Spenser’s View on the Roman Catholic Church Through the Eyes of Classical Mythology

The Christian influences and criticism against the Roman Catholic Church are abundant and apparent in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. However, there are other influences, themes, and motifs that are overshadowed by the heavy religious contexts and easily overlooked. Spenser not only drew inspiration from the intertwining religious and political climate of his time, but also the ancient myths of the Greeks and Romans, the sprawling epics of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and other pagan religions involving gods and monsters. There are several allusions to the dual nature of the world that Spenser builds in The Faerie Queene, most notably in Book II, Canto I where Spenser asks where the land of fairies is, then reminding the reader that new lands are discovered every day. There are illusions to a world that only fairies inhabit, such as with the Celtic folklore surrounding the fairy folk, or the “Little People.”

However, the question regarding the pagan and religious aspects of the poem remains: why include the duality of these conflicting ideologies? What is the purpose of the pagan religions alongside a fiercely presented Christian allegory? To understand Spenser’s intent, we must understand what The Faerie Queene is about.

Spenser’s original vision for The Faerie Queene includes twelve books, but he only managed to write six before his death in 1599. Parts of the seventh book were released posthumously, though little is known about it. Each of the books follows the journeys of a physical representation of the virtues: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. The Fairy Queene herself, Gloriana, is the one who tasks each of the knights of virtue with their quests and represents Queen Elizabeth, a fair and just ruler that Spenser respected and revered due to her Protestant beliefs. Each knight is tasked with conquering some sort of ugly foe that represents the Roman Catholic Church that spread anti-Elizabethan messages throughout the Renaissance era. So far, the religious and political metaphors make sense, as Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant stance promoted the various virtues and freedom of religion, and the Roman Catholic Church sought to gain control over the people. The virtues “defeated” the Catholic Church throughout the books, promoted by the Queen.

Pagan mythologies also creep into the narrative, primarily that of Celtic mythology. The concept of fairies is a uniquely Celtic idea, and while Spenser might not mean for them to hold a pagan meaning, they do perform acts that are aligned with the original pagan intent. For one, they live in an alternate world to the place of England, similar to how the fairy folk of Irish legend live in a world that only they can access. The concept of another mortal world isn’t found in Christianity, though the afterlife is. In the fifth book, Sir Artegal who represents Justice, is tasked with a quest similar to that of the restoration of Ireland after the conquests of Ireland in the Renaissance era. As M. M. Gray writes in their article “The Influence of Spenser’s Irish Experiences on The Faerie Queene:”

“His corpse was carried down along the Lee,

Whose waters with his filthy blood it stained;

But his blasphemous head, that all might see,

He pitched upon a pole on high ordained; . . .”

There is not much allegory or romance in this passage with its curiously definite reference to the River Lee; it is almost what happened to Sir John of Desmond in 1581.

M. M. Gray, “The Influence of Spenser’s Irish Experiences on The Faerie Queene”

This is a reference to the Second Desmond Rebellion, a part of the Tudor conquest of Ireland from 1579 to 1583. To paraphrase a bloody and horrible time of Irish history, Sir John Perrot tried to put an end to all of the traditional Gaelic and Celtic culture of Ireland, as well as the Irish language, and Irish dress. The Roman Catholic Church, while they had converted most of the country, weren’t particularly happy with the traditional culture that the Irish continued to uphold, and attempted to wipe out the rest of the Irish culture. Sir John Perrot, the Lord Deputy to Queen Elizabeth and acting without the Queen’s permission, massacred hundreds of Irishmen, destroyed their land and crops, and sentenced many of them to hang including the leader of the rebellion, Sir John of Desmond, north of Cork near the River Lee in 1581. Queen Elizabeth also condemned Sir John Perrot to death because of the scorched earth warfare he enacted upon the Irish people, but later pardoned him out of mercy. Spenser’s theme of Protestant versus Roman Catholic comes into play once again.

In a way, Spenser also creates his own mythology within his poem. The virtues such as Holiness and Chastity are given physical forms as knights and warriors serving the Queen Gloriana. This is a concept seen in other religions, where an intangible concept is presented in the form of a physical being. Eros represented love in Greek mythology, or Ares who represented war. There are also negative traits, like Death and Despair, that plague the heroes with their looming presences similarly to Charon, the Greek boatman who charted souls to the afterlife and a feared character of classical mythology.

Continuing with the themes of Greek mythology, a favorite subject of Renaissance artists and writers, there are other references to the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. In Book I, the nine virgin muses are called upon: “Helpe then, O holy Virgin chiefe of nine, . . .” Astrea from Book V is the daughter of Themis and Jupiter (Zeus), and it is theorized she is supposed to be a goddess herself. There are also references in Book I to satyrs, a half-man, half-goat woodland sprite that is traditionally a mischief maker, but Spenser portrays as heroic or at least redeemable, as it is a satyr that saves Una from Sansloy.

One thing that Spenser does differently than many of his fellow Renaissance artists, though, is that when he borrows from other mythologies and religions, he does so freely and without constraints to his source material. Many artists borrowing from the classics that they loved so much would stick rigidly to the original myths and legends of the Greeks and Romans. Spenser did not feel the same about this strictness. Willingly ignoring the likes of François de Malherbe and his silly rules, Spenser changed, adapted, and added to the sources, creating a blended world of a combined originality and borrowed material. A writer willing to break unspoken rules is truly more than just a writer, and becomes a storyteller.

As this paper demonstrated, the reasons for Spenser’s inclusion of other religions and myths within his primarily Christian-based narrative are rooted in a second allegory based in the political views of Spenser. Even then, all of the same political concepts presented, such as the tale of Sir John of Desmond’s demise, had religious roots. All of Spenser’s allusions and references to other religions and mythologies loop back around to the Protestant versus Roman Catholic argument that Spenser makes. He strengthens his argument with the demonstration of political events with religious roots that left Ireland in devastation as just one small example among his sprawling narrative. With his portrayal of classical mythology (an ancient religion) and even modern pagan religions of his time as with the Celtic mythology, Spenser equates Catholicism to something even less than pagan religions. Spenser’s thoughts on the Roman Catholic Church are clear and unmasked: Spenser viewed the Church as a hateful organization, touting what he viewed as a bastardization of Christianity.

One thought on “Spenser’s View on the Roman Catholic Church Through the Eyes of Classical Mythology

  1. I really like what you said in the first paragraph, “illusions to a world only faeries inhabit” I think it sounded really crisp and clean and kept me hooked for the rest of the piece. I agree and think that the Faerie Queene does connect to popular Celtic and Gaelic myths but I also think that Spenser wanted to create his own mythology. By this I mean, he didn’t want people to just read the story, he wanted them to believe it as well, and maybe that’s why he tied together so much mythology to the story.

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