A Minstrel of the Royal Court Picture

"The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye may find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
With his wild harp slung along behind him.
'Land of Song,' said the warrior bard,
hough all the world betrays thee,
ne sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!'"

Several years ago, I was re-watching Disney's 1973 Robin Hood and, though a wonderful and likeable film, it is unfortunately lacking, mainly due to the point that it related little to the original ballads, so I decided that I'd like to do a "re-telling" of the story, making it more literarily/mythologically/historically accurate as well, scissoring in other related literary works (such as Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Anthony Munday's Huntington plays, William Shakespeare's King John, etc), as well as best aspects of film and TV, from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, starring Errol Flynn), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952, the criminally underrated live-action Disney film, which the animated 1973 version was heavily inspired by), The Lion in Winter (1968, starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn), Robin and Marian (1976, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn), Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986 British TV series), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, starring Kevin Costner), etc.


Real Name:
  • Alain de Nesle
  • Alan de Nesle, Alan-a-Dale, Alan A'Dale, Alan Airedale, Alan Dale, Allan-a-Dale, Allan A'Dayle, Allan O' Dale, Allen-a-Dale, Allin-a-Dale.
  • Franco-Norman Brown Leghorn Rooster (Gallus gallus domesticus)
Employed By:
  • Baron Robert FitzWalter of Dunmow, Lady Marian (FitzWalter) of Dunmow (Maid Marian), and (to an extent) Queen Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Alain de Nesle, as an orphaned egg, was left on the steps of Nesle Abbey, near the ever-changing, war-ravaged border of Normandy and France, who cared and educated orphans, runaways, and delinquents. Under the instruction of the monks, he learnt to read and write, but his first love was not prayer but poetry. The chick, eager to attend the feast day's festival, escaped his menial, pietistic chores to awe at the troupe of itinerant entertainers, from puppeteers to poets, from jugglers to jongleurs, and fell in love with song. However, the monks of Nesle Abbey, like many of the faith, had an ambivalent attitude towards musicians: On the one hand, they were heavenly angels who played celestial music in the glory of God and, on the other, they were servants of the Devil who encouraged dancing and sinful revelry. The friars attempted to beat this "Devil's work" out of the cockerel, but he continued to pursue his art, for "words are the language of the mind, but music is the language which the soul alone understands but which the soul can never translate. It is the shorthand to emotion. It is the breath of God. We musicians are as close to God as mere mortals can be. We hear His voice, we read His lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing His praise. That's what musicians are. I cannot stop what comes out of me so naturally as the beating of my heart."

At the age of eleven, on the feast day of St. Cecilia of Rome, patroness of musicians, he left the Abbey with his apologies and joined an apprenticeship with the guild of minstrels. With a gilded harp under his plumed wing, entertaining both rich and poor, while living on the fringes of society from town to town, the Bohemian chanticleer soon became renowned as Alan-a-Dale. He could sing, dance, rhyme, compose, and recite epic ballads of chivalrous valour and courtly love with the flute, lute, fiddle, harp, drum, and zither; he could conjure, juggle, balance apples on the points of knives, perform acrobatics, jump through hoops, imitate songbirds, put performing beasts through their paces, and operate marionettes.

In 1170, the fifteen-year-old Henry, Duke of Normandy (son of King Henry II of England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, older brother of Richard and John), was anointed "associate king" during his father's lifetime — a practice originally done by the French Capetian dynasty and later adopted by the English King Stephen and his son, King Henry II. However, despite his royal status, Henry the Young King, unlike his father and brothers, had no interest in the day-to-day business of politics and government; he preferred, in its stead, the thunderous roar of sport: The enthusiastic but spoiled Young Henry became a key patron of the tourney and all its pageantry, constantly moving from one tournament to another across Normandy and France between 1175 and 1182, with a procession of knights, spectatours, and performers at his beck and call.

Performing his prose to audiences of the grandest in court to the lowliest in taverns, it was at the one of these tournament of magnificent hastiludes championed by the Young King, with a mighty retinue of five hundred warrior knights, where Alan-a-Dale stumbled upon an eight-year-old vixen who had lost her way. The attentive minstrel helped search for the whereabouts of the lost child's father by wandering through the rabble of the crowds, with the kit perched upon his shoulders, whilst performing her father's favourite song to gain his attention. As he neared the end of his serenade upon his stringed harp, the last verse was replied by one of the most powerful Norman feudal barons of England, Robert FitzWalter of Dunmow, and embraced his daughter, Lady Marian of Dunmow. To thank the harpist, the nobleman employed him to entertain his guests, including Henry the Young King and his queen, Margaret of France, at a feast that evening, and the one after that, and again after that. By the end of the celebration, he had suddenly grown weary of his vagabond lifestyle after his many years and discovered a kind of fondness for a warm hearth, good meals, a roof over his head, a library to devour, and a regular income, so he gathered what little possessions he had for England to enter the service of the honourable Lord and Lady Dunmow.

