The Faerie Queene

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The Faerie Queene

by Edmund Spenser


An epic poem set in the mythical time and place of Faerie Land; the first three books were published in 1590, and an additional set of three in 1596.


The Faerie Queene chronicles the adventures of various knights, each the champion of a specific moral virtue, in the service of Gloriana, the Queen of the Faeries.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Born in the early 1550s, Edmund Spenser began his education at the Merchant Taylor’s school in London. He later attended Cambridge on a sizar’s scholarship, which was awarded to poor but deserving students. After leaving Cambridge with his M.A. in 1576, Spenser anonymously published The Shep-heardes Calender(1579), a collection of pastoral poems that established him as a new and important voice in English poetry. Next came Spenser’s masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590. By this time Spenser had pursued various appointments in the English administration of Ireland and had obtained a 3,000-acre estate in Munster. His duties did not appear to slow his literary output, for he continued to publish many books of poetry throughout the mid-1590s. The most significant of these were Amoretti and Epithalamion(1595), which loosely represented his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle, and the second edition of The Faerie Queene, which included three new books along with those of the first edition. Not long after this, Spenser’s home in Ireland was destroyed in an Irish rebellion. He returned to England shortly before his death in 1599. Of all his writings, The Faerie Queene remains his most significant for its synthesis of literary traditions and its awareness of England’s emerging identity as a national power.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

Emergent nationalism and movement toward empire

Throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century, English intellectuals and educators called for a poetry that would put England on the cultural map of Europe, and, perhaps more than any other work of its time, The Faerie Queene fulfilled that demand. The need for such a work had grown out of England’s recognition of its nascent greatness. Long on the political, economic, and cultural fringes of Europe, England had become aware of itself as a growing power that was playing a more significant role in the affairs of the Continent than in the past. Its monarch, Elizabeth I, had brought a new degree of stability to the nation, although religious and political tensions seethed under the surface of civil life. English trade continued to prosper, and along with it a presence on the seas that not only made voyages of discovery possible, but established England as second only to Spain in military might.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, she faced a nation torn by religious disputes that spilled over—as they did throughout Europe at this time—into internal politics and international relations. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had wanted to divorce the Spanish Catherine of Aragon because she seemed unable to produce a male heir for him. When the Pope refused to grant what he wished, Henry divorced the Catholic Church instead, proclaiming himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He confiscated Church property and instituted an ecclesiastical structure that would tend to the peoples’ souls in the manners to which they were accustomed, while consolidating royal power rather than contesting it.

At first, the Church of England sought to remain Catholic in all respects but its governance. However, this proved nearly impossible to do. Instead, it became the rallying point for sectarian controversy and international intrigue. Citizens loyal to the Pope had thought the changes had gone too far, while those inspired by the works of Martin Luther and John Calvin thought they had not gone far enough. Both camps found allies on the Continent: the Catholics with France and Spain, the Protestants with the Netherlands, Geneva (highly Calvinist), and Saxony (highly Lutheran).

Much was at stake in the controversy. Although Henry did not appear to intend it as such, his separation of England from the Catholic Church was a watershed moment in which a nation state asserted its independence from spiritual, moral, and ecclesiastical rule. But the move came at quite a cost. Henry had to enforce his change by inaugurating an Oath of Supremacy; subjects took this oath to affirm their recognition of the monarch as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. When citizens of note refused to sign, like Henry’s chancellor the leading humanist Thomas More, they were publicly executed.

When Henry’s daughter Mary came to the throne, after the feeble and short reign of Edward (Henry’s only son), the new queen attempted to return England to Catholicism. It was too late, however. Popular resistance against the papacy prompted Mary to burn people at the stake about 300 times to enforce her will, and this only plunged the nation into an increasingly bitter controversy that would not reach a significant resolution until the English Civil War of 1642. During her reign, Elizabeth balanced these tensions by asserting the importance of the English nation over sectarian strife, which was certainly a great achievement.

