THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
On the King’s Ministers
A common type of indirect criticism of the king is the topos of holding him blameless by placing the onus of royal mismanagement on the king’s self-serving advisors, who keep him ignorant of the condition of the people. A less generous approach is to concentrate on the king’s reliance on friends and favorites, “evil counselors,” who mislead the ruler away from his responsibilities to act wisely and justly, while he ignores and defies the wise counselors.
The world of court politics was extremely complex, with shifting alliances, factions and power. During the fourteenth century, the king’s relationship with parliament ranged from conciliatory, as with Edward III, to adversarial, as with Edward II and Richard II. Monarchical attitudes towards the peerage was subject to similar dynamics, and factions within that group ran from royalist to oppositional. Courtly conflicts frequently became violent to the point of civil war. Depending on the balance of power, political climate and personal agendas and ambitions, magnates were vulnerable to confiscation of lands, loss of title, imprisonment, exile and execution, while kings could be (and were) deposed.
All these factors are recorded directly or by inference in On the King’s Ministers, the subject of which was treated allegorically by several poets (including Gower in his Chronica). The topicality of this anonymous author’s brief version, written in 1399, would have been recognizable to his medieval audience, but the modern reader requires some historical background. A full review of the intricacies and intrigues leading to the poem’s events is impossible here, so we must start in medias res.
In 1388, five lords appeared before the “Merciless Parliament,” so called because of its outcome. They presented thirty-nine charges against five of Richard II’s favorites, accusing them of taking advantage of the king’s youth (aged 21), gaining power over him and giving him evil counsel to their benefit through corrupt methods, which were detailed in the appeal. The accused were found guilty of treason and they and their associates among the king’s company were either executed or exiled. The king was reconciled with the appellants, the members of parliament renewed their oath of allegiance, the king promised to rule well, and there was seeming relative political peace for a number of years.
We must skip to 1397 when Richard had regained power and was moving towards absolutism, and was ready to exact revenge for the actions of the Merciless Parliament. The three most prominent appellants, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, are depicted in the poem as the bearkeeper, swan, and steed respectively, based on their heraldic devices. By this time Arundel and Gloucester had been turning towards an oppositional stance. According to Gower, Richard’s stratagems included “How the king, more cunning than a fox, plotted tricks with constant deceitfulness in order to entrap the nobles through an agreement of feigned peace” by issuing the nobles charters of safety, which they sought “for they knew him to be treacherous” (Vox 300). But they were arrested under deceptive circumstances and found guilty of treason by parliamentary trial and condemned to death. Gloucester, who had been exiled to Calais, was murdered there, Arundel was beheaded, and Warwick’s sentence was commuted and he was exiled to the Isle of Man, then returned to imprisonment in London and later released and restored by Henry IV.
The fate of the appellants’ sons is recounted in the poem, with Gloucester’s son, Humphrey, imprisoned in Ireland, and Thomas, Arundel’s son, joining Henry Bolingbroke, the “heron” and future Henry IV. Warwick’s son, Richard Beauchamp, aspires to become head of the “bears.” Looking beyond the poem, Beauchamp succeeded his father as earl of Warwick, and Thomas succeeded to his father’s earldom. Gloucester’s title was forfeit so Humphrey did not succeed and died of plague.
In 1399 Richard went on expedition to Ireland, which gave Henry, who had been exiled to France in 1397, the opportunity to return to England. He went to his ancestral home, Pontefract, in the north country. Among his supporters were the two most powerful lords in the north: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, representing the “geese” and “peacocks” respectively.
The poet names three men as implicated in the events: Sir John Bussy (the “bush”), Sir Henry Green (the “grass”) and Sir William Bagot (the “bag”). All were entrenched in Ricardian politics, serving in the House of Commons and as councilors. Bussy was influential as Speaker of the House and is held blameworthy for participation in the death of Gloucester, as is Green in Arundel’s beheading and Bagot in Warwick’s fate. Bussy and Green were executed by Henry after Richard’s fall. The editor of the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London notes that Bagot was not beheaded, but that this misapprehension was common to many chroniclers, and according to Gower, he was spared by Henry (Vox 328).
On the King’s Ministers
There is a bush that is overgrown; crop it well and keep it low or else it will be wild. The tall grass that is so green must be mown and raked clean; it has overgrown the field.
Through the bush a swan was slain, and few were pleased with that slaughter. Alas that it happened! It was a brood falcon, good and able, profitable to his lord. It was a noble bird.
The green grass that was so tall has slain a strong and worthy steed. Whatever king held that steed could boldly joust on him as he went to fight.
A bearkeeper found a rag and made a bag, which he did with good intent. He was taken through the bag and forsaken by all his bears and is thus destroyed.
The swan is dead and his mate is woeful. Her eldest bird has been taken from her into an uncouth place. The steed’s colt has run away, and a heron has taken him into his company; it is a wondrous case.
The bearkeeper’s son is of tender age, and is put to marriage; ask and you will be told. Yet he hopes through might and grace to make peace with the bears and to lead them at his will.
The heron has taken flight to the north country, as you hear all men say. He has brought the steed’s colt with him. It causes me wonder to see them playing thus.
The geese have made a parliament and gone to the heron, more than I can count. The peacocks that are so beautiful to see are coming to him with all their might and intend to join him.
The heron will rest upon the bush, the place that pleases him best of all, to watch his prey. He will fall upon the green, and wherever he falls, it will be seen, they will not get away.
The bag is full of rotten grain, kept so long it is lost and will be of no use. It should be fed to the peacocks and geese, and many other fowl.
The bush is bare and grows dry, no longer able to bear leaves; now it stands in no stead. I know of no other remedy but to hew it down from top to root and take it to the town.
The tall grass that seems green is rotten throughout and is not food for a beast. Until the rotten part is threshed out, our lean beasts shall not herd together to get their sustenance.
The great bag is so torn that it will hold neither meal nor grain; hang it up to dry. When it is dry, then you will see if it will be repaired for a beggar to buy.
Now, mighty God, if it be your will, grant us the grace to see the sight of our lean beasts that were on the point of destruction resting in a place that pleases them best.
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