Lancelot is desperate to reach Guinevere’s chamber – so desperate that he’s crawled over a bridge made from a sword blade to rescue her. The French poet Chrétien de Troyes describes Lancelot’s fingers shredded to the bone as he wrenches the bars from her window, but in her service he feels no pain…
When, in the latter part of the 12th century, Chrétien de Troyes wrote this powerful account in his poem Lancelot, he was giving voice to an ideal taken up by almost every other writer of the Arthurian stories, from Thomas Malory in the 1460s to Lerner and Loewe in the mid-20th century, when they wrote the musical Camelot.
What is courtly love?
But the idea of what a later age dubbed “courtly love” goes far beyond the Arthurian tales. This creed of love was heard in the songs of the troubadours and given formal shape in the courts of what we now call France. It began as a literary fantasy, centred around the image of service – a knight, or young noble lover, kneeling in devotion before a lady he may never even attain – which fascinated the aristocracy. Triggering a huge outpouring of poems, songs and novels, courtly love was described by medievalist and writer CS Lewis as a movement compared to which “the Renaissance [was] a mere ripple on the surface of literature”.
Yet in reality, its tropes did not stay confined to the page. Indeed, the image of a man in service to his lover is a picture we still all recognise today. Take, for instance, the popular TV adverts “The lady loves Milk Tray”, where a heroic man went to ludicrous lengths to bring his lover her desire: a box of chocolates. Enshrined in many of our traditional ceremonies and courtesies, its basic tenets have come to inform our whole idea of romance.
But we aren’t the only society to be influenced by courtly love. Time and again, medieval monarchs made political capital from the fantasy. And certainly the ideas of chivalry, and of courtly love, were co-opted into the service of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII used the Arthurian legends to bolster his fragile new dynasty; Henry VIII called on courtly tropes to woo Anne Boleyn. Their daughter Elizabeth found there a language to sanction her controversial female monarchy.
One of thorniest issues in the creed was whether courtly lovers should surrender to their passions. It had been at the court of Marie de Champagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter by Louis VII of France, that de Troyes had written of Lancelot and Guinevere, on the instruction, he said, of his patroness Marie. He did so in terms that saw their adulterous passion honoured for its ardour: this, at a time when church and state alike demanded the harshest penalties for real adultery. Yet de Troyes’ Lancelot genuflects on leaving Guinevere’s chamber, as if at a holy shrine.
It was probably also at Marie’s court that one Andreas Capellanus (Andrew the Chaplain) wrote his De Amore (On Love), in which he laid down the rules for a spiritual, courtly passion: “You must maintain chastity for your lover,” and “remember to avoid lying completely.” Andreas’s ideal relationship takes place between a young man and a woman already married to someone else, and of higher rank than he. As to whether the relationship was necessarily platonic… that one occupied theorists for centuries. At the end of the 13th century, in a different moral climate from that of Marie’s court, the church condemned Capellanus’s writings.
Andreas satirised the extremes to which this ideal of love could lead – and maybe even criticised it, too. Courtly suitors must obey their ladies’ lightest command, but with women of the lower orders, Capellanus said, they should “not hesitate to embrace them by force… use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness”.
He also described Marie and her mother Eleanor presiding over actual courts of love, adjudicating on such knotty points as whether true love within marriage was even possible. (Marie decided not, since true love was a matter of free choice, and marriage of Courtly love was a movement compared to which the Renaissance was “a mere ripple on the surface of literature” family arrangement.) Though generations of historians presented this fantastical picture as fact, few today would claim that actual courts of love existed in the 12th century.
Throughout the medieval period, the ideal of courtly love changed hue with the changing times. Different eras found either more, or less, value in the ideals of chivalry as a whole – and in the specific, potentially adulterous, fantasy of courtly love. But it never vanished entirely, thanks in part to courtly bestsellers like the Roman de La Rose (and to highly publicised debates like the one provoked by writer Christine de Pizan when she dared criticise that book, from what it’s hard not to call a feminist standpoint). Dante, Petrarch and Chaucer all utilised the ideals of courtly love in different ways. And of course the endlessly reinvented Arthurian stories were brought centre stage when Thomas Malory’s mighty Morte d’Arthur was printed by William Caxton in 1485 – the year that launched the Tudor dynasty.
Slaying the boar
Before the battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor adopted as his standard the Red Dragon Dreadful, the dragon of Wales. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Malory’s Morte also described how King Arthur dreamt of a fight where a dragon beat down a tyrant boar – the boar being the symbol of Richard III, Henry’s great adversary. Enthroned but still vulnerable to Yorkist threat, Henry named his eldest son Arthur and ensured that he was born at Winchester, which Malory had identified as Camelot. Entertaining Philip of Burgundy, a star of the tournament (a sporting event newly fashionable again since the 15th century), he showed him the Round Table. But it was Henry VII’s son who was besotted with the courtly side of the chivalric fantasy.
Henry VIII’s court relished acting out the fantasy of love. Watched by his wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry rode in the lists under the name Sir Loyalheart, her Coeur Loyal. Perhaps courtly love had been co-opted into the service of wedded affection – “I love true where I did marry,” Henry wrote. But the creed was still ill-equipped to cope with the realities of an ageing wife and years of failing to produce a surviving male heir.