Elizabeth learned the importance of maintaining a middle ground in the years before she became queen. She was closely watched for signs of her true leanings, and in 1554 her half sister Mary came close to confirming a case of treason against her. While Mary was alive, Elizabeth carefully maintained an outward conformity to Catholicism, while secretly courting leaders of the more popular Protestant cause. She also knew the importance of being in favor with the populace, for her claim to the throne was not strong. In fact, all the Tudors had a rather weak claim to the throne, and Mary, who had declared Elizabeth illegitimate because she was the daughter of Henry VIII’s second wife, had made the claim seem even more flimsy. Indeed, many argued that Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots had a stronger right to the English throne. Nevertheless, Elizabeth succeeded her half sister, bringing with her a strong sense of England’s fears and hopes.

Early in her reign, Elizabeth’s attentiveness to her country’s needs was perhaps most clearly seen in her response to pressures to marry. Not only did her subjects want a clear succession to the throne, but they also believed that a woman’s intellect and capacity to rule was weaker than a man’s, which meant that Elizabeth needed a husband to guide her reign. At the same time, many of the most eligible suitors to Elizabeth’s hand, such as the French duke of Anjou, were Catholic and so raised fears of domination and the reinstatement of unpopular religious rule by foreign powers. In the end, after many suitors and countless evasions, Elizabeth claimed herself espoused to her nation.

While Elizabeth’s autonomy helped secure the nation against the unwelcome foreign influence of France or Spain, there were still many internal and external threats. From within, most threats centered around Mary Queen of Scots. Her long affiliation with hard-line French Catholics led to conflict with John Knox, a Puritan preacher who led a popular Scottish revolt against Mary. Mary was forced to seek refuge with her English cousin in 1568. Her presence in England as both a royal guest and a political prisoner became a lightning rod for Catholic plots, most of which conspired to assassinate Elizabeth and crown Mary in her place. For years, Elizabeth’s counselors urged the queen to do away with this rival, but she refused. Finally, in 1586, agents of Elizabeth intercepted letters that revealed Mary’s knowledge of a plot against Elizabeth’s life led by Anthony Babington. With so much clear evidence of the threat that Mary posed, Elizabeth ordered the execution.


Mary’s execution in 1587 precipitated what was to be England’s greatest moment of danger and its greatest victory. With Mary dead, King Philip of Spain took up the Catholic cause to vindicate the faith by restoring England to Catholicism. Although he had once offered Elizabeth his hand in marriage if she were to change her religion, he had grown accustomed to fighting the English, who had allied themselves with Protestants in the Netherlands. In 1588 he attempted to attack England itself. He raised a massive armada of about 130 ships, 8,000 sailors, and 19,000 soldiers, hoping to establish a beachhead on the Isle of Wight and to incite the largely Catholic north of England to insurrection. Both of these hopes failed as an English fleet of less than 100 vessels, aided by a terrible storm, managed to scatter the Spanish forces. The English regarded this victory as divine affirmation of its queen, of England’s security, and, in general, of its unique and important place in human history.

Over these years England had many other things to celebrate as well. Despite the numerous conspiracies, religious tensions, and worries about succession, England enjoyed a great deal of prosperity. Its monarchy grew stronger, not only because of the wealth generated by Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church properties, but also because of customs fees on an increasingly thriving mercantile trade. Elizabeth kept England largely isolated from the religious wars that decimated the Continent, and in this atmosphere trade prospered, especially the wool and iron trade. On the high seas, England enjoyed even more treasure as its vessels privateered those of the Spanish. England also began to establish itself in exploration; Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1580, while one of the queen’s favorites, Sir Walter Raleigh, promoted voyages to the New World and urged the Crown to establish colonies. Elizabeth was less than enthusiastic, not only because of her tightness with money, but also because she encountered enough trouble attempting to establish a strong English presence in Ireland. Nevertheless, England was looking toward expansion, and although some urged it, the nation had to wait almost a century to realize its potential in Asia, as well as the Americas.

The cult of the Virgin Queen

In The Faerie Queene, whose very title glorifies Queen Elizabeth, Spenser offers “mirrours more then one” in which the Queen could see herself: she could choose to identify with The Faerie Queene Glorianna, or with Belphoebe, a virgin huntress modeled on the Roman goddess Diana (Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 3. Proem. 5). In the former, she could see reflections of her might as a monarch, in the latter “her rare chastitee” (The Faerie Queene, 3. Proem. 5). Moreover, at the same time that the poem invites Elizabeth to admire these representations, it asks her to leave off for a moment her admiration of Cynthia, another name for the goddess Diana, which Sir Walter Raleigh used to portray Elizabeth. In these gestures, Spenser is engaging in the complex and sometimes competitive struggle to gain the queen’s ear, and perhaps her favor. These displays belong to a phenomenon called the “Cult of Elizabeth,” or the “Cult of the Virgin Queen”—pageants, tournaments, dramas, speeches, and poems that allegorized Elizabeth—usually as goddess—and her courtiers—usually as suffering, lovelorn youths. While on the surface entertaining, these allegories sometimes cloaked serious political intentions.

