The King and the Beggar-maid

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"The King and the Beggar-maid" is a 16th-century broadside ballad[1] that tells the story of an African king, Cophetua, and his love for the beggar Penelophon (Shakespearean Zenelophon). The story has been widely referenced and King Cophetua has become a byword for "a man who falls in love with a woman instantly and proposes marriage immediately".[2]


Cophetua was an African king known for his lack of any sexual attraction to women. One day while looking out a palace window he witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, "clad all in grey".[2] Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua decides that he will either have the beggar as his wife or commit suicide.

Walking out into the street, he scatters coins for the beggars to gather and when Penelophon comes forward, he tells her that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class. The couple lives a "a quiet life during their princely reign"[3] but are much loved by their people. Eventually they die and are buried in the same tomb.


William Shakespeare mentions the ballad by title in several plays.[4] It is referenced or alluded in Love's Labour's Lost (I, ii, 115 and V. i. 65–85), A Midsummer Night's Dream (IV, i, 65), Romeo and Juliet (II, i, 14), Richard II (V, viii, 80), and Henry IV, part 2 (V, iii, 107), all written in the 1590s.[5] William Warburton believed that John Falstaff's lines in Henry IV, part 2, referencing Cophetua were taken from a now lost play based on the ballad.[6] In Love's Labour's Lost, Armado asks his page Moth, "Is there not a ballad, boy, of 'The King and the Beggar'?", to which Moth responds, "The world was very guilty of such a ballad some three ages since, but I think now 'tis not to be found; or, if it were, it would neither serve for the writing nor the tune."[7] Ben Jonson also makes reference to the ballad in his play Every Man in His Humour (1598)[3] and William Davenant in The Wits (1634).[8]

The oldest version of the tale surviving is that titled "A Song of a Beggar and a King" in Richard Johnson's anthology Crown Garland of Goulden Roses (1612).[9][6] This was the source of the ballad in the first edition of Francis J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1855), although it was removed from the second edition (1858).[1] The ballad was also published in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765).[2]

The ballad was probably sung to the melody (air) of "I Often with My Jenny Strove", published first in the third volume of Henry Playford's The Banquet of Music (1689). In the first volume of the anonymous Collection of Old Ballads (1723), a ballad titled "Cupid's Revenge"—which is a mere paraphrase of "The King and the Beggar-maid"—appears set to the music of "I Often with My Jenny Strove".[1][10] This may be the original air of the Cophetua ballad.[7]

In later art and literature[edit]

Major treatments[edit]

The Cophetua story was famously and influentially treated in literature by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Beggar Maid, written 1833, published 1842); in oil painting by Edmund Blair Leighton (The King and the Beggar-Maid) and Edward Burne-Jones (King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884); and in photography by Julia Margaret Cameron and by Lewis Carroll (his most famous photograph; Alice as "Beggar-Maid", 1858).

The painting by Burne-Jones is referred to in the prose poem König Cophetua by the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), a long poem by Ezra Pound. The painting has a symbolic role in a short novel Le Roi Cophetua by the French writer Julien Gracq (1970). This in turn inspired the film Rendez-vous à Bray, directed by the Belgian cineaste André Delvaux.

The story was combined with and inflected the modern re-telling of the Pygmalion myth, especially in its treatment by George Bernard Shaw as the play Pygmalion.

It has also been used to name a sexual desire for lower-class women and high class men, apparently first by Graham Greene in his 1951 novel The End of the Affair: "I don't know whether psychologists have yet named the Cophetua complex, but I have always found it hard to feel sexual desire without some sense of superiority, mental or physical."[11]

The English poet and critic James Reeves included his poem "Cophetua", inspired by the legend, in his book The Talking Skull (1958).

Hugh Macdiarmid wrote a brief two-verse poem Cophetua in Scots, which is a slightly parodic treatment of the story.[12]

Alice Munro titled one story in her 1980 collection, "The Beggar Maid". Before her marriage to Patrick, Rose is told by him: "You're like the Beggar Maid." "Who?" "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. You know. The painting." The American edition of Munro's collection is also titled The Beggar Maid, a change from the Canadian title, Who Do You Think You Are?

