The Faerie Queene | Study Guide

Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene | Book 3, Cantos 1–3 | Summary



Book 3, Proem and Canto 1

Book 3 is introduced as "Contayning, the Legende of Britomartis, or of Chastity."

In the proem the poet laments how no living art can express the virtue of chastity. He wants to honor Queen Elizabeth by modeling her rule in the character of Gloriana (the Faerie Queene) and her chastity in the character of Belphoebe.

Guyon sends the evil enchantress Acrasia off to the Faerie Court. He and Arthur seek new adventures together. They encounter a knight and squire. The knight wears a shield decorated with a lion. Guyon jousts with the knight and soon falls off his horse.

The new knight is Britomart, a woman in search of a lover whose face she saw in Venus's looking glass. She carries an enchanted spear that allowed her to easily defeat Guyon. The Palmer calms the angry Guyon down. Guyon and Britomart become friends, and she and her squire Glauce join the traveling band.

Florimell, a woman dressed in gold, rides past them on a horse. She's being chased by a Foster, a lustful man with a spear. Guyon and Arthur pursue Florimell, while Arthur's squire Timias runs after the Foster.

Britomart continues on her quest alone. She arrives at a castle where six knights battle a single knight. Britomart disrupts the unfair battle and asks what happened. The solo knight—the Redcrosse Knight of Book 1—refused to leave his lady. The others tried to force him to swear allegiance to Malecasta, the lady of their castle.

Britomart easily defeats the six knights: Gardante, Parlante, Locante, Basciante, Bacchante, and Noctante. Together they enter the castle, Castle Joyous, which is full of young men and women enjoying sensual pleasures. Malecasta herself sits on a golden bed.

The lustful Malecasta soon takes an interest in Britomart, whom she believes to be male. But Britomart—who is gracious yet intimidating to the other knights—doesn't recognize Malecasta's desire for her. When night falls Malecasta creeps into bed with Britomart. Soon Britomart wakes in shock and brandishes her knife against the intruder.

The commotion sends all seven knights rushing into her bedroom. Most of the knights are shocked to discover Britomart's true identity. Gardante wounds Britomart with a spear. The Redcrosse Knight comes to her defense. They defeat the remaining knights and leave together.

Book 3, Canto 2

The poet reminds readers many women have been excellent warriors and politicians, though men often neglect women when relating history.

As the two travel, the Redcrosse Knight asks Britomart about her quest. She's traveled from her native Britain to Faery land. Her search is for a knight named Artegall who has done her great dishonor. The Redcrosse Knight knows Artegall and defends his character. Britomart, who's in love with Artegall, is secretly happy to hear the Redcrosse Knight praise him.

She first saw Artegall in a magic mirror made by the wizard Merlin. Since seeing Artegall, Britomart has been grieving for her love, unable to rest or concentrate. Her nurse and squire Glauce tried and failed to heal her with spells.

Book 3, Canto 3

The poet describes the incredible power of love over mortal minds. Love motivates heroes like Britomart to heroic deeds. The poet calls on Clio, the muse of history, to tell how Britomart's ancestry leads to Queen Elizabeth I.

The story of Britomart's journey continues. Glauce and Britomart called on Merlin to reverse the spell. Merlin refused and said the magic mirror shows heavenly purpose. He explained how Artegall and Britomart are destined to meet. Artegall is a human switched at birth and taken to Faery land as a changeling. His true identity is the son of Gorlois, brother to a Cornish king. Arthur related the noble descendants who will come from Britomart and Artegall, including many heroes of ancient British mythology and ending in Queen Elizabeth. He encouraged Britomart to follow the example of Angela the brave Saxon queen.

Britomart and Glauce decided to dress themselves as a knight and squire and seek Artegall in Faery land. After the Redcrosse Knight hears the story, he and Britomart part as friends.


Book 3 marks a shift to virtues involving how a person treats others. Chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy are all practiced in the social sphere.

Chastity is abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage. Beyond sexual abstinence the virtue required purity, restraint, and fidelity to a lover. It also freed time for higher pursuits. Queen Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen, famously never married—though it is unlikely she was truly a virgin. To many people Elizabeth's chastity increased her faithfulness to her country—her husband was England itself.

Spenser hopes he can live up to other depictions of Elizabeth, such as Sir Walter Raleigh's poem "The Ocean's Love to Cynthia." Raleigh and Spenser both compared Elizabeth to the powerful, unmarried huntress goddess of Greek and Roman mythology. Different traditions named this goddess Cynthia, Phoebe, Diana, or Artemis. When Spenser praises courageous female warriors of ancient times at the beginning of Canto 2, he's praising Elizabeth as well.

Britomart models the courage and single-minded devotion Spenser saw in his queen. Her character is also based on Bradamante, a female knight in Italian poet Ariosto's romantic epic Orlando Furioso. Like Britomart, Bradamante spends the poem searching for a lover and learns she will found a dynasty or ruling family in her country.

