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The Faerie Queene

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English Literature

Edmund Spenser was the Secretary to the Deputy of Ireland when he wrote The Faerie Queene (1596) as an attempt to gain favor with Queen Elizabeth and win a place in court. A prominent literary figure of the 16th century, his work influenced other great poets such as John Milton and John Keats.

Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene: literary and historical context

To understand Spenser's intentions in writing The Faerie Queene, it's important to have an understanding of the time period in which he was writing.

Literary context

When writing The Faerie Queene, Spenser harkened back to the days of medieval romance. He used the medieval device of allegory, and most impressively, he developed his own form of poetry that he used throughout his series of romances.

His new form of poetry was a unique form that combined classical and English verse. It is called the Spenserian Stanza, and he used it for every stanza in all six books of The Faerie Queene.

His work was considered outdated by his critics because he wrote about knights, damsels, and fantastic creatures, whereas what was popular at the time was the use of genres and styles that came from Greek and Roman literature. Using medieval romance made Spenser seem backwards to his critics, but his work still remained popular and earned him a pension from Queen Elizabeth.


Medieval Romance is a genre that was used in the Middle Ages. It is often associated with Arthurian myth. The basic scheme of a medieval romance is a knight errant (a knight with a quest or task) who goes on a quest. On his quest, he faces many dangers until his final challenge against a powerful villain or monster. After the defeat of the final enemy, the knight typically is rewarded with a lady, or he rescues one in the process.

The knights of medieval romance represent ideals of Chivalry. They mesh the virtues of the court, of a warrior, and of Christianity. They are typically very polite and respectful to women and their superiors. They're also skilled warriors and brave in battle. Their piety is noted by their attendance of mass, their generosity, and their chastity. A well-known example of a medieval romance is Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.

Spenser is known for his use of allegory in the Faerie Queene.

Allegory is the use of characters and symbols as representations of moral, political, or religious meaning, It is often used to teach or make political or religious statements.

Spenser's work is overtly allegorical and every character represents a virtue, vice, or institution.

Spenserian Stanza

Spenser's The Faerie Queene contains 36,000 lines in over 4,000 stanzas. Each stanza was written in his own devised Spenserian Stanza which is comprised of nine lines, the first eight lines being iambic pentameter and the final line being iambic hexameter. The rhyme scheme is ABABBCBCC.

Iambic pentameter is composed of ten syllables with the stress falling on every second syllable.

Iambic hexameter is same as pentameter in all respects, except it has twelve syllables instead of ten.

Historical context

The Church of England was the official state religion during Spenser's lifetime. Catholics were persecuted by the state and socially ostracized. The break from the Catholic Church took place under Elizabeth's father King Henry VIII. England briefly returned to Catholicism under Mary I, the infamous Bloody Mary. Under Mary's rule, the Church of England was persecuted. The resulting tension between Protestants and Catholics often erupted into bloody violence.

Catholic and Protestant Tensions

English society was Protestant under Queen Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth was the Queen of both England and Ireland. While the English were Protestant, the majority of the Irish were Catholic. The Protestant rulers looked down on and oppressed their Catholic subjects in Ireland. The schism between the Irish and English Christians predates the English Reformation, but the reformation only increased tensions.

As Secretary to the Deputy of Ireland, Spenser spent most of his life in Ireland. He loved the Irish countryside and it influenced many of the natural descriptions that are seen in The Faerie Queene. However, Spenser was not fond of the Irish people or their faith. He infamously wrote a scathing letter on the state of Ireland, and he openly caricatures the Catholic Church as a destitute institution in The Faerie Queene.

The Faerie Queene summary

Book I: Holinesse

The first book follows the Knight of the Red Crosse or of Holinesse. He goes on a quest with Una to slay a dragon, on behalf of Queene Glorianna. However, when a great storm comes, he and Una flee into the woods for cover, and they get lost. There they encounter the female monster Errour, whom Red Crosse then fights and kills. They encounter a hermit named Archimago. They are lost, and he offers to help them. However, Archimago is a black sorcerer, and while they are staying with him, he uses magic to give Red Crosse dreams that trick him into thinking that Una is unchaste. Red Crosse decides that it is best to leave Una because of her sin.