The cult has its origin in sixteenth-century assumptions about gender, monarchy, and power. In the male-dominated world of sixteenth-century England, a female monarch created a great deal of anxiety, especially after the disastrous rule of Mary. As mentioned, women were regarded as intellectually and morally inferior to men, and therefore in need of male governance. But with a female as the supreme ruler of all subjects, there was no sanctioned medium through which she could be influenced, save the role of husband, and this had been ruled out. Elizabeth sought to have her subjects understand that she, a woman, could be sufficiently virtuous and self-governing to rule effectively on her own. In the early weeks of her reign, she had a speech read to her privy council and to Parliament that indicated how these male leaders were to regard her: “In the end this shal be for me sufficient that a marble stone shall declare that a Quene, having raigned such a time lyved and dyed a virgin” (Frye, p. 15). Of course this did not hinder her counselors and Parliament from urging her to marry, but as time went on, they not only accepted her virginal status but began to regard it as the source of England’s unique strength. Moreover, her much touted virginity provided them with a role through which they could approach her in opulent, allegorical fictions.

Almost every procession and public occasion included displays in which Elizabeth’s subjects expressed their desires for political or military positions—often through cultic images of the queen. In 1579, for example, the poet Sir Philip Sidney collaborated on an entertainment called The Four Foster Children of Desire. A hybrid of drama and tournament, or joust, it figured Elizabeth as Desire, who was unattainable because of her virtue and the protection of her foster children. While the fiction is, on the surface, benign, it most certainly had a political edge when performed before Elizabeth and the duke of Anjou on his last attempt at marriage negotiations. In this light, Protestant politics were being forwarded in the guise of entertainment.

The most lavish display of the cult of Elizabeth occurred four years earlier, in 1575, when Elizabeth visited Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, at Kenilworth Castle. Dudley had long been one of Elizabeth’s favorites, but a troubled past and his reputation for unreliability kept his sphere of influence in Elizabeth’s reign rather limited. Seeking to expand his role in the realm, most likely in the direction of assisting the Dutch Protestants against Catholic Spain, Dudley displayed his great devotion to Elizabeth in shows and entertainments spanning three weeks. Upon her arrival she was greeted with a tableau of the Lady of the Lake who had been imprisoned since the days of Arthur and could only be freed by a “maid” (a reference to Elizabeth) whose powers were greater than those of the Roman goddesses Diana and Juno. She also saw an impressive fireworks display that included charges that passed under the water and appeared to be extinguished, only to rise out of the water and blaze until finally consumed. The following day, a poem interpreted the display to mean that no “cold answers” by the queen could quench Dudley’s “desire” (Gascoigne, pp. 91-131).

Many other performances followed, all of which were designed to put Dudley and Elizabeth’s relationship before the public in hopes that Elizabeth would adopt a more aggressive military posture in the Spanish-Dutch controversy that would center on Dudley’s generalship. Of course, the power to create these depictions of the queen rested not only with her courtiers, but with Elizabeth herself. At Kenilworth, for instance, the queen apparently censored some of the entertainments because they raised the long-dead issue of a marriage with Dudley. Thus, it was acceptable to appeal to the queen in ways that befit the quasi-deific image of her, but not in ways that concerned a romantic relationship between her and Dudley. The images surrounding the cult of Elizabeth, in which she might appear as Cynthia, Diana, Deborah, Astraea, Belphoebe, and in many other guises, were part of a complex game between queen and subjects, and this game kept her femininity, her chastity, and her power constantly in view.