Her name reflects her motivations. As a warrior for Great Britain, Britomart's name combines the prefix Brito- with the suffix -mart or Martis, the god of war. Additionally, a character in the Roman poet Virgil's "Ciris" named Britomartis dies for the sake of love.

With Artegall she becomes the founding mother of the Tudors in England and the ancestor of Elizabeth I. Spenser weaves her story into the history of Great Britain and the myth of Arthur, presenting The Faerie Queene as an epic about the founding of a great city—London. He takes his cue from Virgil, whose epic The Aeneid told the story of Rome's founding. And, both cities are connected to Troy, a city in Asia Minor with great significance in Western mythology. Canto 3 traces the origins of Britain to Brute, the great-grandson of Aeneas—Virgil's hero who founded Rome after the Trojan War. Readers in Spenser's time would have known the stories about Rome and Troy. By adding London, England's capital city, to the ongoing saga, Spenser elevates Great Britain to the status of a founding empire in Western mythological tradition.

Since Britomart can bear children for a future ruling family, her gender is crucial. It also allows her a convenient disguise. Most characters she meets initially believe her to be a man; even the reader does. Thus, she has more power and flexibility than other female characters. Her identity also gives Spenser opportunities for verbal trickery and wit, as in Canto 1, Stanza 28 when Britomart admits she has a love but no lady. And female physical attractiveness doesn't influence or tempt her. Unlike other knights she's in a unique position to aid captured women, like Amoret.

The central knight's distance from male sexual desire allows Spenser to explore an important aspect of chastity: the difference between love and lust. Love has an element of charity, seeking the best for the other person. Lust seeks only sensual delight. In Canto 1, Stanza 49 the poet explains that love inspires honorable deeds, but lust wants to conquer for the conquest's sake. To Spenser this is the difference between committed love and purely sexual encounters. Malecasta's Castle Joyous, full of enticing temptations, illustrates this difference. Like Book 2's enchantress Acrasia, she transforms men, but she turns them into flowers—objects associated with sexual dalliance and temptation. The six knights in front of her castle are named after actions leading to lechery or lust such as kissing, reveling, and joking.

Lust discourages loyalty while chastity requires it. When Britomart defends the Redcrosse Knight's fidelity to his lady Una, the reader recalls Una's symbolism as the one true church. Spenser introduces an element of moral allegory. Faithfulness to a lover is like faithfulness to a religion. Britomart is similarly loyal to Artegall. As a lover she encourages the best in him, prompting the Redcrosse Knight to praise Artegall's nobility.

Florimell and Amoret aspire to this kind of love. Since death is better than unfaithfulness to their lovers, they put themselves in mortal danger to avoid lustful men. Florimell, a member of the royal court, rides a white horse; the color white signifies purity. Her name comes from the Latin flora or flowers, signifying her sexual appeal to the men she encounters.

Virtuous love like Britomart and Artegall's love has special power. The poet praises their union in Canto 3, especially since they are the founding couple of his patron Queen Elizabeth I's realm. But the force of fate adds a special urgency to Britomart's love, which overcomes her like a sickness. Canto 2 refers to the cruelty and tyranny of love, which is described as a destiny, not a choice—exemplified by Cupid's arrow, which strikes whenever it chooses. Merlin similarly describes Britomart's attraction to Artegall as heavenly destiny doing its work.

To tell the story of Britomart's descendants, the poet calls on Clio the muse of history. He's now dealing with fact, not fantasy. Canto 3's history picks up where Book 2, Canto 10 left off describing the history of Great Britain leading to Arthur's rule. Again, Spenser's sources are a combination of historical fact, established legend, and his own invention. For the story's sake, he makes Artegall the founding king of Great Britain rather than Arthur. Artegall's name means "equal to Arthur."

Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, takes Great Britain from the Saxon uprising to Elizabeth I's Tudor dynasty.

  • The Saxons defeat the Britons and drive them to Wales, the home of Arthur and the Tudors.
  • After 200 years the Saxons are defeated by the Danes, represented by the raven.
  • The Danes are defeated by William I or William the Conqueror, described as the "Lyon (Lion) of Nuestria" in Canto 3, Stanza 47.
  • Henry Tudor, known as Henry VII, restores the Britons to the throne and begins the Tudor ruling family.
  • Elizabeth I, the "royal virgin" of Canto 3, Stanza 49, ascends to the throne.

Spenser adds accounts of a problem that loomed large when he was writing: the persecution of the Protestant Church of England. Canto 3, Stanzas 33–34 describe how foreign king Gormond, after conquering Ireland, will destroy the church in Britain and demolish its cities. When Britomart grieves the tragedies her descendants will face, Merlin assures her Britain will overcome. This assurance is a message to Queen Elizabeth to keep the Protestant faith.

As Britomart heads off to seek Artegall she wears the armor of Angela, a queen Spenser invented to explain how the English or "Angles" got their name.

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