THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Death of Edward III
Obviously, Edward II and Richard II failed to meet the expectations set for an ideal ruler, and their reigns tend to dominate the impression of the fourteenth century. Coupled with natural disasters, social upheavals and wars, the century seems dismal. But it was anchored for fifty years by Edward III (1327-77) who provided some stability, sense of security and political solidarity. Despite the decline of his rule during his later years, his popularity with the people lived on long after his death; he is the “comely king” of the fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hode, and the legend outgrew the man. None of this was foreseen by the author of The Death of Edward III. It is an elegiac political verse rather than complaint literature, but in historical hindsight the poem’s pathos becomes ironic critical commentary. The heir apparent to the throne, Edward III’s son, the popular Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, died in 1376, a year before his father, and his son, Richard, became heir, then king upon Edward III’s death. By the middle of Richard’s reign, the reader (and probably the author if still alive) of this poem would have realized the futility of its hope.
The Death of Edward III
Ah, dear God, why do all things decay and waste away? Friendship is but a vanity, lasting barely a day. They are so deceitful at testing, so eager to have and so loath to delay, and so fickle in their faith; seldom seen is soon forgotten.
I do not say this without cause. Therefore take good heed, for if you construe this clause well, I completely assure you that your hearts will bleed if you consider this matter wisely: he who was our greatest fortune is seldom seen and soon forgotten.
We had an English ship, noble and high towered; it was feared throughout all Christendom. It stood strong in every tumult and withstood a sharp shower and other storms, great and small. Now that ship that bore the flower is seldom seen and soon forgotten.
There was a rudder in that ship that steered and governed it; there is no other like it in this world, it seems to me. While the ship and rudder were tied together, they feared neither tempest, drought nor rain. Now they are torn asunder—that seldom seen is soon forgotten.
That ship has sailed sharp waves and explored all seas on adventure; it never failed for wind or weather while the rudder endured. Whether the sea was rough or calm that ship found good havens. Now that ship, I am sure, is seldom seen and soon forgotten.
I may compare this good ship to the chivalry of this land. I understand they cared not a bean for all of France. They took and slew with their hands the power of France, both small and great, and brought the king here to remain in bond,1 and now that is soon forgotten.
That ship had a secure mast and a strong and large sail, so that the ship was never afraid to undertake a charge. A barge belonged to that ship, that didn’t give a care for all of France. To us it was a trusty shield, and now it has been totally forgotten.
The rudder was neither oak nor elm; it was Edward III, the noble knight. The prince, his son, bore up his helm, that was never defeated in battle. The king steered and rowed him aright, so that the prince feared nothing. Now we think of him little; that which is seldom seen is soon forgotten.
The swift barge was Duke Henry,2 that noble and proven knight who, in his allegiance, worthily withstood many a bitter onslaught. If his enemies transgressed, he did not hesitate to chastise them. Now that lord is laid low; that which is seldom seen is soon forgotten.
This good commons, by the Cross, I liken to the ship’s mast; they maintained the war both first and last with their wealth and goods. The wind that blew the ship with blast was good prayers, I say plainly. Now devoutness is cast out and many good deeds have been completely forgotten.
Thus this lord is laid full low, but the stock is of the same root.3 A branch4 is beginning to grow, and I hope it shall be our remedy, to hold his foes under foot and be seated as a lord. Christ grant that he may be so, that seldom seen will not be forgotten.
Were that branch fully grown and had savor,5 sap and pith, I hope he should be renowned and known as a conqueror of many countries. He is lively in every limb to travail and sweat in feats of arms. Christ allow that we fare so, that seldom seen will never be forgotten.
And therefore I advise you wholeheartedly that until this branch is fully grown, that each man, both high and low, be attentive and maintain him. The French men can boast and brag and scornfully threaten us; if we are degenerate and dull, those seldom seen are soon forgotten.
And therefore, good sirs, take account of your doughty king who died in old age, and his son courageous Prince Edward. We shall not find two such lords of high lineage on this earth. And now their loss begins to fade, those seldom seen are soon forgotten.
The Black Prince captured the French king, John II, during the battle of Poitiers in 1356. Truces were signed and ransom paid, and John was freed but when his son, who took his place as hostage escaped, John returned voluntarily to England, where he died in captivity in 1364.
2 Henry of Grosmont (1299-1361) held the title of Duke of Lancaster (the first to do so), among others, and was a close companion of Edward III in military campaigns and acted as his representative in diplomatic negotiations. He was a founding member of the Order of the Garter, formed by Edward III in 1344 of the greatest men in England.
3 Richard II, grandson of Edward III.
4 The word “ympe” (“branch”) also means “the offspring of a noble family” (MED) and is thus a double entendre here.