The Poem in Focus

Plot summary

Spenser sets his poem in the ancient days of the mythical land of Faerie, at a time when Gloriana, the queen of Faeries, is holding a 12-day feast. On each day, an occasion arises that requires a knight to undertake an adventure, each of which is thematically linked to a moral virtue (temperance, chastity, friendship) that is explored through a book of the poem. These books have their own plot lines, though some plots and characters bridge the gap from one book to another. A knight whose tale is virtually complete may make a cameo appearance as a minor character in later tales.

Book 1 concerns the Redcrosse knight, or holiness, whose quest begins when a maid comes to the court of the Faerie Queene asking for a knight to rescue her parents’ land from a dragon. In Book 2, Sir Guyon, the champion of temperance, seeks to capture the evil enchantress Acrasia, who has murdered the parents of a young child. Book 3, which explores the virtue of chastity, centers on the female knight, Britomart, whose quest is double: to rescue a lady from the enchanter Busirane, and to find Artegall, who is destined to be her husband. Of all the books, Book 4 (Friendship) is the most singular in that it continues the many unresolved story lines of Book 3, features two knights instead of one, and yet gives the two knights, who are the champions of friendship, little presence in the plot. Book 5, the legend of Justice, features Artegall, whose task it is to rescue Irena from the great injustices of Grantorto. Last, in a legend of courtesy, Sir Calidore seeks to capture the Blatant Beast, whose bite marks the wounded (both deserving and undeserving victims of rumor) with shame and dishonor. Of the five, the two most frequently read books are 1 and 3.

Book 1—The Legend of Holiness

In the court of the Faerie Queene, a young maid named Una appears, riding on a white ass and wearing the black clothes of mourning. She tells the court that her parents’ land has been ravaged by a huge dragon, and she seeks a knight to rid the land of this beast. Accompanying her is a dwarf, who leads a war horse carrying an empty suit of armor, which has one red cross on the shield and one on the breastplate. The lady identifies this as the armor of a Christian and explains that it is necessary for success in the quest. A young rustic (named Redcrosse) takes up the armor and sets out with Una and the dwarf to meet the dragon.

Along the way, Redcrosse meets with many adventures that develop an allegory relating not only to the basic story of sin and grace shared by every Christian, but also to the religious struggles in Spenser’s England. Redcrosse and Una enter a forest with a bewildering array of paths and soon lose their way. They come upon a cave occupied by Errour, a monster shaped like a serpent from the waist down and a woman from the waist up. As Redcrosse attempts to slay Errour, he is wrapped up in her coils and almost strangled. Una reminds him to “add faith unto your force,” and with this he is able to defeat Errour, but only after unleashing her offspring (The Faerie Queene, 1.1.19). Following this dubious victory, Redcrosse and Una find their way to the hermitage of Archimago, who outwardly appears to be a holy man but is actually a sorcerer. He conjures up two spirits, one of which he makes identical to Una and the other he makes look like a young man. He shows Redcrosse the sight of this false Una making love to the young man, and Redcrosse, disillusioned, abandons the true Una.

Travelling with the dwarf, Redcrosse fights three Saracen knights, and in the process takes up with a new damsel. Although he knows her as Fidessa (faithfulness), she is really Duessa, who is associated with the Whore of Babylon and the Antichrist. For his victories over the Saracen knights, he finds shallow glory in the House of Pride, where he witnesses a procession of the seven deadly sins, led by Queen Lucifera. When, however, the dwarf discovers the torture and murder taking place in the House of Pride, he tells Redcrosse, who leaves both the House and Duessa behind. Duessa, however, catches up with him beside the banks of a stream. Weakened by his trials, Redcrosse takes off his armor and begins to woo Duessa, but his courting is interrupted by the giant Orgoglio, who captures him and takes Duessa for himself.

As Redcrosse slips further into sin, Una searches for him while confronting many dangers of her own. She is almost raped by one of the Saracen knights, but is saved by a troop of satyrs and fauns. Here she is no more free than before as they attempt to worship her in their misguided way. However, she finds an ally in Satyrane, who promises to help her locate Redcrosse. He helps her to escape the pagan band, but soon gets drawn into a bloody fight with the knight who had tried to assault Una. She quietly slips away during their fight, then meets up with the dwarf, who informs her of Redcrosse’s imprisonment. Together, they chance upon Prince Arthur, who in Spenser’s poem was seeking the court of Gloriana before he became the familiar King Arthur of Camelot. Arthur rescues the knight Redcrosse from the giant’s dungeon and leaves the physically wasted knight to Una’s care. After Arthur departs, Una and Redcrosse come upon the cave of an individual named Despair, who nearly succeeds in getting Redcrosse to take his own life.

