Robert Henryson, as portrayed in the Abbot House, Dunfermline

Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500), as portrayed in the Abbot House, Dunfermline, 2011. Photo by Kim Traynor. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Henryson (or Henrysoun) (?1430-1506?) was a Scottish poet.



Few details of Henryson's life are known, even the dates of his birth and death being uncertain. He appears to have been a schoolmaster, perhaps in the Benedictine Convent, at Dunfermline, and was a member of the University of Glasgow in 1462. He also practised as a Notary Public, and may have been in orders. His principal poems are The Moral Fables of Esope the Phrygian; The Testament of Cresseide (a sequel to the Troilus and Cressida of Chaucer), to whom it was, until 1721, attributed; Robene and Makyne, the 1st pastoral, not only in Scottish vernacular, but in the English tongue' The Uplandis Mous and The Burges Mous (Country and Town Mouse), and the Garmond of Gude Ladeis. Henryson, who was versed in the learning and general culture of his day, had a true poetic gift. His verse is strong and swift, full of descriptive power, and sparkling with wit. He is the first Scottish lyrist and the introducer of the pastoral to English literature.[1]

Counted among the Scots makars, he is a distinctive voice in the Northern Renaissance at a time when the culture was on a cusp between medieval and renaissance sensibilities. His poetry was composed in Middle Scots at a time when this had become a state language. It is one of the most important bodies of work in the canon of early Scottish literature.[2]

Youth and educationEdit

Henryson was probably born between 1420 and 1430, but neither the family to which he belongs nor the place of his birth has been discovered. Sibbald's surmise (Chronicles of Scottish Poetry, i. 88) that he was Henryson of Fordel, Fifeshire (father of the justice-clerk, James Henryson, who fell at Flodden), is not supported by evidence, nor is there any proof that he is related to the Fordel family.[3]

His name is not on the university register of either St. Andrews or Glasgow, the only 2 university seats then in Scotland; and Dr. Laing, in the introduction to his complete edition of Henryson's Poems and Fables, thinks it likely that he may have completed his studies and graduated abroad. His common appellation, "Master Robert Henryson," indicates that he was a master of arts.[3]


When he was admitted, 10 September 1462, as a member of the recently founded Glasgow University, he was called "the Venerable Master Robert Henrysone, Licentiate in Arts and Bachelor in Decrees."[3]

Attesting 3 separate deeds (March 1477-8 and July 1478) granted by the abbot of Dunfermline, he is described as "Magister Robertus Henrison, notarius publicus." As at that time notaries were commonly clergymen, Henryson was probably in orders, and as on the title-page of the Fables of 1570 (Harleian MS. 3865, p. 1; Morall Fables, 1621) he is called a schoolmaster, it is probable that he held a clerical appointment within Dunfermline Abbey. The abbots elected the schoolmaster of the grammar school, which was within the precincts of the abbey, and this may have been Henryson's post. Lord Hailes (Ancient Scottish Poems, 273) supposes his office to have been "that of preceptor of youth in the Benedictine convent at Dunfermline."[3]

In the 5th stanza of the prologue to his Testament of Cresseid Henryson calls himself "a man of age," and Dunbar's reference to his death in his Lament for the Makaris (written before 1508) seems to indicate that the event was comparatively recent. There are only 3 after him on the melancholy roll (not including Kennedy, who "in poynt of dede lyis veraly"). It is probable that Dunbar knew Henryson, and that if he did not live into the beginning of the 16th century, he died very late in the 15th.[4]

Sir Francis Kinaston, who about 1635 appended Henryson's Testament to a rhymed Latin version of Chaucer's Troylus, embodied in his introduction a tradition, derived from "divers aged schollers of the Scottish nation," that the author was "one Mr. Robert Henderson, sometimes chiefe schoole-master in Dumfermling," adding that he died at a very great age.[4]