After splitting up, Red Crosse is capture by the witch Duessa, and Una goes on searching for Red Crosse. Both have encounters with the Sans brothers: Sansfoy, Sansloy, and Sansjoy. All of them are evil and either fight or capture Red Crosse and Una at different points of time. However, Una is able to escape from Sansloy, while Red Crosse kills Sansfoy and wounds Sansjoy. Una encounters Arthur and saves Red Crosse from Duessa and the giant Orgoglio. They are restored to one another in the Houses of Holinesse. From there Red Crosse goes to slay the dragon, and he is betrothed to Una.

The Faerie Queene, Knights and a Friar, StudySmarterMedieval Hermit and Knights feature a lot in the poem. Wikimedia Commons

Book II: Temperance

Book II follows Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance. Archimago has recently escaped from prison and encounters Guyon. Archimago tries to trick Guyon into attacking Red Crosse. Guyon resists Archimago's temptations, but he nearly gives in. Guyon eventually encounters a woman mourning because her lover was seduced and killed by the witch Acrasia. She kills herself in her grief. Guyon vows to take revenge on whoever is responsible for the tragedy. He also vows to protect the dead woman's child. He then goes on and fights foes and encounters Arthur along the way.

Arthur and Guyon go to Acrasia's island. There, Guyon encounters the Bower of Bliss, which is a mystical garden in which Guyon is tempted by the sins of violence, lust, and idleness. He resists the temptations and captures Acrasia. Guyon destroys the Bower in the process too.

Book III: Chastity

The knight of Chastity is Britomart. Interestingly, she is a lady knight, something not generally encountered in medieval tales. Britomart comes across Guyon and Arthur and challenges Guyon to a duel. They joust, and Britomart wins. After besting Guyon, Britomart parts ways with Arthur and Guyon to meet Red Crosse. She tells Red Crosse that she's in search of Sir Artegall because she's going to marry him.

During this time, Arthur and Guyon are in search of Florimell, who is in love with a knight named Marinell. Marinell had previously rejected Florimell because it had been prophesied that he'd be wounded by a maiden.

Red Crosse departs Britomart's company and finds Sir Artegall and defends him. After saving Artegall, they meet Merlin who explains that Britomart's destiny is to found the British Monarchy. Meanwhile, Britomart encounters a knight and jousts him too. She wins again, and wounds the knight. This knight, however, is Knight Marinell, fulfilling the prophecy that he'd be wounded by a maiden.

Britomart, after encountering another man Sir Scudamore, helps to find Lady Amoret, Sir Scudamore's wife, and saves her. But on her return from the castle in which she was enslaved, Sir Scudamore has disappeared, ending the third book.

Book IV: Friendship

Book IV would seem to center on the virtue of Friendship, allegorized by two knights: Cambell and Triamond. The title of Book IV is "The Legend of Cambell and Telamond or Of Friendship." The title and Triamond's name are inconsistent. There were at least twelve books that Spenser had drafts for, though he never finished most of them. In fact, the greatest inconsistency is that this allegory of friendship barely follows Cambell and Triamond. Instead, it continues the plot from the third book.

In Book III Scudamore vanished after Britomart rescued his betrothed Amoret. His disappearance was due to his deception by the hag Ate. Ate convinced him that Britomart ran off with Amoret, and she convinces him to come with her. Scudamore is so easily deceived because he still doesn't know that Britomart is a woman and not a man.

Scudamore, Britomart, and Sir Artegall, whom Britomart is looking for, all encounter each other at a three-day tournament. Britomart and Artegall are both disguised and they joust. However, Britomart defeats Artegall, neither knowing who the other is. Artegall, angry and jealous, teams up with Scudamore to defeat Britomart.

