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A Discovery by Martin Wiggins

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 8 years, 7 months ago

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In the Times Literary Supplement for 22 March 2013, Martin Wiggins announced that he had uncovered an important new document relating to Prince Henry’s Barriers. Jonson’s speeches, presented at Whitehall on 6 January 1610, had been designed to introduce a chivalric show in which the 15-year-old Prince Henry demonstrated his skill in the management of arms. Helped by six supporters and adopting the persona of Meliadus, Prince of the Isles, Henry demonstrated his chivalric prowess by fighting at pike and sword against 56 opponents. Jonson’s text, spoken by Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and the spirit of King Arthur himself, is fulsome in praise of Henry, but it does not reveal what the fictional cause was over which he claimed to be fighting. Martin Wiggins’s document, which is the original ‘challenge’ spoken at Whitehall seven days earlier, now fills in that gap.

This document is a single sheet which originally belonged to Sir William Segar – one of the royal heralds who had authority over chivalric occasions such as this – and which survives in a volume of miscellaneous heraldic papers (British Library Add. MS 12514) bound together sixty years after this event. It announces three claims which Meliadus will defend: that ‘no garment beseemeth a knight so well as that which is soiled with the rust of armour’; that ‘a knight ought to be ready to maintain a lady’s honour as his own word’; and that ‘it is more glorious to be overcome in the defence of an honourable cause than to remain victorious in an ill quarrel’. In support of these rather uncontentious assertions, Meliadus challenges all the knights of Great Britain, and lays out the rules by which prizes will be awarded.

This document is of great interest for the detailed practical information it gives about the conditions of the fighting, and for filling in the fictional scheme to which Jonson’s speeches were responding. Could it even have been written by Jonson? Martin Wiggins thinks not, on the basis that it was not printed in the 1616 folio, and certainly it doesn’t sound like Ben. But soon everyone will have a chance to make up their own minds: Martin has edited the text for us, and we shall be reproducing it in the Masque Archive of the Electronic Edition.

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