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23.12.05 Lutkin/Hamilton (eds.), Creativity, Contradictions and Commemorations in the Reign of Richard II

23.12.05 Lutkin/Hamilton (eds.), Creativity, Contradictions and Commemorations in the Reign of Richard II

The star-crossed reign of England’s Richard II (1377-99) has never failed to inspire creative achievements in every genre, as newly brought to life by this superb collection of articles in honor of Nigel Saul. In the tradition of their honoree, the fourteen chapters explore a dazzling range of media, from well-known recorders of the era (e.g., Froissart and Gower), to the obscure and little studied (e.g., coroners’ versus gaol delivery verdicts), to achievements in the visual arts, especially memorial brasses. The unifying theme of the collection is new readings of the oldest primary sources. Current scholarship is also copiously cited, and many of the authors engage directly with the historiography of Nigel Saul. At times, the data presented will bear a different interpretation from that provided by the author, but the presentation is always richly documented and merits our attention.

Three articles provide us with important new findings on the very Ricardian project of challenging received opinions on women. [1] The first on this theme is Jenny Stratford’s “The Bequests of Isabel of Castile, first Duchess of York [1355-92], and Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars,” with its Appendix, Stratford’s first-ever edition of Isabel’s Last Testament and Will, composed in French (93-96). Among the items willed to her loved ones, and certain to inspire investigation, were books, including a “Machaut” (83, 94) and her “deux bibles” (87, 94).

Stratford begins by confronting the two streams of documentary “evidence” that malign the duchess. The first is the death notice on Isabel, misdated 1394, by fourteenth-century chronicler Thomas Walsingham: “...she had been worldly and lustful; yet in the end by the grace of Christ, she repented and was converted” (75). The second was put forward in a scribal afterword to Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars, where the poem is glossed as an allegory of the alleged affair between Isabel and Richard II’s miscreant half-brother John Holand (76). All of this led to the rumor that her youngest son Richard was born of the liaison (79). Stratford thoroughly debunks the claim of illegitimacy by analyzing a range of primary sources, including the wills of both Isabel and Edmund (80-81, 91), as she rehabilitates Isabel as a conventionally pious woman who was deeply concerned for the well-being of her children, other relatives and friends, and her legion of servants and their families (79-85).

In “The Patronage of Queen Isabella (d. 1358): Monuments of the Royal Household at Friars Minor London,” Christian Steer reviews, per Nigel Saul, the “obsession” of Richard II “with burying favoured courtiers close to his tomb” (249). He proceeds to explain how the king’s great-grandmother Queen Isabella had modeled this practice when commissioning her own memorial effigy placed at Gray Friars church, London, where she reposed with others of her retinue entombed close by (257-61). In a rather audacious gesture to posterity, Isabella had herself buried in her wedding dress, with the heart of her husband “under the breast of the image” (249, 254-55), never mind her complicity in his murder. The queen departed from tradition by causing a non-aristocrat, her governess “Typhania,” to be buried nearby, with a laudatory epitaph underscoring their personal connection: “valens domicella Reginae Isabelle” (257).

Self-image creation by women as well as men through funerary art is also the topic of Kelcey Wilson-Lee’s “‘Suche scripture...shewyng what I was’: The Brass of Margaret of Cieszyn [d.1416] and Associated Monuments.” Margaret’s brass is one image of the double effigy also portraying her husband Sir Simon Felbrigg. As noted by Saul, their portrayal is remarkable for its presentation of husband and wife as equals (238). In life, the couple were important courtiers of Queen Anne (Margaret) and Richard II (Simon), and both chose to memorialize this royal service in their epitaph and the equally prominent coats of arms on both sides of their monument. Wilson-Lee proceeds to the discussion of three additional monuments to women with a connection to the Felbrigg family, including its likely prototype, the gilded tomb of Richard and Anne, which bears an epitaph praising both king and queen in phrases paired off in equal numbers for both (241-43).

Five articles examine the turbulent reign of Richard II, along with the conflicting historical records on the agendas of his rule and his downfall.

In “Froissart and the Great Revolt,” Caroline Barron begins with a close reading of primary sources to argue that Froissart’s Chronicles, contra the prevailing skepticism, in fact provides a reliable account of the causes leading up to the Revolt of 1381 and the crucial events of June 12-15 (11-28). On this foundation, she builds her case that Froissart should be trusted on his important claims at times held up to doubt: the origin of the revolt in London, where multiple heavy taxes on the “little people” were understandably resented (28-31); and the primacy of ending serfdom among the motives for the rebellion (31-33). Per Barron, Froissart was not as hostile to the peasants as Walsingham and other chroniclers; his diction in quoting the sermon of John Ball shows respect for the topos of human equality that was preached in support of the rebels (33-34).

