The Faerie Queene 10: Britomartis

Walter Crane (1845–1915), The Redcrosse knight to Britomart (1895-97), print, 'Spenser's Faerie Queene', ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The last episode completed the story of Sir Guyon (Temperance), reaching the end of the second book of The Faerie Queene. This episode starts the third book, which is intertwined with the fourth in a complex series of threads.

cranebook301
Walter Crane (1845–1915), title page for Book 3 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Book 3: The Legend of Britomartis, or Chastity

Canto 1

Guyon encountreth Britomart,
Fayre Florimell is chaced:
Duessaes traines and Malacastaes
champions are defaced.

Their mission accomplished, Sir Guyon and the Palmer return with their captive, Acrasia, to Alma’s House of Temperance. After sending Acrasia away under guard, Guyon and Prince Arthur ride off and encounter a knight whose squire seems to be weighed down by his shield. Guyon challenges him. Both lances strike home, but Guyon comes off far worse and is thrown to the ground. The Palmer intervenes to stop him from continuing to fight with his sword, and they learn that the unknown knight is Britomart with her enchanted lance.

cranebook302
Walter Crane (1845–1915), Guyon encountreth Britomart (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

She joins them as they next ride into a dense forest. Suddenly, Florimell, a beautiful young woman riding a white palfrey, shoots out from the trees at a full gallop, with an uncouth forester in hot pursuit. Britomart leaves the other knights to chase them, and rides out of the forest alone, towards a distant and stately castle.

As Britomart approaches the castle, she sees there’s a battle raging on its greensward, with one knight struggling to defend himself against six. She enters the fray, breaks it up, and realises that the lone defender is the Redcrosse Knight. He explains that the others tried to force him to love a woman of their choice, rather than the lady he loves [Una]. One of his opponents says that this is the rule of the castle, that its lady requires all knights to renounce their ladies and pledge sole allegiance to her, unless they can beat the six of them in battle.

Not realising that Britomart is a woman, the six challenge her, and she charges with her magic lance and unseats the first of them almost instantly. She repeats that with another two, as the Redcrosse Knight overcomes the fourth, forcing the remaining two to surrender. Britomart tells them that truth is strong, and true love is stronger still. As they bring Britomart into Castle Joyous, they tell her that they and Malecasta, lady of that castle, now owe their allegiance to her, as a consequence of her victory.

Inside, the castle is sumptuously decorated with gold and jewels, with ornate tapestries depicting the love of Venus and Adonis hanging on its walls. Its rooms are crowded with men and women dancing and making love. Malecasta is lounging wantonly on an opulent bed, and directs that they be taken to their rooms to freshen up. The Redcrosse Knight tends to his wounds, but Britomart keeps her armour on, so as not to reveal that she’s a woman.

When they sit together to dine, Malecasta falls in love (or rather lust) with Britomart, still unaware of her true gender. The knight responds by telling the lady that love can’t be offered to any passing stranger, and runs far deeper. After hours of revelry, Britomart doesn’t get to remove her armour and go to bed until well into the small hours. Soon after she’s asleep, Malecasta slips into bed beside her, and Britomart wakes with a start, reaches for her sword, and Malecasta shrieks loudly before fainting with shock.

cranebook303
Walter Crane (1845–1915), Where when confusedly they came, they found (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

When the other knights arrive, they’re bewildered to find Malecasta lying on the floor, with Britomart wearing only a white shift and threatening them with her sword. The lady of the castle soon recovers, but one of the six knights takes a pot shot at Britomart with his bow; the arrow glances off the side of her body, and her shift colours red where her skin is bleeding underneath. Wounded more by his treachery, she and the Redcrosse Knight fight the six off again, before donning their armour and leaving.

walker31
Arthur George Walker (1861-1939), But one of these sixe knights, Gardanté bight (1900), engraving, ‘Stories from the Faerie Queene’, Mary MacLeod, Gardner, Darton, London, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Canto 2

The Redcrosse knight to Britomart
describeth Artegall:
The wondrous myrrhour [mirror], by which she
in love with him did fall.