It is quite possible that Henryson wrote his poem "Ane Prayer for the Pest" when the plague, known as ‘Grandgore,’ was in Edinburgh in 1497, but there is nothing to support the surmise (Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline) that he was one of its victims, when, as shown by the burgh records, it raged in Dunfermline in 1499.[4]


Henryson is the most Chaucerian of the Scottish "makaris." The Tale of Orpheus and the Testament of Cresseid alone amply exemplify this. The latter, indeed, despite Charteris's Edinburgh edition of 1593, was given as Chaucer's, along with the Troylus, until Urry distinguished it as Henryson's in his edition of Chaucer, 1721. Its descriptive writing is vigorous, and it has passages of strenuous impassioned verse, the complaint of the leprous Cresseid, in particular, being a rapid and impressive outburst.[4]

Henryson is abreast of the culture of his time, and loftily moralises (both in the Fables and the philosophical lyrics) on the troubles of his fatherland. His "Abbey Walk," Garmond of Gude Ladeis, "Ressoning betwixt Aige and Yowth," and the like, show him as a strict didactic philosopher and Christian optimist. He is the first pure lyrist among Scottish poets. His ingenious rhymes and his mastery of pause and cadence, as seen, e.g., in the quatrain of the ‘Garmond’ and the octave of the "Abbey Walk" and "Robene and Makyne," betoken a correct and disciplined ear.[4]

Besides giving special direction to the ballad, Henryson introduced into the language the moral fable and the pastoral. His "Bludy Serk," Morall Fables of Esope the Phrygian, and "Robene and Makyne" are all distinct and valuable additions to English poetry. Despite the tediousness of which Lord Hailes and others complain, there are no better fables in the language than the 13 written by Henryson, and his pastoral — the love story of a Scottish lad and lass, with its wayward freaks and fancies, its happy dialogue, and its critical close — holds a unique position.[4]

The following collections include poems by Henryson: The Asloan MS. of 1515, the Bannatyne MS. of 1568, the Maitland MS. of 1585, the Harleian MS. 3865, and the Makculloch MS. in Dr. Laing's collection. The ‘Orpheus’ appeared in the miscellany of Chepman & Myllar, 1508. In 1593 Henry Charteris printed in 4to at Edinburgh ‘The Testament of Cresseid, compylit be M. Robert Henryson, Sculemaister in Dunfermeling,’ and Andro Hart [q. v.], in 1621, printed in 8vo at Edinburgh ‘The Morall Fables of Esope the Phrygian, compyled into eloquent and ornamentell Meeter, by Robert Henrisoun, Schoolemaster of Domfermeling.’ Dr. Nott considered that Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) might have been indebted to Henryson's ‘Taill of the uponlandis Mous and the burges Mous’ for the idea of his first satire, and he therefore quoted the fable from the Harleian MS. in an appendix to his edition of Wyatt's ‘Poems.’ Henryson is fairly well represented in Lord Hailes's ‘Ancient Scottish Poems, published from the MS. of George Bannatyne,’ 1770; in Pinkerton's ‘Ancient Scotish Poems,’ 1786, and ‘Scotish Poems reprinted from scarce editions,’ 1792; and in Sibbald's ‘Chronicle of Scotish Poetry,’ vol. i., 1802. George Chalmers [q. v.] edited and presented to the Bannatyne Club in 1824 a quarto volume, containing ‘Robene and Makyne’ and the ‘Testament of Cresseid;’ and the Maitland Club published in 4to, 1832, ‘The Moral Fables,’ reprinted from Andro Hart and edited by Dr. Irving. Dr. David Laing, in 1865, published, in 1 vol. 8vo, ‘The Poems and Fables of Robert Henryson, now first collected, with Notes and a Memoir of his Life,’ and this seems likely to be the standard edition.[4]

