THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
God Save the King and Keep the Crown!
After the Rising of 1381, fear of rebellion by the commons against the ruling class lingered, as seen in Truth, Rest and Peace, which counsels just rule to prevent a recurrence. But rebellion also occurred within the ruling class, aimed at disposal of the monarch, particularly after Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne.
When Henry IV became king, he stripped a number of peers of titles they had been granted by Richard II and demoted them from duke to earl. In early January 1400, three months after Henry's accession, several joined together in a plot to assassinate the king, known as the Epiphany Rising. But Henry was forewarned and raised an army in London, at which the conspirators fled. They were apprehended and executed without trial.
During the last year of Henry IV’s reign, supporters of Richard II devised a plan to dethrone the usurper and restore Richard, the rightful ruler. Rumors were spread that Richard was alive and returning, and an imposter was found. The plot was discovered soon after Henry V’s coronation, and though quashed it was obviously a threat to the monarch. The only conspirator prosecuted was the leader, John Wightlock, groom and yeoman to Richard II, who was imprisoned but escaped.
Henry V was the subject of another plot soon after his ascension. In 1413 his boyhood friend, the knight Sir John Oldcastle,1 was convicted as a heretic for holding certain Lollard beliefs, which he would not recant. The king was lenient out of friendship and granted a respite of forty days, during which Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London and formed a conspiracy to capture Henry and his brothers. The king was alerted, and the force of Lollards that had gathered for the event, now known as Oldcastle’s Rebellion or the Lollard Rising, was dispersed and Oldcastle escaped. After several years of hiding and plotting, Oldcastle was captured and executed in 1417.
God Save the King and Keep the Crown! shares advice on ruling with the “mirror for princes” and similar literature.2 Beyond that commonality, there are several elements that make the poem of interest. Its topicality, though often obscure to the modern reader, refers to contemporary events outlined above as well as others, which have been footnoted in the translation. Most of the events involve internal conflict and dissension, which the poet perceives as a threat to the life of king and kingdom and prompts his repeated emphasis on political and social unity. And indeed, Henry V opened his rule on a conciliatory, unifying platform.
The positive attitude towards military action is somewhat contrary to the complaints in some other works about England’s wars with France and Scotland and the cost of those conflicts. The poem is dated to 1413, and thus probably preceded Henry’s receipt of a funding grant in 1414 to reopen the hostilities with France,3 but the poet is conscious of the importance of England’s territorial holdings.
Though Henry’s first campaign in the renewal of the war was in 1415 (remembered famously for the Battle of Agincourt), he had been involved in military and political activities in his youth, and he grew in power after Henry IV’s health declined in 1410. While it passes the period of our study, the fame of Henry V’s military campaigns is familiar to most readers due in great part to Shakespeare’s Henry V. As Barr observes, modern imagination sees Henry as a “national saviour because of his victories against the French,” but at the time he had to work on securing his position and was “careful to engineer support for himself and his policies” (Barr 31) through such means as diplomacy, conciliation, largesse, propaganda and, finally, force.
God Save the King and Keep the Crown!4
Rejoice in God, renew your faith, increase your mirth in joy and bliss and keep God’s law safe. During this holy time,5 let sorrow cease. May God send peace among us, to which each man be bound to stop fools’ designs,6 stand with the king, and maintain the crown.
What does a king’s crown signify, when encircled with stones and flowers? Lords, the commons and clergy to all be of one assent. To keep that crown, pay good attention in wood, field, dale and down. The lowest subject, with his body and rent, is a part of the crown.
What do those encircled stones signify? Riches, strength and great bounty. Our towns and castles in realms abroad are our stones of great power and keep all this country in peace, holiness, and contemplation. May God let them never be scattered, and save the king and keep the crown.
If we had nothing beyond the sea7 and all our enemies were friendly to us, though they brought all their gold here I would set it at little store. Our enemies would fight for it in battle array and win that and much more: our lands, our lives, the realm, the crown.
If we quarrel among ourselves, then ends the flower of chivalry. All other lands that hate us8 would see our weakness and would rush in on every side; the strong cast down the feeble. If they have rulership through might, they would take the crown from the rightful heir.
If the encircled flowers and rich stones were separated from each other, if the crown were broken once, it would be full hard to knit together again. Consider before you suffer that blow. Amend, you who must! You who are wisest, put forth your wit! Stand with the king to keep the crown.
God grant you grace to keep the crown and never let it be broken over rumors of little consequence; no harm is done though words are spoken. Let wisdom be unlocked, openly and privily for deliberations. Wish no man be avenged out of evil, but stand with right, maintain the crown.9
A man might be removed far from a king’s place and cause a king to perjure himself by impeding the law. That man would make the king believe he was in a holy condition of grace, and be maintained in his sin while he picked the stones out of the crown.10
A kingdom must be governed by right, and the false chastised. Falsehood and truth will fight until one has destroyed the other. Until truth has been separated from treason, there will never be peace in the region. In all kingdoms that man has governed, God gives the crown to the place of virtues.
