Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

King Leir and His Daughters

A Tradition of Early Britain

LEIR, who next reigned, had only three daughters and no male issue: governed laudably and built Caerlier, now Leicester, on the bank of Sora. But at last, failing through age, he determines to bestow his daughters, and so among them to divide his kingdom. Yet, first, to try which of them loved him best (a trial that might have made him, had he known as wisely how to try as he seemed to know how much the trying behooved him), he resolves a simple resolution, to ask them solemnly in order; and which of them should profess largest, her to believe. Gonorill, the eldest, apprehending too well her father's weakness, makes answer, invoking Heaven, "That she loved him above her soul."

"Therefore," quoth the old man overjoyed, "since thou so honorest my declining age, to thee and the husband whom thou shalt choose, I give the third part of my realm."

So fair a speeding, for a few words soon uttered, was to Regan, the second, ample instruction what to say. She, on the same demand, spares no protesting; and the gods must witness, that otherwise to express her thoughts she knew not, but that "She loved him above all creatures"; and so receives an equal interest with her sister.

But Cordeilla, the youngest, though hitherto best beloved, and now before her eyes the rich and present hire of a little easy soothing, the danger also, and the loss likely to betide plain dealing, yet moves not from the solid purpose of a sincere and virtuous answer. "Father," saith she, "my love towards you is as my duty bids: what should a father seek, what can a child promise more? They, who pretend beyond this, flatter."

When the old man, sorry to hear this, and wishing her to recall those words, persisted asking; with a loyal sadness at her father's infirmity, but something, on the sudden, harsh, and glancing rather at her sisters than speaking her own mind, "Two ways only," saith she, "I have to answer what you require me: the former, your command is, I should recant; accept then this other which is left me; look how much you have, so much is your value, and so much I love you."

"Then hear thou," quoth Leir, now all in passion, "what thy ingratitude hath gained thee: because thou hast not reverenced thy aged father equal to thy sisters, part in my kingdom, or what else is mine, reckon to have none." And without delay, he gives in marriage his other daughters, Gonorill to Maglaunus duke of Albania, Regan to Henninus duke of Cornwall; with them in present half his kingdom; the rest to follow at his death.

In the mean while, fame was not sparing to divulge the wisdom and other graces of Cordeilla, insomuch that Aganippus, a great king in Gaul (however he came by his Greek name, not found in any register of French kings), seeks her to wife; and nothing altered at the loss of her dowry, receives her gladly in such a manner as she was sent him.

After this, King Leir, more and more drooping with years, became an easy prey to his daughters and their husbands; who now, by daily encroachment, had seized the whole kingdom into their hands: and the old king is put to sojourn with his eldest daughter, attended only by threescore knights. But they in a short while grudged at, as too numerous and disorderly for continual guests, are reduced to thirty. Not brooking that affront, the old king betakes him to his second daughter: but there also, discord soon arising between the servants of different masters in one family, five only are suffered to attend him. Then back again he returns to the other; hoping that she his eldest could not but have pity on his gray hairs: but she now refuses to admit him, unless he be content with one only of his followers. At last the remembrance of his youngest, Cordeilla, comes to his thoughts; and now acknowledging how true her words had been, though with little hope from whom he had so injured, be it but to pay her the last recompense she can have from him, his confession of her wise forewarning, that so perhaps his misery, the proof and experiment of her wisdom, might something soften her, he takes his journey into France.

Now might be seen a difference between the silent, or downright spoken affection of some children to their parents, and the talkative obsequiousness of others; while the hope of inheritance overacts them, and on the tongue's end enlarges their duty. Cordeilla, out of mere love, without the suspicion of expected reward, at the message only of her father in distress, pours forth true filial tears. And not enduring either that her own, or any other eye should see him in such forlorn condition as his messenger declared, discreetly points one of her trusty servants first to convey him privately towards some good sea-town, there to array him, bathe him, cherish him, furnish him with such attendance and state as beseemed his dignity; that when, as from his first landing, he might send word of his arrival to her husband Aganippus. Which done, with all mature and requisite contrivance, Cordeilla, with the king her husband and all the barony of his realm, who then first had news of his passing the sea, go out to meet him; and after all honorable and joyful entertainment, Aganippus, as to his wife's father, and his royal guest, surrenders him, during his abode there, the power and disposal of his whole dominion: permitting his wife Cordeilla to go with an army, and set her father upon his throne. Wherein her piety so prospered, as that she vanquished her impious sisters, with those dukes; and Leir again, as saith the story, three years obtained the crown. To whom, dying, Cordeilla, with all regal solemnities, gave burial in the town of Leicester: and then, as right heir succeeding, and her husband dead, ruled the land five years in peace. Until Marganus and Cunedagius, her two sisters' sons, not bearing that a kingdom should be governed by a woman, in the unseasonablest time to raise that quarrel against a woman so worthy, make war against her, depose her, and imprison her; of which impatient, and now long unexercised to suffer, she there, as is related, killed herself.

by John Milton

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