Historical Allegory in The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

In an allegory, some real actions or instructive morals are shadowed under imaginary persons or things. Every allegory has two senses- the literal and the mystical. The literal sense is like the vision of which the mystical is the true meaning. In a moral allegory, the story consists of fictitious persons, creatures of the poet’s brain while in historical allegory the story is framed of historical persons and the actions by which other persons or actions are represented.

Spenser looked upon himself as a historical poet aiming at the interpretation of British history. He used the method of allegory to fulfill his aim in the Faerie Queene.

The first book traces the history of England during the time of Henry VIII and Mary Tudor. Henry VIII declared the Church of England free from the authority of Rome in 1533. After the death of Henry VIII, his daughter restored Catholic Church. When Elizabeth came to the throne, she favored the Protestants again. In the Faerie Queene, Spenser deals with this history and with the help of allegory he represents all the characters very skillfully. It is a romanticized history of English Reformation and every character represents someone of early Tudor times. Book I is the reflection of the popular recognition of Queen Elizabeth’s first great service in the cause of truth.

Una is the allegorical character of Truth who remains veiled because truth can never be seen clearly. Gloriana is at the service of Truth. So both Una and Gloriana represent Elizabeth. In Book I, Spenser deals with the following historical incidents like Elizabeth’s sufferings at the hand of Gardener before she became the queen, her first attempt to re-establish religion, her contest with the dragon of Spain.

Spenser’s Duessa is Mary Tudor who has brought back the letter of Rome. The last letter of Duessa to Una’s parents before the marriage of Una represents the last effort of the Roman Church to re-assent its supremacy. The plan failed. The false letter also stands for Mary’s false claim to the English throne.                 

Una’s spirit stands for Thomas Cromwell- the champion of Reformation Church. Sansloy represents Gardener, the leader of the Roman Church. After the defeat of Cromwell, Gardener gained control of the ecclesiastical policy. Sansloy is identified with Walsey and his love Duessa represents Walsey’s attempt to gain papal authority. Sir Satyrane has been identified with Crammer who became the leader of the Reformed Church after the death of Cromwell. Orgoglio stands for Phillip II. The Knight’s imprisonment by Orgoglio represents the condition of the Roman Church during the reign of Mary Tudor. Orgoglio’s adoration of Duessa is, in fact, the adoration of Mary of Scots by Phillip of Spain. The dragon that has made Una’s parents captive also represents Roman Catholicism and the dragon’s defeat symbolizes the final defeat of the Roman Church at the hand of Reformed Church. Archimago is a Roman Pope and the antichrist.

Redcross Knight represents holiness in the moral sense. He has been identified with Henry VIII. He also represents St. George, the champion of true faith. The monster, Error represents false leading during Spenser’s time. He also encounters Archimago who stands for both Philip II and the Pope. The adventure of the Knight in the cave of Despair refers to the dejected state of England at the time when Queen Elizabeth assumed responsibility. The marriage of Una and the Knight represents the union of England and the true religion.

Prince Arthur, in the first book, rescues the Knight and it symbolizes that truth is powerless in great emergence until it is helped by magnificence.

Spenser treated the epic of Europe in his Faerie Queene by the complete method of historical allegory, Spenser made a list Tudor agents and personages and cast them in the form of literary crossword puzzles to be unparalleled by the ingenuity of later commentation.


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