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Friday 30 October 2015

Elves and Apparitions at the Angevin Court

Sir Galahad encounters Symen in a forest, BL Royal 14 E III, f.85
The men and women of the Angevin court were fascinated by the supernatural. They told stories of demons and spirits, whose shadowy realm loitered at the edge of their own. Such beings stalked the darkness, crossing into the land of men to warn, to plead and, occasionally, to love. Not only courtiers but kings, we might assume, listened to tales of these trespasses, especially when they concerned their own. What did Henry II think of the wanderings of Herla? This King of the Britons had been hosted by the ruler of the dwarfs in his cavern palace in the cliffs, only on emerging to be told of an ancient king sharing his name who had disappeared into the dwarfish realm, whose people had been swept away by Saxons two hundred years before. Herla, it was said, was condemned to rove forever with his retinue, although he had not been sighted since Henry took the throne.

Stories such as these were gathered by Walter Map, one of Henry’s court, in his De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). Walter told another supernatural tale and this one, too, touched on a royal predecessor, for the ethereal being it described had been entertained by William the Conqueror himself – or William the Bastard, as Walter names him.

A ‘story is told about Edric Wilde, a so-called “man of the woods” ... One night when he was returning late from hunting, accompanied only by a boy, he lost his way. About midnight, wandering in search of the path, he came upon a great house on the edge of a wood ... he looked in and saw a band of many noble women. They were most beautiful in appearance and were elegantly clad in robes of the finest linen. They were taller and more stately than our women. They moved about with an airy motion, with pleasing gestures and hushed voices. The sound they made was melodious but faint, and he could not understand their speech. The knight noticed one among them whose beauty far exceeded the others ... [he] received a wound in his heart. He found it hard to endure the pain of Cupid’s dart...
Eadric paid no heed to the danger of the ghostly company. He went around the house and, finding the entrance, rushed in and seized the lady whom he desired ... He took his pleasure with her for three days and nights, but in all that time, he was unable to get a word from her, although she passively submitted to his love. Finally, on the fourth day, she said: “My dear one, you shall be safe and joyful ... until the time when you reproach me because of my sisters ... [then] your happiness will disappear ..."
Eadric promised to be firm and faithful in his love ... [and] solemnly married the lady. William the Bastard, recently crowned King of England, was then reigning; and the monarch, hearing of this marvel, and wishing to test its truth, summoned both the man and wife to his court in London. They brought with them many witnesses, and also the evidence of others who could not be present. But the woman herself, who was of a beauty which had never been seen or heard of until that time, was the chief proof of her fairy nature. Amidst general astonishment, Edric and his wife were sent back to their home.’

Things did not end well for Edric who one day, in fleeting irritation, reproved his wife with mention of her sisters. The lady disappeared, leaving only ‘empty air’, and ‘for all his crying and lamenting, he could not win her back.’

What Henry II took from this account we can only guess. Perhaps he gleaned its warning of the dangers of submitting to one's lust. This was an apt lesson, one might think, for almost any Norman or Angevin king – and especially the likes of Henry II, his grandfather, and his youngest son – whose appetites were seemingly boundless. Or, perhaps, the king simply marvelled at the image of his conquering ancestor, with England at his feet, entertaining elves at the royal court. 

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