In “‘Defenders of Truth’: Lord Cobham, John Gower, and the Political Crisis of 1387-88,” Michael Bennett addresses the question posed by Nigel Saul: “John Gower: Prophet or Turncoat?” [2] The “crisis” referenced by Bennett was the youthful Richard’s widely perceived ambition for autocracy and over-indulgence of his courtiers (35-38), all opposed by the violent tactics of the “Lords Appellant,” a cabal of magnates including Richard’s former supporter Lord Cobham, whose involvement was admired by Gower (36-44, 50). Through close analysis of Gower’s Cronica Tripertita, Bennett argues that Gower’s account of the crisis of 1387-88 was written and shared near the time that it occurred (45), and only later incorporated into the Cronica Book I. Thus, Gower was no mere “turncoat” after Bolingbroke had usurped the throne, but a truthteller who had faithfully chronicled his progressive disillusionment with Richard’s misrule (49-52).

Another new interpretation is provided by George B. Stow’s “The Authorship of the Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum: A Reconsideration.” The author’s thesis, which he documents in painstaking detail, is that Evan J. Jones was right after all--the author-compiler of the Continuatio (a chronicle of the years 1364-1413) was John Trevor, bishop of St. Asaph (56 et passim). The attribution is important in assessing the credibility of materials unique to the Continuatio, including the notorious crown-wearing scene, all of which betray a relentless hostility to Richard and his supposed attempts at tyranny (esp. 56-58). Trevor writes as an eyewitness to the details of Richard’s resignation in the Tower, and he echoes the Lancastrian line that the former king’s death in captivity was voluntary (62-63). No sycophant to Henry IV, Trevor would turn on the usurper by joining the Glyn Dŵr revolt in Wales, which he served in war and diplomacy for the rest of his days (70-72).

In “John of Gaunt, Richard II, and Plantagenet Family Politics in the 1390s,” Mark Arvanigian engages with prior historians’ conflicting views on Richard’s 1397 revenge against the murderous rampage of the Lords Appellant in 1387-88. For supporters of Richard then and now, “his response to the treasonable acts of the Appellants” was not tyrannical, but “wholly justified” (154). His plan for peace with France, so derided by magnates who hoped to gain from the war (171), would have brought prosperity to England and an end to a devastating bloodshed between Christian nations (157). Whatever the justice of his conduct, however, the childless and relatively friendless Richard had no resources to outmaneuver the powerful magnates of the kingdom, especially John of Gaunt, who commanded a legion of his own offspring as well as talented retainers (151-52, 161-63). In exchange for advancements for his children and himself, Gaunt supported the show trials and executions of the former Appellants, thereby enabling the series of events that led to the triumph of his son as Henry IV (173-78).

Richard’s inability to rally the magnates of the realm, as it led to his downfall, is also the topic Joel T. Rosenthal’s “Richard II’s Bishops: Fair Weather Friends?” Of the twenty-one bishops in England and Wales at the time of Richard’s deposition, six owed their promotion to Richard, in addition to two who were his partisans at the time of the deposition, Bishops Henry Despenser and Thomas Merke. However, not one of “Richard’s bishops” ever mounted a serious opposition to the coup, and all continued to enjoy at least a modestly successful career after Richard had fallen (186-191). Per historian Thomas F. Tout, the bishops may have reasonably believed themselves to be “civil servants” who owed their primary allegiance to the secular polity, and not to the person of the king (196-97).

Two articles engage with the horrific experience of the Hundred Years War, as played out in the lives and the writings of those who were directly involved.

A flashback to Richard’s father’s generation is provided by Chris Given-Wilson in “Edward, the Black Prince [d. 1376] and Bertrand du Guesclin [d. 1380], Constable of France: Chivalry and Rivalry in Life and in Death.” Their largely overlapping careers were memorialized in contrasting posthumous biographies, Cuvelier’s on Du Guesclin, and the Chandos Herald on the Edward the Black Prince, both begun ca. 1380-81. From the Herald’s English point of view, the Black Prince was above all a paragon of the core chivalrous values, “prowess, loyalty, piety, and generosity” (226). To the French nationalist Cuvelier, Edward was a tyrant who misruled the duchy of Guienne, lost it through his pride, and ultimately fell like Lucifer from heaven (226). Meanwhile, Du Guesclin, for all his admitted brutality and guile, won his victories in a noble cause, the liberation of France (228).

Per a famous article by Saul, the advancing fourteenth century gave rise to expressions of disillusionment with war itself and with the values of the knightly class. [3] Would-be advocates for peace included Gower, Chaucer, and the “Lollard knight” John Clanvowe (97), whose devotional treatise The Two Ways is the focus of Jill C. Havens’ “Lollardy in Arms: Lollardy, Loyalty, and the Trauma of the Hundred Years War.” In Clanvowe’s own words, the “way of the world” brings on a condition of “woodnesse/madness” where a man will lash out with violence, even against his neighbors and his best friends, per Havens a description of the “trauma” brought on by war (102). After describing the brutalities witnessed, undergone, and likely perpetrated by Clanvowe himself (1364-78, 103-10), Havens proceeds to discuss what she interprets as the warrior’s path to healing through his conversion to a Wycliffite, thus pacifist, Christian faith (114-16).