With his physical and spiritual downfall complete, Redcrosse is delivered by Una to the House of Holiness, where he regains strength for his fight with the dragon. The battle lasts three days, which equates it with the three days of Christ’s temptations and the three days during which he descended into Hell. The fight is also fought on the familiar biblical terrain of Eden. After the first day, Redcrosse falls into the streams flowing from the well of life, whose waters wash away sin. After the second day, he is restored by the tree of life, which stands near the tree of knowledge. Thus renewed, he rescues the kingdom on the third day by slaying the dragon through its mouth.

The king and queen of Eden betroth Una to Redcrosse, but Archimago and Duessa intervene one last time in an attempt to drive the two apart. The villains’ true identities and schemes are discovered, however, and it is proclaimed that Redcrosse and Una will marry after he completes his seven years of service to the Faerie Queene.

Book 3—The Legend of Chastity

Whereas the narrative of Book 1 is fairly linear, Book 3 is marked by multiple plot lines, though Britomart’s quest is the clear center of the book. It opens with two knights—Guyon, the champion of temperance from Book 2, and Prince Arthur—traveling through the land of Faerie. They come upon a third knight, whom Guyon challenges to a joust. The stranger unseats Guyon, but Arthur makes peace. The poet identifies the stranger as Britomart, a female knight who is seeking the one she is destined to marry. No sooner is she identified than a woman riding a white horse bursts through the brush, chased by a “foster” (forest dweller) who is trying to rape her. Guyon and Arthur rush after the lady, while Arthur’s squire, Timias, pursues the foster.

Britomart, true to the steady virtue of chastity, chooses not to participate in this trial of male desire and returns to her quest alone. She comes to the fields surrounding the Castle Joyeous, where knights must pledge their loyalty and service to the mistress of the castle, Malecasta, or face a challenge from her knights. Such a challenge is underway as the Redcrosse knight refuses to swear loyalty to any other lady but Una. While he is beset by six knights, Britomart enters the battle and handily rescues Redcrosse.

After the battle, Malecasta receives both knights at her castle. While they are being entertained, Redcrosse takes off his armor, but Britomart refuses, and her female identity remains hidden. That night, Malecasta, who still thinks Britomart is a male knight, tries to seduce her, causing Britomart to leap out of bed and hold a surprised and screaming Malecasta at swordpoint. In the melee that follows, Britomart receives a light wound, but because everyone fears her prowess, she and Redcrosse leave the castle with little trouble. As the pair set forth, Britomart tells how she came to see her destined lover, Artegall, in Merlin’s mirror, and how Merlin had told her of the great destiny of their progeny, who would one day rule Britain.

Eventually the two knights part, and Britomart finds her way to a rocky shoreline and complains bitterly about her inability to find Artegall. While she is complaining, a knight appears and warns her to leave the shore or fight. Frustrated by her fruitless search and disdainful of this challenge, she chooses to fight and badly wounds her opponent. This knight is Marinell, whose mother had learned in a prophecy that he was to receive a deep wound from a woman’s hands, and has long forbade her son to have any contact with women. Nonetheless, Florimell, the woman almost raped at the beginning of the story, loves him and was in fact trying to find him when the foster assaulted her.

At about this point the narrative shifts from Britomart to a dazzling array of interlinked stories, all of which show different shades of romantic love. Arthur and Guyon are still chasing Florimell, and Arthur’s squire Timias pursues the foster. The foster and two others ambush Timias, and although Timias manages to kill them, he is seriously wounded. As providence would have it, the nymph Belphoebe happens by and, taking pity on the squire, brings him to her bower and nurses him back to health. He falls in love with Belphoebe, but so praises her chastity that he finds his own desires frustrated. Meanwhile, a tale of beastly lust is told as Florimell continues to flee, until her horse lies down in exhaustion. On foot now, Florimell finds a cottage belonging to a witch and her son. The son courts Florimell, which sets her off again. She makes her way to the seashore and takes refuge with an old fisherman in a boat. He attempts to rape her, but she is then rescued by the shape-shifting Roman god Proteus and taken to his lair under the sea. In an attempt to console her son, the witch creates a false Florimell, around whom another set of misadventures occurs. Jealousy and adultery are displayed in the tale of old Malbecco and his young wife Hellenore. A young knight named Paridell seduces Hellenore and later carries her off. At this point in the narrative, Britomart returns as a guest in Malbecco’s house. She defeats Paridell in a fight and returns to her search for Artegall.