While there was no distinction between a servant whom cooked and cleaned to a servant whom wrote poetry and played music, Alan still proudly wore the colourful liveries of scarlet and gold emblazoned with his master's heraldic arms, yet he also expected to serve many other roles within the household: He acted as nightwatchman, ready to sound the alarm with trumpet to warn of fire or attack. With his knowledge of the written word and proclivity for language (Latin, French, Occitan, and English), he acted as a personal scribe for his lordship. More prominently, he became "nursemaid" to the young ladies of the house — Lady Marian and (later) Lady Cristina of Dunmow, supervising their playtime with their childhood friends, Robin of Locksley, William of Crigglestone, Sibyl of Crigglestone, and Guy of Gisbourne, and keeping their attention with song when the kits became far too exuberant.

In 1189, King Richard was crowned, following the death of his father, Henry II, yet only spent a few months of his reign on English soil before embarking upon his crusade to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The now-teenage Robin of Locksley, William of Crigglestone, and Guy of Gisbourne enlisted as knights of the realm and was to join Richard in the Third Crusade. Lady Marian, due to her royal wardship, was to leave for London to further her education under the patronage of Queen Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, while Sibyl of Crigglestone remained behind to be married, as approved by King Richard, to Sir Everard de Staynton. Before parting ways, Robin and Marian, proclaiming their love for one another, carved their names upon the bark of a tree at Locksley Castle. Accompanying the vixen to the capital and entrusted with her personal protection there was Alan-a-Dale and, upon their arrival, witnessed the empty throne of King Richard's be usurped by his younger brother (and Queen Eleanor's son), John.

At the Tower of London, Lady Marian FitzWalter became entrusted as lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, to act as her royal companion, to accompany Her Majesty wherever she went, and to perform whatever duty she may required of her, and befriended fellow lady-in-waiting, the widowed Lady Elaine Kluck. Alan, unsurprisingly, became a favourite troubadour within the royal court, entertaining the wealthiest and most powerful of England; but, unbeknownst to many, Alan acted also as spymaster within the court for his master, Baron FitzWalter, whom secretly opposes "King" John. Yet, frustratingly, little to nothing was ever done with what information he gave — and at the risk of his own life, no less!

By 1192, the Third Crusade ended in a truce and King Richard was captured on his way home and imprisoned by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, and Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, demanding a random of 150,000 marks (65,000 pounds of silver). However, his treacherous brother, John, had little intention in paying for his release and no one had the stomach to oppose the usurper of the English Crown, except the mysterious "Hooded Man of Nottingham"...


The word "minstrel" is Old French for "little servant" and were of a lowly, menial social order where there was no distinction between a servant who cooked and cleaned to a servant who wrote poetry and played instruments. According to a 13th-century poet, a minstrel "had to speak and rhyme well, was witty, know the story of Troy, can balance apples on the points of knives, juggle, jump through hoops, play the flute, harp, and fiddle, know the arts of imitating birds, put performing asses and dogs through their paces, operate marionettes, and (believe it or not) break dance." However, these "little servants" were expected to perform many of different roles outside that of an entertainer, such as nightwatchman, to fire the alarm in case of fire or attack; they were to follow their masters into the battlefield and sound a trumpet to rally the troops, or cheer them on; and were even spies. They were also propagandist, recording their master's mighty deeds and bloody battles, whether they were factual or not. (Recommend the documentary of Terry Jones' Medieval Lives.) The feast day of St. Cecilia (or Cecily of Rome), patroness of musicians, is November 22.