Though falsehood defames truth, truth does not seek corners in which to show his speech. Truth thinks no shame of his craft but is fearless to teach it to all folk. Vengeance ever stands by truth, for vengeance is God’s champion. Before vengeance smites, God be our healer and save the king and keep the crown.
Examine what you begin and consider how it will end, and what you may win spiritually and physically. Each man destroys his best friend—and so it went in Flanders.11 They lost the fame of nobility; pray to God that he unbend his bow of wrath, and save the king and keep the crown.
God gives his authority to all kings; on earth a king has might, like a god. Holy writ commands that he who always judges with right be blessed. Men act in darkness,12 God sees in light. Sin, murder, secret treason may not be hidden from God’s sight. God gives the crown to judge with right.
That lord loves himself little who gives up his bliss for sorrow and woe. For the love of ten or twelve, he makes all folk his foes and also loses the love of God for lack of perfection. Though he had no dominance but of those, he might wear a simple crown.13
Each king has God’s power to save or destroy life and limb. He must make God his partner and not do his own will. For God receives each poor man’s petition and hears the sound of his complaint. Counsel the king to keep the crown.
The father will teach and chastise the wanton child, beating it sore with a rod. Then the father will burn the rod when the child is wise and has taken to learning. We have been God’s rod and chastised kingdom, castle and town, and have lost twigs of our rod. God save the king and keep the crown.14
Englishmen had many victories, and word spread throughout the world. They made Christians and heathens quake, and took and slew strong kings. God, let us never war among ourselves and lose that renown, or let our right be turned into wrong. God save the king and keep the crown.
If fighting is raised among ourselves, then we destroy our own nest. The victor will be evilly rewarded; so many good men lost. It is better to bend than to break. Each man is bound to reason. You who are wisest, take the best, and counsel the king, maintain the crown.
A commons might soon be destroyed without a king or governor, and a king without rent might have a lightly packed treasury, for the commons maintains the lord’s honor,15 holy church and religion. The commons is the fairest flower that God ever set on an earthly crown.
God, let this kingdom never be lost through discord among ourselves! Let other kingdoms not laugh at us scornfully and say, “God sends us vengeance for sin.” God give us time for repentance, good living, and devotion. And God, keep our comely king in your governance, and save the crown.
1 Oldcastle is presumed to be the model for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
4 This poem appears in two editions: God Save King Henry V, Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, ed. Rossell Hope Robbins ( New York: Columbia UP, 1959), and God Save the King and Keep the Crown!, Twenty-Six Political and Other Poems from the Oxford MSS Digby 102 and Douce 322, ed. J. Kail, EETS (OS 124) (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Limited, 1904), both of which are used for the following explanatory notes.
5 “This holy time” is assumed by Kail to be Easter, when Henry V ascended to the throne on 9 April 1413 (xvi).
6 The “fools’ designs” refers to the conspiracy to dethrone Henry V through the use of rumors of Richard II’s return, and an imposter.
7 The reference to losing overseas territories is attributed by Robbins to skirmishes with France shortly after Henry’s ascension (270).
8 “All other lands that hate us” that would rush in are Scotland and France (Robbins 270).
9 The rumors which have done no harm are those that Richard II was still alive (Kail xvi), and the wish to have no man avenged out of evil likely refers to the lack of prosecution of the conspirators (except Wightlock).
10 The man in this stanza seems to be John Oldcastle, and the impediment of law the forty days reprieve given by Henry in hope that Oldcastle would recant his heretical beliefs (Robbins 271).
11 Flanders: Early in the fifteenth century, France was politically unstable due to the king’s mental illness. Louis, Duke of Orleans and John, Duke of Burgundy and Flanders (John the Fearless) vied for leadership of the administration of the kingdom, including territories claimed by England, with the Duke of Burgundy favoring England. The two men eventually reached a peace agreement, but when the Duke of Burgundy had the Duke of Orleans murdered in 1407, his enemies desolated his lands and reputation (Kail xvii). Civil war ensued with both sides seeking English aid, and when negotiations failed, Henry decided upon settlement of English claims by force, which led to the renewal of the war (Barr 30).
12 “Men acting in darkness” may refer to John Wightlock, leader of the conspiracy against Henry (Robbins 271).
13 The lord in this stanza is probably the Duke of Albany, who spread the rumors that Richard was still alive and abetted Thomas Ward, the imposter (Robbins 271). The stanza could also be read as a warning against favoritism.
14 Kail reads this as reference to frequent insurrections in preceding reigns (xvii).
15 The word “honour” may be a double entendre. The obvious meaning is reputation, respect. In the vassalage system, the king nominally owned all land, and that granted to vassals was held “in honour.” “Honour” might also refer to the vassal’s landholding itself.
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