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.)
AUTHOR: unknown
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)

Roud #3969
NOTES: 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. 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). 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).
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, Gunnhild 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 Gunnhild'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). 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 Gunnhild 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.
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 Gunnhild'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 Gunnhild'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 in this period 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 Gunnhild 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 Gunnhild 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 Gunnhild.
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). - RBW
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