Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193
When Prince Edward returns from hunting in a downcast mood, Lacy remarks on his lord’s temper. It remains for Ralph, the court fool, to hit on the truth. The hunting party stopped for refreshments at the keeper’s lodge in Fressingfield Park, and Prince Edward fell in love with Margaret, the...
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When Prince Edward returns from hunting in a downcast mood, Lacy remarks on his lord’s temper. It remains for Ralph, the court fool, to hit on the truth. The hunting party stopped for refreshments at the keeper’s lodge in Fressingfield Park, and Prince Edward fell in love with Margaret, the keeper’s daughter.
Plans are laid to win Margaret’s love for Edward, but the maid is modest and will keep her virtue for her husband. Ralph proposes that Edward dress in the jester’s motley and that Ralph dress as the prince. They will then go to Oxford and enlist the help of Friar Roger Bacon, since only magic will win over the girl. Lacy is to go to the fair at Harleston to spy on Margaret there and to press a suit on behalf of the prince.
At Oxford, Friar Bacon and his poor scholar Miles receive a deputation of learned doctors. Burden, their spokesman, asks about certain rumors they hear. It is said that Friar Bacon fashioned a great head of brass and with it he is going to raise a wall of brass around all of England. Bacon admits that he planned such a project. Burden doubts that even Friar Bacon can accomplish such a mighty deed.
To demonstrate his power, Friar Bacon has a devil bring a tavern host from Henley, a woman with whom Burden spent the previous day. Thus the doctors are convinced of Bacon’s powers. At Harleston, Lacy approaches Margaret. Although the earl is dressed as a farmer, his manners are so elegant that Margaret is attracted to him. Lacy has a mind to press a suit in his own behalf.
At court, meanwhile, King Henry receives the king of Castile, his daughter Elinor, and the Emperor of Germany. Negotiations are under way to betroth Elinor to Prince Edward. The princess, having seen a portrait of Edward, is much inclined to love the prince. The emperor brings with him a German conjurer, Vandermast, to test his powers against the wise men of England. The royal party departs for Oxford to find Friar Bacon.
With the jester disguised as the prince and Edward disguised as a gentleman in waiting, the prince’s party meets the friar and Miles at Oxford. An argument develops between Miles and the others. To save his scholar, Friar Bacon freezes Edward’s sword in its scabbard. After rebuking the prince for trying to disguise himself, he invites Edward into his cell. There he lets the prince look into a magic glass that shows Margaret and Lacy at Fressingfield.
Friar Bungay is revealing the secret of Lacy’s identity to Margaret as Edward watches from afar. Margaret is troubled, for she is in love with Lacy. When Lacy enters, he declares at once his desire to wed Margaret. Friar Bungay is about to perform the ceremony on the spot, but the anguished prince calls on Friar Bacon to stop the wedding. The friar obliges by striking Bungay mute and whisking him away to Oxford.
Edward, posting to Fressingfield in great haste, charges Lacy with treachery and threatens to kill him. Lacy admits his guilt and prepares to submit, but Margaret pleads valiantly for the cause of true love and begs Edward to kill her instead. Edward, marveling at his own weakness, changes his mind and gives his permission for Lacy to marry Margaret.
At Oxford, the emperor of Germany has Vandermast dispute with Friar Bungay. Bungay conjures up the tree that guards the Garden at Hesperides. In return Vandermast brings in Hercules and commands him to tear the branches from the tree. Triumphantly the German challenges Friar Bungay to make Hercules stop, but Bungay admits that he is vanquished. When Friar Bacon arrives, Hercules, to the emperor’s chagrin, ceases his task immediately for fear of Bacon. To demonstrate the eminence of Oxford, Friar Bacon then forces Hercules to transport Vandermast back to Habsburg.
Two squires come to seek the hand of Margaret. Both are wealthy and insistent, and the keeper asks his daughter to choose between them. Margaret is evasive and puts off her answer for ten days, because she is sure Lacy will return by that time. After the squires leave, a messenger comes with a letter and a sack of gold. In the letter Margaret reads that Lacy chose to marry a Spanish lady-in-waiting to Princess Elinor, and he sends the gold as a dowry for her own wedding. In great grief, Margaret gives the gold to the messenger and vows to enter a convent.
Working in his cell, Friar Bacon is at the climax of his experiments, for with much labor he completes the brazen head. Tired from wrestling with spirits, he lies down to sleep. Miles is to watch the head and wake his master as soon as it speaks. During the night the head makes a great noise and says, “Time is.” Thinking those words unimportant, Miles rests on. The head makes more noise and says, “Time was.” Again Miles does not arouse the friar. A third time the head speaks: “Time has been.” Lightning flashes and a great hand appears and breaks the head with a hammer.
Then Miles awakens Friar Bacon, who knows at once that the blundering Miles ruined his work. No wall of brass will ever surround England. In his wrath the friar sends Miles to wander homeless with a devil to torment him. After he leaves Oxford, however, Miles makes the best of a bad situation. He gets on the devil’s back and goes with him to Hell, where he is engaged as a tapster.
King Henry and the king of Castile are both pleased that Elinor and Edward make a match. Lacy, thinking still of Margaret, speaks so persuasively of her beauty that the king sanctions their marriage as well. Elinor is particularly gracious in suggesting a double wedding. The happy Lacy sets out for Fressingfield to seek his bride.
Friar Bacon breaks the sad news of the brazen head to Friar Bungay. As he finishes his tale, two young scholars come in to ask permission to look into Friar Bacon’s glass; they want to see what their fathers are doing. The fathers, who are the two squires seeking Margaret’s hand, are fighting a duel. As the sons watch, the squires are stabbed to death. The sons then fight and each mortally wounds the other. In sorrow, Friar Bacon breaks his magic glass.
In spite of her father’s remonstrances, Margaret is preparing to enter a nunnery when Lacy rides up to claim his bride. Reproached for his cruel letter, he explains he wrote it to test her constancy. Margaret, yielding to his entreaties, accompanies him back to court. The double wedding is solemnized with royal pomp. Before the wedding feast Friar Bacon makes a prophecy of the future of England. He foresees a period of triumph and peace under a fair ruler who will exalt the glory of England over all other nations. Not understanding that reference to Queen Elizabeth, Henry calls the prophecy mystical and leads the guests to the dining hall.