(Havelok the Dane)
(ca. 1275–1303)
   The MIDDLE ENGLISH Havelok (Incipit vita Havelok quondam rex Angliae et Danemarchie) was probably composed sometime between 1275 and 1303, during the reign of Edward I, although the precise date is uncertain. The single extant copy of the ROMANCE is found in a collection of pious and didactic narratives (MS. Laud Misc. 108, Bodleian) including The Life and Passion of Christ and The Sayings of St. Bernard, and occurs in the last part of the manuscript along with, among other works, another early Middle English romance, KING HORN. The romance of Havelok contains elements of hagiography (or a SAINT’S LIFE), yet its primary focus seems to be political and social and may, indeed, be connected with the reign and person of Edward I. The romance may have been in origin pro-Danish propaganda (there are two earlier 12th-century versions of the story: Geoffrey Gaimer’s Anglo-Norman Estorie des engles, and the Old French Lai d’Havelok), but the anonymous poet seems more engaged with the narrative as a mirror or handbook for princes in which ideal kingship, lawful succession, law and order, and the private and public aspects of the exemplary king are canvassed.
   After an invocation to Christ (ll. 15–22), the romance opens in England with an extended passage of praise for the reign of King Aflelwolde, and goes on to relate his impending death and the provisions he makes for his only child, a daughter named Goldeboru.Aflelwolde leaves the care of his daughter and heir to one of his barons, Godrich of Cornwall, who promises to guard her and, when the time comes, aid her in her succession to the throne. Not unexpectedly Godrich reconsiders his oath to the king and decides to supplant Goldeboru with his own children. The action then moves to Denmark, where a parallel tale of treachery unfolds when the king of Denmark dies, leaving his son and heir,Havelok, and his two daughters to the care of his friend and noble, Godard. Godard immediately abrogates his oath to the king, imprisons the children, and kills the two daughters. He arranges for the death of Havelok, but this is fortuitously avoided when Grim, the man commissioned to undertake the murder, discovers the kyne-mark on Havelok’s shoulder that reveals him to be the divinely appointed heir to the throne. Grim and his family escape with the child Havelok to England where the two plots of lost inheritance are joined together, literally: Goldeboru is forced into marriage with Havelok, whom Godrich believes to be a commoner, and this marriage below her state, or “disparagement,” legally discounting her from succeeding to the throne. (The use of “disparagement” is only one of many medieval legalisms with which this romance is informed). Goldeboru’s despair about the marriage below her rank is transformed when one night in bed, she notes a light coming from Havelok’s mouth and the kyne-mark—a birthmark attesting to royal descent (from OLD ENGLISH cynemearc)—on his shoulder. She concludes that her “common” husband is, in fact, of royal birth, and her conclusion is confirmed when an angel tells her that Havelok will be king of England and Denmark. Havelok awakes to tell her of a dream that has perplexed him, which she interprets for him on the basis of her own conjectures and the angel’s confirmation. Goldeboru advises they set out for Denmark, where Havelok is successful in regaining his throne; after which they return to England and secure the English throne. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and the romance ends with a brief summary of wrongs put right and the conventional authorial request for a prayer to be said for “hym that haueth the rym maked” (2999).
   Havelok is both conventional and remarkable as a medieval romance: the concern with lost inheritance; a hero who grows up in lowly circumstances but reveals himself (through his courtesy, his beauty, or his treatment of others) to be more than circumstances suggest; the quest for identity and social status; all these themes are common to medieval romance. Yet even while Havelok shares many elements and motifs with other Middle English romances, the extent to which it is concerned with politics and policy, kingship and commonwealth, rightful succession and just rule, is rare in contemporary narratives and considerably heightened from its sources. Havelok is also extraordinarily realistic for a romance and its realism (in addition to its emphasis on just rule) is one of the primary sites for critical commentary concerning its political significance. Variously called a romance of nation or a romance of kingship, most recent critical commentary tends to focus on the national, political, and judicial aspects of the romance. Critical readings also include explorations of the popular hero as exemplary king, and the ways in which the title (Vita Havelok) anticipates the hagiographical elements in the romance and Havelok’s status as a secular Christian hero. Amusing and edifying, Havelok fulfills with a flourish the medieval literary injunction to instruct and entertain.
   ■ Barnes, Geraldine. Counsel and Strategy in Middle English Romance. Cambridge: Brewer, 1993.
   ■ Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
   ■ Delany, Sheila. “The Romance of Kingship: Havelok the Dane.” In Medieval Literary Shapes of Ideology, 61–73. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1990.
   ■ Field, Rosalind, ed. Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1999.
   ■ Meale, Carol, ed. Readings in Medieval English Romance. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1994.
   ■ Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.
   ■ Smithers, G.V., ed. Havelok. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
   ■ Staines, David.“Havelok the Dane: A Thirteenth-Century Handbook for Princes,” Speculum 51 (1976): 602–623.
   ■ Stuart, Christopher. “Havelok the Dane and Edward I in the 1390s,” Studies in Philology 93 (1996): 349–364.
   ■ Turville-Petre, Thorlac. “Havelok and the History of the Nation.” In Readings in Medieval English Romance, edited by Carol Meade, 121–134. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1994.
   Elisa Narin van Court

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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