The use of incognito is a ubiquitous motif in medieval literature. However, in the Middle English romances I shall examine, namely, King Horn, Havelok, Bevis of Hampton and their Anglo-Norman analogues, disguise achieves a remarkable specificity due to its peculiar combination with the motif of exile. In the struggle of these displaced heroes to regain their dynastic rights, the change or concealment of social status appears as an invaluable device to test the fidelity of a lover or the loyalty of a servant. Precluding recognition, disguise becomes a highly useful strategy in these works, but at the same time its indisputable efficacy overtly challenges the integrity of the hero’s social identity, since it merely depends on exterior and visual signs that can be easily manipulated.
Illuminated initials found in plea rolls and patents produced during Henry VIII’s early reign reveal Arthurian references that have yet to be explored—imagery alluding to medieval Welsh poetry about this ancient king in addition to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae and Thomas Malory’s 1485 Morte Darthur. Arthurian pageantry thrived during the brief life of Henry’s brother Arthur, but their father Henry VII curtailed it upon his eldest son’s death in 1502. When Henry VIII acceded to the throne seven years later, he revived Arthurian imagery, evident in literary, performance, and visual arts that he or his courtiers commissioned. The imagery in patent and plea roll illuminations is one facet of this phenomenon – the focus of this paper. It also addresses the benefits that Henry hoped to gain by associating his reign with that of the legendary king, despite or perhaps because of its association to his dead brother.