There once lived an African King named Cophetua. He was wealthy and just, but he had no interest in women. Palace life and the women of the court, their dress and manner, drew out the opposite feelings in him: disinterest and disdain. He felt himself immune to love and could not understand the rash and reckless behavior which accompanied it.
Yet like tragic heroes, the impervious and haughty Cophetua struggled against his fate. He was struck by Love’s arrow. From his window he saw a beggar maid, her beauty clothed in gray rags like the “moon in clouded skies.”
He took to his bed, fighting the feelings which consumed him, astounded to find himself susceptible to the follies of love. But it was no use. The King made a royal oath that he would have her as his queen, or take his life instead.
Following her into the square, he cast gold into the streets for the peasants and he approached to ask her for her hand in marriage. He learned her name was Penelophon.
They married and lived a quiet life the rest of their days.
This is my version of the legend. It is a story of beauty and love’s transcendent power over class and poverty. Literary figures alluded to it throughout history: Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ezra Pound, and modern writers like Alice Munro. Here are the lines from Romeo and Juliet, Act ii, sc 1, Verse 13.
Young Adam Cupid, he that shot so trim,
When King Cophetua loved the beggar-maid.
Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones created his most notable painting from this story, drawing from Tennyson’s poem and the Elizabethan ballad from Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
The masterpiece is massive in size, over 9 feet by 4 feet. The dimensions allow the artist to demonstrate the story in a vertical flow: the king seated beneath Penelophon, his crown in his hands. He looks at her, but she looks at us. Barely clothed in her gray shift, her image glows against the gilded palace interior, a contrast of simple beauty against contrived.
Here is a short educational video about this painting which is now in the Tate Britain.
LEGENDS & STORY – Why are they important?
A long time ago, before computers and books, we told stories by the hearth, to our children, the same stories we heard from our mothers, and they heard from their mothers. Oral traditions and storytelling are a part of the fabric of human existence, wrapping us in a richly woven blanket of culture and heritage, passing on the essence of what it means to be human.
The origins of this story go so far back, it’s unknown. It is first documented in the 1600s as ancient poetry. Fascinated by Cophetua, writers have drawn on the theme ever since.
** Tennyson’s poem and the Scottish ballad memorialize the story
The Beggar Maid
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1842
Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day”.
As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”
King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid
Richard Johnson’s Crown Garland of Goulden Roses (1612)
I READ that once in Affrica
A princely wight did raine,
Who had to name Cophetua,
As poets they did faine.
From natures lawes he did decline,
For sure he was not of my minde,
He cared not for women-kind
But did them all disdaine.
But marke what hapned on a day;
As he out of his window lay,
He saw a beggar all in gray.
The which did cause his paine.
The blinded boy that shootes so trim
From heaven downe did hie,
He drew a dart and shot at him,
In place where he did lye:
Which soone did pierse him to the quicke,
And when he felt the arrow pricke,
Which in his tender heart did sticke,
He looketh as he would dye.
What sudden chance is this,” quoth he,
“That I to love must subject be,
Which never thereto would agree,
But still did it defie?”
Then from the window he did come,
And laid him on his bed;
A thousand heapes of care did runne
Within his troubled head.
For now he meanes to crave her love,
And now he seekes which way to proove
How he his fancie might remoove,
And not this beggar wed.
But Cupid had him so in snare,
That this poor begger must prepare
A salve to cure him of his care,
Or els he would be dead.
And as he musing thus did lye,
He thought for to devise
How he might have her companye,
That so did ‘maze his eyes.
“In thee,” quoth he, “doth rest my life;
For surely thou shalt be my wife,
Or else this hand with bloody knife,
The Gods shall sure suffice.”
Then from his bed he soon arose,
And to his pallace gate he goes;
Full little then this begger knowes
When she the king espies.
“The gods preserve your majesty,”
The beggers all gan cry;
“Vouchsafe to give your charity,
Our childrens food to buy.”
The king to them his purse did cast,
And they to part it made great haste;
This silly woman was the last
That after them did hye.
The king he cal’d her back againe,
And unto her he gave his chaine;
And said, “With us you shal remaine
Till such time as we dye.
“For thou,” quoth he, “shalt be my wife,
And honoured for my queene;
With thee I meane to lead my life,
As shortly shall be seene:
Our wedding shall appointed be,
And every thing in its degree;
“Come on,” quoth he, “and follow me,
Thou shalt go shift thee cleane.
What is thy name, faire maid?” quoth he.
“Penelophon, O King,” quoth she;
With that she made a lowe courtsèy;
A trim one as I weene.
Thus hand in hand along they walke
Unto the king’s pallàce:
The king with courteous, comly talke
This begger doth embrace.
The begger blusheth scarlet red,
And straight againe as pale as lead,
But not a word at all she said,
She was in such amaze.
At last she spake with trembling voyce,
And said, “O King, I doe rejoyce
That you wil take me for your choyce,
And my degree so base.”
And when the wedding day was come,
The king commanded strait
The noblemen, both all and some,
Upon the queene to wait.
And she behaved herself that day
As if she had never walkt the way;
She had forgot her gowne of gray,
Which she did weare of late.
The proverbe old is come to passe,
The priest, when he begins his masse,
Forgets that ever clerke he was
He knowth not his estate.
Here you may read Cophetua,
Through long time fancie-fed,
Compelled by the blinded boy
The begger for to wed:
He that did lovers lookes disdaine,
To do the same was glad and faine,
Or else he would himselfe have slaine,
In storie, as we read.
Disdaine no whit, O lady deere,
But pitty now thy servant heere,
Least that it hap to thee this yeare,
As to that king it did.
And thus they led a quiet life
During their princely raine,
And in a tombe were buried both,
As writers sheweth plaine.
The lords they tooke it grievously,
The ladies tooke it heavily,
The commons cryed pitiously,
Their death to them was paine.
Their fame did sound so passingly,
That it did pierce the starry sky,
And throughout all the world did flye
To every princes realme.