THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Surprisingly, even the most detested monarchs could be revered after their death. McKisack tells of a popular cult centered at Edward II’s magnificent tomb at Gloucester Abbey, which was visited by pilgrims, and that his dreadful last hours of imprisonment, attempted rescues and eventual murder made the “instinct to canonize him . . . natural enough” (95).
McKisack notes that a “cloud of romantic illusion has gathered” around Richard II. That cloud started forming with his deposition, imprisonment, and the mysterious circumstances of his death, theorized to have resulted from either enforced or self-imposed starvation, which made him into a tragic figure to many despite his unsatisfactory rule. Supporters hoped he was still alive, as his return would restore the legitimacy of the crown, which had been usurped by Henry IV. His body was taken from the Tower of London, where he died, to his burial place at King’s Langley in display to confirm his death. But rumors persisted for years, so in 1413, shortly after his taking the throne, Henry V moved Richard’s remains to the King Edward of the Confessor Chapel at Westminster Abbey with great pomp and circumstance and placed him in the tomb Richard had built years earlier, next to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, as he originally intended.
Death may have invited adulation, but critical attacks could also be voiced more openly than during the king’s lifetime. In Summer Sunday: A Lament for Edward II, written in the year of his death, the narrator is hunting in the woods and sees Lady Fortuna. There is a king on her wheel, the “merriest man he has ever seen” (73-74), who claims the kingdom by birth and believes he has the world at his command; he reigns with might, and has men falling at his feet. But then the king’s hair turns grey, his face becomes black, and his diamond crown drops down, and he weeps over the loss of his treasures and his descent from king to wretch. In the end, he is naked with nothing but a bier for his bed. The poem is as much a lament (both for and of Edward) as a warning. There are no words of praise for the king, no mention of his virtues or accomplishments, no common epithets such as “comely king” or “England’s flower.” The king’s pride and smug dominance precede his downfall, which he blames on fickle fate, a convenient scapegoat for avoiding acknowledgement of the consequences of one’s actions, which would have been obvious to the audience.
Gower is a more direct and harsher critic. In 1400, after Richard II’s fall and having received support from Henry IV, he safely wrote his Chronica Triparta, which recounts the extremely unpopular execution of several of the king’s opponents. Gower describes Richard’s tyranny, malice, malevolence, and wickedness surrounding the events. In the Vox Clamantis, he ends his chronicle of Richard’s reign with the assessment that it was not “a blessed one.” He sees Richard passing away as a “blank” who “because he was haughty his honor has grown tarnished, his praise has become blame, his glory has died away,” and offers Richard as a warning to future rulers to avoid evil and sinful living (326).
However, such direct criticism of the living king is seldom seen. More often less risky approaches are taken, such as criticizing the current ruler through fictive or legendary figures like King Arthur as in Sir Launfal and The Adventures of Arthur at the Tarn Wadling,1 or indirectly through inferred comparison to an ideal king like Athelwold in Havelok.
A similar vehicle is the “mirror for princes” (specula principum) literature that offers advice, usually to youthful and/or incoming monarchs with the unspoken but clear message that they will be improving/correcting their predecessor’s rule. For example, Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes (De Regimine Principum) was written in 1410-11 to the young Prince Henry, who became King Henry V in 1413. Preceded by a lengthy prologue on poverty, the body of the text illustrates the virtues possessed by the ideal monarch through the use of exempla based on classical and biblical sources.
To govern well, a king will be faithful to his word and oaths, administer justice fairly and lawfully, and show pity and mercy. The king must set an example with his exceeding reverence and by earning honor through virtue. He must be chaste and avoid lechery and the vices of intemperate bodily pleasures such as gluttony and drunkenness and achieve chastity through abstinence and continence. Temperance must also be practiced in generosity and largesse to avoid prodigality,2 while at the same time the good king is magnanimous and shuns greed and covetousness. The poet tells the prince to seek and follow wise counsel, and to embrace peace through humility, tranquility, and conformity to God’s will.