THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Crowned King
While they may give standard advice, poets’ motives for writing “mirror for princes” and similar poetry varied, from gaining patronage, expounding propaganda, making political and/or social statements, to exemplifying the ideal ruler, and perhaps all or none of these, or for other aims.
In the case of The Crowned King, the precipitating event was the granting to Henry V in 1414 of taxation for renewing the war with France, which had been dormant since a truce was reached in 1389. In the intervening years, both France and England struggled with internal conflicts. Though preceded by hostilities too complex to review here, the Hundred Years War began in 1337 when France confiscated French territory held in fiefdom by England and Edward III laid claim to the French Crown, and ended in 1453. There were periods of battle (always on French soil), truces, treaties, and French lands gained and lost by England. It was funded in a number of ways, including loans, subsidies and taxation. The latter was strongly protested, as it was believed to be mishandled by the government, appropriated by corrupt royal tax collectors, and inequitably burdensome on the lower classes.
The Crowned King is in response to taxation but rather than voicing complaint, the poet offers advice to King Henry on ruling wisely as in standard “mirror for princes” literature, and urges him to consider the effect of taxation and war on his people and to maintain his responsibility for their welfare. As Barr observes, the poem’s warnings to “favour the allegiance of subjects rather than acquiring wealth and property . . . suggest that Henry should focus on the day-to-day problems of government at home before contemplating military glory abroad” (32). The poem is a reminder that as the head of an organic social whole, the monarchy is responsible for its well being: the king is the kingdom.
The Crowned King
Christ, crowned King, you who died on the cross and are the comfort of all care though nature goes out of course, must be praised in heaven with your saints, and your wondrous works ever worshipped that show such sundry signs to man in dreams and nightmares so that they are aware and know clearly of the care and comfort that is coming hereafter.
I say this by myself, may our Lord save me, because of a dream I had in a morning sleep. It was heavy and hideous, I promise you truly, and the most marvelous that I ever dreamt. If you would like to learn and listen a while as I recall it in my mind, I shall surely show you the truth of this dreadful dream—judge as you like.
Once I prepared myself, as I have often done, with friends, fellows, strangers and others and joined a company on Corpus Christi1 six or seven miles out of Southampton for melodies and mirth among my mates with the reading of romances and reveling together. The dim darkness drew into the west and dawn began to spring in the grey day; I lifted my eyes and looked in the sky and knew by the natural course that it cleared in the east. I quickly got ready and went to bed to comfort myself and go to sleep.
Soon I sank into a swoon that made me sweat, so that my spirit was sorely beset. I thought that I hovered high on a hill and looked down on a deepest dale.2 There I saw a multitude of strange people, so many they might not be numbered. I thought I heard a crowned king ask his commons for an extraordinary subsidy to sustain his wars, to be raised in the realm as reason required, from those who were seemly to bear the charge; those who were reckoned rich should pay a part on behalf of their poor neighbors. He made this decree through wisdom and wit to ease the people.
With that a cleric knelt down and said these words: “Liege lord, if it will please you to listen a while, I shall show you some sayings of Solomon. I beseech your Sovereignty to allow me to show you my sentence in single numbers, for my prose would fail if painted with pluralities; my simple profit will be to earn pleasant thanks. The courteous king commanded him to kneel no longer, and to stand and speak.
Then the cleric said, “Sir, crowned king, you know well that you have life, limb and laws to keep. If you are the chief justice, uphold truth, rule by reason, and sit upright. For it is a principal point—prove it whoever will—to be dreaded for your judgment and feared for your might. There is neither learned nor unlearned living on earth who does not wish for honor; his wit is feeble unless he knows that he has deserved well on account of his good works, by which he is judged.
Your subjects are bound to your law; treasure those who are true, for that may be of more help by a long way than much of your wealth that never loves man. Do not ignore the plaints of the poor people, for they labor, sweat and toil for your food. They win you much honor in this rich world of your glittering gold and gay clothing, your proud fur and cloth with precious stones, great castles and strong walled towns.
And yet the most precious plant that surpasses apparel is your poor people who dig the earth with their plow and give their goods to be governed justly, yet the people are well satisfied to please you alone. Such love is laid upon you by lords and those lower, and God has lent you great grace. Pull your peers in parliament together, work though wisdom, and worship will follow. For as a lord leads the people, your prowess should surpass other men’s wits: the most wise, wily, and worthy in deeds of arms.
All wealth is wasted if used wrongly; it is unseemly for a sovereign (so save me, our Lord), and harmful to his name, which will be hindered forever. Sir, you must be worldly wise, and wary in good time, and keep away from the flattery of beguilers’ mouths who speak to you with spiritual words, mumbling with their mouths and with malice in their heart. They make a fair tale out of a defective meaning (falsehood follows flattery and fair speech), and they may mar you forever with their misleadings, and deceit hidden in their darkness—the devil drown them!
Be kind to your clergy and comfort the poor. Cherish your champions and chief men of arms; those who take prisoners, thank them worthily, allow them to control those whom they win, and gladly give castles or walled towns to those who capture them—then you will win hearts. For God in his gospel asks only love for love, and let him be dearest. Also make him who deals strong strokes your marshal, and master his manner so that men may fear him for his strength, and be better aware for his wisdom and wit.
According to your nature, you should comfort knights of your counsel who are skilled in arms, have proven trustworthy, are respectful to your friends, and who lead their lives in labor for your love. Look to have a man who does not love to lie, a faithful philosopher who will never flatter, for he who follows your will like a weathervane will not correct you whether you work weal or woe.
Learn literature in your youth, as befits a lord. When you hold parliament lords shall appear and await hearing your wisdom. Though their speech is but small, the more are their thoughts, and if you show yourself to have no knowledge of your own but seem like a broker who has borrowed poor men’s wits, that is the greatest mischief that might befall a lord where wise men have gathered their wits together.
Sir, though it has come to you by nature to be called king, you must know what disposition becomes knighthood, for he who will practice arms must begin in youth. Of all arts under heaven, use is a master.
Moreover, Sir, do not be greedy to grasp gifts; rather, you shall give to those in need. Thus your lofty character shall be highly honored, and your prudence be praised forever. I shall show you the truth by example: a king should not be considered covetous, for where greed is known in a king’s breast and wealth is his master, his character is out of nature. The disposition of a king should comfort his people, for such amusements are loved in which all people laugh together.
My liege lord, of this matter I move you no more, but always keep in mind He who made you and take a sure example, shown by Christ himself, of all the saints in heaven who suffered death for him, who were so generous that they lost their lives for his love, and for love of that Lord now dwell aloft with that crowned king who died on the cross. There Christ in his kingdom comforts us ever, and may he grant us of his high grace the prosperity and peace that we pursue.
Corpus Christi is a feast day held on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday in honor of the Eucharist, and was established in the thirteenth century. In medieval times (and still in some modern countries) it was associated with cycle dramas, also known as mystery plays.
2 The Crowned King is considered part of the Piers Plowman tradition, along with Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, Richard the Redeless, and Mum and the Sothsegger, all of which were inspired in varying degrees by Langland’s Piers Plowman. This is reflected in the use of key words and important episodes, and the alliterative style (Barr 5-6). Each shares many of Langland’s social concerns, though in different ways. The image of the dreamer in The Crowned King on a high hill, looking down into a deep dale and seeing a multitude of strange people (31-34) strongly recalls the dreamer’s experience in Piers Plowman, who sees in a deep dale “a fair feeld ful of folk . . . of all manere of men” (Prol. 15-17).
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