Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Robert Henryson
Editor: Seth Lee
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The Testament of Cresseid


1Less than a century after Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and two centuries before William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, the Scottish poet Robert Henryson (c.1425-c.1500) crafted a daring "sequel" to Chaucer's work detailing the ending of Criseyde, and a sad ending it is. The Testament of Cresseid is problematic to date, though Henryson's life places it firmly in the fifteenth century. The specifics of Henryson's life are basically unknown to history, and what evidence we do have is largely anecdotal. William Dunbar, Henryson's contemporary and a fellow poet, provides scholars with the only known "obituary" for Henryson in his Lament for the Makars: "In Dunfermelyne he hes done roune / With Maister Robert Henrisoun." The "he" Dunbar refers to is Death, so Henryson likely died close to Laments' publication around 1505. Douglas Grey's contribution to the Medieval and Renaissance Authors series mentions an additional biographical gleaning from Dunbar's text, positing Henryson's title of "Maister" likely means he graduated from University. Using that title as evidence Dunbar concludes, "the later tradition that [Henryson] was a schoolmaster [in Dumfermline] is quite likely to be correct" (2). Apart from that, little is known with certainty.

2Though not a sequel in the modern sense of the word, Henryson's Testament does carry on the story Chaucer began, but it does not necessarily follow Chaucer's original. Chaucer's work ends with Troilus' death, but in Testament Troilus is very much alive. The action of Testament therefore occurs in the same fictional time as Chaucer's Book V between the last time Troilus sees Criseyde and his death. Where Chaucer focuses on Troilus' end, Henryson offers closure to the character of Criseyde, whom Chaucer largely ignores after her betrayal. Testament begins as the narrator describes a cold evening "in the Middle of Lent." Wishing to speed along the dreary evening and coming night, the narrator takes a copy of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Finishing that, he takes down "a second book where I found the fate of Cresseid, who ended wretchedly." The remainder of the poem is the content of that book. The text includes several staples of medieval literature: references to Fortune, the influence of the planets on human fate, and the storytelling device of the dream vision. By the poem's conclusion its tone changes from the telling of a story to something akin to a medieval morality play. In the final lines the poet addresses the reader directly, whom he assumes to be young women, admonishing them to avoid mixing "love with deception." On the surface the narrative is relatively straightforward, but do not dismiss the poem as simplistic. Filled with detailed descriptions of the ancient gods, questions concerning the "crime" behind Cresseid's punishment, and the maturation of Cresseid as the poem progresses, Testament is a remarkable example of Henryson's skill as a poet and is often considered his masterpiece.

The Testament of Cresseid by Master Robert Henryson

3A doleful season warrants a sad poem, and it was such a season when I began to write this tragedy. It was the middle of Lent and the weather ran so cold it seemed to burn the skin. The sun was in Aries and brought showers of hail down from the north. I could hardly escape the bitter cold. I stood nevertheless in my study as Titan set, covering his bright beams, and Venus, fair beauty of the night, raised her beautiful golden face opposite him in the sky. Outside her fair light was so bright I could see all around me; the strong north wind shed the misty clouds from the sky. The cold air grew colder and the bitterly whistling arctic wind blew so loud it forced me unwillingly from the window. I trusted that Venus, love's queen to whom I sometimes vowed obedience, would soon renew my fading heart of love and with humble reverence I thought to pray to her. But I was hindered by the cold in my study, and I passed instead into my chamber to the fire. Though love is hot it's less so in an old man than a young one, in whom blood flows in a rage. In the old a wood fire best remedies that dull and dead heat. I know what medicine mends where nature has failed because I have experienced both. I mended the fire, warmed myself, and took a drink to comfort my spirit and arm myself against the cold.

4To make the cold night pass swiftly I took a book down. The glorious Chaucer wrote it, and it told of fair Cresseid and worthy Troilus. I read that after Diomede had taken that surpassingly lovely lady, Troilus nearly went mad with grief, turned pale, and wept sorely. His tears only renewed his grief and though he had hope, he lived both in joy and pain. He took great comfort at her behest and trusted that she would return to Troy, which he desired more than anything on Earth because she was his only lover. But when the day and hour passed when she was to return, sorrow oppressed his heavy heart. I need not repeat all his distress; Chaucer's book in good and ivory verse describes Troilus' sorrows to whomever will read it.

5To put off sleep I took down a second book where I found the fatal destiny of Cresseid, who ended wretchedly. Who knows if what Chaucer wrote was true? I do not know if this current story possesses any authority or is newly imagined by some poet who, through his own intuition, reports the lamentation, woeful end, distress, and death of lusty Cresseid.

