The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

This tale is from Patrick Kennedy’s (1866) collection of Wexford stories and was told to him by a young man who was the gardener, ploughman and house-boy to the local reverend.  This theme is ubiquitous; Cinderella and Hansel & Gretel are examples from other countries. While there must be stories of good stepmothers, they are in a minority!

Once there was a king, whose wife had died, and he had two children, a boy and a girl.  He married again and his new wife was a very wicked woman.  While her husband was away hunting, she forced her stepdaughter, under pain of death, to agree that whatever the woman did, the daughter would not tell anyone who had been baptized.

The stepmother killed her husband’s favourite dog, and when he returned home she said that his daughter had done it.  The king flew into a rage, but there was nothing his weeping daughter could say.  The next day his little son was murdered, and again his daughter was silent.  This time he told his men to take his daughter into the forest and cut off her two hands so that she could not do any more dreadful deeds.  In his rage and despair he stamped his foot so hard that he drove a splinter right through his foot.  The more he tried to remove it the deeper it went and he had to take to his bed.

The poor princess, in her pain and distress, knew that there was a holy well in the wood and she went there and put her arms through the moss that was growing over it; her bleeding and pain stopped.  She fell asleep and her birth mother appeared to her and told her to be good, say her prayers and that in the end she would escape all the dangers that would befall her.

Next morning she awoke hungry.  She heard someone coming to the well and climbed into a nearby tree.  A servant girl, from the young king’s castle on the edge of the wood, appeared with a piece of bread and butter and a water pitcher in her hands.  She bent over the well and to her surprise saw a face, which she thought was her own, reflected in the water.  She ran back to the kitchen, forgetting the things that she had brought with her, and saying that she was much too good-looking to be servant girl.  The same thing happened twice more; the young king heard about the strange goings on and went to see for himself.  When he saw the face in the water he looked up and found the beautiful princess above him.  They talked, without her saying anything about the wrongs that had been done to her.  They fell in love, were married and had a fine young son.

The young king had to go and fight with the King of Ireland against the Danes, and his wife begged him not to have their child baptized until he returned.  A strange request, but he agreed.  He gave her a rich jewel as he was leaving, and they wrote to each other every second day.  The wicked stepmother bribed the postman and she intercepted and kept all the letters.  The young king and queen were distraught.  Then she created great mischief by writing a letter in the young queen’s hand, addressed to a young officer, and asking him to meet her by a well in the forest.  She sent it to the young king.

When he read it, he had the officer put in irons, and sent soldiers to put his queen to death.  But the night before the spirit of the young queen’s mother had come to her and told her to flee the castle with her young son and go back to the well in the forest.  There she must wash her face and arms in the water, and take a bottleful with her to her father’s palace where no one would recognise her.  The contents of the bottle would cure the king of the malady from which he was still suffering.  She did as she was told.

She washed herself and beheld her hands which were restored and her now brown-coloured face and hands, with amazement.  She entered the castle telling the sentries that she had come to cure the king and as soon as he saw he loved her because she looked so like his former queen and his daughter.  She washed his wound and his strength was restored.   Although the wicked stepmother did not know who she was, she still tried to poison the king against her; however nothing would alter his good opinion of her.

The war was over and the young king was returning home and the road he took went by his father-in-law’s.  He was invited in to much cheering.  Just as he was alighting his wife held up his son with the jewel in his hand.  The king got a wonderful fright.  He knew his wife’s features so well but this young woman’s were so swarthy and she had perfect hands.  He kissed the child and moved on.  But after dinner he asked the older king if he could meet the brown woman and her child again.  The king told him that she had cured him and sent for her.

He asked her to sit close to him and asked her who the father of the child was.  ‘I cannot tell you that, sir’, she said, ‘because of an oath that I was obliged to take never to tell my story to any one that was christened. But my little boy was never christened, and to him I will tell everything.’  When the two kings heard her story they were overcome with joy.  The young queen wiped her face with a wet towel and she became ‘as white and red as the day she was married’. If the wicked stepmother had not made her escape she would have been torn apart between wild horses.

From Patrick Kennedy’s Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, London, 1891

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

fifteen − 4 =