Instead of finding Artegall, however, Britomart finds a knight crying on the ground. When she inquires, she learns that the knight, Sir Scudamour, is grieving over the abduction of his lady, Amoret, by the sorcerer Busirane. Busirane’s castle is surrounded by a wall of fire that Sir Scudamour cannot penetrate. Britomart manages to get through and enter the castle, but for a long time is unable to find any occupants. Eventually a door opens and out comes a courtly procession that depicts images of the suffering and damage caused by lust. At the end of the procession, Britomart sees Lady Amoret, bound to a pillar at the waist. Before her sits the sorcerer Busirane, writing with blood taken from Amoret’s heart. As he is about to stab Amoret with a dagger, Britomart strikes him down and captures him. The reunion of Amoret and Scudamour ends the book, while many other plot lines, including Britomart’s search for Artegall, remain to be concluded in other books of The Faerie Queene.

Religious strife in the legend of holiness

In the poem’s allegory, Spenser openly aligns many of Redcrosse’s enemies with Catholicism, whose more zealous adherents had created trouble for Elizabeth throughout her reign. When Redcrosse strangles Errour, the monster vomits papers and books that scholars identify as Catholic tracts. The sorcerer Archimago’s language is also telling:

For that old man of pleasing wordes had
And well could file his tongue as smoth as
He told of Saintes and Popes, and evermore
He strowd an Ave-Mary after and before.
               (The Faerie Queene, 1.1.35)

Archimago uses his beguiling language to speak about things that Protestants objected to in the Catholic faith. Duessa, too, is identified with Catholicism. When the giant Orgoglio captures Redcrosse, the whore Duessa responds to Orgoglio’s favors, receiving from him the three-tiered crown of the Pope, which symbolizes his rule over the world. To make the Catholic connection even more diabolical, Spenser has Orgoglio give her a terrifying beast to ride. This image, of a woman riding a monstrous beast, drawn from the New Testament Book of Revelations (17:3-18), is that of the Whore of Babylon, which Protestants saw figured in the Catholic Church.

Another important feature in Spenser’s allegory of Catholicism is the consistent depiction of treachery, which alludes to the covert nature of Catholic opposition to Elizabeth’s rule. Archimago, for example, reveals his malevolent side only after Redcrosse and Una go to sleep. Similarly Duessa assumes a disguise and a false name, Fidessa, which shows the falsity of her faith. After Prince Arthur defeats Orgoglio and frees Redcrosse, Duessa is disrobed to reveal a loathsome hag whose outward ugliness mirrors her spiritual corruption. But the duplicity of these characters is most strikingly depicted in the final canto, when Duessa, whom many scholars have associated with Mary Queen of Scots, has Archimago, disguised as a messenger, provide false letters to claim that Redcrosse is betrothed to the daughter of the Western Emperor (Catholic Rome). Here the various kinds of duplicity and treason in the poem evoke the subterfuge discovered in the many plots to bring down Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne.

Beyond the vilification of the Catholic cause, in the poem Spenser affirms the core ideals of a moderate Protestantism. To the Protestant mind, Catholicism placed too much emphasis on the efficacy of human power to secure salvation. To varying degrees, Protestants rejected the importance of the priesthood in administering the sacraments that led to salvation, and they questioned whether the human activity surrounding penance, confession, and good deeds had in themselves the power to save. As Redcrosse prepares to enter the House of Holinesse, the narrator defines a relationship between “spiritual foes” and human power:

Ne let the man ascribe it to his skill,
That thorough grace hath gained victory.
If any strength we have, it is to ill,
But all the good is Gods, both power and eke
[also] will.
               (The Faerie Queene, 1.10.1)

By claiming that God’s grace alone has the power to bring salvation, the poem links its ideas of holiness with the Protestant emphasis on grace through faith alone. Indeed, Redcrosse’s first spiritual guide within the House of Holinesse is “Fidelia,” or faith. Out of faith comes the grace to practice Christian virtues of penance, charity, mercy, and prayer.