Artegall and Scudamore battle Britomart. In the battle, Britomart loses her helmet and reveals her sex. At the revelation of her identity, Artegall falls in love with Britomart and Scudamore realizes that he was deceived. Artegall vows his love towards Britomart, and he leaves to complete a quest before their union.

Scudamore and Britomart make amends, but it is too late. Britomart has already lost Amoret because she had been captured by a wild man. Britomart and Scudamore once again embark to save the lady Amoret.

This time, however, Amoret will not be saved by Britomart and Scudamore. Instead, she escapes from the wild man on her own, and after her escape she is assisted by a squire. She then meets Arthur who escorts her until they encounter Britomart and Scudamore. Amoret and Scudamore are finally brought together again.

Book V: Justice

The fifth book follows Artegall from when he departed in the previous book. Artegall's quest, given by Queene Glorianna, is to rescue a princess named Irena from a giant called Grantorto and restore her to her kingdom. Alongside Artegall is his companion Talus.

Artegall is the knight of Justice. As the knight of Justice he encounters several instances of injustice on his quest. In addition to saving the princess, he also rectifies the injustices of the kingdom. He settles a dispute between a knight and a squire, making the knight pay for the murder of the squire's wife, and protects the squire's lady. Artegall also assists Sir Guyon and Florimell after the knight Bragaddochio stole Guyon's horse and humiliated Florimell.

Artegall fights the Amazon Radingund, but he is eventually enslaved by her and is sexually tempted by her. However, Artegall resists and is rescued by Britomart. After his rescue, Artegall leaves Britomart again to fulfill his quest. He encounters Arthur and they both go to Irena's kingdom.

Upon reaching the kingdom, Artegall faces the giant Grantorto in a duel. Grantorto's axe becomes wedged in Artegall's shield during the fight, so Artegall throws his shield aside and disarms the giant. After disarming him, Artegall kills Grantorto and liberates the princess and the kingdom. Artegall and Talus make the journey back to go to Faerie Court.

Book VI: Courtesy

The final book of The Faerie Queene is about Calidore, the knight of Courtesy. Calidore sets out on a quest to defeat his antithesis, the Blatant Beast who represents slander and lies. In the same way that Artegall rectifies injustice since he is the knight of justice, Calidore reprimands knights who are discourteous.

Calidore is delayed during his quest when he encounters a field of shepherds. Calidore loves pastoral life since it is simpler and more peaceful. He rejects his place as a knight and becomes a shepherd. He falls in love with a shepherd girl named Pastorella, which causes another admirer Coridon to become jealous.

After Pastorella is abducted by bandits, Calidore saves her and brings her to the castle of Bellamoure and Claribell. They turn out to be the long lost parents of Pastorella. Meanwhile, Calidore leaves the castle and searches for the Blatant Beast. He finds the beast and subdues it with his shield and a muzzle.

Calidore shows the beast off throughout the whole land. However, the beast escapes and remains free. Spenser ascribes the beast as the cause for all who are not courteous, especially poets, and begs for forgiveness in his own work.

The Faerie Queene characters and analysis

Red Crosse

Red Crosse is symbolic of the virtue of holiness and of St. George, the patron saint of England. Red Crosse is even admitted to be St. George late into the work, and he bears the red cross on his hauberk, which is the same as the English flag.

The Faerie Queene, Flag of England, Red Crosse, StudySmarterThe Flag of England, which the Red Crosse represents. Wikimedia Commons.

Holiness means living according to the true religion. Here that means the Church of England, and that the Catholic Church has tried to hijack this virtue. This can be seen when Errour ensnares Redcrosse. She is able to grab hold of him, and it is only by Una's encouragement that he finds the strength to escape and fight Errour.

Errour

Errour symbolizes the Catholic Church. She spews pamphlets all over Red Crosse, representing the Catholic propaganda pamphlets that would be handed out in Spenser's day. Errour also captures Red Crosse briefly, symbolizing the Catholic Church's hijacking of knightly virtues like Holiness.