Four articles examine the politics and culture of Ricardian England at the level of county, city, town, and village.

In “The Representation of Devonshire in the ‘Bad’ Parliament of January 1977,” Hannes Kleineke begins with the question: did John of Gaunt use his influence to finagle the election of his own supporters, as Walsingham alleges that he did? As a test case, Kleineke examines the surviving documents on the two MPs elected that year from Devonshire for the first and only time, Sir William Asthorpe and Thomas Courtenay (135-36). Both candidates appear to have enjoyed the support of a powerful patron or family connections (141, 145) along with the possible collusion of the sheriff, whose office at this date still had control over parliamentary elections (146-47). Kleineke finds no independent evidence that either candidate was supported by Gaunt. Rather, as Kleineke agrees with Arvanigian, the duke was too much engaged (until the 1390s) with his international adventures to meddle in county-level politics back home in England (148).

In “The ‘Dreadful Draytons’ of Dorchester and their Brasses,” Jerome Bertram focuses on three memorials, each portraying a “gentleman,” two brothers and a son, laid to rest side by side in the Abbey Church of Dorchester on Thame. Splendid in their day (275), the brasses of the two brothers, William and John (d. 1398 and 1417) are largely destroyed, with their indents surviving, while the tomb of William’s son Richard (d. 1468) is lost or covered. The brothers were “soldiers of fortune...who served the court of Richard II and were granted a knighthood,” and both, despite their worldly prosperity, left a record of violent attacks on their neighbors (273, 277), case studies in the “woodnesse” decried by Clanvowe (see above). In their brasses, both brothers are portrayed with their heads reposing atop their crest, “a Saracen’s head,” an image that disturbingly resembles the “wild Indian” archetype of a not-so-different milieu (see 272, 276, 278).

Actual murder of neighbors by neighbors, among common people in everyday life, is the topic of John L. Leland’s “Pardons for Self-Defence in the Reign of Richard II: The Use and Abuse of Legal Formulas.” Examining some 240 cases of the king’s pardon for homicide (121), Leland has studied the wording of the coroners’ inquest juries, versus the narratives produced by the gaol delivery verdicts that resulted in pardon. Recounting many colorful examples drawn from the records, he demonstrates how the gaol delivery verdicts were revised from the often-ambiguous events recounted in the coroners’ inquest, to a “stylised” narrative matching up with the legal criteria for self-defense (122, 124-32). In a future article, I hope that Leland will offer some explanations on exactly why these juries so desired to order the release of a killer next door.

A happier perspective on ordinary people in Ricardian England, as they organized to celebrate a holiday in June and care for their neighbors, is offered by Claire Kennan in “Power, Piety, and Presence: The Cult of Corpus Christi and the 1389 Guild Enquiry in Lincolnshire.” First appearing in Lincolnshire in 1326, when the feast of Corpus Christi was quite new, the guilds were voluntary associations of men and women who organized processions on the feast day, but also owned property and collected the rents that allowed them to offer a range of services to members in need as well as prayers for the dead (205-15). Without the 500 surviving Enquiry returns, we would know almost nothing about the pre-fifteenth-century guild activities, including the processions that would later be associated with mystery plays (207).

I can think of only two topics that were important enough to include, but did not appear. More light could be offered on the essential role of Richard’s Queen Anne in the burst of creativity that adorned the Ricardian milieu. [1] On the deposition and replacement of Richard by Henry IV, a relatively neglected perspective (at least in English) is provided by the writings of French contemporaries, including Christine de Pizan, as their grief for Richard and disgust for the usurper stand in contrast to the English point of view [4]. All that said, no single book can possibly cover everything. This collection provides a feast of new insights on primary sources, while never losing sight of the human drama--all in the great tradition of its honoree.



1. On revising textual misogyny in the milieu of Queen Anne and Richard II, see, for example, Linda Burke, “Bohemian Gower: Confessio Amantis, Queen Anne, and Machaut’s Judgment Poems,” in Machaut’s Legacy: The Judgment Poetry Tradition in the Later Middle Ages and Beyond, eds. R. Barton Palmer and Burt Kimmelman (Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida, 2017), 192-216.

2. See his article of that title in John Gower, Trilingual Poet: Language, Translation and Tradition, eds. Elisabeth Dutton et al. (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2010), 85-97.

3. “A Farewell to Arms? Criticism of Warfare in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” Fourteenth-Century England II, ed. Chris Given-Wilson (Woodbridge: Boydell,2002), 131-45.

4. See for example James C. Laidlaw, “Christine de Pizan, the Earl of Salisbury, and Henry IV,” French Studies 36.2 (1982): 129-43.