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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century


Jennifer Palmer
October 20, 1999

Woodcut of Redcrosse Knight from the first edition of Spenser's Faerie Queene

The Errour of Rome:
Spenser's Defence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I,
and the Church of England in
The Faerie Queene

        In The Faerie Queene, Spenser presents an eloquent and captivating representation of the Roman Catholic Church, her hierarchy, and patrons as the malevolent forces pitted against England in her exploits as Epic Hero. A discussion of this layer of the allegory for the work in its entirety would be a book in and of itself, so, for the purposes of this exercise, the focus will be confined to Book I, Canto 1, through the vanquishing of the dragon, Errour. Even in this small section of the work, however, it will be evident that Spenser very much took to heart both his duty as an Englishman to honour Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I, and his duty as a Protestant Christian to champion the Church of England. The purpose of this exercise is not to prove whether Spenser was correct in his assertions, but to explore the manner in which he sets forth his views; it is, therefore, written from the position that his views are righteous, in the interest of eliminating the need for multiple caveats stating that the ideas herein are an interpretation of Spenser’s beliefs. That being said, Spenser’s multi-layered allegory sets him apart as perhaps the first Anglican Apologist, in whose footsteps C.S. Lewis would later follow with his own deeply symbolic tales. That Spenser displayed the literary and imaginative prowess to lay down so many layers of richly crafted allegorical fabric has made The Faerie Queene a work for the ages, both as lessons in English and Ecclesiastical history and as a fine example of the enduring beauty of the Language.
        Spenser, in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, points out the most obvious allegorical devices that run through the entire tale. Those are the Red Crosse Knight, Gloriana, and Faerie Land, as King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, and England, respectively. Sovereignty being what it was (and, to a lesser degree, remains), one may see not only Faerie Land but also the characters of the Red Crosse Knight and Gloriana as symbolic of all England. Thus, Spenser’s Trinitarian representation of the State is his first showing of England’s alignment with the divine and, thereby, Elizabeth’s God-given right to rule.
        Holinesse, the Red Crosse Knight, as an allegorical presentation of Arthur and, therefore, the mystical goodness of Camelot, sets out on his quest after the dragon, Errour, on which he has been sent by Gloriana. Spenser’s description of the knight’s armour echoes the passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians instructing the faithful to "put on the whole armour of God" (6:11). He wears the "bloudie Cross" (FQ, l. 10) of England on both tunic and shield. A contemporary audience would doubtless have recognized this as also the symbol of the Knights Templar, "The dear remembrance of his dying Lord" (l. 11). So, the Red Crosse Knight is not merely setting out on a quest to act as Faerie Land’s St. George in the slaying of a dragon, but also on a Crusade to wrest the land from the hands of those of false faith. Gloriana sends forth the Red Crosse Knight as Crusaders were called to service in the Holy Land, and also as Elizabeth sent her legions into battle against the Roman Catholic Spaniards.
        The Ladie, Una, is introduced to the Reader in verses four and five. Spenser noted that she is the representation of Elizabeth as the fair beauty, with "the body but of a weak and feeble woman" (E I R, 2), who is to be protected by the Red Crosse Knight. Another symbolic level exists; she is riding "Upon a lowly Asse" (FQ, l. 29) and with her is "a milke white lambe" (l. 36), which shows her to be a representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. An Elizabethan audience would have immediately recognized these as references to familiar depictions of the Virgin riding into Bethlehem and to Christ as the Lamb of God. Spenser thus upholds Elizabeth’s image as the Virgin Queen and further shows England, in the person of the Ladie, to be aligned with Christ. Although the Church of England officially saw, and indeed sees, devotion to the Virgin Mary or any Saint as a "Romish doctrine […] repugnant to the Word of God" (Article XXII), Elizabeth was astute enough to know that the so-called "Cult of the Virgin" was too deeply rooted in the culture of her people to be dismissed out of hand. While the basic tenets of the faith mattered deeply to her, she thought "all the rest … a dispute over trifles" (E I R, 1). To this end, Her Majesty, in 1563, upon revision of the Articles of Religion, "struck out one of [the Articles] altogether as being offensive to Roman Catholics" (Moorman, p. 214); the Article in question (Number 29) was, however, restored in the 1571 revision, before the writing of The Faerie Queene. Elizabeth’s political brilliance and religious sensibilities had established the Church of England solidly as the via media, which it remains to this day. Spenser showed himself equally astute in the drawing of the parallel between his Sovereign and the beloved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The image of the Queen of England wrapped in the iconography of the Queen of Heaven evokes a commanding sense of power, humility, and worthiness of devotion. That she "from Royall lineage came" (FQ l. 40) serves to defend Elizabeth’s rightful inheritance of the throne (despite the dubiousness of her claim, to Catholic eyes, based on her mother’s execution and their consequent view of Elizabeth as illegitimate). That our fair Ladie, Her Majesty, the Virgin, wears white further testifies to her purity of soul; that she is clad also in the black mantle of mourning makes her all the more deserving of honour and needful of protection. Una mourns because the dragon has undone the kingdom of her parents, just as the struggles over Ecclesiastical matters laid waste to Elizabeth’s parents and to England’s hard-won harmony with the nations of the Continent.
