The Red Romance Book, by Andrew Lang

Havelok and Goldborough

Once upon a time there lived in England a king called Athelwold, who ruled the land so well that everyone was rich and happy: or, if they were not, it was their own fault. His people all loved him dearly, and would do anything for him, and when he went to war there was no sovereign that could count on a larger following of stout brave men. He was quite a youth when he came to the throne, and at first all sorts of traitors and robbers from other countries took refuge in his kingdom, but Athelwold sought them out so carefully and punished them so severely that they soon betook themselves and their crimes elsewhere.

Now one thing grieved the king sorely. He had no son to sit on his throne after he was dead, to protect the poor and put down the lawless. And how was his little daughter, who was not yet fourteen, to keep order, or to uphold the laws?

‘If she were a woman grown, it might be different,’ he thought to himself, ‘for Goldborough sees clearly and acts promptly. But as yet she has little knowledge, and her ways are those of a child. And full well I know that my death is nigh at hand, and there is none to watch over her.’

Long the king pondered in his mind what he could best do for his daughter’s safety and the welfare of his people, and in the end he sent messengers with letters to all his earls and barons from Roxborough to Dover, bidding them come to his castle of Winchester as swiftly as they might, for he could no more mount his horse, neither could he swallow meat or pasties.

Sadly his vassals received the summons, for each loved him as his own father, and not one lurked behind. The king gave them a glad welcome, but they could not forbear shedding tears when they saw his weakness and heard his feeble voice. Athelwold let them have their way a little while, and then he said:

‘I am dying, as you see, and I have sent for you hither, to ask you all to tell me which of you will best guard my daughter when I am dead, till she has come to years when she can guard herself.’

And they answered as one man:

‘Earl Godrich of Cornwall.’

Then the king bade the priest bring the holy vessels, and earl Godrich swore on them that he would be faithful and true in peace and in war to Goldborough; and, further, that he would seek out a man who was better and fairer and stronger than all others to be her husband, so that the land might have peace, as in the days of Athelwold.

After the earl had sworn to fulfil what the king required of him, Athelwold made his will, and gave England into the keeping of Godrich. This done, he lay back in his bed, and that same morning he died in the arms of his daughter.

But bad indeed was the choice which king Athelwold’s vassals had made when they proclaimed earl Godrich as the fittest guardian for the young princess. In the beginning, indeed, while Goldborough was still a child, everything went smoothly. The earl appointed justices and sheriffs to carry out the laws, and, though he took more heed to gather riches for himself than to protect his people, yet on the whole he governed well.

Thus six years passed away, and Goldborough was twenty years old. She had lived far away from the castle of Winchester, and had never seen her guardian since the day that her father had been buried, and, for his part, he had hardly remembered her, he was so busy making laws and amassing treasures. Still, other people recollected Goldborough, if he did not, and one Eastertide, when the princess’s twentieth birthday was at hand, an old pilgrim chanced to stop at Winchester on his way to Canterbury. He had but lately passed through the town where Goldborough was living, and had many tales to tell of her fair and gracious ways.

Godrich let him talk, but his face was gloomy and he answered nought. But, though his tongue was silent, his heart was base and his thoughts were evil.

‘Have I toiled all these years for nothing?’ he said to himself, ‘and shall England be ruled by a fool, a maiden? I have a son, a full fair knave; he shall have England and be king.’

So Goldborough was brought from her woods and gardens, and shut up in the castle of Dover, where none might visit her. And no company had she but her foster-sister, and an old woman who had been her nurse.


At the time when Athelwold ruled England there reigned in Denmark a king called Birkabeyn, who had three children, two girls named Swanborough and Helfled and a boy called Havelok. Birkabeyn was strong and healthy, and thought to live many years, when a wound in battle proved his death-blow. Like Goldborough, the children were all young, and he was forced to choose someone to protect them till they were of full age. The man on whom Birkabeyn’s choice fell was his own close friend, who had served him all his life, and who, he thought, loved his children well. And so perhaps the earl would have done had not such power been given into his hands, but this he was not proof against. No sooner had the king died than he caused the three children to be cast into prison, where he murdered the two girls himself.