As they’re riding together, Britomart tells Redcrosse of her life history. She had learned the art of combat and rules of chivalry when she was being raised in Britain, and is now in search of Sir Artegall, who has done her great injury. Redcrosse, who knows that knight, assures her that she must be mistaken.

cranebook304
Walter Crane (1845–1915), The Redcrosse knight to Britomart (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Britomart tells him about a crystal globe which had been made by the wizard Merlin, and can reveal both past and future. It had shown her the image of Sir Artegall wearing Achilles’ armour, which he had apparently won. She had instantly fallen in love with him, and fell into a decline pining for him. Her old nurse tried a magic potion and other folk remedies, but nothing could restore Britomart to health.

Canto 3

Merlin bewrayes to Britomart,
The state of Artegall.
And drews the famous Progeny
Which from them springen shall.

The old nurse told her that they must find Merlin, which they did. He was in a hidden cave in the far west, and advised Britomart that from her love for Artegall would come excellence, as the knight is descended from the kings of Cornwall, and had been stolen by an elf when still an infant. He tells her that she must find the knight, marry him, then produce a line of renowned monarchs of the future, and reveals some of their names, right up to a virgin queen who will rule with wise power [Gloriana].

cranebook305
Walter Crane (1845–1915), Merlin bewrayes to Britomart (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Britomart returned to her family castle, where she took the armour and sword which had been used by the great Saxon queen Angela, and an enchanted lance made by a sorceror-king for himself. With her old nurse acting as her squire, she then set off for Faeryland, and her quest for Sir Artegall.

cranebook306
Walter Crane (1845–1915), In th’evening late old Glaucé thither led (1895-97), print, ‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, ed TJ Wise, George Allen, London, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

After they have discussed this further, Britomart and the Red Crosse Knight go their separate ways, promising lasting and mutual friendship.

Principal Characters

Acrasia, an evil enchantress who lures men to her wandering island, the Bower of Bliss. Sir Guyon was sent to put an end to her wickedness.

Alma, the mistress of a castle, the House of Temperance, which has been besieged by a thousand foes for seven years. Her castle represents the human body.

Sir Artegall, a gallant and chivalrous knight, descended from the kings of Cornwall, stolen away by an elf when he was an infant. Britomart falls in love with his image.

Prince Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, bearer of a magic shield which blinds his enemies and turns them to stone, and future king.

Britomart, or Britomartis, heroine of Book 3, “Chastity”, of faithfulness in true love. A woman knight and virgin, taken to represent the Fairy Queene herself, she has fallen in love with the image of the knight Artegall, and is in quest of him.

Florimell, another virgin in search of her true love, but passive and defenceless. She represents perfect beauty.

Sir Guyon, hero of Book 2, “Temperance”, a knight at the Faery Queen’s court, who stopped the wrongs of Acrasia.

Malecasta, lady of the Castle Joyous, extremely rich and quite wanton.

The Palmer, an elderly man dressed in black, who led Sir Guyon in his quest to put a stop to the evil of Acrasia.

Redcrosse Knight, hero of Book 1, “Holiness”, then a knight on his first adventure; Saint George, who slays a huge dragon.

References

Wikipedia on The Faerie Queene, with a partial summary
Wikipedia on Edmund Spenser

Richard Danson Brown (2019) The Art of the Faerie Queene, Manchester UP. ISBN 978 0 7190 8732 5. (Note: this isn’t about visual art, but literary art and poetics.)
AC Hamilton (ed) (2007) Spenser, the Faerie Queene, 2nd edn, Routledge. ISBN 978 1 4058 3281 6. (Critical edition.)
Elizabeth Heale (1999) The Faerie Queene, A Reader’s Guide, 2nd edn, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 65468 5.
Douglas Hill (1980) Edmund Spenser, The Illustrated Faerie Queene, Newsweek Books. No ISBN.
Richard A McCabe (ed) (2010) The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 1987 0967 1.