His surviving body of work amounts to almost exactly 5000 lines. Henryson's surviving canon consists of 3 long poems and around 12 miscellaneous short works in various genres. The longest poem is his Morall Fabillis, a tight, intricately structured set of 13 fable stories in a cycle that runs just short of 3000 lines. 2 other long works survive, both a little over 600 lines each: his dynamic and inventive version of the Orpheus story; and his Testament of Cresseid, a tale of moral and psychological subtlety in a tragic mode founded upon the literary conceit of "completing" the story-arc for a character in a poem by Chaucer.[2]

The range of Henryson's shorter works includes a highly original pastourelle on a theme of love, as well as a bawdy passage of comic flyting which targets the medical practises of his day, a highly crafted and compressed poem of Marian devotion, some allegorical works, some philosophical meditations, and a prayer against the pest. As with his longer works, his outward themes often carry important subtexts.[2]

Constructing a sure chronology for Henryson's writings is not possible, but his Orpheus story may have been written earlier in his career, during his time in Glasgow, since one of its principal sources was contained in the university library. Internal evidence has been used to suggest that the Morall Fabillis were composed during the 1480's.[2]

Henryson wrote using the Scots language of the 15th century. This was in an age when the use of vernacular languages for literature in many parts of Europe was increasingly taking the place of Latin, the long-established lingua franca across the continent.[2]

Henryson generally wrote in a first-person voice using a familiar tone that quickly brings the reader into his confidence and gives a notable impression of authentic personality and beliefs. The writing stays rooted in daily life and continues to feel grounded even when the themes are metaphysical or elements are fantastic. His language is a supple, flowing and concise Scots that clearly shows he knew Latin, while scenes are usually given a deftly evocative Scottish setting which can only have come from close connection and observation.[5] This detailed, intimate and realistic approach, at times, strongly suggests matters of personal experience and attitudes to actual contemporary events, yet the specifics remain elusive in ways that tantalise readers and critics. Some of this sense of intrigue may be in part accidental, but it is also heightened by his cannily controlled application of a philosophy of fiction, a frequently self-proclaimed feature of the work.[2]

Critical introductionEdit

by William Ernest Henley

Henryson was an accomplished man and a good and genuine poet. He had studied Chaucer with the ardour and insight of an original mind, and while he has much in common with his master, he has much that is his own. His verse is usually well-minted and of full weight. Weak lines are rare in him; he had the instinct of the refrain, and was fond of doing feats in rhythm and rhyme; he is close, compact, and energetic. Again, he does not often let his learning or his imagination run away with him and divert him from his main issue. He subordinates himself to the matter he has in hand; he keeps himself to the point, and never seeks to develop for development’s sake; and so, as it appears to me, he approves himself a true artist.

It follows that, as a story-teller, he is seen to great advantage. He narrates with a gaiety, an ease, a rapidity, not to be surpassed in English literature between Chaucer and Burns. That, moreover, he was a born dramatist, there is scarce one of his fables but will prove. It is to be noted that he uses dialogue as a good playwright would use it; it is a means with him not only of explaining a personage but of painting a situation, not only of introducing a moral but of advancing an intrigue. He had withal an abundance of wit, humour, and good sense; he had considered life and his fellow men, nature and religion, the fashions and abuses of his epoch, with the grave, observant amiability of a true poet; he was directly in sympathy with many things; he loved to read and to laugh; it was his business to moralise and teach. It was natural that he should choose the fable as a means of expressing himself. It was fortunate as well; for his fables are perhaps the best in the language, and are worthy of consideration and regard even after La Fontaine himself.