A man and woman looking at a glowing bag on the floor

At the dreadful fate of his sisters, Havelok, who was the youngest, fell on his knees and implored the wicked earl to spare him.

‘If it is Denmark you want, it shall be yours,’ cried the boy, ‘and never will I seek to take it from you. Nay, give me a ship, and to-day I will leave the country for ever.’

Even the earl’s heart was for a moment softened by the child’s tears and prayers, and at first he thought that he would let him go, as it would be many years before he would be old enough to be an enemy. But then he remembered that, if Havelok died unwedded, he and his sons would be heirs to the crown, for he was the king’s cousin. However, he pretended to grant the child’s prayer, and bade him follow him down to the shore, where dwelt an old fisherman. Havelok wandered down to the water, and wondered which of the ships drawn up on the beach he should set sail in, and where he would go. He was still terrified at the death of sisters, and shook with fear as long as their murderer was in sight.

Meanwhile the earl was speaking to the fisherman, who stood at the door of his cottage, which was built just out of reach of the waves.

‘Grim,’ he said, ‘to-day you are my thrall, but to-morrow you shall be a free man if you will do my bidding. Take the boy that stands there, and throw him into the sea, that he drown. Fear nothing: the penalty will be mine, not yours.’

‘Your bidding shall be done,’ answered the fisherman, ‘though the deed is but little to my liking.’

‘So be it,’ said the earl, and went home to hold counsel with his family how best to take possession of the crown.

Grim took down a cord from a hook in the roof, and went out to the child, who screamed with terror as he drew near, but there was no one to help him, and Grim thrust a cloth in his mouth to stifle his cries, while he bound his hands behind his back with a cord. When this was done, he put the boy in a black bag, and carried him to his wife, who flung him on the floor, where he lay for many hours, thinking every moment that he would be thrown down a well or stabbed by a dagger.


At midnight, when all was still, and the men in the ships were sleeping soundly, Grim arose, and told his wife to kindle a fire and to light a candle.

‘Why, there is a light in the room already,’ said she, ‘and it seems to come from the farthest corner, and to shine as brightly as if it were the sun itself’; and with that she sprang out of bed and ran over the floor, calling to Grim to follow her.

And in truth it was as she had said, for round the bag which held the boy a brilliant light was shining.

‘If we touch him we shall rue it all our lives,’ she whispered to her husband; then, stooping, she cut the knots which held the bag, and drew out Havelok, who was well-nigh dead with fright and suffocation. Next she stripped him of his clothes, and on his shoulder she found the mark of a tiny cross, from which the light came.

‘He is born to be king,’ said Grim softly, ‘and surely it is he and no other who is the son of Birkabeyn, and who some day shall come to his own. It is easy to see that he will grow into a man, tall and strong, who shall come back from over the sea where I shall send him, and avenge himself on the traitor.’ Then Grim fell on his knees before Havelok and prayed his forgiveness.

‘You shall stay here awhile,’ he said, ‘till I can fit out a ship, and in it we will all set sail, you, and I, and my wife and my three sons, but it must be done in secret, lest the earl should come to know of it.’

So they gave Havelok bread to eat and milk to drink, and laid him in a bed in a dark corner, where no man could see him, and the next day Grim set out for the traitor’s castle to ask for the reward that had been promised him.

‘Your bidding is done, and I have come to claim my freedom,’ said Grim when he stood in the presence of the traitor. But the earl made answer:

‘Who is there to know what lies betwixt us? Go home, and be my thrall, as you have ever been.’

Full of rage though he was, Grim dared say no more, lest his head should pay forfeit; but the earl’s words had filled him with fear, and he hastened to get ready a ship and to fill it during the night with food enough to last them for three weeks. By that time, he thought, they would reach the shores of England.

When all was finished, Grim and his wife, his three sons and two daughters and little Havelok, stole away very early one morning before the sun was up, and set sail southwards. A north wind soon sprang up and drove him, in ten days, to the mouth of a great river called the Humber. Here he steered his ship on to the beach, and then they all got out and set up a tent, till they could look about for a little and see what best to do.