6When Diomede had filled all his appetite – and more – with Cresseid, he set his delight on another woman and sent Cresseid a letter of dismissal, excluding her from his company. Desolate, she wandered aimlessly and, some men say, she became a court whore.

7O fair Cresseid! Flower and paragon of Troy and Greece! How were you fortuned to change into filth all your femininity and be marked by fleshly lust, going early and late among the Greeks so like a whore taking your foul pleasure? I pity you that you fell into such misfortune. Nevertheless no matter what men think or say scornfully of your brokenness, I will excuse everything I can – your womanhood, your wisdom and fairness – which fortune, as she pleases, has put to such distress and ruin through no fault of your own. You were ruined by wicked words!

8This fair lady – destitute of comfort and consolation, alone, and disguised – secretly passed far outside of town about a mile or two to a beautifully built mansion where her father Calchas dwelt with the Greeks. When he saw her he asked why she had come.

9She said with a great sigh, "After Diomede had gotten his desire he grew tired of me and wanted nothing of me."

10Calchas replied, "Do not cry, daughter. Perhaps this is best. Welcome home."

11Old Calchas, according to custom, was a keeper and priest of the temple where Venus and Cupid were honored. Calchas' chamber was nearby where Cresseid with sorrow in her breast used to pass by and say her prayers.

12One solemn day when it was customary before midday for local people to present their devout sacrifices, Cresseid adamantly refused to present herself in the temple to avoid giving people any knowledge of her expulsion from Diomede's company. She went instead into a secret orature where she might weep for her woeful destiny. Closing the door behind her, she hastily fell down on her knees.

13Angrily she cried out to Cupid and Venus saying, "Alas that ever I sacrificed to you! You once gave me a divine promise that I would be the flower of love in Troy. Now I am made an unworthy outcast, and my joy has been translated into misery. Who will guide me? Who will care for me since from both Diomede and noble Troilus I am excluded like an odious outcast? O false Cupid there is no one to blame but you and your mother, the blind goddess of love! You led me to believe and trust that the seed of love was sown in my face, and I grew green through your supply and grace. But now, alas, that seed is slain with frost and from all lovers I am utterly lost."

14This said she collapsed into a stupor and her entranced spirit fell into a dream where she seemed to hear Cupid ring a silver bell, which men could hear from Heaven to Hell. At that bell's sound the seven planets descended from their spheres before Cupid.

15These spheres rule all living things, having power over weather, wind, and the variable courses of destiny. First Saturn, who gave Cupid little reverence, came ill naturedly acting like a noisy churl with an austere cheer. His face was wrinkled; his complexion like lead; his teeth chattered and his chin shivered; his eyes drooped and were sunken in his head while out of his nose mucus ran down his lean, thin cheeks and blue-grey lips. The icicles that hanged down from his hairs were a great wonder to see and were as long as spears. Over his belt his grey-streaked locks lay, matted hideously and covered over with hoarfrost. His withered garment was solid gray and warded him from the wind. A great bow he bore in his hand, and under his cloak you could glimpse cruel arrows feathered with ice and headed with hailstones.

16Then appeared fair and friendly Jupiter, god of the stars in the firmament and nurse to all living things. He was far different from his father Saturn, having a bright burly face with high bright brows. On his head was a beautifully made garland of fair flowers like you see in May. His voice was clear and his eyes were like crystals; his hair glittered like golden wire, and his cloak was completely green, edged with golden triangles. A great sword he bore about his waist and in his right hand he carried a sharp spear that he used to defend mankind from his father's wrath.

17After him came Mars – god of ire, strife, debate, and dissention, to chide and fight as fiercely as any fire – dressed in a hard harness, helmet, and habergeon, and wearing on his haunch a bloody, fell falchion. In his hand he had a blood-rusted sword, and his face writhed with many angry words. He came before Cupid shaking that sword, red-faced with grisly glowering eyes and a bit of spittle in the corner of his mouth like a boar whetting its tusks. He was a warrior, but in control of his anger, and he blew a horn of war which he has used many times to make the world tremble.