The cult of Elizabeth in the legend of chastity

Since Book 3 represents the virtue closest to the mystique of Queen Elizabeth, it naturally includes some of Spenser’s most intense engagements with the cult of the virgin queen. This distinct fusion of political will and erotic desire especially shapes the Belphoebe-Timias episode, which allegorizes the relationship between Elizabeth and Spenser’s patron, Sir Walter Raleigh. In this allegory, Timias’s fight with the “fosters,” or foresters, depicts Raleigh’s role in putting down the Desmond Rebellion, which took place in Ireland from 1579 to 1583, when Raleigh was a captain in the English Army. In one instance, Raleigh and a few of his men were approaching a ford, when rebels ambushed them. Raleigh got across successfully, but the man behind him fell off his horse in the middle of the crossing while being pursued by the rebels. With others in the company too far back to help, Raleigh wheeled around and scattered the rebels, allowing his soldier to safely regain his horse. Although the rebels outnumbered Raleigh and his men, he managed to face the rebels down and proceed on safely. Spenser celebrates his patron’s martial heroism when Timias is ambushed at a ford:

The gentle Squire came ryding that same way,
Unweeting of their wile and reason bad,
And through the ford to passen did assay;
But that fierce foster, which late fled away,
Stoutly forth stepping on the further shore,
Him boldly bad his passage there to stay.
               (The Faerie Queene, 3.5.18)

While Raleigh’s fight at the ford did not result in any loss of life, Timias kills three fosters, which alludes to Raleigh’s role in the execution of the rebellion’s three leaders, the earl of Desmond and his two brothers (Bednarz, pp. 53-55).

Having asserted his patron’s faithful service to the Crown through Timias, Spenser then unites the wounded squire with Belphoebe, whom he has earlier introduced as a “mirror” of the Queen’s chastity. Belphoebe finds herself immediately attracted to Timias and, in accordance with her virtue, is startled by her attraction:

… when that Lady bright
Beside all hope with melting eyes did vew,
All suddeinly abasht she chaunged hew,
And with sterne horrour backward gan to
               (The Faerie Queene, 3.5.30)

Her pity for Timias wins out, and she revives him with medicinal herbs (the poem mentions tobacco, a New World discovery associated with Raleigh). As Timias recovers, he asks—in line with the deifying tendencies of the cult of Elizabeth—if Belphoebe is a goddess or an angel. Blushing, she claims to be a maid. With the help of her hunting companions, who have now caught up with her, Belphoebe takes Timias to her dwelling. Spenser likens her abode to a “stately Theatre,” evoking Elizabeth’s court with the word “stately” and the performative qualities of courtly life with the word “Theatre” (The Faerie Queene, 3.5.39). Speaking the language of the cult of Elizabeth, Timias complains of his thwarted desires and broods anxiously over his fitness to offer due service to Belphoebe. As with many of the court entertainments in Elizabeth’s day, Spenser’s Timias-Belphoebe story promotes a deserving courtier whose expressions of ardor translate into a bid for preferment.

Sources and literary context

So ambitious were Spenser’s plans for The Faerie Queene that the poet synthesized into the epic almost every important work of literature he would have known. In its conception as “historicall fiction” divided into 12 books of 12 cantos each, Spenser draws upon the great epics of ancient Greece and Rome: Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. The latter was especially important in that it celebrated the establishment of the Roman Empire, which Spenser hoped England would one day emulate. In choosing Arthurian legend as the landscape of his historical fiction, Spenser seeks to sum up his own nation’s achievements in the genre of romance. The poet’s debt to Chaucer is also evident throughout the epic, but perhaps most clear in Spenser’s choice of stanza. His unique and very difficult nine-line form in some ways hearkens to, but exceeds, the eight-line stanza that Chaucer used in Troilus and Criseyde. In the names of many characters and in the similarity of some plot lines, Spenser also sought to emulate the great Italian romance-epics of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. In his prefatory letter to Raleigh, Spenser claims that his idea to fashion each book around a virtue derives from a list of 12 virtues found in Aristotle’s writing. Although no such list has ever been identified in the philosopher’s works, the exact identity of such a source is not as important as the intent signified by Spenser: to harmonize classical moral virtues with Christian ones, and to synthesize a philosophical system with poetic insight. Such literary ambition and exuberance has rarely been equaled.