It was a wild place where they landed, and for many miles there was not even a hut to be seen, but Grim liked it well, and he built houses for himself and his family, and by-and-by more people came thither also, and a town was built and was called Grimsby, after Grim. But that happened afterwards.

Fish were plentiful at the mouth of the river — lampreys and sturgeon and turbot and great cod — and Grim and his sons were good fishers, both with net and line, and Havelok soon learned to fish too, and was as happy as any boy could be. Sometimes he stayed at home with the women while the others carried fish round the country in baskets.

Twelve years passed in this manner, during which Grim had prospered greatly, but he began to get old, and the long journeys with heavy panniers on his back tried him sorely. This Havelok perceived, and one day he spoke:

‘I am a man grown, and shall I sit at home idle mending nets while my father travels over the whole country-side carrying weights too heavy for him to bear? Not so! To-morrow I go forth, and my father shall take his seat by the fire, and shall mend the nets.’

Whatever Havelok said he did, and early the next morning he took the panniers on his shoulders, and started for the houses where Grim was wont to sell his fish. But soon, none could tell why, a bad time came, and there was no corn in the land, and no fish in the sea. And Grim felt pity in his heart for Havelok, who was young and strong, and needed more meat than other men. So one day Grim spoke:

‘Havelok, dear son, you have come upon evil days, and must stay with us no longer. Go to the city of Lincoln. It is a rich town, and there you may find work for all you need. But, woe is me! no clothes can I give you, save this old sail, which the women shall fashion into doublet and hose for you.’

The sail was soon cut and fashioned by Grim’s wife and daughters, but there was nothing to make into shoes, and Havelok walked into Lincoln barefoot, and he fasted from meat for two or three days; at length the earl’s cook took him into his service as porter, and his chief duty was to carry the earl’s fish into the castle. But the cook had many porters besides Havelok, and when the cry of ‘barmen’ was heard they all tried one to outdo the other in obtaining the pot in which lay the hot fish. However, Havelok was taller and stronger than the rest, and generally was able to thrust the others on one side.

Besides bearing the cauldron of fish, Havelok had many things to do. He had to fill a huge tub in the kitchen with water, and to cut wood for the fire, and to do anything the cook told him. And, whatever happened, he was full of mirth, and would jest and play with the children who ran about the back of the castle.

At last his clothes, which had been fashioned out of the old sail, fell into holes, and the cook, out of pity and liking, bought him some new ones, and when he put them on there was no man, be he who he might, that was fairer to see. Then folk began to notice that he was taller than any man in the castle, and that he was very strong. Very soon a chance came to him to prove his strength.

Godrich the earl — or the king, as he called himself — now held his court at Lincoln, and summoned a parliament to be held there to settle the affairs of the nation. They came in great companies, and everyone had a following, and so many were they that they were forced to dwell in tents outside the city walls. It was not long before they fell to wrestling and such sports.


For a while Havelok looked on, and bided his time. He took no part in the wrestling, though there was not a champion on the ground that he could not easily have overcome.

When they were tired of throwing each other, someone proposed that they should put the stone, and a large smooth piece of rock was chosen. Man after man came forward, but hardly one could raise it from the ground, far less cast it any distance from him. At this moment the cook strolled up and saw his scullion standing there.

‘It is your turn,’ he said to Havelok; ‘show them what you can do, for the honour of Lincoln,’ and Havelok obeyed him. He lifted the mighty stone to the height of his shoulder, and sent it spinning through the air.

‘Measure the cast,’ said the cook proudly; and when it was measured it was found to be twelve feet beyond the cast of any other man.

Little was talked of that day but the wonderful throw of the young scullion, and soon it reached the ears of the knights at court, and in time, Godrich himself. As he listened to the tale, there flashed across his memory the words of the dying Athelwold: ‘Find out the man who is better and fairer and stronger than any man in the world, and give him to be husband to my daughter.’ Was there any man living stronger than this Havelok? and could he himself be ill-spoken of if he should carry out Athelwold’s dying wish? So thought Godrich; but far back in his heart he knew that once Goldborough was wedded to a scullion there would be small chance of her becoming queen.