18Then fair Phoebus arrived – the lantern and lamp of the world, man, and beast, the nurse of fruit and flourishing, and the banisher of night. In the world his moving influences and drives life in all earthly things and without his comfort everything would die without exception. Like a royal king he rode in his chariot that Phaëton once guided unsuccessfully. No one could behold the brightness of his face and live. Yoked to this fiery bright chariot were four different colored steeds that, without pause or tiring, drew it through the spheres. The first horse was sorrel, with a rose-red mane, and was called Eous in the Orient. The second was called Ethios, white and pale, who was more powerful. Peros was the third, hot tempered and fervent. The forth was black, called Philologie, who rolls Phoebus down into the sea.

19Venus, the beautiful goddess, was also there to both defend her son's quarrel and to make her own complaint. She was dressed in a wanton array half green, half sable black, and her golden hair hung behind her. In her face was great variance, sometimes showing perfect truth and sometimes inconstancy. Behind her smile she could be false and provocative with amorous glances and then suddenly change, becoming angry as any venomous serpent, and speak with stinging, odious words. Take care whoever listens! She was ever changing – laughing with one eye while weeping with the other. Like fleshly love, which Venus controls and governs, she is sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter and sour, unstable and variable, mixed with sorrowful joy and false pleasure – now hot, now cold, now blithe, now full of woe, now green as a leaf, now withered and past.

20Next came Mercury with a book in his hand, and pen and ink to report what happened there. He was eloquently spoken, using polite and delightful terms, and he wrote songs that he merrily sang. A red hood fashioned after that of the old poets covered his head. He bore many medicines: sugared syrups for digestion, spices like the apothecaries have, and other sweet treats. Like a doctor of physik his gown was scarlet red and well lined with fur, as it should be. He was honest, good, and incapable of lying.

21Cynthia came last of all, the swiftest in her sphere, wearing black and looking like she had two horns. She prefers to appear at night, wan as lead, but without a clear color because she borrows her light from her brother Titan; she has none of her own. Her clothing was grey with black spots, and on her chest was painted a churl bearing a bunch of thorns on his back that he had stolen, which prevented him from climbing nearer to heaven.

22With the seven gods thus assembled they unanimously chose Mercury to be their speaker in this parliament. Anyone who was there and heard Mercury speak could learn much of rhetoric from his eloquent tongue, even how to give a brief sermon in a single pregnant sentence. Pushing back his hood a little, Mercury asked Cupid the cause of their gathering and to declare his accusations.

23"Lo," said Cupid, "whosoever blasphemes the name of his own god, by word or deed, dishonors and shames all the gods and deserves bitter pain as a reward. I lay this charge on yon wretched Cresseid, whom I once made the flower of love. Both my mother and me she reprimanded, slandered and injuriously defamed, blaming me for her great misfortune and calling my mother Venus a blind goddess. Her filth and lechery she dares to blame on my mother when I granted her my grace above everyone. Since we all here are gods, sharing divine wisdom, this great injury she did to all of our estate and therefore I believe we should reward her with pain. Never before have the gods been done such violence, so for your own sakes as well as mine I pray you will help avenge me!"

24Answering Cupid Mercury replied, "Bright king, I council you defer judgment to Saturn, the highest planet here, suing to him for a sentence of pain for Cresseid, and have Cynthia assist him in judgment."

25"I am satisfied with those two," responded Cupid.

26Saturn and Cynthia discussed the matter thoroughly and for Cresseid's dishonor of Cupid and her open and manifest dishonor of Venus, they decided that all Cresseid's life should be oppressed with pain, torment, and incurable sickness. She would be an abomination to all lovers forevermore.

27Saturn took this dismal sentence down to where Cresseid lay and laid his frosty staff on her saying, "Thy great fairness, all your beauty, your wanton blood, and even your golden hair I remove from you forever. I change your mirth to melancholy, the mother of all thoughtfulness; your moist and hot personality I make cold and dry; your insolence and wanton play are now changed to great disease. I change your pomp and riches to suffering mortal need and poverty. You will die as a beggar."

28O cruel Saturn, froward and angry, your judgment is hard and malicious! Why do you have no mercy for fair Cresseid who was so sweet, gentile, and loving? Withdraw your sentence and be gracious as you never were before. Your actions pass a wrathful sentence on fair Cresseid!

29Saturn withdrew and Cynthia descended from her chair and read also a doom on Cresseid: "I deprive you of bodily warmth and your sickness will have no cure. In great sorrow you will now live. Your crystal eyes I make bloodshot and your clear voice unpleasing, rough, and hoarse. Your lusty face will be spread over with black spots and pale lumps. Wherever you go, men will flee. You will go begging from house to house with only a cup and clapper like a beggar."

