General Information

(N)IMEV: 1973
Form: 12-line tail-rhyme stanzas. aabccbddb eeb
Date of Composition: Late fourteenth century
Place of Composition: North Midlands?
Keywords: Friendship, Marriage, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Sacrament, Secular Spaces, Supernatural, Treachery, Urban Spaces

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

Four messengers, Athelston, Egelond, Alryke and Wymound meet and become sworn brothers. When Athelston inherits the English throne, he makes Egelond Earl of Stane, Wymound Earl of Dover, and Alryke Archbishop of Canterbury. He also marries Egelond to his sister, Edith.

Years pass, and Wymound becomes jealous of Egelond’s wife and handsome sons. He travels to London and tells Athelston that the Earl is plotting to poison him. Having promised the traitor protection, the enraged King vows to kill Egelond’s whole family and invites them to the capital on the pretext of knighting their sons. Even though Edith is heavily pregnant, they come immediately, and are thrown into prison. Athelston’s wife, who is also pregnant, attempts to intercede on their behalf, but as she kneels her husband kicks her in the stomach, killing his unborn son.

The queen sends a messenger to Canterbury, and Alryke hurries to Westminster, where he intercepts Athelston in church. The Archbishop pleads Egelond’s case and asks for a fair trial, but Athelston becomes angry and banishes him. In response, Alryke threatens to excommunicate the kingdom, forbidding priests to say mass or baptise children and denying the king absolution. He then goes to Fleet Street and announces this to the English nobles, who promise to rescue Egelond and imprison Athelston.

However, a messenger arrives with the news that Egelond will be released and the Archbishop reinstated. Alryke accepts, then blesses and absolves the king, promising to prove Egelond’s innocence. He orders a great fire to be laid out, and after blessing it nine times instructs Egelond to walk across it barefoot. The Earl does so without harm, followed by his sons, and all three are presented at St Paul’s altar. Finally Edith walks across the fire and goes into labour. She emerges and gives birth to St Edmund, whom Athelston immediately makes his heir.

The king is unwilling to name Wymound, but does so when Alryke threatens to make him walk through the fire. The Archbishop sends a letter to the traitor, claiming that Egelond is dead: fooled, Wymound arrives at Westminster but refuses to confess to Alryke. Athelston orders the fire to be re-made, and Wymound fails to cross it. He is pulled from the flames by Egelond’s sons and admits his guilt. He is drawn through the streets before being hanged.

From: Donald Sands ed., Middle English Verse Romances. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1986.
Manuscript: Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 175


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Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 175 (folio: pp. 120-131)Early fifteenth century, Southeast Midlands. Unique copy. 812 lines.

Modern Editions

A. Mcl. Trounce, ed., Athelston: A Middle English Romance, EETS o.s. 224 (London: Oxford University Press, 1951)Edited from Caius MS.
A. V. C. Schmidt and Nicolas Jacobs, eds., Medieval English Romances, 2 vols (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980)Vol. 1, pp. 123-150. Edited from Caius MS.
C. H. Hartshorne, ed., Ancient Metrical Tales (London: W. Pickering, 1829)Pp. 1-34. Edited from Caius MS.
D. B. Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1986)Pp. 130-53. Edited from Caius MS.
J. Zupitza, "Die Romanze von Athelston", Englische Studien 13 (1883), 331-414Edited from Caius MS.
Lord Francis Hervey, ed., Corolla Sancti Edmundi: The Garland of Saint Edmund King and Martyr (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1907)Pp. 525-55. Edited from Caius MS.
Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake and Eve Salisbury, eds., Four Romances of England (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999)Pp. 341-384. Edited from Caius MS.Available online at:
T. Wright and J. O. Halliwell. Reliquiae Antiquae, 2 vols (London: J. R. Smith, 1845)Vol. 2. Pp. 85-103. Edited from Caius MS.
Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale, eds., The Middle English Metrical Romances, 2 vols (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964)Vol. 1. Pp. 179-205. Edited from Caius MS.