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 (sometimes Henrysoun) (?1430–1506?) was a Scottish poet who flourished during the period 1460–1500. Counted among the Scots makars, he lived in the royal burgh of Dunfermline and 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.



Little is known of Henryson's life, but evidence suggests that he was a teacher who had training in law and the humanities, that he had a connection with Dunfermline Abbey and that he may also have been associated for a period with Glasgow University.


There is no record of when or where Henryson was born or educated. The earliest found unconfirmed reference to him occurs in September 1462 when a man of his name with license to teach is on record as having taken a post in the recently founded University of Glasgow. If this was the poet, as is usually assumed, then the citation indicates that he had completed studies in both arts and canon law.[1] With no record of him as a student in Scotland, it is normally thought that he graduated in a university furth of the land, possibly in Leuven, Paris or Bologna. This has not been established.


Almost all early references to Henryson firmly associate his name with Dunfermline.[2] He probably had some attachment to the city's Benedictine abbey, the burial place for many of the kingdom's monarchs and an important centre for pilgrimage close to a major ferry-crossing en-route to St Andrews. Direct unconfirmed evidence for this connection occurs in 1478 when his name appears as a witness on abbey charters.[3] If this was the poet, then it would establish that one of his functions was as notary for the abbey, an institution which possessed and managed a vast portfolio of territory across Scotland.[4]

The almost universal references to Henryson as schoolmaster are usually taken to mean that he taught in and had some duty to run the grammar school for Dunfermline's abbatial burgh.[5] A partial picture of what this meant in practice may be derived from a confirmatio of 1468 which granted provision to build a "suitable" house for the habitation of a "priest" (as master of grammar) and "scholars" in Dunfermline, including "poor scholars being taught free of charge".[6]

Dunfermline, as a royal burgh with capital status, was routinely visited by the court with residences directly linked to the abbey complex. There is no record of Henryson as a court poet, but the close proximity makes acquaintance with the royal household likely. He was active during the reigns of James III and James IV, both of whom had strong interests in literature.

According to the poet William Dunbar, Henryson died in Dunfermline. An apocryphal story by the English poet Francis Kynaston in the early 17th century refers to the flux as the cause of death, but this has not been established.[7] The year of death also is unknown, although 1498 or 1499, a time of plague in the burgh, have been tentatively suggested.[8] However, Dunbar gives the terminus ad quem in a couplet (usually considered to have been composed c.1505) which simply states that Death in Dunfermelyne

...hes done roune (has whispered in private)
with Maister Robert Henrysoun.

(William Dunbar, Lament for the Makaris, lines 81-2)[9]

File:Wfm firth of forth.jpg

Almost nothing else is known of Henryson outside of his surviving writing. It is not known if he originated from Dunfermline and a suggestion that he may have been linked to the Fife branch of the Clan Henderson is not possible to verify, although his name is certainly of that ilk.


His writing consists mainly of narrative works highly inventive in their development of story-telling techniques. He generally achieved a canny balance of humour and high seriousness which is often multi-layered in its effects. This is especially so in his Morall Fabillis, in which he expresses a consistent but complex world view that seems standard, on the surface, vis a vis the major ruling power of the church, while containing critical and questioning elements. This range is further extended in his Testament of Cresseid with its more tragic vision. Overall, his themes and tone convey an attractive impression of humanity and compassionate intellect. He was a subtle rhetorician and remains to this day one of the finest in the Scots language.

Although his writing usually incorporated a typically medieval didactic purpose, it also has much in common with other artistic currents of northern Europe which were generally developing, such the realism of Flemish painting, the historical candour of Barbour or the narrative scepticism of Chaucer. An example is his subtle use of psychology to convey individual character in carefully dramatised, recognisable daily-life situations which tend to eschew fantastic elements.

His surviving body of work amounts to almost exactly 5000 lines. Henryson's surviving canon consists of three long poems and around twelve miscellaneous short works in various genres. The longest poem is his Morall Fabillis, a tight, intricately structured set of thirteen fable stories in a cycle that runs just short of 3000 lines. Two other long works survive, both a little over 600 lines each. One is his dynamic and inventive version of the Orpheus story and the other, his Testament of Cresseid, is 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.

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.

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 1480s.

General styleEdit

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.[10] 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.[11]

No concrete details of his life can be directly inferred from his works, but there are some passages of self-reflection that appear to contain autobiographical inferences, particularly in the opening stanzas of his Testament of Cresseid.

Henryson's ScotsEdit

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.

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",[12] 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.[13] 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[14] 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,[15] 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.[16]


Two of his poems, "Robin and Makyne" and "The Bludy Serk", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[17] [18]



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).[19]

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 Myis00:31

Robert Henryson The Twa Myis


  1. The University of Glasgow, Munimenta, II, 69, dated 10 September 1462, admits a Robert Henryson, licenciate in Arts and bachelor of Decreits (Canon Law), as a member of the University. It is considered strongly likely, from secondary evidence, that this was the poet.
  2. These are all posthumous references, such as on the title pages of the early printed editions of his work that started to appear after his lifetime.
  3. The dates are 18 and 19 March and 6 July 1478 and the signature is Magistro Roberto Henrison publico notario. See McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.3.
  4. The scholar John MacQueen interestingly contextualises this record of the poet as a notary in Scotland against the Act of 1469 which gave James III power to appoint notaries public over and above the rights of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and the consequent expulsion of notaries appointed by the Emperor Frederick III of Germany. MacQueen, J. 2006: Complete and Full with Numbers: the Narrative Poetry of Robert Henryson, Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp.10 and 12.
  5. The title page of the 1570 edition of Henryson's Fables, for instance, refers to the poet as "scholemaister of Dunfermeling".
  6. Confirmatio, dated 26 November 1468. Published in Kirk, J. ed. 1997: Calendar of Scottish Supplications to Rome: 1447-1471, Scottish Academic Press. p.396.
  7. See Robert L Kindrick, Introduction which quotes Kynaston's general thoughts on Henryson and the "merry, though somewhat unsauory tale".
  8. See McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.12
  9. The title maister is a further indication that the poet was indeed the university-educated Henryson associated with Glasgow University.
  10. See Wittig, K. 1958: The Scottish Tradition in Literature, Oliver and Boyd, chapter 2, for appraisals of Henryson's descriptive technique.
  11. "Certainly the present writer would like to know more about Robert Henryson as he lived outside his verse than about any other Scots poet." (McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.1.) McDiarmid's first chapter goes on to develop a surprisingly full speculative picture of the poet's life gleaned from evidence in his poetry, secondary historical evidence for the period and the surviving citations of his name in an extremely broken record.
  12. Skulls
  13. "The wind had swept from the wide atmosphere, / Each vapour that obscured the sunset’s ray." - Shelley
  14. bustled
  15. book
  16. 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.
  17. "Robin and Makyne". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  18. "The Bludy Serk". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 13, 2012.
  19. McDiarmid, M.P. 1981: Robert Henryson, Scottish Academic Press, p.4

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