Passing references[edit]

Edmund Leighton's version of the theme

In George du Maurier's first novel ("Peter Ibbetson"), the narrator, in Part Five, refers to himself as a "King Cophetua" when he thinks about the daughter of the owner of a "small tripe and trotter shop".

In D. H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers, Paul sees Miriam's well-worn clothes as "like the romantic rags of King Cophetua's beggar-maid."

P. G. Wodehouse, in the novel Laughing Gas, has the impoverished Ann Bannister initially reject a marriage proposal from the wealthy Reggie Havershot by alluding to this story and then saying "If I'd been there, I'd have said 'Oh yeah?' " Also, in the novel Jill the Reckless (1920), Wodehouse makes two references to Cophetua. First, on p. 99, the protagonist, Jill Mariner, muses: "She would come to him like the beggar-maid to Cophetua." Second, on p. 287, at the beginning of a scene in which he is about to be thrown over by Jill, Sir Derek Underhill thinks, "He was still not quite sure in his mind whether he was playing the role of a penitent or a King Cophetua...." In his novel The Little Nugget, Peter Burns says of himself, "I was King Cophetua. If I did not actually say in so many words, 'This beggar-maid shall be my queen,' I said it plainly and often in my manner." (Please note that cited e-book page numbers may be unreliable.) Wodehouse also refers to King Cophetua and the beggar-maid in an early short story, "Ruth in Exile", which appears in the collection of his stories published as The Man Upstairs (1914), where Ruth conceives "a morbid antipathy to the idea of playing beggar-maid to any man's King Cophetua", as she is wooed by an apparently wealthy young man.

Agatha Christie uses the phrase "Cophetua syndrome" in her novel The Body in the Library, to refer to the case of an elderly upper-class Englishman who becomes infatuated with a working-class girl, albeit in a fatherly rather than sexual way. Christie also references Cophetua in her novel Crooked House.

In the novel Lonely Road, by Nevil Shute, the dancer Mary (Mollie) Gordon rejects Commander Malcolm Stevenson's marriage proposal, citing "the things you hear about men being dragged down by marrying wrong"; Stevenson wonders absently "if King Cophetua had had this sort of thing, and if so, what he did about it."

Dorothy Sayers, in Strong Poison, depicts Lord Peter Wimsey saving Harriet Vane's life by his detective skills and immediately departing from court, whereupon one of Harriet's friends predicts that Peter will "come see her"; to which another friend declares "No, he's not going to do the King Cophetua stunt." This usage, unexplained, suggests that the Cophetua story was familiar to the reading public in early-20th-century England. She makes another reference in Have his Carcase, where she has Harriet Vane telling Peter Wimsey, "You think you can sit up there all day, like King Cophetua being noble and generous and expecting people to be brought to your feet. Of course people will say, "look what he did for that woman – Isn't it marvellous of him!" Sayers also refers to the story in The Five Red Herrings, where Mrs. Farren looks at Wimsey "like a distressed beggar-maid beginning to wonder whether Cophetua was not something of a trial in family life."

In Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novel Framley Parsonage (1861), Lucy Robarts likens her relationship with Lord Lufton, who has proposed to her and whom she loves, to that of King Cophetua and the beggarmaid. It is clearly implied that such a relationship would have unfortunate consequences for them both. Trollope also references Cophetua in The Duke's Children, in which the Duke of Omnium's heir and daughter both marry non-aristocratic partners of whom he initially disapproves.

In The American (1877) by Henry James, Valentin, the Comte de Bellegarde, in describing his near-perfect aristocratic lineage to Newman, states, "Horrible! One of us, in the middle ages, did better: he married, like King Cophetua. That was really better, it was like marrying a bird or a monkey, one didn't have to think about her family at all."

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God's love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, for instance, he writes, "We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt..."

Georgette Heyer, in 1928's The Masqueraders, has Prudence tell her brother: "Lord, it’s a marvellous man! We become persons of consequence, and Tony’s denied his cherished role. He’d an ambition to play King Cophetua, Robin."