30Cresseid then awoke from this sad dream and this ugly vision ended; all that heavenly court vanished. Rising up she took a mirror so she could look at her reflection. When she saw her face so deformed only God knows if she suffered enough in her heart.

31Weeping hard she said, "Lo, see how froward language provokes bad tempered gods! My blaspheming has cost me dearly; all earthly joy is behind me. Alas this day! Alas the day when I chided my gods!"

32At that moment a child came into the hall to tell Cresseid dinner was ready.

33First the child knocked, then called, "Madam, your father bids you come quickly. He marvels that you lay so long in grief, and he says your prayers are too long. The gods already know your intent."

34Cresseid replied, "Fair child, go to my dear father and ask him to come speak with me now."

35Calchas came and said, "Daughter, what do you need?"

36"Alas," she cried, "father my joy is gone!"

37"How so?" he asked, and she began to explain everything I have already told you, of Cupid's wrath and vengeance for her trespass. He looked on her ugly leper's face that before was lily white. He rued that he lived to see that terrible hour and often wrung his hands. He knew well that nothing would ease her pain and that knowledge doubled his own. There was more than enough sorrow between the two of them.

38After mourning together for a long time Cresseid said, "Father, I do not wish to be seen like this. Therefore let me go secretly to the hospital at the end of town and there send me food to live on as a charity, for all mirth on this earth is gone from me, such is my wicked fate!"

39In complete secrecy he led his daughter to a secret exit so no one would see her, covered in a mantle and a beaver hat with only a cup and a clapper. Taking her to a small village half a mile away, he delivered her to the leper's house where he daily sent her a part of his alms. Some there knew her, while others had no idea who she was because of her deformity – black boils covered her face, and her fair color was both faded and altered. They assumed her to be of noble kin because of her great mourning and regret, so they with good will took her in. The day passed and Phoebus went to rest; black clouds covered the sky. God knew Cresseid was a sorrowful guest, seeing that wretched food and lodging! She always ate and drank alone in a corner, and weeping she made her complaint.


The Complaint of Cresseid


42"O sorrowful sop, sunken in dismay. O wretched Cresseid, now and forever is your joy and happiness gone on earth. Of gladness you are destitute. There is no salve to heal you of your hurt! Evil is your fortune; wicked is your fate; your bliss is banished and only building is your balefulness! God, if only I were dead and buried so none of Greece or Troy might hear of my fate!"

43"Where is your beautifully furnished chamber with its great bed and embroidered fineries? Where are the spices and wine for a light refreshment? The cups gold and silver? The sweet meats served on clean plates with good seasoned saffron sauce? What of your beautiful garments and gowns? Your lovely linens pinned with a golden broach? Where are they? All is lost, all of your royal renown!"

44"Where is your garden of beautiful plants and fresh flowers that the goddess Flora had painted so pleasantly in every bed, and where you were accustomed to walk happily in May to see the new dew of the day, and hear the many blackbirds and thrushes sing, and sing with other fair ladies, and saw the royal ranks wearing clothes gaily garnished?"

45"Your great fame and high honor – when you were called the flower of earthly creatures – is decayed. Your fate is so withered. Your high estate is changed into a harsh darkness. Take this leper's lodge for your bower, and for thy bed take now a bunch of straw, and for choice meat and wine take moldy bread, pear juice, and sour cider. Everything is gone except for a cup and a clapper."

46"My clear singing voice used to please ladies in court. It's now raw as a rook's cry – hideous, hoarse, and rough. My pleasant appearance and loveliness surpassed all others. Now my face is so deformed no one wants to look at it. Soaked with grief, utter sorrow, and living with lepers! Alas!"

47"Fair ladies of Troy and Greece see my misery, my frivol fortune and my infelicity, which no one can comprehend or cure. Beware as your time comes to an end and remember me. As I am now so you might be too, or perhaps even worse, regardless of your efforts. Your beauty is nothing but a fading flower. Your praise and honor is but wind in men's ears. Your rosy complexion will fade into rot. Remember me as an example and a witness to these things. All wealth on Earth passes like a brief breeze. Therefore beware that approaching hour. Fortune is fickle when she begins to stir."

48Weeping and struggling with her dreary destiny, Cresseid lay awake the entire night crying in vain, though crying could not remedy her sorrow or end her mourning.

49A leper woman rose and went to her saying, "Why do you kick the wall and abuse yourself? It fixes nothing. Since weeping only doubles your woe I say make a virtue of a need. Learn to clap your clapper and live in the manner of the lepers."

50There was no other choice, so Cresseid went with the lepers from place to place until the cold and her hunger compelled her to survive as a common beggar.