Next morning a knight mounted on a big bay horse, and attended by two men-at-arms, might have been seen riding southwards through the fair county of Lincoln, and in twenty days’ time he returned, bringing with him the princess. Godrich greeted her with tokens of great joy, and told her that, as her father had bidden him, he had found at last the fairest and strongest man in the world, and he should be her husband.

Goldborough listened quietly to his words, and when he had ended she looked at him.

‘Let him be as strong and fair as he may,’ she said, ‘but if he is not a king or a king’s son he is no husband for me.’

At this Godrich waxed wrath, and his whole body trembled with anger.

‘Your father bade me swear to him when he was dying that you should marry the strongest man in the world, and none other,’ cried he, ‘and, by the Rood, it is he you seek to disobey, and not me. The man who is to be your husband is the servant of my cook, and to-morrow we will have the wedding.’

The heart of Goldborough was filled with horror when she heard the fate that was in store for her, and she fell weeping on her knees before the earl to implore him the rather to let her enter a convent; but Godrich answered her nothing, and strode out of the hall.

The bells were ringing next day when Havelok woke, and before he was dressed a message came ordering him to go at once to the earl’s presence. He wondered for what cause he was wanted, for never yet had he had speech of the earl, and still more surprised was he to find Godrich clad in his most splendid robes, as if for a festival. But if Havelok was astonished at all this, he was nearly struck dumb by the words which he heard.

‘Master, will you take a wife?’ and the young man gazed at him in silence; for why should the ruler of all England take heed whether his scullion was wedded or not?

‘Will you take a wife?’ asked Godrich again, in tones of impatience; then Havelok found his voice.

‘No, by heaven I will not,’ he cried; ‘what should I do with a wife? I could neither feed, nor clothe, nor shoe her! For myself, I should have no clothes either, had it not been for the bounty of your cook.’

In his rage Godrich seized a thick staff and laid it across his scullion’s shoulder.

‘Promise me that you will wed her within an hour, or I will hang you on the nearest tree,’ he cried; and Havelok, who had no liking for death, consented.

His purpose thus gained with Havelok, the earl now summoned Goldborough, whom he threatened to burn if she withstood him. All night the princess had wept and pondered how to escape so dreadful a doom, but at last she took comfort in the thought that in accepting this husband, however lowly born he might be, she would be fulfilling her father’s wishes. So as soon as Godrich gave her a chance to speak she said she would resist him no longer.

Then Godrich for the first time in six years felt that he was indeed King of England.

‘You are a wise maiden,’ cried he, his face glowing with joy; ‘and, to show you how well I love you, I will give you much gold, and you shall have an archbishop to bless your marriage.’ And so it was done.

Both Havelok and his wife felt that they could stay in Lincoln no longer, and the next day they bought two horses and set forth for Grimsby. To Havelok’s great grief he found that the fisherman had died just before, after a few days’ illness, but his sons and daughters gave them a glad greeting, and bade them stay in their house, promising that they themselves would be their servants.

Weary with travel, Havelok soon went to bed, but Goldborough knelt praying before the window, when suddenly a bright light filled the room. She turned to see what it might be, and beheld it issuing from a cross on Havelok’s shoulder. While she gazed wondering, she heard a voice saying, ‘Goldborough, let sorrow depart from you, for your husband is no scullion, but the son of a king, and he shall rule over England and Denmark.’ At that her heart grew light again, and she kissed Havelok and woke him, and told him what the voice had said.

‘Let us sail at once,’ added she, ‘for who knows when Godrich the traitor may change his mind? And bid the sons of Grim sail with us.’

Goldborough’s counsel seemed good to Havelok, and he rose in haste and sought Grim’s sons, whom he found setting forth to fish. He begged them to wait, and to listen to his story, which Grim had always hidden from them, and when they heard it, they said that they would go with him, and help him to slay the murderer of his sisters and the robber of his crown.

‘You shall be rich men the day he dies,’ vowed Havelok; and the boat was made ready for sea.

A fair wind blew them to Denmark, and Havelok left his wife with his three foster-brothers, and betook himself to the house of Ubbe the earl, whom his father had loved dearly. He said no word as to his birth, but asked him leave to trade on his lands, offering a ring as earnest-money.

