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  • Saxon Rites in Late Stuart Drama
  • Emanuel Stelzer

Germanic religion and mythology have generally been described as first arousing interest and acquiring popularity in British literature through the works of pre-romantic authors, such as Thomas (or his elder son, Joseph) Warton’s two “Runic odes” (1748),1 Thomas Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry (1763) and Northern Antiquities (1770), and Thomas Gray’s Norse Odes (composed in 1761, published in 1768). Before them, Anglo-Saxon manuscripts had been collected by Tudor antiquarians (such as William Lambarde, Laurence Nowell, and William Camden), Nordic genealogies were written for the Stuarts, and Old English was studied by seventeenth-century English scholars. However, we are led to believe that, with Restoration and Augustan Classicism becoming the predominant style, Germanic lore did not fascinate British authors and their audiences: “But all this Gothic knowledge, impressive as it now seems, remained the preserve of fusty antiquarians.”2 Heather O’Donoghue indicates that references to Germanic religion appeared in seventeenth-century poetry, but that it did not encounter the readers’ tastes.3 The aim of this article is to complicate the picture by analyzing, instead, Restoration and Augustan drama. There are three late Stuart plays that have never been studied together and that focus on Germanic religion and mythology; all three of them have scenes featuring a temple with the statues of the three main Saxon4 gods. [End Page 329] These plays are as follows: Joshua Barnes’s unperformed entertainment Landgartha, or the Amazon Queen of Denmark and Norway (1683, with successive revisions); Henry Purcell and John Dryden’s “dramatick opera” King Arthur (first version of the libretto in 1684, but first staged in 1691); and Nicholas Rowe’s tragedy The Royal Convert (1707). They are very disparate works in terms of both genre and success, but their different portrayals of Saxon worship may allow us to understand the political connotations that a staging of such rites could have in the Restoration era and under Queen Anne. The dramatization of Germanic worship played an interesting role in the construction of British national identity in this period.


“By Woden God of Saxons / From whence comes Wensday, that is Wodensday, / Truth is a thing that ever I will keep / Unto thylke [day] in which I creep into / My Sepulchre”!5 Thus exclaims the antiquary Robert Moth in William Cartwright’s The Ordinary (1635). The comedy pokes fun at the eccentricities of this character who loves delving into obscure volumes and is fascinated by medieval matters. Yet, Jacobean and Caroline plays set in Anglo-Saxon Britain seem much less interested in historical accuracy.6 What we nowadays know about Germanic religion is minimal, and it was even less back in the seventeenth century. Frequently, Celts were not distinguished from Germanic populations, and the identities of Germanic deities were mediated and distorted, first by Latin authorities (Caesar and Tacitus in primis) and then by Christian writers. In the extant drama of the age, the religion of the Germans is shadowy, as Lisa Hopkins notes concerning stage Danes:

In The Tragical History, Admirable Atchievments and various events of Guy Earl of Warwick, Swanus, King of Denmark, invades Athelstane’s England; here the Danes appear, curiously enough, to be Muslim, since they invoke Mahound, while in Henry Burnell’s 1641 play Landgartha, first performed in Dublin, the Norwegian heroine Landgartha . . . has a cousin called Fatyma. . . . [T]he story of Anthony Brewer’s The Love-Sick King is “an Anglicized version of a frequently dramatized story, that of Mahomet and the fair Irene at the fall of Costantinople.” . . . Similar religious uncertainty surrounds [End Page 330] the Danes in Lodowick Carlell’s two-part play Arviragus and Philicia . . . [in which] Cartandes, Queen of the Danes . . . has vowed to sacrifice the first prisoner she takes to Mars. . . . In the process she also manages to look briefly Catholic.7

What did they know about Germanic religion in those years?8 Everybody knew that the Saxons were heathens, and many were aware that the days of the week are named after some of their gods, although a few of these names presented some difficulties. Saturday...


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