Knightly Soldiers and Fair Ladies; Una and The Red Cross Knight in WWI


The story Una and the Red Cross Knight was written by N.G. Royde-Smith, first published in 1914. As the title suggests, this was not an original work by Royde-Smith, but a retelling of the original tale written by Edmund Spenser in the 16th century, as a part of a larger collective epic titled The Faery Queene. With her own retelling, Royde-Smith made the creative decision to translate much of Spenser’s original writings, making it more accessible for the child reader of her time period. Not wishing to compromise the integrity of the original work, there are many portions of the original text to be found within Una and the Red Cross Knight, interwoven with her own translations of Spenser’s poetry. This results in a blending of literary styles, resulting in the juxtaposition of the original poetry, while giving the reader more understandable prose to grasp a hold of.

This exhibit will examine the book within the context of World War 1; how it was intended for children of the time period and its overall link with British Nationalism and propaganda of the time. Although it is rarely thought of, Children’s Literature as a category can say much about the time period and country that it was produced in; it is often an example of the values which were considered most important at the time, and, therefore of the utmost important to convey to the child. Although this book was first published in 1905, it would be reprinted four times, up to 1927, which gives evidence that this particular book was considered to be ideal for children.

Taking Place in a medieval land where fairies and witches abound, Una and the Red Cross Knight tells the story of a knight who requests an adventure from Queen Glorianna,, ruler of Faery Land. Granting this, she instructs the young man to travel with Princess Una; a maiden who’s land and family have been seized by a vicious dragon. As they journey together much befalls them, as they face the conniving of witches and wizards who wish to do them harm for no other purpose than the hatred of goodness. Eventually, they overcome their many obstacles, where the Red Cross Knight defeats the dragon after a grueling battle, and the two marry, spending many happy days together.  After much celebration the Red Cross Knight returns to the court of Glorianna to finish his service, promising to return on its completion.

Gender Roles

When a state is in a trying time, such as a depression or war, we see an emergence of more conservative values within the culture. World War I was no different in this; With Una and the Red Cross Knight originally being penned in the 15th century, it shouldn’t be surprising that every traditional gender roles are implicitly encouraged throughout the text, making it an appropriate tome for the time period. What should be paid attention to, however, is the context within which this text was produced and repeatedly reprinted; in a country with a positive notion of propaganda and a conscious effort to indoctrinate the next generation with acceptable values.


The Red Cross Knight himself is proven to be a noble youth, actively seeking to serve his kingdom and more than ready to risk his life for his queen and the maiden he has been pledged to. Yet justice is also a master he fervently serves, making him a knight from a magical medieval kingdom that would have made a perfect soldier for a few centuries after his initial creation.  Even within the first image that we view the Knight, he stands nobly tall, sword held straight to his side as a creature of evil cowers before him.

A knight for the just, he never fails to vanquish evil wherever he see’s it, proving no beast too ferocious or magician too clever. Going above and beyond his called for duty is second nature to the medieval hero, who on more than one occasion chooses to right the wrongs done by others,  and to seek justice for those who cannot do so for themselves. It is, he feels, his responsibility to involve himself in the problems of others. Indeed, it is these acts that elevate the knight and ultimately make him a man. It is not hard to see where such qualities and ideas of virtue would be appealing in a time of war. Beyond just appearing in children’s books these same virtues would come to be often espoused in propaganda of the time, with the Knight himself even used in some of these images.

Yet it is not just makings of a good soldier that is explored within the book. The role of women is also subtly played to within Una and the Red Cross Knight. The first female character to be introduced in the story is Queen Glorianna herself, who is described as beautiful and wise, and a great ruler of her kingdom. The other two most prominent female characters then become princess Una and the witch Duessa. Both are alike in beauty and charm, yet cannot be more different in every other way. Modest and in mourning for the state of her kingdom, Una’s beauty, while present, is more subdued than the glamorous Duessa (whose very name means falsehood). Yet she herself is a pleasant companion for the Red Cross Knight, along with being persevering and loyal. Even when the two are separated by the deceitful Duessa, she pursues her companion dauntlessly, enduring many hardships along the way.

Duess’s abundance of beauty, in turn, proves to be almost a dangerous as her black magic, as she uses it to enchant all around her, to the point of believing her wholly innocent. Within the abundant artwork of the novel, she appears far more adorned than her modest counterpart, with more detailed dresses and her well styled with netting and adornments. Even her facial features differ, sometimes showing a cool expression. It is only later revealed that her beauty is an illusion, which she has used to manipulate and cause chaos for those around her.

