John Uskglass

From The Library at Hurtfew
Jump to navigation Jump to search
John Uskglass, also known as the Black King, the King of the North, and most commonly, the Raven King, was the ruler of Northern England for over 300 years and is accredited with bringing magic to England.

Early life/Captivity

The Raven King's early years are obscure. By his own account, he was the only surviving member of an aristocratic Norman family who owned land in the north of England. Members of his family had been deprived of their lands and their lives by an enemy named Hubert de Cotentin and the King's father, also named John Uskglass, had appealed to his overlord King William II for justice; but received none. Shortly afterward* John Uskglass the elder had been murdered by Hubert, while the Raven King himself was taken by Hubert's men and left to die in the woods. There the Daoine Sidhe found him - apparently an unchristened babe - and took him to live with them. He referred to himself at this part of his life as 'the nameless slave', presumably as slavery was his original status in the brugh. In time however he became the favorite foster child of the fairy king traditionally known as Oberon, and received an excellent magical education. By the age of 14 he was calling himself 'John Uskglass' and making himself ready to return to England. There he intended to seek vengeance on those who had wronged himself and his kin.*

Conquest of Northern England

In the year 1110 a strange army appeared in Northern England near a place called Penlaw twenty-five miles northwest of Newcastle. By December, the army was moving west and had conquered Newcastle and Durham. It came to a small settlement called Allendale, where the exsanguination of the maid of Allendale took place; by this they recognized the Daoine Sidhe- the fairy host. By Christmas, the army had taken York, Lancaster, and Carlisle, in addition to Newcastle and Durham. No one knew what to make of this unexpected and out-of-character display of purposefulness from a "naturally wicked" [45] and lazy race. In January King Henry I and his army rode out to meet the host in battle; the armies met at Newark on the Trent River. Due mainly to the eerie magic employed by the Sidhe, the battle was short and King Henry lost.

When it became clear that King Henry was defeated, he and his nobles waited for a chieftain or king to appear. The leader of the host was a fifteen-year-old boy who was dressed exactly like the rest of the fairies; however, it was clear that he was human, not fairy. He told King Henry that he had no name. He had settled it in his own mind that the stretch of land between the Tweed and the Trent Rivers was "a just recompense for the failure of the Norman kings to avenge the murders of his family. For this reason and no other King Henry was suffered to retain the southern half of his kingdom." [45] That day, he began his unbroken reign of over three hundred years. This was John Uskglass, the Raven King.

Ruler of Northern England

John Uskglass's heroic badge during his reign was the Raven-in-Flight (properly called the Raven Volant), and depicted a black raven on a white field. His capital city was Newcastle. He ruled wisely and well, protecting his people and administering justice: even centuries after his departure he was remembered with loyal affection by the people of the North [63]. As ruler of both Northern England and the King's Other Lands however, and moreover as a great magician, it is not to be expected that all the events of his reign were easily understood by his English subjects. At one time(1202), he quarreled with Winter, and banished it from his kingdom so that it enjoyed four years of continual Summer, although the purpose of Winter's banishment is unknown. At another (1138) he caused the moon to vanish from the sky and pass through all the rivers and lakes in England. Also, in the year 1345, for thirty nights all of his subjects spent their nights dreaming all the same dream; that all of the citizens were building a tall, black tower. They would awaken exhausted and probably dreaded the day's work for that month. Only when in their dreams the tower reached completion were they finally free of the exhausting "dream". Some scholars speculated that the Raven King exploited his subjects to build his castle in Hell to wage war on his enemies there, but one magician felt differently. He believed that there was some connection between the tower and the Black Death which occurred a few years later. Possibly because the tower was a sort of defense against it, the Raven King's kingdom was affected a great deal less than its southern neighbor [38].


Uskglass had for many years been in the habit of vanishing from Northern England on visits to places unknown, leaving his seneschal William of Lanchester to take upon himself the burden of government. His departures and returns were alike mysterious. One day in 1434 however, he apparently abandoned his kingdom entirely, riding off into Faerie accompanied by his most trusted and able counsellors. In his absence there could be occasional pretenders to his throne but no true successors. It was this lacuna in government which caused the kings of Southern England to extend their rule into the north - in brief, they acted as stewards for the absent monarch.

Decline of English Magic

After the departure of the King for Other Lands the practice of magic began to fail throughout England. We have a clear description of the process in Watershippe's A Faire Wood Withering, though exactly why or how it should have happened is not clear. Nevertheless, spells and incantantions which had worked time out of memory became gradually feeble and inutile, until naturally the people abandoned their reliance upon them. And as the spells fell into desuetude even their very words were lost, save some few between the pages of unregarded books in the quiet libraries of country gentlemen. It was in such a library that Mr Norrell began his slow acquisition of magical skills. In the teeth of a neglect of magic so profound that though the study of the subject was a fit occupation for a gentleman, the practice of it was left to fools and charlatans, he forged himself into a modern, practical magician. Even he, however, was thwarted in many of his attempts. It was not until Jonathan Strange began to re-awaken English Magic by reminding the natural fabric of England - the trees, hillsides, streams and skies - that they had bound themselves to aid the human inhabitants of this island, that a true and complete restoration became possible.


