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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

V. The Earliest Scottish Literature

§ 5. Huchoun of the Awle Ryale

Like this poem in form, but certainly of an earlier date, is a series of romances which cluster about the name of “Huchoun of the Awke Ryale,” one of the most mysterious figures in our early literature. the earliest mention of him is to be found in Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil, written about 1420. Wyntoun, in describing king Arthur’s conquests, remarks that “Hucheon of the Awle Realle In til his Gest Historyalle” has treated this matter. Wyntoun feels it necessary to apologise for differing from Huchoun in saying that Leo and not Lucius Iberius was the Roman Emperor who demanded tribute from Arthur. He argues that he has good authority on his side, nor is Huchoun to be blamed:

  • And men of gud discretioun
  • Suld excuss and loif Huchoun,
  • That cunnand wes in litterature.
  • He maid the Gret Gest of Arthure
  • And the Anteris of Gawane,
  • The Epistill als of Suete Susane.
  • He was curyouss in his stile,
  • Faire and facund and subtile,
  • And ay to plesance and delite
  • Maid in meit metyre hixs dite,
  • Litill or ellis nocht be gess
  • Wauerand fra the suthfastnes.
  • The verses which follow are vital for deciding what the nature of the Gest Historyalle or Gret Gest of Arthure was:

  • Had he callit Lucyus procuratour,
  • Quhare he callit him emperour,
  • It had mare grevit the cadens
  • Than had relevit the sentens.
  • Clearly cadens is to be distinguished from rime, for, as Wyntoun’s example shows, procuratour and emperour might rime together. The Gest Historyalle must, therefore, have been an alliterative poem, and all authorities are now agreed that the conditions are satisfied by the poem called Morte Arthure which is preserved in the Thornton MS. of Lincoln Cathedral. In the Morte Arthure, not only is “Sir Lucius Iberius” called “the Emperour of Rome,” but the knights of the Round Table are called Duszepere[symbol] (or some variant thereof), which is evidently the origin of Wyntoun’s Downchsperys. As for the Epistill of Suete Susane, there can be no doubt that it is the poem preserved in five MSS. under that title (with variations of spelling). What was the poem called the Adventure or Adventures of Gawain, the other work of Huchoun mentioned by Wyntoun? For this place there are several pretenders, the most plausible claim being, it seems, advanced for a poem surviving in three curiously different versions, The Awntyrs off [of] Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne, that is at Tarn Wadling, a small lake near Hesket in Cumberland, on the road between Carlisle and Penrith. As the story is mostly concerned with Gawain, his name might have appeared in the title no less justifiably than Arthur’s.

    Of none of these poems in their extant forms can it be said that the language is Scottish. Who, then, was Huchoun? Pinkerton, in the end of the eighteenth century, was the first to suggest that Huchoun was to be identified with the “gude Sir Hew of Eglintoun,” enumerated amongst other poets in Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris. To this it has been objected that Huchoun is a familiar diminutive, and that, if the poet was the well known Sir Hew of Eglintou, a statesman in the reigns of David II and Robert II, who was made a knight in 1342, and, later in life, was married to Egidia, step-sister of Robert II, Wyntoun was not at all likely to talk of him as “little Hugh.” But George Neilson has shown that the name Huchoun was employed in solemn documents even of barons, and, therefore, might without disrespect be applied to a knight who was a king’s brother-in-law. The name Hucheon has commonly survived in some districts as a surname, and must have been much commoner earlier, as is shown by the names Hutchinson and M’Cutcheon, which are merely the Lowland and the Highland forms of the same name. So far there is no difficulty. The explanation of the phrase “of the Awle Realle” is more difficult, but Neilson’s argument for the old view that it is simply the Aula Regis, an appropriate enough description for a knight who served for a period as justiciar, seems much preferable to any other that has been advanced. The more southern colouring of the dialect in his works is not sufficient proof of his English origin, for, where there are several manuscripts, the dialectal forms vary very considerably. Moreover, it would be strange that so fertile a writer should have no honour in the country of his birth, and should be talked of with respect and reverence in a country which was bitterly hostile. It is impossible here to enter fully into the elaborate and ingenious argument by which Neilson, in his Huchown of the Awle Ryale, not only supports the claim made by Wyntoun, but attempts to annex a whole cycle of other poems, which are ordinarily regarded as of English though anonymous origin, and which are discussed elsewhere. For the present purpose, it is sufficient to say that there seems good evidence for the existence of a Scottish poet called Huchoun in the middle of the fourteenth century, and that, in all probability, he is to be identified with the statesman Sir Hew of Eglintoun, who was a contemporary, perhaps a somewhat older contemporary, of Barbour, who must have been at least twenty-one in 1342 when he was knighted, and who died about the end of 1376 or the beginning of 1377. It is noticeable that, on a great many occasions, Sir Hew of Eglintoun receives permission to travel to London under safe-conduct—a fact on which Neilson founds a plausible argument that he was a persona grata at the court of Edward III. This argument, if correct, would account for a more favourable attitude towards England in his works than appears in Barbour’s. In an alliterative poem scribes might change dialectal forms at their will, so long as they did not affect the alliteration or the number of syllables. In the rimed poems here attributed to Huchoun it is certain that the rimes are northern, though, in the fourteenth century, there was no distinction well enough marked to form a criterion of origin from north or south of the Border.