or England and Eleanor of Acquitaine, or Henry III and Eleanor of Provence), as cited above. And, as Chambers points out on p. 157, William of Malmesbury was dead before even Henry II took the throne. One suspects, as Entwistle hints, that the tale was attracted to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine because of the accusations (probably false) that Eleanor was unfaithful. (For this, see the notes to "Queen Eleanor's Confession" [Child 156]).
Nor was Gunhild's story well-known in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the primary source for English history at this time, never mentions Emperor Henry III by that name, although there are a few references to "the Emperor" in this period, and two manuscripts of the Chronicle mention his death in 1057, using his other name "Cona" (Swanton, pp. 186-187). Gunhild daughter of Cnut is not mentioned at all in the Chronicle (at least based on the index in Swanton and some online searches). There is a brief mention of Gunhild the niece of Cnut, daughter of an unnamed sister of that King by Wytgeorn king of the Wends (Barlow, genealogical table II in endpapers); Swanton, p. 157 note 15, says that her uncle sent her into exile because he feared her husband was conspiring against him; Barlow, p. 57, while agreeing that she was exiled, more logically dates this to the reign of Edward the Confessor in 1044 (since Edward the Confessor would fear a revival of Cnut's lineage).
Conclusion: While this story might possibly have its roots in the tale of Gunhild and Henry III, there are plenty of other sources from which such a tale might be assembled. If I had to suggest one source, it would be the Middle English romance of "Octavian." This derives from an Old French original, and was popular enough to have been translated twice. This gives us an English source, much more recent than the tale of Gunhild.
The parallels to Sir Aldingar are not complete, but they are substantial; "Octavian" features an accusation of adultery and a pretend lover falsely slipped into a lady's bed. For a text of the better-known of the English translations, see Mills, p. 75, or Hudson, p. 39 (the latter slightly more modernized than the former). Christopherson also discusses it on pp. 39-40, 147-149.
Christopherson cites many other parallels, English, Scandinavian, and (occasionally) otherwise. I think most of these are pushing it. In almost all cases, they have a Calumniated Queen Saved by a Champion section, but they almost all contain something else, too. The relationship between all these pieces is not literary; it's just that they all make use of a particular folklore motif -- one that goes back in part to the Biblical/Apocryphal tale of Susannah (in the Additions to Daniel, so it's not canonical to Protestants, but it was very popular with Catholics), so the fact that it's widespread doesn't need much explanation! I observed that linkage myself, before I read Christopherson, but he points out "The fact that the story of Susanna is centuries earlier than other treatments of the theme seems to me never to have been sufficiently stressed by writers on the subject of accused queens" (Christoperson, p. 114). He points out that that theme was also the topic of a Middle English writing attributed to "Huchown" (p. 115). - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Barlow: Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (one of the English Monarchs series), University of California Press, 1970.
- Chambers: E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1945, 1947
- Christophersen: Paul Christophersen, The Ballad of Sir Aldingar: Its Origin and Analogues, Oxford University Press, 1952
- Entwistle: William J. Entwistle, European Balladry, Oxford University Press, 1939; corrected second impression with a new prefatory note 1951
- Fellows: Jennifer Fellows, Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance, Everyman/J. M. Dent, 1993
- Head: Victor Head, Hereward, Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1995
- Hudson: Harriet Hudson, Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour, second edition, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2006. Much of the material in this book is also available online)
- Keen: Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, Dorset, 1961, 1977, 1987
- Langguth: A. J. Langguth, A Noise of War: Caesar, Pompey, Octavian and the Struggle for Rome, Simon & Schuster, 1994
- Langland/Bennett: William Langland, Piers Plowman: The Prologue and Passus I-VIII of the B text as found in Bodleian MS. Laud 581, edited by J. A. W. Bennett, Oxford University Press, 1972
- Langland/KnottFowler, Thomas A. Knott and David C. Fowler, editors, William Langland, Piers the Plowman: A Critical Edition of the A-Version, Johns Hopkins, 1952
- Langland/Schmidt: A. V. C. Schmidt, editor, William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS. B.15.17, 1978; I use the updated Everyman 1995 papaerback edition
- LindahlEtAl: Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, editors, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000 (I use the 2002 one-volume paperback edition)
- Linklater: Eric Linklater, Conquest of England, Doubleday, 1966
- Mills: Maldwyn Mills, Six Middle English Romances, Everyman's Library, 1973 I use the the 1992 J. M. Dent paperback)
- Mortimer: Richard Mortimer, Angevin England 1154-1258, Blackwell, 1994
- O'Brien: Harriet O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, Bloomsbury, 2005
- Ranke: Kurt Ranke, editor, Folktales of Germany, translated by Lotte Baumann and with a foreword by Richard M. Dorson, University of Chicago Press, 1966
- Swanton: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated and edited by Michael Swanton, 1996 (I use the 1998 Routledge edition)
- Zipes: Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, a Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 2001
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