It's believed that Alan-a-Dale (meaning "Alan of/from the dale valley") is based on the real-life Blondel de Nesle. Nothing is known about Blondel outside of his poetry. His popularity is apparent in the widespread use by contemporaries of his melodies, which are extant in various manuscripts, in addition to the mythological story of "How the Minstrel Saved the King", which was first mention in the 13th-century romance of Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims. According to legend, after the capture of King Richard in 1192, Blondel wandered from castle to castle in search of the whereabouts of his master, singing a particular song that only he and Richard knew, that the imprisoned Richard replied with the second verse — thus identifying where he was imprisoned. Discovering him in Dürnstein Castle, Austria, Blondel either aided the king's escape, or reported his position back to his friends. However, this story is, of course, pure fiction. There was no mystery about Richard's location, as it was widely publicized by his ransomers, and Richard never escaped his imprisonment, as the ransom was paid some two to three years later, after bleeding England dry, only to have his death happen a year-and-half later.

A late addition to the Merry Men, the character of Alan-a-Dale was first introduced in the 17th-century "Robin Hood and Alan-a-Dale" (Child Ballad 183), which portrayed him exclusively with a harp. Both in the stories and the illustrations, for the next 500 years, he played the harp: (1) 1795 illustrations by Thomas Bewick; (2) 1847 illustrations by F.W. Fairholt; (3) the 1883 illustrations by Howard Pyle; (4) 1883 illustrations by Walter Crane; (5) 1898 illustrations by Sir Amédée Forestier; (6) 1912 illustrations by Louis Rhead; and (7) 1952 statue of Alan-a-Dale in Nottingham. Similarly, he was also portrayed with a harp in film, such as Richard Coleman's portrayal in 1950s Adventures of Robin Hood TV series. However, the harp (inexplicably) changed into a lute in Disney's live-action film, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and it became permanent by Disney's 1973 animated feature; for 65+ years afterward, Alan's instrument became (inaccurately) the lute. During the medieval period, the "king of instruments" was considered to be the harp and, by the Renaissance, it became the lute. The lute was a foreign instrument brought to Europe by the Arabs, with special thanks to continental trade with the East as well as the Crusades. During the Robin Hood's 13th century-England, lutes would be considered exotic and, above all, uncommonly expensive. This is why, in my version of Robin Hood, Will Scarlett (who is a Crusader) has a lute and Alan-a-Dale (who is a non-Crusader) has a harp.

Henry the Young King, son of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, older brother of Richard and John, was "associate king" during his father's reign. This tradition began with the earliest French Capetian monarchs whom were elective, not hereditary. Because of this, there was no mechanism for automatic succession unless an heir was crowned as "associate king," ready to step up as primary king when the previous king had died. Interestingly, Young Henry was exceedingly popular for his time, far more popular with any member of his family, but not due to political prowess, but because he was a "sports icon" of the tournaments; he was perhaps one of the biggest reasons why tournaments became as popular as they were and as long as they did. He patronized hundreds, if not thousands, of tournaments in France during his lifetime (and Lagny-sur-Marne was one of the most popular destinations). Sir William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, my real-life model for Sir Hiss of Newbury, made his own personal fortune from the tournaments, particularly those sponsored by the Young King, but later they had falling out. Eventually, Henry the Young King led the Revolt of 1173-74 against his father, Henry II, along with his mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine) and his brothers (Richard I, Geoffrey II, and secretly John I), which ended in failure after eighteen months. His father outlived the Young King and the English crown fell, by rule of session, to Richard.

In this picture, the shield in the back is that of the Baron FitzWalters. Alan-a-Dale, as a minstrel, would wear the livery (official uniform, or colours) of his master. The real-life Baron Robert FitzWalter of Dunmow has been romanticized into the father of Maid Marian, as he had a daughter named "Matilda" (or less commonly "Maud"). Historically, he is famous for chartering the Magna Carta and led the First Barons' War against King John.

A "lady-in-waiting" is a female personal assistant at a court, royal or feudal, to a queen, a princess, or a high-ranking noblewoman. The duties of ladies-in-waiting varied from court to court, but include proficiency in the etiquette, languages, and dances prevalent at court; performing secretarial tasks, reading correspondence to her mistress, and writing on her behalf; she must also be able to do embroidery, painting, horse riding, music making, and participation in other queenly pastimes. She is responsible for wardrobe care, supervision of servants, keeping her mistress abreast of activities and personages at court, and discreetly relaying messages upon command. It's preferred, particularly in England, that the ladies-in-waiting were noblewomen themselves, because no queen nor princess should have interpersonal relationships with the peasantry. Marian becoming a lady-in-waiting to Queen Eleanor has been seen in Disney's The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952).

Special thanks to my dear friend Iluvendure for her love, assistance, and interest in this project. She is my co-writer and co-conspirator here, which developed through our long, loooong conversations and discussions.
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