The narrator talks about how nothing under the sun has ever been as glorious as Britain. The name of Britain’s queen in particular (Elizabeth I) is renowned. The narrator says Britain used to be a savage wilderness, full of giants and half-beast men. This all began to change when Brutus, an ancient Roman of royal lineage, established a throne and drove out many of the giants. The history the narrator relates is similar to what Arthur and Sir Guyon are reading in their books.
The poem isn’t subtle about its intention to glorify Queen Elizabeth and her reign. This appreciation for Elizabeth is perhaps part of an even deeper appreciation for British culture and identity. This canto lays out a long (and often fictional) history of how Britain became a glorious nation.
After driving out the monsters, Brutus reigns happily for a long time. Brutus leaves his kingdom to his three sons. Locrine, who rules the portion of the kingdom that includes the isle of Britain itself, gains glory for fighting off invaders who threaten the realm. But he becomes too proud after his victory and begins boldly pursuing a lady who isn’t his wife (Gwendoline).
The history of Britain that Arthur reads is full of larger-than-life figures. Like many characters in mythology, this version of Brutus is strong enough of a leader to drive the monsters out of Britain, but he has the tragic flaw of succumbing to his own lust.
Noble Gwendoline won’t put up with her husband’s infidelity, so she gathers an army to vanquish him in battle, then installs her son Madan on the throne so that she can rule behind the scenes.
Spenser perhaps includes this part about Gwendoline on the throne to establish that female leaders like Elizabeth have existed in Britain for a long time.
Madan is an unworthy king, and his son is little better, but the next king in the lineage, Ebranck, makes up for his mediocre predecessors with his many noble deeds. One of his own sons, Brutus II, fights bravely in France.
The history of Britain in this canto is full of ups and downs with heroic leaders being followed by weak ones, indicating a turbulent time in history.
More kings help fortify the realm with construction projects, taking a more peaceful approach to their neighboring nations. The lineage comes then to King Lear, the mythological king who famously made the mistake of entrusting his kingdom to his scheming daughters, Regan and Gonorill, instead of his loyal daughter, Cordelia. The inter-sibling rivalry leads to Cordelia dying and the children of Regan and Gonorill waging their own wars with each other to control Britain.
Spenser lived at around the same time as Shakespeare (who also famously wrote about King Lear) and they may have even influenced each other. The character of King Lear (or Leir) pre-dates both Spenser and Shakespeare by many centuries, and so it’s also possible that they independently arrived at the same story.
The bloodshed in Britain lasts for generations until, at last, the final descendant of the line of Brutus is killed by a family member, ending Britain’s ancient glory period. Then a new leader called Donwallo rises up and attempts to bring a new period of order to Britain.
The death of Britain’s ancient line of rules may seem like a cause for mourning past glories, but it could also be a sign of a new age of modernity.
Donwallo’s sons start sacking foreign nations again, returning Britain to its role as a conqueror. This begins a long period with rulers of varying quality, who alternate between focusing on conquest and focusing on laws and construction.
This section touches on an argument that existed long before Spenser and would persist long after him: to what extent Britain should be an empire vs. being more insular.
During the reign of the young Androgeus and Tenantius (who are too young to rule on their own, so their uncle is really in power), Julius Caesar from Rome invades Britain. Caesar conquers the land, at the cost of great bloodshed. (The narrator foreshadows that Arthur will one day rise up against the Romans.)
Julius Caesar was of course a real person, and so this section mixes real history with more deliberately fantastical elements (such as the existence of King Arthur).
Under Roman rule, Britain continues to have its own kings, who occasionally clash with Rome. Far away in Bethlehem, Jesus is born. Eventually, the Roman emperor Claudius attacks England and kills the king. Things begin to become more peaceful later, however, when Lucius ascends the British throne, bringing Christianity with him. Lucius leaves the kingdom in disarray when he dies without an heir.
The clashes between Britain and Rome are important because in Spenser’s time there was a clash between Roman Catholicism (led by the pope in Vatican City in Rome) and Anglican Protestantism (which was founded in Britain in opposition to Catholicism).
Following Lucius, a woman named Bundica rises up and fights fiercely against Rome, but she kills herself when she believes she’s in danger of being captured in battle. Later, Rome sends a man named Constantius to try to make peace with Britain, and he ends up marrying a British woman and fathering Constantine, the famous Roman emperor who converted the empire to Christianity.
Bundica is another noble warrior woman, and although Spenser didn’t invent the character, he likely invokes her here once again to show that there is a precedent for rulers like Elizabeth.
Rome continues to exert control over Britain, but an issue of succession causes disorder in Britain and leads to fighting between Huns and Picts. Rome dissolves as it is overrun by invaders. Much later, a second Constantine is crowned in Rome, and he drives the Huns and the Picts out of Britain.
Rome plays a complicated role in the history of Britain. On the one hand, it is an enemy invader, but on the other hand, it is directly connected to Rome in its ancient history.
One of Constantine’s children is Uther Pendragon (the legendary king who is famously the father of Arthur). Arthur, who is reading this book of British history, is surprised that it ends so abruptly after Uther.
The book that Arthur’s reading ends abruptly because his life is in fact the very next chapter to be written.
Meanwhile, Sir Guyon has been reading his separate book on the history of faerie land. The narrator claims that the book is too long to fully summarize, so he just gives some highlights, starting with the moment that Prometheus created humans from the parts of beasts, then stole fire from heaven to give to man. Just then, Alma realizes it’s late, so Sir Guyon and Arthur reluctantly pause their studies to join her at dinner.
This passage continues the poem’s tendency to be vague about where and what faerie land actually is. This ambiguity leaves open different possibilities for interpretation, unlike other elements of the poem, which often have a very clear symbolic connection to something.