        Verses seven through thirteen find the travelling party lost in a dark wood. The travellers have followed the path before them, but have been entranced by the grandeur of the wood, "whose loftie trees yclad with sommer’s pride / Did spred so broad that heaven’s light did hide" (ll. 57-8), and the glory of the "birdes sweete harmony" (l. 65). They realise that they have lost their way and "cannot find the path which first was showne" (l. 85). They press forward, only to find that the most highly travelled path brings them "to a hollow cave" (l. 96). If one views, for these verses, the travellers as England’s people and the wooded path as the rites of the Roman Church, the verses become Spenser’s reproach of Rome for leading the people astray from the true mission of the faith and beguiling them with the trappings of ceremony. England, however, has discovered herself to be lost in the wood of the Roman Church and is determined to find her way through the darkness. Spenser cleverly implies that the most well-beaten path leads not to the clear brightness of holiness, but to dark hollowness. "Oft fire is without smoke, / and perill without show" (ll. 103-4), so England must be wary of the familiar ways of Rome which lead to emptiness of soul and, ultimately, death. That the Ladie knows "the perill of this place" (l. 109), but states that it is "now too late / To wish you backe returne with foule disgrace" (ll. 110-11), signifies that Her Majesty knew full well both the danger posed to her soul were she to follow the ways of Rome and the very real danger to her life in further reforming the English Church. That she indeed knows the perils even better than the Knight can be read on at least two symbolic levels. Firstly, this can be seen as upholding Elizabeth’s authority as the Head of the Church of England in that her wisdom is greater than that even of her male companion. Although she is the fair Ladie to be protected, she has "the heart and stomach of a King" (E I R, 2). Additionally, one may read it as Spenser’s (and, perhaps, Elizabeth’s) exoneration of Arthur and all those who lived before the Reformation; they followed the ways of Rome before England had been enlightened as to the heresy of those ways. As for contemporary times, though, "Vertue gives her selfe light, through the darknesse for to wade" (FQ, l. 108); England, and her Church, will shed light on the darkness of Rome and emerge the victor in the fight for salvation.
        For the battle for salvation to be won by England, it must first be fought. The Red Crosse Knight, as St. George, as King Arthur, and as England, must face the dragon, Errour, the "monster vile, whom God and man does hate" (l. 115). His first glimpse of Errour comes when he enters her den and his "glistering armour [makes] / a little gloming light […] by which he [sees] the ugly monster plaine" (ll. 121-3); England, by the "armour of God" (Eph. 6:11), has indeed shed light on the evils of the Roman Church. Of the dragon, the reader learns that it is "Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide, / But th’ other halfe did womans shape retaine" (FQ, ll. 124-5). The image of the serpent as the representative of evil brings immediately to mind Man’s Fall from Grace in Eden, a story and symbol deeply ingrained in the minds of the Elizabethan audience. There are several ways in which one can read that Errour is half woman. One clear level of symbolism is that this strengthens the imagery of the Fall of Man - at the hands of Woman. The monster in the shape of a woman and mother also conjures images of Grendel’s mother in Beowulf. It may also be read that Errour retains some comeliness and familiarity of form by which to draw in her victims, as the Roman Church draws in the people through the fair beauty of her vestments and comfort of her rituals.
        Light having been shed on Errour’s den, her "thousand young ones" (l. 131) retreat into the very mouth of their mother. This might well be a reference to those in England who continued to follow Roman rites, although (despite Elizabeth’s personal tolerance) practice of any religion other than that to which the Sovereign subscribed was a crime punishable by death, and to their secreting of Roman Catholic clergy in "priest holes." Errour rises up, "out of her den effraide" (l. 136), presumably to do battle with the Knight who has frightened her children with the light, but "seeing one in mayle / Armed to point, sought back to turne againe; / For light she hated as the deadly bale" (ll. 140-2). The devout of Rome had sought out Mother Church for protection and salvation, but Rome fears the righteous man fully clad in the "armour of God" (Eph. 6:11) and prefers shrouding her true nature in darkness and mystery to allowing her faithful to see for themselves in the light. The Red Crosse Knight "her boldly [keeps] / From turning backe" (FQ, ll. 147-8) and strikes the first blow upon Errour. That first wound can be seen as the initial break from Rome under Henry VIII. Although it was indeed a powerful strike, the battle is not yet won, for:

Much daunted with that dint, her sence was dazd,
Yet kindling rage, her selfe gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Tho wrapping her wrethèd sterne arownd,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge traine
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine:

