‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ by Edward Burne-Jones


‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ by Edward Burne-Jones

Accession number: 1947P18

Date: 1883

This is a watercolour full-size cartoon done by Burne-Jones as preparation for his large oil of the same title (Tate Gallery). The narrative on which this is based originally appeared in 1612 in Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of English Poetry’, and it has been suggested that he draws on this early version for one aspect of the work:[1]

The beggar blusheth scarlet red,
And straight again as pale as lead,
But not a word at all was said,
She was in such amaze.

However Burne-Jones’s main source for the painting appears to be Tennyson’s ‘The Beggar Maid’, which seems particularly likely given the artist’s familiarity with Tennyson’s poetry. The beggar maid in the painting is indeed barefoot, and dressed simply, though not perhaps in strictly ‘poor attire’, and there is something almost armour-like about the upper part of her dress. The hem seems slightly ragged, however.

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say;
Barefooted came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day.”


And shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in poor attire was seen:
One praised her ankles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien.
So, sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“That beggar maid shall be my queen!”

Her beauty causes the king to take her as his wife despite her humble birth and poor clothes. The king is dressed in suitably regal fashion, but he has removed his crown and holds it in his hands as a gesture of humility in the face of the beggar maid’s beauty, especially when combined with their relative stances: the king looks only at his beloved, sitting at her feet, while the beggar maid’s expression – staring at the viewer – suggests a kind of defiant pride, which is even more pronounced in the completed painting. The poem, like the painting, associates female beauty with goodness and purity, which will make her an appropriate queen. The couple are overlooked, presumably by courtiers (the ‘lords’ to whom Tennyson refers) who are curious about their king’s new love; the setting is angular, featuring complex stairs and columns, which gives it a feeling both of classical antiquity and also Modernist painting.

In fact the myth has a longer history: originally, Cophetua is an African king who falls in love for the first time in his life upon seeing Penelephon, the beggar. It is mentioned in several of Shakespeare’s plays.[2]

You can read more about this painting and its development here: http://preraphaelitesisterhood.com/king-cophetua-beggar-maid/

[1] http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1947P18
[2] The myth was told in poetry in 1896 in A Book of Old English Ballads: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/boeb/boeb04.htm