|Illustration by Herbert Cole.
Once upon a time, "long before Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table there reigned in the eastern part of England a king, who kept his court at Colchester." He was strong, and brave and lived a golden life. "He subdued his enemies abroad and planted peace among his subjects at home." Yet the Grim Reaper comes for rich and poor, just the same, and one day, he came for the queen. The king, and his daughter, a lass of fifteen years, wept bitterly at their loss. The girl, "from her courtly carriage, beauty, and affability, was the wonder of all that knew her. But as covetousness is the root of all evil, so happened here." The king felt himself impoverished, both by the loss of his wife and by the stroke of bad fortune that had taken her. He would marry again, he decided, choosing the richest widow he might. It happened that he found dame who was both rich and widowed. She was also "old, ugly, hooknosed and hump-backed." His majesty allowed the glitter of her gold to blunt her faults, and those of her daughter as well. This lady was "full of envy and ill-nature; and, in short, was much of the same mould as her mother." When these two had settled themselves they set to their wicked habits, and "set the king against his own beautiful daughter, by false reports and evil tales." Life held few pleasures for this princess since the loss of her mother, and now, being cast out of her father's loving embrace, she decided to go out to seek her fortune. So she asked the king, "with tears in her eyes, to give her a small pittance." He agreed, but sent her to his new Queen for provisions. This lady chose to give her stepdaughter, for the long road ahead, "a canvas bag of brown bread and hard cheese, with a bottle of beer." The princess accepted this graciously, bade her father farewell, and set off. She had not gone far before she came to a cave. Seated on a large stone in front of it was an old man. "Good morrow, fair maiden. Whither away so fast?" enquired he. And she replied, "Aged father, I am going to seek my fortune.' 'What hast thou in thy bag and bottle?' 'In my bag, I have got bread and cheese and in my bottle good small beer. Will you please to partake of either?" He answered that he would, with all his heart, so she spread the provisions before him. The old one ate his fill, then told the princess of the dangers ahead. " There is a thick, thorny hedge before you, which will appear impassable, but take this wand in your hand, strike three times, and say,'Pray, hedge, let me come through', and it will open immediately; then a little further on you will find a well." In that well, he told the princess, lived three water spirits who would push up their golden heads through the water when she bent to draw some. They will speak, "and whatever they require, that do!" Following these instructions, the princess made her way through the hedge, found the well, and sat upon its wall. No sooner had she done so than "a golden head came up singing,' Wash me, and comb me, And lay me down softly.' 'Yes' said she, and putting forth her hand, with a silver comb performed the office, placing it upon a primrose bank." The princess combed and smoothed the second golden head when it came up, and the third as well. Then she opened her bag and ate some bread and cheese. "Then said the heads to one another,' What shall we do for this lady who hath used us so kindly?" The first decided to give the girl grace to match her beauty, so that she might "charm the most powerful prince in the world." The second head declared that she would give the girl a natural fragrance that was sweeter than the perfume of flowers. And the third bestowed the very best from Fortune's own cupboard would follow her, and that she would thus "become queen to the greatest prince that reigned." Having thus blessed the girl, she gently floated each head upon the water, and the three sank at once. She carried on her journey now, and before long, passed through a wood where a fine king was out hunting. She moved stealthily, and kept to the shadows, but even so, he caught sight of her, and drew up beside her. Dismounting and looking over this bright princess with the canvas bag, he "was so powerfully charmed that he fell in love with her at sight. Forthwith he offered her the finest horse in his train to ride upon; and so, brining her to his palace, caused her to be clothed in the most magnificent manner with white and gold raiment." When the king found out that his bride was the Princess of Colchester, he decided to pay her father the king a visit. He rode forth in his finest chariot, "adorned with rich ornamental gems of gold". All her father's court received the princess and her husband with the utmost joy, save the queen and her hateful daughter. Those two "were ready to burst with malice and envy of her happiness; and the