In terms of the development of the Church of England, the preceding verse is quite important. England had thought that the break with Rome had been complete after the initial blow had been struck. However, Mary’s reign and the martyrdom of numerous Protestants had proved that the split would not be as easily accomplished as had first appeared. Just as Errour holds in her fierce clutches the Red Crosse Knight, so England had been returned to the mighty grip of Rome. The Ladie, though, urges the Knight, "Add faith unto thy force, and be not faint: / Strangle her, else she sure will strangle thee" (ll. 165-70). The Knight, strengthened by the call of Una, struggles to free himself. With the strength of Elizabeth to urge it on, the Reformation will not be quashed; it will, instead, insist that the Roman Church be put down and that her false doctrines be shown in the light the heresies that they are.
        The Red Crosse Knight does grip the dragon by the throat, but still she does not fall. She "[spews] out her filthy maw […] / Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw" (ll. 172-4); this can be taken as a vivid defence of Article XXVIII, which denounces Transubstantiation. That "Her vomit full of bookes and papers was" (l. 177) alludes to many wrongs of the Roman Church. On one level, it can be seen as the hoarding of literature by the Church and refusal of Rome to allow vulgate translations of the Bible and the rites. The papers represent the practice of selling (written) indulgences, the Roman Catholic propaganda against Elizabeth, the papal bull instructing Catholics to murder her, etc. Errour, seeing that the Knight is "welnigh chokèd with the deadly stinke" (l. 191), spews out her children; he is beset by her numerous demons but, because he is righteous, "they could not hurt [him] at all" (l. 198). Indeed, the annoyance of "their feeble stings" (l. 204) inspires the Knight to be "Resolved in minde all suddenly to win" (l. 210) and "from her body full of filthie sin / He [strikes off] her hateful head" (ll. 214-15).
        The children of Errour are, however, still very much alive, just as there were many in England who were still faithful to the Roman Church. They seek again to retreat into Errour’s mouth but, finding only a bleeding wound, consume her blood trying to "[Make] her death their life, and eke her hurt their good" (l. 225). However, their attempt is in vain for their "bellies swolne […] with fullnesse burst" (l. 230). This too can be seen as a reproach of the Roman doctrine of Transubstantiation. It is also a graphic portrayal of Article XXIX, which states that those "such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as St. Augustine saith) the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ, but rather to their condemnation do eat and drink the sign or sacrament of so great a thing." Rome, by her wickedness, has undone herself.
        Holinesse has put down the dragon and the rest of "His [immediate] foes have slaine themselves" (FQ, l. 234). So, at this point in the tale, England has won the battle and is free from Rome, thanks to the righteousness of the Knight and the strength of the Ladie. Much of the war, however, remains to be fought. Although the Knight has vanquished the dragon, many perils lie ahead. Because most of the tale has been left without comment here, much too remains to be said about Spenser’s defence of Elizabeth and his presentation of Rome as the many guises of evil. Because there are so many layers of symbolism and so rich a tale, The Faerie Queene stands as a monument, in glorious language, to the complexity of the "doctrinal disputes which were convulsing Europe at the time" (Moorman, 214). The Knight will be confronted by heresy in many forms, just as England will continue to battle with Rome and Catholic nations. Spenser’s protagonists will continue to emerge victorious, which testifies to his unflagging loyalty to his Sovereign and his stalwart faith in the Church of England’s righteousness and ultimate victory over Rome.


Church of England. Articles of Religion, 1571.
        Electronic Resource. Internet. Available:
        Updated 2 December 1997; Accessed 20 October 1999.

Elizabeth I. Quoted in "Historic Royal Profiles: Elizabeth I"
        Electronic Resource. Internet. Available:
        Updated 12 April 1999; Accessed 20 October 1999.

Elizabeth I. "Speech to the Troops at Tilbury."
        The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. vol. 1.
        M.H. Abrams, gen. ed. New York: Norton, 1993. 999.

— History and Mythos of the Knights Templar: Templar Clothing and Garments.
        Electronic Resource. Internet. Available:
        Updated 20 March 1999; Accessed 20 October 1999.

Holy Bible, Authorised King James Version

Moorman, J.R.H. A History of the Church in England. 3rd ed.
        London: A&C Black, 1980.

Russell-Smith, Penny. "Historic Royal Profiles: Elizabeth I."
        Electronic Resource. Internet. Available:
        Updated 12 April 1999; Accessed 20 October 1999.

Russell-Smith, Penny. "History of the Crown: the Tudors."
        Electronic Resource. Internet. Available:
        Updated 12 April 1999; Accessed 20 October 1999

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto 1.
        The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. vol. 1.
        M.H. Abrams, gen. ed. New York: Norton, 1993. 516-32

©1999-2011 Jennifer Palmer. All Rights Reserved.
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