Erle of Tolous

General Information

(N)IMEV: 1681
Form: 12-line stanza, rhyming aabccbddbeeb
Date of Composition: Last half of the fourteenth century
Place of Composition: North east Midlands
Keywords: Accused Queen, Bedchamber, Disguise, Dreams, Marriage, Merchants, Military Combat, Religious Figures, Religious Spaces, Sacrament, Secular Spaces, Tokens of Recognition, Treachery

Plot Summary

Plot summary image

Diocletian, the Emperor of Germany, unjustly takes lands from Sir Barnard, the Earl of Toulouse. His wife, Beulybon, begs him to return them, but he refuses. There is a bloody battle and, despite a huge number of deaths on each side, the Earl is victorious. The Emperor again ignores his wife’s pleas and vows vengeance. Meanwhile the Earl discusses Beulybon’s famed beauty with Sir Tryalbas, one of his prisoners. He releases the knight, who agrees to arrange for him to see the Empress. The pair travels to Diocletian’s city, where the Earl disguises himself as a hermit. Trylabas informs Beulybon that he has the Earl, and offers to kill him. She replies that he must not break his promise and tells him to bring the Earl to her chapel the next morning. Here Beulybon, richly clothed, allows the Earl, who is still dressed as a hermit, to gaze on her. As she leaves, he asks her for alms and she conceals her ring among the coins. Delighted, he returns home, resisting an attempted ambush by Trylabas.

Diocletian entrusts his wife to two knights. After swearing her to secrecy, they both proposition her, but are rejected and, fearing that she will tell her husband, plot her downfall. They persuade a young knight to hide in her chamber and they ‘discover’ and kill him. Beulybon is accused of adultery and imprisoned. Diocletian has a prophetic dream and returns home, where he is met by the traitors demanding that she be burned. A parliament is called, and an old knight suggests finding a champion to fight for Beulybon. News of this reaches the Earl and he decides to accept the challenge, but first to determine that she is innocent. He accompanies a merchant to Germany and they lodge at an abbey. The Abbot, who is Beulybon’s uncle, professes her honesty: he is her confessor and she is guilty of nothing but giving the Earl her ring. Swearing him to secrecy, the Earl reveals his identity. On the day of the execution, he dresses in a monk’s habit and himself acts as Beulybon’s confessor. Satisfied of her innocence, he defeats the two traitors, makes them admit their guilt, and has them burned on the Empress’ pyre. Diocletian searches for the monk, but the Abbot will not fetch him until the Emperor swears to be his friend no matter what. He agrees, and the Earl is produced. Having embraced him, the Emperor returns his lands and makes him his steward. When Diocletian dies, three years later, the Earl is elected Emperor. He marries Beulybon and they live together for twenty three years and have fifteen children.

From: Jennifer Fellows, Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance. London: J.M. Dent for Everyman, 1993.
Manuscript: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Ms F.f.2.38


Click a title below to search for all romances in that manuscript.

Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (folio: 63r-70r)1420-50. 1219 lines.
Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton Manuscript) (folio: 114v-122r)c. 1440, Yorkshire.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 45 (folio: 3r-31v)Sixteenth century.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 61 (folio: 27v-38v)Late fifteenth century, Northeast Midlands. 1211 lines.

Modern Editions

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995)Pp. 309-365. Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.Available online at:
Edith Rickert, ed., Early English Romances in Verse: Done into Modern English (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967)Pp. 80-105. Illustrated prose translation.
George Shuffelton, ed., Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008)Pp. 83-111. Uses Ashmole 61.Available online at:
Gustav Lüdtke, ed., The Erle of Tolous and the Emperes of Almayne. Sammlung englischer Denkmaler 3 (Berlin, 1881)Edits texts from all MSS.
J. Ritson, ed., Ancient English Metrical Romances, 3 vols (London, 1802)Vol 3. Pp. 93-144. Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.
J.H. Clark, ed. A Critical Edition of The Earl of Toulouse. Unpublished M.Phil, University of London (1969-70)
Jennifer Fellows, ed., Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance (London: Everyman, 1992)Pp. 231-65. Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.
Thomas C. Rumble, ed., Breton Lays in Middle English (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965)Pp. 135-77. Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.
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. 381-419. Uses Cambridge Ff.2.38.