The Princess of Colchester Legends of old England by Edwin Hartland

LONG before Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, there reigned in the eastern part of England a king who kept his Court at Colchester. He was witty, strong, and valiant, by which means he subdued his enemies abroad, and planted peace among his subjects at home. Nevertheless, in the midst of all his glory, his queen died, leaving behind her an only daughter, about fifteen years of age. This lady, from her courtly carriage, beauty, and affability, was the wonder of all that knew her. But as covetousness is the root of all evil, so it happened here. The king, hearing of a lady who had likewise an only daughter, for the sake of her riches, had a mind to marry her, and though she was old, ugly, hook-nosed, and humpbacked, yet all this could not deter him from doing so. Her daughter was a yellow dowdy, full of envy and ill-nature; and, in short, was much of the same mould as her mother. This signified nothing, for in a few weeks the king, attended by the nobility and gentry, brought his deformed bride to his palace, where the marriage rites were performed. They had not been long in the court before they set the king against his own beautiful daughter, which was done by false reports and accusations. The young princess, having lost her father's love, grew weary of the court, and one day, meeting with her father in the garden, she desired him, with tears in her eyes, to give her a small subsistence, and she would go and seek her fortune; to which the king consented, and ordered her mother-in-law to make up a small sum according to her discretion. She went to the queen, who gave her a canvas bag of brown bread and hard cheese, with a bottle of beer; though this was but a very pitiful dowry for a king's daughter. She took it, returned thanks, and proceeded on her journey, passing through groves, woods, and valleys, till at length she saw an old man sitting on a stone at the mouth of a cave, who said, "Good morrow, fair maiden, whither away so fast?" "Aged father," says she, "I am going to seek my fortune." "What hast thou in thy bag and bottle?" "In my bag I have got bread and cheese, and in my bottle good small beer. Will you please to partake of either?" "Yes," said he, "with all my heart." With that the lady pulled out her provisions, and bade him eat and welcome. He did so, and gave her many thanks, saying thus: "There is a thick thorny hedge before you, which will appear impassable, but take this wand in your hand, strike three times, and say, 'Pray, hedge, let me come through,' and it will open immediately; then, a little further, you will find a well; sit down on the brink of it, and there will come up three golden heads, which will speak; and whatever they require, that do." Promising she would, she took her leave of him. Coming to the hedge, and pursuing the old man's directions, it divided, and gave her a passage; then, coming to the well, she had no sooner sat down than a golden head came up singing--

"Wash me, and comb me,
And lay me down softly."

"Yes," said she, and putting forth her hand, with a silver comb performed the office, placing it upon a primrose bank. Then came up a second and a third head, saying the same as the former, which she complied with, and then pulling out her provisions, ate her dinner. Then said the heads one to another, "What shall we do for this lady who hath used us so kindly?" The first said, I will cause such addition to her beauty as shall charm the most powerful prince in the world." The second said, "I will endow her with such perfume, both in body and breath, as shall far exceed the sweetest flowers." The third said, "My gift shall be none of the least, for, as she is a king's daughter, I'll make her so fortunate that she shall become queen to the greatest prince that reigns." This done, at their request she let them down into the well again, and so proceeded on her journey. She had not travelled long before she saw a king hunting in the park with his nobles. She would have shunned him, but the king, having caught a sight of her, approached, and what with her beauty and perfumed breath, was so powerfully smitten that he was not able to subdue his passion, but proceeded at once to courtship, and after some embraces gained her love, and, bringing her to his palace, caused her to be clothed in the most magnificent manner.

This being ended, and the king finding that she was the King of Colchester's daughter, ordered some chariots to be got ready, that he might pay the king a visit. The chariot in which the king and queen rode was adorned with rich ornamental gems of gold. The king, her father, was at first astonished that his daughter had been so fortunate as she was, till the young king made him sensible of all that happened. Great was the joy at court amongst all, with the exception of the queen and her club-footed daughter, who were ready to burst with malice, and envied her happiness; and the greater was their madness because she was now above them all Great rejoicings, with feasting and dancing, continued many days. Then at length, with the dowry her father gave her, they returned home.

The hump-backed sister-in-law, perceiving that her sister was so happy in seeking her fortune, would needs do the same; so, disclosing her mind to her mother, all preparations were made, and she was furnished not only with rich apparel, but sugar, almonds, and sweetmeats, in great quantities, and a large bottle of Malaga sack. Thus provided, she went the same road as her sister; and coming near the cave, the old man said, "Young woman, whither so fast?" "What is that to you?" said she. "Then," said he, "what have you in your bag and bottle?" She answered, "Good things, which you shall not be troubled with." "Won't you give me some?" said he. "No, not a bit, nor a drop, unless it would choke you." The old man frowned, saying, "Evil fortune attend thee!" Going on, she came to the hedge, through which she espied a gap, and thought to pass through it; but, going in, the hedge closed, and the thorns ran into her flesh, so that it was with great difficulty that she got out. Being now in a bloody condition, she searched for water to wash herself, and, looking round, she saw the well. She sat down on the brink of it, and one of the heads came up, saying, "Wash me, comb me, and lay me down softly," as before, but she banged it with her bottle, saying, "Take this for your washing." So the second and third heads came up, and met with no better treatment than the first; whereupon the heads consulted among themselves what evils to plague her with for such usage. The first said, "Let her be struck with leprosy in her face." The second, "Let an additional stink be added to her breath." The third bestowed on her for a husband but a poor country cobbler. This done, she goes on till she came to a town, and it being market-day, the people looked at her, and, seeing such a mangy face, all fled but a poor country cobbler, who not long before had mended the shoes of an old hermit, who, having no money, gave him a box of ointment for the cure of the leprosy, and a bottle of spirits for a stinking breath. Now the cobbler, having a mind to do an act of charity, was induced to go up to her and ask her who she was.

"I am," said she, "the King of Colchester's daughter-in-law." "Well," said the cobbler, "if I restore you to your natural complexion, and make a sound cure both in face and breath, will you in reward take me for a husband?" "Yes, friend," replied she; "with all my heart!" With this the cobbler applied the remedies, and they worked the effect in a few weeks; after which they were married, and so set forward for the Court at Colchester. When the queen understood she had married nothing but a poor cobbler, she fell into distraction, and hanged herself in wrath. The death of the queen pleased the king, who was glad to be rid of her so soon, and he gave the cobbler a hundred pounds to quit the Court with his lady, and take her to a remote part of the kingdom, where he lived many years mending shoes, his wife spinning thread.