At the end of the 1947 film Black Narcissus the Young General makes a reference to "The prince and the beggar-maid", implying he has married the serving girl who was infatuated with him.

P. D. James, in her book Cover Her Face (1962) has Eleanor Maxie say "These King Cophetua marriages seldom work out" in reference to the supposed engagement between her son and her maid. This was James's first novel, and the first in the Adam Dalgliesh series.

Anthony Powell compares the Beggar Maid to Pamela Flitton in Books Do Furnish a Room, volume ten of A Dance to the Music of Time.

In John Fowles' The Magus, a (finally naked) 'Julie Holmes' strikes several poses for Nicholas as the room and she are lighted from the village below: "She raised both her arms above her head, the backs of the wrists together, as if they were bound; and crossed her ankles, as if they were tied as well...She had a smile on her face. 'Who am I?' It was a pose, a sexual guessing game. 'The slave?' 'Cophetua.'"

Robin McKinley, in Beauty – A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, writes of Beauty's first entrance into the Beast's castle: "I wondered how King Cophetua's beggar-maid had felt when the palace gates had first opened for her."

In Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant he suggests that men in uniform pander to the Cophetua complex so prevalent amongst homosexuals suggesting that as these uniformed men are never the higher ranks certain homosexuals are attracted to classes lower than they themselves perceive themselves to be in. [13]

In Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, the character Christian Thrale becomes infatuated with a young woman who he assumes is fairly poor, as his wife Grace had been when he met her. "He could not help associating his present impetuosity with his first encounter with Grace. Was there not, in fact, a recognized condition called the Cophetua Complex? Or had he made that up?"[14]

Florence King revived the term for her 15 July 2002 essay titled "On Keeping a Journal," which appeared in "The Misanthrope's Corner" of the National Review magazine.

In Kerry Greenwood's 19th Phryne Fisher novel, Unnatural Habits, the Cophetua story is directly referenced when a man who believes no-one could love him learns that a servant already does. Later in the same novel, the character Tinker is disdainful of the tale: "And he didn't approve of this Beggar Maid and King Cophetua lark. What if she liked being a beggar? What if she didn't want to be forever beholden to a king?"

In E.F. Benson's 1920 novel Queen Lucia, the title character hosts a party during which a tableau vivant of the Cophetua story is enacted.


  1. ^ a b c Thelma G. James (1933), "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads of Francis J. Child", The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 46 (No. 179), pp. 51–68.
  2. ^ a b c Andrew Delahunty and Sheila Dignen, eds. (2010), "Cophetua, King", The Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion (Oxford University Press). Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  3. ^ a b Dinah Birch, ed. (2009), "Cophetua, King", The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 7th edition (Oxford University Press). Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  4. ^ Jeremy Barlow (2015), "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid", in Michael Dobson, Stanley Wells, Will Sharpe, and Erin Sullivan (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford University Press). Retrieved 22 December 2018.
  5. ^ Helen Sewell (1962), "Shakespeare and the Ballad: A Classification of the Ballads Used by Shakespeare and Instances of Their Occurrence", Midwest Folklore, Vol. 12 (No. 4), pp. 217–34.
  6. ^ a b Walter C. Foreman (1973), "'The Beggar and the King': An Allusion Pointing to the Date of Richard II", Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24 (No. 4), pp. 462–65.
  7. ^ a b Edmondstoune Duncan (1907), The Story of Minstrelsy (London: Walter Scott Publishing), pp. 246–47.
  8. ^ Chappell (1842), p. 83.
  9. ^ William Chappell edited and annotated The Crown Garland of Golden Roses (London: The Percy Society, 1842). "The King and the Beggar" is found on pp. 45–49.
  10. ^ William Chappell (1859), Popular Music of the Olden Time: A Collection of Ancient Songs, Vol. 2 (London: Cramer, Beale and Chappell), p. 591, with the music on p. 592.
  11. ^ The End of the Affair, p. 23.
  13. ^ The Naked Civil Servant, Chapter 12.
  14. ^ The Transit of Venus, Chapter 28.