A man and woman with a crowd behind them and another crowd in front of them

Ubbe looked at the ring, and then at the young man who gave it.

‘You look fitter to do a knight’s work than to buy and sell,’ he said, and Havelok answered:

‘That will come, fair sir, but I must first go softly. Meanwhile I have left my wife Goldborough under the care of her foster-brothers, and can tarry here no longer.’

‘Bring her hither,’ said Ubbe, ‘and dwell with her in this castle, and if no man has dubbed you knight I will take that upon me.’

And so it was done, and the heart of Goldborough rejoiced, for by this time she loved her husband dearly.

That same midnight Ubbe was wakened by a great light, which seemed to fill the castle. He rose from his bed, and went from room to room, and all were bright as day, though he could not tell why. Then he came to the room where Havelok and Goldborough lay asleep, and out of Havelok’s mouth came a flame like that of a hundred and ninety-seven candles. And on his shoulder was the cross of kingship, and that was shining too.

When Ubbe saw that, he knew that Havelok was indeed the son of Birkabeyn, his friend, and the rightful king of Denmark; and, waking the sleeping man, he bade him sit up and receive his homage. After that he sent for his lords, and commanded that they should swear fealty to their king. And when the lords had sworn, Ubbe summoned the people, and told them, what many had known before, that the earl had betrayed his trust, and that now he should pay forfeit of his wickedness.

Blithe were Havelok and Goldborough that day as they moved amidst the groups of men who shared in the sports which the people of Denmark ever loved, and once more Havelok cast the stone further than any one there could throw it. His first act, after he had been proclaimed king, was to make Grim’s three faithful sons barons with fair lands. Then he bid them go and seek the earl, and bring him back with them.

This was not done without a hard fight, for the earl and his men defended themselves stoutly; but at length he was bound and placed upon an old horse and carried before Havelok, who was waiting in the castle with his lords about him.

‘What judgment will ye pass on him, fair lords?’ asked the king.

‘That he may be hanged as beseems a murderer and a traitor, and that his head be planted over the chief gate of the town as a warning to all,’ they said with one voice, and this was done also.


For a while Havelok stayed in Denmark to see to the affairs of the kingdom, and then, leaving Ubbe to rule, he set sail for England with Goldborough his wife, and a large army, in many ships with high carved prows. Once again he landed at the mouth of the Humber, and his first act was to found a church in memory of Grim. Next, he placed his army in order of battle, and awaited the attack of his enemy. Godrich the earl had heard that he had come, and had hastily collected a great host, with which he marched upon Lincoln. The attack was begun by the English, and fierce was the fight. Many were killed, both of English and Danes. At last, just as the English were being beaten slowly back, Havelok and Godrich came face to face with each other. Bitterly the earl then rued the day when he had married Goldborough to the strongest man in the world, scullion though he were! Many times Havelok might have slain him, but such was not his purpose, and, taking a cord from his waist, he bound the traitor’s arms, and bade one of his knights ride and fetch Goldborough, whom he had left under a guard at a little distance.

When she drew near, Havelok commanded that a flag of truce should be waved, so that the fighting might cease. Then, taking his wife by the hand, he led her forward, and told her story to them all, and how Godrich the earl had wronged her. And the English fell on their faces and did obeisance, and vowed to serve her faithfully all the days of their lives.

‘And what is the law of England respecting a traitor?’ asked Havelok, when Goldborough had been proclaimed queen with trumpets and shouting.

‘That he be laid on an ass and burned at the stake,’ cried they. And this was done also.

After this, Havelok gave his two foster-sisters in marriage to great lords, and made the cook to whom he had owed his good fortune earl of Cornwall in place of the wicked Godrich. He left Ubbe to rule in Denmark, while he and Goldborough remained in England, but every two years he sailed across the sea to be sure that all went well in the country of his birth.

And for sixty years Havelok and Goldborough lived happily together and had many children, and wherever Havelok went, Goldborough went too.

[The Lay of Havelok the Dane. Early English Text Society.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57