The King’s Task

(Traffics and Discoveries)


(notes by John McGivering and Alastair Wilson)

Publication history

The first eighteen lines were published as “The King’s Task” in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), in association with the story “The Comprehension of Private Copper”, though Thomas Pinney points out that they did not appear with the magazine publications of that story in 1902. They later appeared in Chapter II, “Saxon England” in C R L Fletcher’s A History of England (1911), for which Kipling wrote a series of twenty-one historical poems. Here in the marginal sub-heading (p. 31), the poem is referred to as “The Saxon Foundations of England”.

It was amended and expanded as “The King’s Task” to a total of 76 lines, and collected in:

  • Songs from Books (1912)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • Sussex Edition vol. 34 p. 170
  • Burwash Edition vol. 34 p. 170
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994)
  • The Cambridge Edition ed. Pinney, (2013)

The enlarged version is dated 1902, the year after King Edward VII (1841-1910) came to the throne on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. This dating first appears in the first edition (1919) of Inclusive Verse. Carrie Kipling’s diaries record that he was working on the poem on 18 October 1902.

The poem

The first, shorter, version of the poem celebrates the Saxons as a stubborn, independent people, insistent on their customary rights and their laws, and their cherished traditional systems for making decisions about holding land, and paying taxes, and dealing with thieves. It sits well in C R L Fletcher’s account of the Saxons in his History of England (1911), invading in the Fifth Century, and – in their small kingdoms – dominating England until the coming of the Danes. See also “Young Men at the Manor” in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) pp. 49-50.

The extended version of the poem is to do with war and survival, stressing the need to be wary and united in the face of outside threats. Sloth and pride must be cast aside. This is the task of the King, and – as Kipling saw it – the task of leadership in England after the Boer War. This second part of the poem was probably written while Kipling was working out his ideas for “The Army of a Dream” (1904), as a wake-up call for Britain after the experience of that war, following “The Lesson” (1901), and “The Islanders” (1902).

Notes on the Text

The original 18 lines

[Line 1] the sack of the city: Rome was captured and looted by the Visigoths in the year 410 CE.

[Line 2] St. Wilfrid: see notes to “The Conversion of St. Wilfrid” (Rewards and Fairies)

[Line 8] Andred: also ‘Andrasta’ or ‘Adraste’, a warrior goddess. Andread’s Wald, or Weald, was the original name of that whole area between the levels of Romney Marsh, westward to the Hampshire Downs, east of Winchester. A small portion at the eastern end lay in Kent, but by far the greater part was in what is today East and West Sussex. It was heavily wooded, and was the source of the fuel for the Sussex iron industry which flourished from the 15th to the 18th century. Kipling’s house, Bateman’s had been built by an iron-master.

[Line 9] the Witan: the Anglo-Saxon assembly, a forerunner of Parliament.

[Line 9] flaying: the removal of skin from the body, a dreadful torture if done to the living.

[Line 10] Folkland, common: types of landholding.

[Line 10] pannage: the right of pasturing swine on the floor of the forest.

[Line 11] Statutes of tun etc: laws governing the sale of goods in a market.

[Line 12] Bramber: a pretty village on the River Adur above Shoreham, Sussex, once a thriving port known as Portus Adurni, fortified by the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans

[Line 12] keel: in this context an open boat.

[Line 13] Druids: a Celtic order of priests

[Line 15] Legions: in this context Roman armies.

[Line 18] headlands: in this context unploughed land at the ends of the field.

The enlarged version

[Line 5] Stubborn all were his people from cottar to overlord: a cottar was a man who occupied a cottage and land from his lord in return for work. See the verse “Norman and Saxon”. The local saying, of long-standing, is ‘Sussex won’t be druv’ (driven).

[Line 10] loppage: the right of freemen to cut branches from the lord’s trees with an axe as high as they could reach, mostly for firing.

[Line 19] Hamtun: now the port of Southampton in Hampshire.

[Line 19] Bosenham:  now Bosham, (pronounced ‘bozzum’) near Chichester

[Line 20] Use: We believe that this is a reference to the river Ouse, the main river of east Sussex. So this king from the west has laid waste all the Ouse valley.

[Line 20] Lewes: the county town of East Sussex, standing on the Ouse. It had a castle to prevent seaborne incursions up the river.

[Line 21] Witan: the Anglo-Saxon Assembly, the forerunner of Parliament

[Line 22] Selsea: a seaside village near Chichester; scene of the verse “Eddi’s Service”

[Line 22] Cymen’s Ore: We believe that this is the village, today known merely as Ore, which lies just east of Hastings.

[Line 25] beechmast: the nut of the beech tree (Fagus) used as food for pigs.

[Line 25] Beltane: the ancient Celtic Mayday celebrations with bonfires,

[Line 28] Rugnor: not traced, but we believe it may be an ancient name for Romsey.

[Line 29] Gilling: not traced, but probably Gillingham in Dorset, a place Kipling knew, it was only a few miles west of Tisbury where his parents settled, and which he often visited.

[Line 29] Basing: Today ‘Old Basing’, an Anglo-Saxon settlement in Hampshire – today’s Basingstoke lies about two miles to the westward.

[Line 29] Alresford: a settlement in Hampshire, the neighbouring county, north-east of Winchester.

[Line 33]  unready:  A nod towards Aethelred the Unready?  [D.H.]

levies: in this context men called up, for military service.

[Line 40] bucklers: small round shields.

[Line 43]  Edward:  No historical Edward is meant, since the earliest English king of that name was Edward the Elder, who lived long after St Wilfred. Edward the Elder was the son of Alfred the Great, first King of the Anglo-Saxons, and the father of Aethelstan, first King of the English. One thinks also of St Edward the Confessor, last English king before William the Conqueror. Kipling may have these liminal figures in mind, and possibly also King Edward the Martyr. [D.H.]

[Line 44] ungain:   loss,. Borrowed by Kipling from Old English. See OED:  [D.H.]

[Line 45]  with doubtings and spread dismays:  Artificial language to give an archaic flavour. “spread” means, roughly, “widespread”. OED gives no attestations of either “doubting” or “dismay” used in the plural.  [D.H.]

[Line 47] Warlocks: sorcerers.

[Line 51] dealt on the useless air:   See 1 Corinthians 9.26: [D.H.]

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air.

[Line 64] ague: ‘Intermittent Fever’ – it also appears as the Bailiff of the Marshes in “Dymchurch Flit” (Puck of Pook’s Hill). See Dr. Gillian Sheehan’s Notes.

[Line 64] Oxeney: The Isle of Oxeney is just in Kent, in the low-lying area about the river Rother, about five miles from Rye.

[Line 68] thane: one holding land from the king or nobleman in return for military service.

matching a hundred battles:   This seems rather obscure.  Perhaps he simply means that for the country folk whose working lives are spent in the fields this passing but keen experience of battle is deeply familiar from generation to generation.  [J.R.]

[Line 70] They thumb and mock and belittle…: see “Stellenbosch” (1903) and other South African verses. The expression to ‘thumb’ someone is an older equivalent of ‘giving someone the finger’.

[Line 71] onward the gilded staff: a play on words, here mocking the staff officers who mismanaged affairs in the Boer war. See

“The Dykes” (1902),
“The Song of the Old Guard” (1904),
“The City of Brass” (1909), and other verses in the same vein, pleading for the British army and people to make themselves better prepared for modern war.

[J. McG./A.J.W.]
©John McGivering and Alastair Wilson 2020 All rights reserved