Thursday, 15 April 2021

The crown in the jewel

'The Lay of Havelok the Dane' is a thirteenth century Middle English poem written in the transitional language between the inflected Germanic of Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer's more modern tongue.  It is an engaging if unremarkable tale of a young Danish prince who discovers his royal origins and claims his stolen birthright - a kind of fairy-tale Hamlet - written in the period's characteristically fast-paced short rhyming couplets of four stresses.  For the antiquarian the main point of interest is that the step-father of the eponymous hero is called Grimsby, and the Lay purports to explain how he came to found the town of the same name.

More intriguing for the general reader is the plot device used to reveal Havelok's princely birth.  As he lies sleeping, a blinding ray of light issues from his mouth.  This unprepared irruption of the fantastic into an otherwise naturalistic tale may be surprising but it is by no means unique: a more famous and rather better poem in Middle English, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', has a knight who is not only literally green, but who calmly submits to a beheading, then picks up his head and walks off with it.  The link with folklore's figure of the Green Man who dies and rises again - itself based on myths surrounding the cycle of planting and reaping crops - seems patent, as is the thoroughgoing permeation of the Arthurian cycle concerning the Quest for the Holy Grail with references to other pre-Christian vegetation rites.

Havelok's royal light is proof that he, like all kings and queens, is an extraordinary being, endowed with an angelic radiance.  It is an idea that has been part of the iconography of royalty since the very first representations, albeit in a sublimated form: the crown.  Those blinding rays may come from the head not the mouth, but in essence they are the same.  The gleaming crown is a physical embodiment of the halo of semi-divinity which has always clung to kinghood.

To reinforce this idea, the gold and silver of crowns have habitually been embellished with jewels.  Though the initial impulse may have been vanity and a love of manifest pomp, this development was no simple mindless display of the monarch's wealth.  These otherwise useless lumps of mineral were held precious when cut because they radiated another royal light, one that amplified the luminescence of the crown they adorned.

The imagery of gems is so faded, and our perception of them so dulled, that we forget too easily the tremendous presence of a fine jewel.  And if we can lose touch with the simple primitive awe owed to a single stone, how much greater is our need to be reminded of the humbling presence of a magnificent crown?  A useful corrective is a visit to the Jewel House at the Tower of London.  To see close up the Imperial State Crown with its thousands of brilliants, rubies and sapphires, or the noble and ancient St Edward's Crown, to witness the glinting prismatic rays of the Koh-i-noor diamond or of the Sceptre's huge Star of Africa is to experience afresh the raw power of the precious stone, to regain the sense of the mysterious and the transcendental in a true crown, and to reach back to the ancient knowledge that lay behind Havelok's strange but veridical proof of royalty.

(1990)

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