Together, these women display traits that are both desired and considered dangerous within the female individual. Much like the qualities that were praised within propaganda for men at the time, these were exemplified within propaganda aimed at the female demographic. A good wartime woman was loyal to both her family and country, proving herself more than willing to make sacrifices for both. She was resourceful, modest, and loving of her husband, waiting for him to return but encouraging him to the front lines. In this, a good woman came to represent the homestead as a place of safety and domestic comfort, for which its protection merited war.

Yet the female form also came to embody the very soul of the nation (along with many others, such as Mother Russia) itself. Britania was the most popular of these personifications, often displayed as a tall and beautiful woman, and royally dressed. A dual character, she could be seen alternately leading the charge into battle, or standing watch to her country, the implication of which that it was in need of defending.

A New Kind of Story Telling

World War 1 was a shock to much of the world, leaving citizens of the west questioning the merit of a war that had started by the assassination of an unknown Archduke. Politicians and others in power were very aware of this fact, and the possible ramifications that could result from a reluctant public and army. Understanding this became created an imperative to change the metanarrative of this new and grand war; rather than have it about powers in far off lands, it would become a tale of righting the wrongs other nations, as the duty of the just and the brave. This threat was not a distant one, but one that, unless stopped, would bring disaster to England’s door. In spite of a much of England being industrialized, it was the small and dwindling number of countryside villages which became representative of  England, symbolizing the simplicity and beauty of family life. (This was also linked to the frequent personification of the country as the woman Britania) These ideals would be linked to Saint George, slayer of dragons and tangible symbol of these ideas. Although propaganda usually featured the modern soldier, it became common for it also feature the saint himself, recalling the past and the very role of a modern knight in shining armor. In this, the frequent reprinting (four times between 1911 and 1927) of the Royde-Smith’s  book was an understandable parallel. These messages were found to be so appropriate that the book would be found on numerous lists of good gift books for children and necessary stock for libraries for years during and after the war.

Beyond centering on this favourite saint (which Royde-Smith makes a deliberate point of stating in her introduction) the story itself offers parallels for the metanarrative being created about the war at the time. Much like the brave soldiers of Britain, the Red Cross Knight selflessly fights for his sovereign lord and country, while rescuing those who are in need. There is no complexity in these tasks, with the just character’s being obviously righteous and the acting agents of goodness, while their counterparts are of simple evil, and can only be stopped by the intervening forces of brave knights of the realm. Upon completion of this task, the Red Cross Knight receives glory and praise, with the chance to finally return to his homestead and enjoy time with his princess. A true hero, he has rid the world of one last dragon, and would be ready at a moment’s notice to return to the service of his kingdom if the need were to arise.



This book is based on the original epic poem of British poet Edmund Spenser, titled The Faery Queene, the first half of which was published in 1590 (Spenser would die before having a chance to finish what would have been the largest epic of its time).As was common for many writers of the time, the first book, although centering on the exploits of the Red Cross Knight, was made in homage to Queen Elizabeth, represented by the fair and wise Queen Glorianna of the Fairy Realm, while the villains within the story represented her political foes, ranging from the Spanish to Queen Mary of Scotland; Even in the 16th century these stories had a very strong tie with politics and war, making Royde-Smith’s decision to rewrite and update the tale of Una and her Knight in time for the first World War all the more interesting of a coincidence.

This would be the first work published by Naomi Gwladys Royde-Smith (or N.G. Royde-Smith was far as scholars can tell, this pen name was the creation of Naomi herself, as a combination of her father’s and married name). In this lengthy opening, Royde-Smith emphasizes the texts role as a work of childrens’ literature, stating the language may be difficult for the younger reader, but, if time is taken over the verses written by Spenser, they would have little trouble. Spenser is reaffirmed as a great British author, “in between Chaucer and Shakespeare”, along with a small biography detailing his life before and after being a writer under the favour of Queen Elizabeth. In this, she explains the allegorical nature of the stories, as well as going to detail of the conflict between the protestants and Catholics during that time period. Although feelings about this conflict have lessened since then, the sense of nationalism that this would have evoked in the early 20th century would have still been strong.

The many beautiful illustrations to be found within the text were created by Thomas Heath Robinson of the Robinson brothers. Although the least known of the two today, he was highly regarded as a black and white illustrator in the early 20th century.

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