To a modern eye his dialect is distressingly quaint and crabbed. In his hands, however, it is a right instrument, narrow in compass, it may be, but with its every note sonorous and responsive. To know the use he made of it in dialogue, he must be studied in Robyne and Makyne, the earliest English pastoral; or at such moments as that of the conversation between the widows of the Cock who has just been snatched away by the Fox; or in the incomparable "Taile of the Wolf that got the Nek-Herring throw the Wrinkis of the Fox that Begylit the Cadgear", which, outside La Fontaine, I conceive to be one of the high-water marks of the modern apologue. In such poems as "The Three Deid Powis",[6] where he has anticipated a something of Hamlet at Yorick’s grave, as "The Abbey Walk", the "Garmond of Fair Ladies", the "Reasoning between Age and Youth", it is employed as a vehicle for the expression of austere thought, of quaint conceitedness, of solemn and earnest devotion, of satirical comment, with equal ease and equal success. As a specimen of classic description—as the classic appeared to the mediæval mind—I should like to quote at length his dream of Æsop. As a specimen of what may be called the choice and refined realism that informs his work, we may give a few stanzas from the prelude to his Testament of Cresseid. It was winter, he says, when he began his song, but, he adds, in despite of the cold,

  ‘Within mine orature
    I stude, when Titan with his bemis bricht
Withdrawin doun, and sylit 2 undercure,
    And fair Venus, the beauty of the nicht,
    Uprais, and set unto the west full richt
Hir goldin face, in oppositioun
Of God Phoebus, direct discending doun.
Throwout the glass hir bemis brast so fair
    That I micht se on everie side me by.
The northin wind had purifyit the air,
    And sched the misty cloudis fra the sky.[7] The frost freisit, the blastis bitterly
Fra Pole Artick came quhistling loud and schill,
And causit me remufe aganist my will.

  • * * * *

I mend the fire, and beikit[8] me about,
    Than tuik a drink my spreitis to comfort,
And armit me weill fra the cauld thairout;
    To cut the winter nicht and mak it schort,
    I tuik ane Quair,[9] and left all uther sport,
Writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious
Of fair Cresseid and lusty Troilus.’

In this charming description Henryson, by the use of simple and natural means and by the operation of a principle of selection that is nothing if not artistic, has produced an impression that would not disgrace a poet skilled in the knacks and fashions of the most pictorial school. Indeed I confess to having read in its connection a poem that might in many ways be imitated from it (La Bonne Soirée), and to feeling and seeing more with Henryson than with Théophile Gautier.[10]


2 of his poems, "Robin and Makyne" and "The Bludy Serk", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[11] [12]



Extant poemsEdit

File:1501 Steinhowel Aesop 2.gif

All known and extant writings attributed to Robert Henryson are listed here. In addition, the 20th century Henryson scholar Matthew P McDiarmid makes reference to another (lost?) poem which begins: On fut by Forth as I couth found (not listed).[13]

Long worksEdit

Short worksEdit

Individual fablesEdit

File:Riparia riparia-Oeverzwaluw.jpg

Seven of the stories in Henryson's cycle are Aesopian fables derived from elegaic Romulus texts, while the other six (given in italics) are Reynardian in genre. The three titles given with bold numbers provide evidence for the integral unity of the overall structure.

See alsoEdit

Robert Henryson The Twa Myis

Robert Henryson The Twa Myis


  • PD-icon.svg Bayne, Thomas Wilson (1891) "Henryson, Robert" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 26 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 130-131 . Wikisource Web, Jan. 24, 2018.


  1. John William Cousin, "Henryson, Robert," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 186-187. Web, Jan. 24, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Robert Henryson, Wikipedia, November 29, 2017, Wikimedia Foundation. Web, Jan. 24, 2018.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Bayne, 130.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Bayne, 131.
  5. See Wittig, K. 1958: The Scottish Tradition in Literature, Oliver and Boyd, chapter 2, for appraisals of Henryson's descriptive technique.
  6. Skulls
  7. "The wind had swept from the wide atmosphere, / Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray." - Shelley
  8. bustled
  9. book
  10. from Willliam Ernest Henley, "Critical Introduction: Robert Henryson (1430?–1506?)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 3, 2016.
  11. "Robin and Makyne," Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  12. "The Bludy Serk," Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch]. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  13. McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.4

External linksEdit

Audio / video