The King and the Beggar Maid

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"King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," 1884, by Edward Burne-JonesA king does not seem interested in marrying until he comes across a beggar maid.

This is an ancient story that is often referred to in literature. Shakespeare mentions it in several of his plays, including Romeo and Juliet. There is a lovely painting of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid in the Tate by the English painter, Edward Burne-Jones. And there is a short poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson. Bertie has expanded on the story a little bit (with just a hint of "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw). We hope you enjoy this take on it.

Read by Natasha. Adapted by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.

The King and the Beggar Maid

Many years ago, in a faraway and sunny land, there ruled a king by the name of Cophetua. He was gentle-mannered, handsome, and learned. Everyone assumed that a young ruler in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a queen. For the time being, they were disappointed. “He shows no interest at all in the fair sex,” said the Lord Chamberlain, as he was retiring to bed.

His wife, who was a romantic soul, replied, “No doubt he is a one woman man. When he finally falls in love it will be forever.”

Downstairs in the castle, it livened up the lives of the kitchen maids to talk about which noble lady was most likely to catch the king’s eye. At the end of a long summer’s day, they sat outside in the herb garden and gossipped in low voices.

“Princess Eliza is to be presented at court next week. They say she cuts a figure to match her pedigree.”

“Yes, but has she got brains?” Said the cook, who actually spoke to the king on occasion, and knew him better than anyone else who worked in the kitchen. “Our noble lord is a man of refined tastes. He needs a woman who can hold his interest on subjects such as art and music.”

“HA! That’s a good one. Since when does a man want to discuss art and music with a woman?”

“Well I’m telling you that’s exactly what the young king wants. There are plenty of fine looking young ladies at court, but none can interest him.”

A year went by, and there were many opportunities for eligible girls to be noticed by the king. They flocked to the festive dances at the palace. They crowded the jousting tournaments showing off their finest bonnets. Their parents shelled out huge sums of money for sumptuous coming-out balls. But did the king so much as glance at a princess? Only by accident it seemed, or if he absolutely could not avoid giving one a few moments of attention. He did not care for dancing. He took no interest in fashion. He had no small talk. His sole interest was to rule justly and wisely.

"Well I think it’s scandalous," said an aged duchess, who was famous for her evening soirees and her forthright opinions. “It’s positively ungracious for a monarch to take his work so seriously. A king should provide gaiety and lively interest at court – either that or go and fight battles in faraway lands. It has to be one or the other. He has no business being so pious and hardworking.”

For several more months, matters did not improve. There was almost nothing to gossip about at court whatsoever. Then at last there was an event to set tongues wagging. The Foreign Secretary persuaded the king that it was in the best interests of the country to form an alliance with a neighbouring dukedom. The treaty would be sealed by his marriage to Princess Gertrude.

Now the talk was all of the royal wedding: Who would be invited? Where they would sit? What they would wear? The bride’s dress, the banquet, the royal honeymoon – the chattering did not cease. There was plenty of speculation about the princess’s looks and character; some said she was tall, others petite, some swore that she had long blond hair, others that she had curly brown locks, some that she was demure, others that she had a fiery temper. Indeed nobody really knew the truth for sure - for none of them, the king included, had even met her. The foreign secretary had shown him the princess’s portrait. When this was finally hung in a corridor of the palace for all to see, it showed a beautiful, if rather severe young woman, with fair complexion and hair, and glacial blue eyes.

Finally Princess Gertrude arrived in the country and her carriage guarded by a detachment of cavalry rolled into the palace.

The servants stood on the balconies and jostled in the courtyard to get a good view of her. They were disappointed that she wore a white veil as she stepped out of her carriage. Still, they could comment on the grace of her posture, her fine figure, and the purity of a her simple white linen dress. Some even noticed her shoes. Everyone was sure that the king would be simply delighted with her when they finally met.

However, it was not long before rumours started to leak out that the king was not so pleased with his bride of diplomacy. She was not a bit like her portrait. She spoke through her nose. She seemed to look down upon him and the entire country. It was plain to see from the king’s face that he was not in his usual serene state. There were lines on his brow. He was more fidgety than usual. He lost his temper with the servants – something that had never happened before. Finally the Foreign Secretary was given a new job as Ambassador to Mongolia, and Princess Gertrude was sent home. The wedding was off.

