The story behind the painting

Published in Features, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 20

Whitley Stokes’s translation into English of the Danish ballad describes the heroine Hellelil, who is actively involved in her downfall, the loss of her chastity, and the death of both her lover and herself. The poem tells of how her ‘father gave me a glorious guard: twelve noble knights were my watch and ward’. Hellelil fell for one of these knights, who came to her bower; when her father discovered this, he instructed his sons to kill him. As the knight leaves, he warns Hellelil not to say his name. In the course of the fight, the knight having slain her father and seven siblings and being about to kill the youngest brother, she screams, ‘Lord Hildebrand, for God’s dear love now hold thy hand!’. The knight dies, ‘Lord Hildebrand, with eight wounds sunk upon the sand’. From the outset it is clear that Hellelil knew what her fate would be if she did not remain silent. The poem concludes as her mother and brother exchange her for a bell; once her tale is recounted, the bell rings and she dies. This violent poem is different to the gentle scene depicted in Burton’s picture.

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