Uskglass seems on the whole to have been a benevolent ruler, sufficiently esteemed by his subjects for them to lament his loss almost four centuries after his disappearance (see Johannites). It is however true that to modern minds he appears sometimes cruel and arbitrary (see River Derwent), and sometimes barbaric (see Henry Barbatus), and so a great many historians have concurred with Miss Graysteel's judgment that he was at heart a tyrant [54]. Gilbert Norrell however, despite his professed contempt for Uskglass and all his works, took a surprisingly softer view. He observed to Jonathan Strange that the peculiar circumstances of Uskglass's upbringing, as a stolen slave among fairies in a brugh, would have considerably affected his moral sense:"You are thinking of John Uskglass as if he were an ordinary man. I mean a man like you or me. He was brought up and educated in Faerie"[66]. He later adds, with perhaps some hint of reluctant admiration:"He is an old magician and an old king...Two things that are not easily impressed"[66]. Certainly the King's strength of will was quite remarkable: Strange himself, in his description of how the King invaded and conquered Northern England, refers to his "terrifying purposefulness". This same anecdote however illustrates another aspect of Uskglass's character, for although he had so successfully invaded Northern England that the southern part too lay at his mercy, he did not proceed to take it. Inwardly convinced of the justice of his cause, he had settled it in his own mind that England as far south as the Trent was to be his: and further he would not go. This, surely, is evidence of an inner moral restraint which true tyrants do not recognize [45].

Regarding Uskglass's abrupt withdrawal from the duties of kingship Gilbert Norrell was severely critical:"Do you think he cares what happens to England? I tell you he does not. He abandoned us long ago"[39]. One can seldom accuse Mr Norrell of being over-hasty in his judgments, but on this occasion he may be. The truth is we simply do not know for what reason the Raven King withdrew into Faerie, and until we do it would be wrong to ascribe any unworthy motive to him. Against Mr Norrell's accusation we have the testimony of one who knew him personally, the Lady Catherine of Winchester, that the King "stands between England and the Other Lands, between all wild creatures and the world of men" [LoGA]. This implies that Uskglass acknowledges his royal duty to act as guardian and protector. And certainly his intervention on behalf of Vinculus (and that worthy's claim that the Raven King had somehow caused the entire sequence of events by which magic was restored to England) does not suggest any very cool indifference to the fate of his former realm.


Relations with the fair sex: Although Uskglass never married it seems he was not indifferent to the charms of the ladies, on one occasion becoming so besotted with "a common Cornish witch" that he almost handed over his powers to her [63]. Too much should not be made of his failure to marry and provide his realm with an heir. Uskglass seems able to prolong not just his life but his youth indefinitely, and so unlike the common run of kings has no compelling need to supply his own replacement.

Appearance: The form in which he manifests himself to Childermass suggests he was not of impressive physique - not so tall as Strange (or indeed The Gentleman), and slighter in figure. He has adopted modern fashions in dress, but not in hairstyle: his hair is too long for a gentleman. He keeps his fondness for black. He is described as pale and 'handsome'' and as possessing quite an air of authority about him, yet when he speaks his accent is peculiar, striking even Childermass as uncouth. This perhaps indicates he retains traces of the medieval in his speech [67]. It seems moreover he is in general a quiet-spoken man [49].

The meaning of his name: The name the King is best known by, John Uskglass, is almost certainly not his true one [66]: nevertheless there has been much tossing of brains as to how he came by it, or why he chose to adopt it. He claims to have come of a Norman family and yet Uskglass, or even D'Uskglass, is by no stretch of the imagination a French name. It may well be the name of a place where a Norman family settled after the Conquest however, and if so perhaps has its origin in one of the old Celtic tongues, which as we know are related to the languages of Faerie. The translation 'blue water' has been put forward. The first part of the name, 'usk', may derives from isca the ancient British word for 'water': the second part, 'glas' is more problematical, but to this day the word glas in Welsh indicates something blueish-gray in colour. This is only slender supposition however; the true meaning may be quite different.

By-names: In his days as a stolen slave in Faerie Uskglass had a Sidhe nickname which Mr Strange believed might mean 'starling'. He is of course also commonly known as the King of the North and the Raven King.

Strange absences: like all kings, Uskglass had his secrets. He sometimes went on sudden journeys and on his return did not choose to tell even his dearest friends where he had been, what he had done there or indeed why he had gone in the first place [49].

  • In the year 1097, in summer, according to Mr Norrell [66].

  • This is the generally accepted history of the Raven King and his antecedents. Mr Norrell seems at one point inclined to doubt its accuracy [66]. We must remember that Mr Norrell is prone to natural distrust, and moreover does not altogether greatly care for John Uskglass. We should bear in mind also however that Mr Norrell devoted himself for some ten years to studying the Raven King, and his learning is never to be lightly dismissed.

Another fine example of authentic antiques celebrating the Raven King: a gorgeous silver pendant from around 1800, depicting a raven (no that is NOT a pigeon) and above it a crown.
This is part of the (now sadly inaccessible) museum at Starecross Hall.