"I’ve never before seen him so furious," said the Deputy Prime Minister to the Lord Chancellor. “He swears that he’s had it up to here with princesses, and that he would rather marry a beggar girl.”

“Well he’s young. He sometimes acts rashly - but he has the makings of a fine statesman, and I imagine he will find a suitable marriage in due course.”

This was the general view both in scullery and the star chamber – the king would sooner or later settle for a woman of noble birth. There was hardly a shortage to choose from. All underestimated the strong willed determination of their ruler. A few days later, when he was returning from hunting, he came across a crowd of beggars hanging around by the East Gate to the city. The king dismounted, and began to distribute gold coins from his purse.

“Kneel you dogs!” Called out the captain of the guards. King Cophetua indicated with his hand that there was no need to bluster at these poor fellows, however.

Then he noticed a young woman who was selling wild flowers – a few bluebells was all she had to offer. Her dress was plain and patched in places, but its simplicity suited her. Her feet were bare, but what pretty feet! Her hair and her eyes were brown. There was a appealing innocence about her.

“How old are you?” Asked the king.

“Eighteen,” replied the maid.

“And your name?”

“Penelophon, sir.”

Then she was astonished to see the king kneel down before her. He took her hand and looked up into her brown eyes and asked, “Fair Penelophon, will you marry me?”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Do not be afraid. I will walk with you to the palace. Sergeant – take my horse!”

And the king and the young beggar maid walked arm-in-arm through the streets. Those who saw them said that they were chatting like old friends.

In the whole history of the kingdom, there had never been such a fine vintage of gossip and rumours. It was amazing that anyone in the palace managed to get anything done at all. Everyone was discussing the king’s intention to marry a girl he had found on the street.

His mother’s old lady in waiting met the young woman, and spoke approvingly of her beauty. She wished to dress her in the finest silks immediately. But he king wished to present her at court just as she was – in her plain dress. This caused the greatest scandal of all! The ladies of court were expected to curtsy before her. Many were indisposed by headaches that day, and were unable to leave their rooms.

Then that evening Penelophon’s father turned up. He slapped the king on the back and said, “Of course you can have my daughter for your wife if you want her. Just keep me well stocked with wine – alright, deal?”

The king looked uncomfortable, and the chamberlain led the man away and showed him the back gate to the palace. When the future queen heard of her father’s treatment, she had words with the king.

In front of the whole court she said, “Who do you think you are? He’s my Dad! If you want to marry me, you'd better treat him right, or else I’m back off to the gate to sell my bluebells. We might be lowlife in your eyes, but we are a proud family.”

The king apologised and sent his guard to chase after the man, bring him back and give him a room and all the wine he asked for.

Things settled down, and the next day the king consented for her to be dressed in fine clothes. Everyone in court had to agree that she was as beautiful as any noble born woman – and perhaps rather more headstrong.

When the king asked her if she would care to dance, she replied, “Not bloomin' likely. We don’t have time for that sort of thing where I come from. All you people at court haven’t got anything better to do with your time. I’d rather do something useful like skinning a rabbit.’

Then she came to the kitchens and told the cook off for not putting enough salt in the soup. She went out into the garden and rearranged the flower pots. She spoke to the guard on the gate and told him to stay awake because if she caught him dosing on the job he would be for it.

In general, she soon gained a reputation at court as a feisty young lady.

“The king will never marry her,” said the cook, one evening, to the servants as they sat in the herb garden. “He’s far too sensible. I’m sure he will find a polite way out of this fix he’s gotten himself into.”

Perhaps the king did not like to back down so publicly from his declared intention to marry the girl. Or perhaps he could not think of a plausible excuse. Or perhaps he really did love her; because a month later, King Cophetua was married to the beggar girl. Although his life after that was not quite so peaceful as it had been before, it was never dull.

And that was the story of the King and the Beggar Maid, with details imagined and added in by Bertie. Bertie says that the story was also one of the inspirations for George Bernard Shaw’s play about a flower seller called, “Pygmalion”, which became the musical, “My Fair Lady.”

And before I go, I would like to read you a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say;
Barefooted 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 love-some mien.
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been.
Cophetua swore a royal oath:
"This beggar maid shall be my queen."

For now, from me, Natasha.