51At the same time Troy's garrison, captained by worthy Troilus, had slain many Greek knights and was returning to Troy in triumph when they rode past where Cresseid and the lepers waited.

52Seeing that garrison the lepers shook their cups and cried in one accord, "Worthy lords, for God's love, give us lepers a part of your alms!"

53Troilus took heed of their cries and pitying them passed near where Cresseid sat, not knowing she was there. She cast up her eyes to him and suddenly he thought he had seen her face before, but her condition was so changed that he did not recognize her. Yet her look recalled to his mind the sweet looks and glances of fair Cresseid who was once his darling. (It is no wonder that he had her image so quickly called to mind – in some cases a fantasy can take over the mind and delude the senses, making it seem real.) A spark of love kindled in his heart and his body felt like it was on fire. A trembling fever and sweat overcame him and he nearly collapsed. His shield grew a heavy burden to carry, and he unconsciously paled and blushed several times. Nevertheless neither he nor Cresseid knew the other. Because of knightly piety and the memory of Cresseid, he took his belt, a purse of gold, and many beautiful jewels and tossed them in Cresseid's dress. Then he rode away to Troy without a word, deep in thought, and his sorrow nearly unhorsed him several times.

54The lepers drew near to Cresseid to divide the alms equally, but seeing all the gold they whispered to each other, "For some reason that lord has great affection for this beggar, more than he has for us. We know what he usually gives."

55Cresseid spoke up, "Do you know who that generous lord was?"

56One leper replied, "Yes. I know him well. That was Sir Troilus, gentle and free."

57When Cresseid learned it was he she stiffened like steel and doubled over, collapsed with a bitter pang in her heart.

58When she recovered, she sighed sadly, "Now my breast is a storm of pain. I am a wretch wrapped in woe and deprived of hope!"

59Unable to stop herself she fainted several times, and each time she cried, "O false Cresseid and true knight Troilus! Your love, loyalty, and gentleness I counted too little in my prosperity because I was so elevated by my own wantonness and so high on the Wheel of Fate. The love and faithfulness I promised to you was fickle and frivolous. O false Cresseid, and true knight Troilus! Your love for me kept you honest and chaste. You were the protector of all women's reputations. My own mind inclined to fleshly lust and lechery. Fie, false Cresseid; O true knight Troilus!"

60"Lovers take heed of who you love and for whom you suffer pain. I can tell you there are few men out there whom you can trust for true love. You can try to test love, but you will not succeed. Therefore take them as you can find them, for men are constant as weathercocks in the wind."

61"Because I knew the great variableness, the glass-like frailty in myself, I trusted that other women were as unfaithful, as unconstant, and as untrue in faith. I thought some were true, though I knew they were few. Any man who finds truth let him his lady extol; none but myself will I fault for my fate."

62Having said this Cresseid took some paper and sat down to make her testament: "Here I bequeath my corpse and carrion to be torn by the worms and toads. My cup and clapper, my jewelry, and all my gold I give to the lepers so that when I am dead they might bury me in a grave. This royal ring set with a red ruby, which Troilus gave me as a love-token, I return to him so that my sorrowful death might be made known. I conclude this now and leave my spirit to Diana to walk with her in the woods and marshes. O Diomede, you already have the broach and belt Troilus gave me as tokens of his true love."

63With that last word she died. A leper took the ring and buried her quickly, bearing the ring to Troilus to declare Cresseid's death. When Troilus heard of her infirmity, her will and lamentation, and how she died in poverty, his heart was ready to break and he fainted from the woe and sorrow he felt.

64Sadly sighing he said, "I can do nothing; she was unfaithful, and woe is me because of it."

65Some said he made a grey marble tomb for her and placed it over her grave, writing both her name and an epitaph in golden letters saying:

66"Lo fair ladies, here is Cresseid of Troy. Once called the flower of womanhood, now under this stone, a former leper lies dead."

67Worthy women in this short ballad made for your praise and instruction, for charity's sake, I admonish and exhort you not to mix your love with deception. Remember the end of fair Cresseid. Since she is dead I will say nothing more of her.

Works Cited


  1. Gray, Douglas. Robert Henryson. Edited by John Norton-Smith and Douglas Gray. Medieval and Renaissance Authors. Leiden: Brill, 1979.
  2. Fox, Denton ed. The Testament of Cresseid. London: Thomas Nelson, 1968.
  3. Kindrick, Robert ed. The Poems of Robert Henryson. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997.