In the literary culture of his own day, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene occupies a unique and preeminent place. Most writers in Spenser’s day were either “amateurs” or “professionals.” Amateurs tended to be aristocrats who wrote to display their intellectual and linguistic gifts. They circulated their works in manuscript, showed no interest in writing for money, and did not think of printing their works. Sir Philip Sidney, the author of Astrophel and Stella, The New Arcadia, and The Defence of Poetry, exemplifies the amateur trend in Elizabethan literature. Professionals like Shakespeare wrote to make money, usually by selling their plays for a one-time fee to theater companies, though they also sought to make a profit from publishing. But Spenser—by writing an epic that celebrates the English nation, promotes empire, and incites readers to virtuous action through moral examples—was claiming to occupy a status different from either the amateur or the professional: that of the laureate poet, whose ambition is to be the great national poet whose work has a significant relationship to that nation’s identity. The genre most fit for the laureate was the epic, and that Spenser’s laureate status was recognized is clear when a contemporary called Spenser “our Virgil” (Helgerson, p. 26).


Spenser included a letter to his patron, Sir Walter Raleigh, in the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene, in order to help readers better understand the poem and avoid the “gealous opinions and misconstructions” of misinterpretation (The Faerie Queene, p. 737). He tells Raleigh that the poem’s “generali end” is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline,” and that he follows Homer and others in giving examples of “a good governour and a vertuous man” (The Faerie Queene, p. 737). Spenser’s profession of literature’s power to shape the moral lives of noteworthy people echoes the shift toward humanist education, which had been long underway in England and throughout Europe. During the Renaissance, educators sustained the medieval curriculum of the trivium(the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy), but shifted its focus. Whereas medieval education emphasized logic and preparing individuals for the Church, humanist educators favored rhetoric and preparing individuals for civic leadership. Spenser goes on to defend his allegorical method as a means of delighting his readers, and thus inducing them to his more important moral intent Spenser’s letter was removed from the 1596 edition of the The Faerie Queene, perhaps because Raleigh had fallen out of favor with the queen. Nevertheless, the letter has remained important for the light it sheds on Spenser’s literary and cultural motivations.

Reception and impact

Though the particular circumstances are unknown, scholars agree that when Spenser visited London in 1590, he had some opportunity to present The Faerie Queene to Elizabeth. Later, in February 1591, he received from the Crown a life pension of 50 pounds a year, an extraordinary reward for a work of literature in his day. Beyond that, it is difficult to gauge the work’s critical reception, though it is widely thought that the work was well received. Spenser published the second edition of The Faerie Queene in 1596, and posthumous editions published in 1609 and 1611 indicate a steady, long-term demand for the poem.

In relation to future generations, Spenser’s impact shows most clearly in John Milton, whose poetic ambitions easily rival Spenser’s. In his great treatise against censorship, the Areopagitica, Milton calls his predecessor “our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known as a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas” (Milton, p. 728). No extended commentary on Spenser’s works occurs until 1715, and the literary tastes of the eighteenth century kept interest in the poet low. His work would receive much higher acclaim from the Romantics of the nineteenth century, with their interest in Arthurian legend and imaginative expansiveness.

—Jeff Morris

For More Information

Adams, Robert M. The Land and Literature of England: An Historical Account. New York: Norton, 1983.

Bednarz, James. “Raleigh in Spenser’s Historical Allegory.” Spenser Studies 4 (1983): 49-70.

Cheney, Patrick. Spenser’s Famous Flight: A Renaissance Idea of a Literary Career. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Frye, Susan. Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gascoigne, George. “The Princelly Pleasures at Kenelworth Castle.” In The Complete Works of George Gascoigne. Vol. 2. Ed. John W. Cunliffe. Grosse Pointe: Scholarly Press, 1969.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett. Play of Double Senses: Spenser’s Faerie Queene. New York: Norton, 1990.

Heale, Elizabeth. The Faerie Queene: A Reader’s Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Helgerson, Richard. Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

Montrose, Louis. “The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text.” In Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. New York: Longman, 1977.

Strong, Roy. The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

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