greater was their madness because she was now above them all." The couple stayed for many days, and their wedding was celebrated anew, with feasting and dancing. After many days, the king her father gave her a suitable dowry, and they returned to the fine king's palace. But the envy of her stepsister could not be contained. That one told her mother that she, too, wished to go forth and see what Fortune held for her, believing that it must be greater that what her hated sister had received. So "she was furnished not only with rich apparel, but sugar, almonds, and sweetmeats, in great quantities, and a large bottle of Malaga sack." Off she went down the same road travelled by the princess, and soon she came to the cave. There sat the old man, upon his great stone. Said he to her, "Young woman, whither so fast?" And she answered saucily, "What is that to you?' 'Then,' said he,'what have you in your bag and bottle?" And she told him that there were dainties, meant not for the likes of him. When he asked for a morsel and a sip she replied, "No, not a bit, nor a drop, unless it would choke you.' The old man frowned, saying,' Evil fortune attend thee." So she passed on. Soon she came to a thick hedge, and here she tried to squeeze past the brambles in a hole she spied. But "the hedge closed and the thorns ran into her flesh, so that it was with great difficulty that she got out. Being now in a most sad condition, she searched for water to wash herself. " That's when she saw the well. Immediately she bent to draw water from it and just then, "one of the heads came up, saying,' Wash me, comb me, and lay me down softly.' But she banged it with her bottle, saying,'Take this for your washing." So she treated the second and third heads when they arose, and so the heads set to talking among themselves. They cursed her then, saying, "Let her be struck with leprosy. Let her hair turn into packthread." And then they wished her "a poor country cobbler for a husband'. And so the girl continued her journey. Soon she entered a town, and, it being Market Day, found the streets filled with people. These soon fled, so grotesque was her appearance. The cries of "Leper!" rang in her ears, and she sat herself down to weep in shame. Yet now someone approached her. It was "a poor, country cobbler. Now, not long before he had mended the shoes of an old hermit, who, having no money, gave him a box of ointment for the cure of leprosy. Being a charitable man as well as a practical one, he decided to offer her a cure, if she would be his wife. He asked her who she was. She said, "I am the King of Colchester's daugter-in-law." "Well,' said the cobbler,' if I restore you to your natural complexion, wand make a sound cure of you, will you take me for a husband?" And she was grateful for a friend, and agreed. After they were married, they set off to visit the King and Queen of Colchester. When the Queen discovered the low profession of her daughter's husband she "fell into fits of rage, and hanged herself with wrath." Then the King gave his step-daughter a dowry, and she and the cobbler went to live "in a remote part of the kingdom". The two lived happily together for many years, "he mending shoes, his wife spinning thread, and I hope she made him happy."
From Fairy Gold: A Book of Old English Fairy Tales (Pitorial Archive Series) Notes: I like this story for the follow-up and change of heart of the bad stepsister. It illustrates that she was taken down a peg, but still found simple happiness. Again we see the importance of spinning and weaving. The cobbler needed not just a wife but some to spin thread, weave cloth, and make clothing. This was all but a full time job, which explains why even princesses and ladies in fairy tales can be found spinning, just like the servant girls. In real life the difference lay in what was being spun. Coarse thread for plain sheep-colored wool, or linen for the peasantry, and fine linen threaded with beads, or wools dyed brilliant colors, for the ladies. Note that here again we have the motif of water spirits, (since the golden heads are in the well), and of the number of three: 3 heads, 3 charms, 3 curses.
Montessori Connection: Geography of England OR The Legend of King Arthur
1. Read this story and notice where it is said to take place. (eastern England).
2. Find England on the globe.
3. Using a large, detailed map of England, try to find Colchester.
1. Read the story and notice that we hear that it happened before the time of King Arthur.
2. Learn that the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is one of the most important stories in Western literature.
3. Learn that King Arthur was first written about, in verse, in the year 1155.
4. Learn that stories about him and his valiant knights appeared in a book called Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death of Arthur) some time about 1469.