For Spenser, the Catholic Church is deceptive because it has some connection to truth or virtue, but it is always exploited. However, Red Crosse is able to overcome Errour as true Holiness is able to over come the Catholic Church's heresy.

Una

Una is the symbol of truth. Una is the Latin word for one, representing the medieval idea that the True Church is one entity. Una is the True Church, and any deviation from her is to stand outside of the Church.

Truth is something that is divine, and there is only one truth. However, Spenser uses this against the Catholic Church because Archimago kidnaps her at some points, indicating that the Catholic Church tries to assert itself as the True Church and the benefactor of divine truth.

Duessa

Duessa is a witch and the opposite of Una. She is described similarly to Bloody Mary and receives a similar death when she is beheaded. She represents Falsehood and the False Church.

Guyon

Guyon symbolizes the virtue of Temperance, or moderation. The medieval practice of temperance meant that a person does not overindulge, or if choosing to not indulge at all, does not judge those who do.

Britomart

Britomart symbolizes the knightly virtue of Chastity. Chastity is the virtue of sexual purity. It reflects the medieval belief that sexuality presided only in the confines of a marriage.

Archimago

Archimago is representative of the Catholic Church. He is dressed like a friar or monk, and he disguises himself as a source of truth and virtue. However, he is really a sorcerer. This representation highlights Spenser's open contempt of the Catholic Church as misleading and a wicked impostor of God's true church. It's notable too that Spenser as Secretary to the Deputy of Ireland despised the papacy and the abundance of Catholic Irishmen.

Artegall

Artegall is the knight of Justice; he rights the injustices of the kingdom and represents God's faithfulness to judge sin.

Arthur

This is clearly the future King Arthur, representing the summation of all the knightly virtues. Arthur is in love with Queene Gloriana.

Calidore

Calidore is the knight of Courtesy. He is perhaps the most sidetracked of all the knights, but as Spenser tells us, it is because he wishes to pay honor and respect to all people, and so he is often delayed.

Themes in The Faerie Queene

What are some of the main themes of the book?

Medieval romance and allegory

The Faerie Queene, Russian Knight, StudySmarterMedieval Knights in romance narratives are known for their adventures and chivalry. Wikimedia Commons.

Spenser's six books are a continuation of a tradition of medieval romance. This is evident because each knight sets out on a quest to defeat some fantastic creature or evil monster. Moreover, the knights' Chivalric and Christian virtues are tested on their quests, and they are often saving damsels.

Religious supremacy

Spenser is critical of the Catholic Church's abuse of doctrine and virtue. The theme of the Catholic Church disguising itself as the true faith appears throughout the epic. Archimago is a sorcerer disguised as a friar, and most of his schemes involve hiding his true identity or capturing one of the knights or ladies. He falls into a classic trickster role: he deceives Red Crosse into thinking Una is unfaithful; he disguises himself as Red Crosse to deceive Una; and he presents himself as a hermit.

Spenser's belief in the supremacy of Anglican Church can further be extrapolated by Duessa's deception of Red Crosse and her enslavement of him. The idea of deception indicates that although Catholicism may appear similar to the Church of England in its doctrine and virtues, it is really a misleading institution. Because of its similarities to the True Church, it often seems that being Catholic is good or even the right the thing to do. Spenser's message, however, this is a snare and will lead to damnation.

Moral virtue

At the essence of Spenser's Faerie Queene is the call to imitate noble virtues and live a good Christian life. The two most prominent are Holiness and Chastity. Although the story begins with Red Crosse, most of the epic concerns Britomart.

To be holy means something is set apart to be in the service of God. Since Red Crosse is in the company of Una and is eventually married to her, this means that in order to be holy and set apart to do God's work, one has has be united with the Truth and the True Church.

