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  • Constructions of Queenship:Envisioning Women's Sovereignty in Havelok
  • Emma O'Loughlin Bérat

The late thirteenth-century Havelok opens with a radical vision of queenship. As he lies dying from a sudden illness, the Anglo-Saxon king Athel-wold ruminates over the future of his infant daughter and only heir, Goldeboru:

Sho ne kan speke ne sho kan go.Yif scho couþe on horse rideAnd a thousande men bi hire syde,And sho were comen intil heldeAnd Engelond sho couþe welde,And don hem of þar hire were queme,And hire bodi couþe yeme,Ne wolde me neuere iuele like,Ne þou Ich were in heueneriche.

(ll. 125–33)1

The single obstacle to Goldeboru taking his place as sovereign of England, Athelwold regrets, is her extreme youth—she "ne kan speke ne sho kan go." Were it not for her immaturity, she could lead "a thousande men" on horseback, wield control over England, govern her people as she likes, and oversee "hire bodi." Athelwold imagines Goldeboru's body as both personal and collective, akin to the political theological model of the "king's two bodies." This model was, as Ernest Kantorowicz outlines, increasingly popular in the late thirteenth century, the period during which Havelok was likely written.2 In Athelwold's vision, "hire bodi" implies both "her" [End Page 234] body (Goldeboru's personal body) and "their" body (the body politic of the "hem," the people of England, in the preceding line). Athelwold assumes that Goldeboru will govern her own person, perhaps defending her virginity like an Amazon or choosing her own marriage partner. But he further assumes, perhaps naively, that her sovereignty over her personal body will be mirrored in her independent sovereignty over England.

One of the most striking aspects of this passage is that Athelwold never considers his daughter's gender, though it would seem to be the obvious impediment to her sovereignty. Indeed, he could be describing a male heir were it not for the poet's persistent and at times excessive insertion of female pronouns, such as the repetition of sho in the first line of the quoted passage. This grammatical assertion of Goldeboru's femaleness calls attention to Athelwold's omission and raises questions about gender, sovereignty, and queenship that are abiding interests of the romance.3 As much as her dying father may wish it, can a "sho" really inherit sover-eignty? And if the form of kingly governance he envisions is unattainable by a woman, what does queenship more broadly entail? What is the ideal relationship between a queen and her body politic?

Scholars of Havelok have highlighted the text's overarching and nuanced concern with the politics of the nation and the sovereign's relationship to the body politic. However, they have tended to focus on the kingship of the romance's eponymous hero and heir to Denmark, Havelok, who eventually becomes Goldeboru's husband. In his 1976 article, "Havelok the Dane: A Thirteenth-Century Handbook for Princes," David Staines calls Havelok an "embodiment of the ideal qualities of a good king."4 Sheila Delany likewise argues that the "main purpose of the poem is to define the nature of kingship in the person of its eponymous hero."5 Christopher Stuart reads the text, composed toward the end of Edward I's reign or soon after, as a critical reflection on Edward himself.6 Michael Faletra, Thorlac Turville-Petre, and Scott Kleinman examine, from different angles, the romance's interest in local and protonational histories and [End Page 235] politics, with particular attention to Havelok's kingship.7 Despite steadily growing attention to medieval queenship, particularly by historians, the relative lack of interest in queenship, female succession, and gender in Havelok scholarship corroborates Marie A. Kelleher's recent observation that "medieval monarchy and institutions of power" remain "areas of inquiry long gendered male."8

Goldeboru may not be the protagonist of Havelok—the Prologue states clearly that the "tale is of Hauelok imaked" (l. 5)—but she is central to its plot and to its broader consideration of the monarchical institution and role of the sovereign. Dominique Battles suggests that in the Middle English...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-662X
Print ISSN
0363-6941
Pages
pp. 234-251
Launched on MUSE
2019-04-10
Open Access
No
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