There had always been a darker side to courtly fantasy. When in 1513 Henry went to fight in France, he took with him Charles Brandon, and there the Netherlands regent Margaret of Austria became embroiled with Charles in a scandalous story. It started with after-dinner courtly play: Brandon swearing to be Margaret’s servant, and she to be his good mistress. But soon Brandon was showing off the ring he had snatched from Margaret, ignoring the discretion that was supposed to be a hallmark of the courtly lover. As a result, she reported horrified, the tale was being spread even by “merchant strangers” in the streets.
Less than three years later, Brandon made an unsanctioned marriage with Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister. She – educated like Henry in the old romantic stories – had extracted from her brother an extraordinary promise that if she furthered his policies by marrying the aged Louis XII of France, she might make a second marriage “as mine own heart and mind should be best pleased”.
There was one important spectator of all these adventures: a young Anne Boleyn, sent in 1513 to serve Margaret of Austria, and then to France, to Mary Tudor’s court. It was some seven years before Anne returned to England, but then her first recorded appearance was in another piece of love pageantry.
The “Siege of the Chateau Vert” in 1522 – the same year Henry had the Winchester Round Table revamped to reflect the Tudor story – saw knights representing the chivalric virtues attack a castle of ladies. The king’s sister represented Beauty, and Anne Boleyn was Perseverance. At the tournament beforehand Henry had jousted under the device of “the heart of a man wounded” – prophetically, as it would turn out.
The letters Henry VIII wrote to Anne show him delightedly flexing his muscles as a courtly suitor. Though king, he writes to his “mistress… to acquit myself of the duty of a true servant”, or declares that “my heart and I surrender ourselves into your hands”. He asks whether he can truly call Anne his mistress since that “denotes a singular love, far removed from the common”. As the years wore on, Henry’s goal would change from making Anne his mistress (in either the courtly or the sexual sense) to making her his wife. But then, the patterns of courtly love would have another dangerous game to play.
It is still debatable what – after barely three years of marriage – really lay behind the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Was it the “pastime” – the music, dancing, poetry and flirtatious talk – in Anne’s chamber, the ritual tribute of other men’s admiration that might be paid to any courtly lady? Had she failed to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, the role of a mistress and of a wife? Or instead was it all a matter of court faction, and Henry’s desperation for a son? (This would not be the first time the tropes of courtly love, or the charge of a woman’s sexual incontinence, had been used to cloak hard political reality.) But the courtly ethic that actively suggested extramarital affairs was surely a weapon in Thomas Cromwell’s hands, and it lent colour to the charges levelled against Anne.
As Anne speculated that she might be allowed to retire to a convent and recalled predictions that a queen of England would be burned, it is hard to believe that she did not remember stories of Guinevere, sentenced to the flames or to a nunnery. Henry’s unusual decision that she should die by the sword may itself have been influenced by the fact the sword was a symbol of chivalry. Perhaps that’s why courtly tropes don’t feature so strongly in his subsequent marital history – although he did attempt to surprise Anne of Cleves in disguise at Rochester as part of a courtly game, but unfortunately it was one she had no training to play.
The courtly queen
Even Henry’s daughter Mary I would show a flash of more generalised romanticism, telling her parliament she should not be asked to marry a man she did not care for, saying: “Where private persons… follow their own private tastes, sovereigns may reasonably challenge an equal liberty.” Her marriage to Philip of Spain, though political, saw her “extraordinarily in love”. But it was under Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, that the fantasy of courtly love reached its apogee.
The universal assumption during Elizabeth’s early reign was that she too had to marry. But when it became apparent that she was treading a more controversial single path, the challenge was to find an acceptable language, a coding, for her unmarried female monarchy. At almost every point the rules of courtly love matched the relationship between Elizabeth and her courtiers – explaining as nothing else has done how such extravagance could be accepted so readily.
The courtly lady was meant to be capricious and demanding, testing her lover’s unquestioning devotion. Caprice and demand were Elizabeth’s specialities. The theory made the homage paid by favourites like Leicester and Hatton, Ralegh and Essex seem admirable, rather than absurd, and gave an acceptable gloss to Elizabeth’s own flirtatious behaviour. The role reversal implicit in a creed that seemed to give power to the woman is echoed in the complex position of a reigning queen.
True, the original heroines of the courtly love story married – but then, Elizabeth would figure herself as married to her country, displaying the ring that symbolised the union. And if the courtly lady was supposed to be of higher rank, and thus able to dispense patronage, no one had more patronage at her disposal than the queen.
Even more significantly, the courtly lady was supposed to provide a superior moral example which, if her adorer learnt from it, would improve his knightly status. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier was translated by Sir Thomas Hoby three years into Elizabeth’s reign, urging that the courtly lady should be loved by the perfect courtier “and that she should love him in turn, so that both may attain absolute perfection”. You could not get much higher, morally, than a woman who the ritual of the coronation had allied to God. In the courtly poetry of 14th-century Italy, Beatrice and Laura had acted as spiritual lodestars for Dante and Petrarch, and the role was ideal for a queen giving spiritual example to her country.
Though courtly ideals had little currency under Elizabeth’s successor, James, the idea of the queen reigning over hearts never entirely died away. In 1865 Ruskin urged women to be “queens to your lovers; queens to your husbands and your sons; queens of higher mystery to the world beyond”. If the Tudors both exploited and embodied this enduring ideal, that may be one reason we are still so fascinated by their story.
This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine