The Myth of the Mountain King


The king in the mountain is one of the great archetypal myths: a king who presided over a past golden age is said to have retreated with his warriors into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is often associated with King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa, or Frederick II.

Juleigh Howard-Hobson provides a chronology of its various appearances and iterations in an essay at Counter-Currents:

The idea of a king, or hero, sleeping in a cave or hollow mountain is an old one in Northern Europe and the British Isles. So old, in fact, that the sleeping king motif is “one of the few myths of the British Celts to be put on record by a classical author.”

The classical author was Plutarch. Plutarch’s work “The Silence of Oracles” quotes a certain government agent, Demetrius, who in 82 CE wrote down various tales and miscellanies told to him by the people he encountered while he was in Britain. Adhering to the then-approved custom of endowing every god/hero, regardless of origin or existing name, with Classical nomenclature, the story, as written by Demetrius, would seem to be a Greek one. It is actually an extremely early version of the European Sleeping King myth.

There is, they said, an island where Cronus is imprisoned with Briareus keeping guard over him as he sleeps; for, as they put it, sleep is the bond forged for Cronus. They add that around him are many deities, his henchmen and attendants.

In a later work, in a section referring to Britain and various outlying British Isles, Plutarch himself writes:

The natives have a story that in one of these Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for a gaoler, is left sovereign lord of those islands and of the sea, which they call the Gulf of Cronus. . . . Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave, resting on rock which looks like gold, this sleep being devised for him by Zeus in place of chains. Birds fly in at the topmost rock, and bear him ambrosia.

This is the elemental hero sleeping in the cave story, with very early references to both the treasure (the rock that looks like gold) and the ravens that often accompany such heroes as they wait, in their deep hidden places, to come back.

Parallel stories, with kings/gods/heroes asleep in caves/hills/mountains appear all through out Northern Europe. As a matter of fact, this basic story is so common that it is now identified as folktale type 766 in the Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (AT) folktale classification system–considered the standard reference catalogue of international folk stories. The story of the sleeping hero, or the hidden king, is as firmly embedded in the folksoul of the European people as are the mountains and caves themselves.

Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, The Czech Republic (then Bohemia), Sicily, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland . . . all hold, deep in secret places within their hills, a sleeper or sleepers, who will waken at the time when the folk are in their greatest need of a hero.

Professor D.L. Ashliman has catalogued a number of related myths in his bibliography of folktexts at the University of Pittsburgh. The most famous account comes from the Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm:

Many legends are in circulation dealing with [Emperor Frederick Barbarossa]. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhäuser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.

In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless.

In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor. The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”

A monument to Barbarossa was erected in the Kyffhäuser Mountain range in the 1890s. It depicts him waking. Above him stands an equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I, tying the legend to German unification under the Prussian monarchy.

The Queen at Trinity Church


Trinity Church on Wall Street is the oldest Episcopal parish in New York. It was founded with a grant of land from King William III in 1696. The royal charter stipulated rent of “One Pepper Corne” per year to be paid to the Crown. This was a formality, of course, and was never asked for or paid.

In 1976, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II toured the United States as a gesture of good will during the bicentennial of American Independence. On July 9 she visited Trinity Church. The Reverend Ray Parks, who was rector at the time, presented her with 279 pepper corns representing 279 years of back rent.

Read more (and see video) at the Trinity Church website.

Queen Victoria and the Arts

The Royal Family in 1846, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace hosted a superlative exhibition in 2010, entitled, Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. The exhibition brought together works commissioned and collected by the royal couple. To be in the midst of a collection so vast and personal was to be brought into a sort of rare proximity to Victoria and her age. Or so it felt to me when I toured the gallery. One of the revelations of this exhibition was the extent to which the royal couple not only encouraged but guided the development of British and European art in the nineteenth century.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were passionate in their patronage of the arts. The contemporary painter William Powell Frith observed that their “treatment of artists displayed a gracious kindness delightful to experience.” They both had substantial training in the field. Queen Victoria had received drawing lessons for almost ten years from Richard Westall, an RA famous for his portraits of Lord Byron. She subsequently learned oil and watercolor technique from the Scottish landscape painter William Leighton Leitch, with whom she studied for over twenty years.

For his own part, Prince Albert was among the best-educated patrons of his day. As explained in the curatorial notes for Art & Love, His Royal Highness

belonged to the first generation of students to hear lectures in the new discipline of Art History. Visiting Italy as a nineteen-year-old he had steeped himself in Renaissance painting and made contact with leading scholars, many of them German expatriates. Ludwig Gruner, an engraver from Dresden famous for his prints after Raphael, became the Prince’s artistic adviser in 1842. Gruner acquired for Prince Albert twenty-seven Italian pictures of the kind then known as ‘Primitives’…

The Prince was an avid collector of Medieval and Renaissance art, and a champion of modern practitioners of the style, including the painter William Dyce, to whom he awarded the commission to paint the interior of the Palace of Westminster. Frith’s daughter, Jane Ellen Panton, recalled that, “[Albert] honestly loved art for art’s sake, and…did more for artists than any king or prince ever did before or since.”

The royal couple often met artists and visited their studios in person, an unusual practice for royalty. They were known to offer frank critiques and even suggestions. Frith commented on their extensive knowledge. He was specifically impressed by Albert’s ability to discuss the composition, light, and shading of a painting. Frith afterwards followed some of Albert’s suggestions, as did the painter John Martin, who affirmed that they were thoughtful, valuable, and reflected well on the Prince’s understanding of art.

Victoria cannily worked with Franz Xaver Winterhalter and other court painters to portray the royal family in such a way as to reflect both the Queen’s political supremacy and the Prince’s authority as pater familias. From the same curatorial notes quoted above:

Queen Victoria was the first Queen Regnant, and Prince Albert the first male consort, since the early 1700s. This presented a challenge to portrait painters, since the conventions that had been appropriate for Victoria’s male predecessors no longer applied.

Winterhalter looked for inspiration to the Dutch and Flemish old masters, especially Van Dyck, but his Royal Family in 1846 was a brilliant and original response to the challenge. The viewer is left in no doubt that the Queen and her eldest son represent the royal line, while Prince Albert rules the family.

Winterhalter’s family picture quickly became famous through public exhibition and engraving.

It was not only the traditional arts which attracted royal attention and patronage. Prince Albert was interested in how art could be related to manufacturing, making practical items beautiful, and beautiful items available to a broader section of the public. He wanted to encourage the development of good taste even among those whose surroundings and possessions were primarily practical or commercial. The royal couple encouraged the development of electroplating and electroforming as well as ‘Parian ware,’ a type of porcelain made to imitate marble. They often allowed manufacturers to replicate items from the Royal Collection by these new methods.

In her catalogue, Passionate Patrons, Leah Kharibian writes that,

art played a key role in every aspect of their daily lives. As patrons and collectors their tastes were exceptionally wide-ranging, taking in all types of art from early Renaissance panel paintings to sculpture, furniture, jewellery, miniatures, watercolours and the new art of photography. As a couple they took a keen interest in the serious endeavors of cataloguing, conserving and displaying both their new acquisitions and the magnificent inheritance of the Royal Collection. But they enjoyed themselves immensely, too. A large proportion of their purchases were bought as gifts for each other – often as surprises. They took great delight in planning and participating in magnificent balls and fancy-dress parties, musical evenings and theatrical experiences.

Victoria went to the theater or opera on thirty-six occasions during her coronation year alone, and she and Albert were patrons of both. They held many formal dances, including three costume balls. The most famous of these was a Medieval-themed ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842 to benefit the silk weavers of Spitalfields. The royal couple received guests in the Throne Room, on a raised dais under an ornate Gothic canopy, dressed as King Edward III and his consort Queen Philippa of Hainault. Their splendid costumes were based on the real tomb effigies of their predecessors.

The design and decoration of the royal residences also engaged the Queen and Prince. They expanded Buckingham Palace, adding the east wing and the Renaissance-revival ballroom. In Scotland, they erected the current Balmoral Castle, which they decorated in a fanciful Scottish vernacular, with tartan and thistles. Prince Albert contributed to the design of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This included a sculpture gallery and served as an important showcase for the art that they collected.

The death of Prince Albert in 1861, at the age of forty-two, was a shocking blow for the Queen personally, and for the country. He was in my opinion the greatest public servant that Britain has ever had. Queen Victoria remained in mourning until her own death in 1901. She continued to advance the artistic genres and artists that he had championed, and that together they had cultivated, for the rest of her reign.


Jones, Kathryn. (2012) “‘To wed high art with mechanical skill’: Prince Albert and the industry of art,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery,

Kharibian, Leah. (2010) Passionate Patrons: Victoria & Albert and the Arts. London: Royal Collection.

Marsden, Jonathan. (2010) Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. London: Royal Collection.

Remington, Vanessa. (2012)  “Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their relations with artists,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery,

Tsarist-Futurist Visions of Tomorrow

In 1914 the Russian chocolate company Einem issued a set of eight postcards depicting life in Moscow in the twenty-third century. The horrors of World War I and Communism were as-yet undreamt of and Russia was imagined still thriving under the benevolent rule of the Tsar. Air ships fly over Red Square, monorails fan out from the planned-but-never-built Central Station, aerosanis race along the Moscow–Saint Petersburg motorway, and a troop of soldiers on horseback uphold tradition in Lubyanskaya Square.

The illustrations are fanciful and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it is interesting to see how the future was imagined before the revolution.









A Medieval Legend of the Crown Jewels

The following entry appears in E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Ring. It is said that Edward the Confessor was once asked for alms by an old man, and gave him his ring. In time some English pilgrims went to the Holy Land, and happened to meet the same old man, who told them he was John the Evangelist, and gave them the identical ring to take to “Saint” Edward. This ring was preserved in Westminster Abbey.

King Edward’s ring contained a sapphire. Somehow this gem survived the interregnum of the seventeenth century, when the rest of the Crown Jewels were lost. The present day Crown Jewels date from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Queen Victoria had the sapphire placed at the center of the cross at the top of the Imperial State Crown. It remains there to this day.