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8 - The Invention of King Richard

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2021

Susanna Fein
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Kent State University.
A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, School of English, University of Kent
Helen Phillips
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Cardiff University
Derek Pearsall
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus of English, Harvard University, Honorary Member, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York
Cathy Hume
Affiliation:
Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University, Illinois.
Ralph Hanna
Affiliation:
Emeritus Professor of Palaeography, University of Oxford
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Summary

ON those rare occasions when we talk or write about the text we have come to refer to as Richard Coer de Lion, the Middle English romance depicting England's late-twelfth-century crusader-king Richard I, we often begin with particular details about it to pique the interests and jog the memories of our listeners or readers. First, Richard's mother is an Eastern princess and perhaps a fairy, who, when made to watch the Eucharist's elevation, shoots up through the church roof, never to be heard from again. Next, Richard twice cannibalizes Saracens while on crusade, once with plausible deniability and the second time with full knowledge. And, finally, the earliest extant copy of the romance survives in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19. 2. 1), a book probably produced in London between 1331 and 1340, and known today for its large number of the earliest or only copies of texts that significantly comprise our corpus of Middle English romance (a seemingly cold, hard, scholarly fact self-consciously deployed amid the sensationalism).

Beyond the many, many obvious problems to which fairy mothers and cannibalism give rise, this ‘common knowledge’ that has come to at once emblematize, advertise, and contextualize Richard Coer de Lion presents an additional difficulty, made more acute when one sits down to write about the earliest extant copy of the romance: none of these things we think we know about Richard Coer de Lion are true of its inscription in the Auchinleck manuscript. Rather, Auchinleck's Richard Coer de Lion – or King Richard as it is titled in the manuscript and as I will refer to it here – makes no mention of a fairy mother, beginning instead with a Prologue, the fall of Jerusalem, and Richard's preparations for sea travel to Acre. It does not now and probably never did contain scenes of cannibalism. And it is only partially preserved in the Auchinleck manuscript proper. Of the little more than a thousand lines of King Richard that survive, roughly seven hundred occur as almost-consecutive fragments that were recovered, remarkably, in various eighteenth-century Scottish notebooks and bindings, now held in multiple libraries.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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