Despite this, it's Britomart who's often the heroine of the epic poem. The ideals of Christian marriage are put forth overtly. All of the knights who resist sexual temptation are saved by Britomart. However, some of the knights who do not resist are often met with an evil fate.

Spenser celebrates Christian marriage as well because although many of the characters are in love, they refuse to be with their beloved until they complete a quest an are married. For example, Artegall loves Britomart, but he does not sleep with her because they are not yet married, and he must first complete his quest. In addition, Red Crosse loves Una, but he leaves her because Archimago tricks him into believing that she is a loose woman. However, Red Crosse learns the truth and is eventually wed to her.

Symbolism and Allusion

Spenser makes overt allusions to political and religious allies and enemies. He also makes allusions to the Bible. For example, Mary Tudor is alluded to through Spenser's character Duessa. Duessa is a rival to Una for the love of Red Crosse. However, she is also a rival to Queen Glorianna because she aspires to rule Faerie Lond. Moreover, Duessa is beheaded as Mary was. In the same way, Duessa is a rival to Queen Glorianna and is eventually beheaded for her crimes.

The representation of Mary Tudor as Duessa was intended to do two things. First, it smeared the Catholic Church and its supporters as servants of the Devil and enemies of the state. Secondly, it praised Queen Elizabeth.

In this way, Spenser's work acted as anti-Catholic propaganda. Spenser also made personal gains from his representations. With Elizabeth as his patroness, he could not criticize her, nor could he praise her rivals. Spenser's quest to gain a position of status in Elizabeth's court would require some flattery as well.

Since Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, did not hold a place in court, the reception of Spenser's allusions would have been received positively by those in power. Anyone who was Catholic would have practiced their faith in secret, and they would not have openly criticized Spenser.

An example of allusion to the Bible is Red Crosse's armor. Spenser describes his armor as mighty, old, and filled with dents from the previous battles. However, Red Crosse is not the first person to wear the armor. This is an allusion to St. Paul's description of the Armor of God. Paul also calls the armor mighty and able to withstand all the schemes of the devil. In fact, the whole first book is Red Crosse learning how to withstand the schemes of the devil.

Clothing Red Crosse with the Armor of God is an encouragement to Christians. Since Red Crosse is an ideal of the virtue of holiness, his character and actions should be emulated. This would have had a positive reception for those at the time, and an aspiration for Christian virtue was something to be admired.

The Faerie Queene - Key takeaways

  • Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in honor of Queen Elizabeth
  • The Faerie Queene is an allegorical medieval romance
  • The Faerie Queene typically details the quests of knights errant
  • Spenser never finished The Faerie Queene but wrote an extensive six books

The Faerie Queene

36,000 Lines

Edmund Spenser, a 16th century English royal secretary.

It follows several a number of knights that go on adventures. Each story has allegorical meaning behind it.

The Faerie Queene is a collection of books, each with their own plots. But in the stories in general follow the same plot of medieval romances; for example in the first book a knight errant goes on a quest to slay a dragon and wins the Lady Una as his bride.

The knights represent different Christian virtues: Holiness, Chastity, Temperance, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy.

Final The Faerie Queene Quiz

Question

Who is the Knight of Holinesse?

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Answer

Redcrosse

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Question

What virtue does Britomart allegorize?

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Answer

Chastity

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Question

What genre is The Faerie Queene written in?

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Answer

Medieval Romance

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Question

What is the primary literary device used in The Faerie Queene?

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Answer

Allegory

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Question

What real life queen does Queene Glorianna allude to?

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Answer

Elizabeth I

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Question

On what island did Spenser spend most of his life?

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Answer

Ireland

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Question

What patron saint does Red Crosse embody?

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Answer

St. George

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Question

What is St. George the patron saint of?

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Answer

The patron saint of England

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Question

What beast does Calidore defeat in the final book?

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Answer

The Blatant Beast

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Question

Archimago is a dark sorcerer, but what does he disguise himself as?

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Answer

A Hermit

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