Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Everyone needs a besotted biographer!

It seems I have posted very little lately, and that usually about Gawain. Given I've finished my Edward II essay now and the submission date for my thesis is little more than a month away, I'm focussing entirely on that now, so perhaps it isn't surprising that my mind has really only got one track.

Still. Posting should happen, because, if nothing else, "castration" is still the top of the list of most discussed topics in this blog, which is slightly disturbing. I am granting myself the evening off thinking about Gawain, because I've done a lot of writing in the last two days, scribbled plenty of notes for what I want to do with other parts of the thesis, re-read the whole of the first book of Troilus and Criseyde for today's seminar, rewritten and revised the Edward essay (just to be sure!) and provided lunch for the class today because my poor supervisor who was going to bring lunch is sick. And also I have an aglich headache (there is another Gawain-word we should bring back!).

So, for something completely different, which certainly does not involve castration: Henry VI!

For those who don't know him: the lad succeeded his manly warrior dad Henry V (he of the battle of Agincourt and "Once more unto the breach!" fame) in 1421 at the tender age of 8 months. He was a precocious child - that is, he was so pious that at the age of two he threw a tantrum when his mother tried to put him in a carriage. Nowadays we might consider that just was what kids do during the 'terrible twos', but at the time they understood that the lad simply had such a strong sense of what is right that he refused to travel on a Sunday.

Unfortunately, having been brought up with older, more capable people running the country, and being of a mild and compliant disposition, his approach to government seems to have consisted largely of "sign anything they put in front of me". Once, he granted the same position to two different men, the Earl of Devon and William Bonville. These two men just happened to be were very powerful figures (and rivals) in Cornish politics and who had been just looking for an excuse to start a miniature civil war in that part of the country. They took the excuse.

He was quite devout and seems to have been very concerned with piety and living a virtuous and holy life, but that's about all he managed to do successfully. Eventually one thing led to another and then to the Wars of the Roses, Henry lost his father's conquests in France and his own claim to that crown, went mad for a while, was used as a figurehead by various factions, was deposed, kept in prison, restored, deposed again, killed in 1471, and replaced by Edward IV, who was much more effective at actually governing.

That wasn't the end of the Wars, of course. The trouble with civil wars is that they tend to keep on going, and it isn't very pleasant for anyone involved. This is probably part of the reason for the nostalgia-cult that sprang up (during the reign of Richard III, unsurprisingly) that considered Henry to be a saint.

John Blacman, who was Henry's personal chaplain for part of his life, wrote his Memoires of him probably during Richard's reign (1483-85). He is unashamedly, unabashedly writing the man up to be a saint - "He was, like a second Job, a man simple and upright, altogether fearing the Lord God, and departing from evil. He was a simple man, without any crook of craft or untruth, as is plain to all. With none did he deal craftily, nor ever would say an untrue word to any, but framed his speech always to speak truth." (p. 26) Though his writing has little literary merit and probably even less of the historical, it's worth the read for the anecdotes that might be partly true, for what his emphases tell us about perceptions of masculinity and holiness at the time, and not least for the amusement value.

Here are some of my favourite Blacman moments:

His chastity.
This king Henry was chaste and pure from the beginning of his days. He eschewed all licentiousness in word or deed while he was young... he begat but one only son, the most noble and virtuous prince Edward; and with her and toward her he kept his marriage vow wholly and sincerely, even in the absences of the lady, which were sometimes very long: never dealing unchastely with any other woman. Neither when they lived together did he use his wife unseemly, but with all honesty and gravity.

Abstinence - not really a useful virtue when you're a hereditary monarch without brothers. What happened to 'an heir and a spare'? As it turned out, they could have done with the spare. Young Edward (so "noble and virtuous" that when he was eight he talked of nothing but chopping people’s heads off) was killed during the wars - but then, so were most other claimants to the throne, so perhaps it was just as well.

Hence it happened once, that at Christmas time a certain great lord brought before him a dance or show of young ladies with bared bosoms who were to dance in that guise before the king, perhaps to prove him, or to entice his youthful mind. But the king was not blind to it, nor unaware of the devilish wile, and very angrily averted his eyes, turned his back upon them, and went out to his chamber, saying:
Fy, fy, for shame, forsothe ye be to blame.

Poor girls. Though I'm sure the lord knew what the reaction would be and thought it'd be a good laugh. Perhaps it was a dare!

At another time when the executors of his uncle, the ... bishop of Winchester came to the king with a very great sum, namely £2000 of gold to pay him, for his own uses, and to relieve the burdens and necessities of the realm, he utterly refused the gift, nor would not receive it by any manner of means, saying: ‘He was a very dear uncle to me and most liberal in his lifetime. The Lord reward him. Do ye with his goods as ye are bound: we will receive none of them.’ The executors were amazed at this his saying, and entreated the king’s majesty that he would at least accept that gift at their hands for the endowment of his two colleges... This petition and gift the king gladly accepted... (32)

It's a lovely story, and very characteristic of Henry. Characteristic of Blacman is that he doesn't mention how far in debt the royal treasury was at the time and just how useful that money would have been. I daresay the executors knew, hence their amazement, but I wouldn't be surprised if Henry hadn't really noticed! Blacman gives another lovely example of his attitude to government:

... the Lord King himself complained heavily to me in his chamber at Eltham, when I was alone there with him employed together with him upon his holy books, and giving ear to his wholesome advice and the sighs of his most deep devotion. There came all at once a knock at the king’s door from a certain mighty duke of the realm, and the king said: ‘They do so interrupt me that by day or night I can hardly snatch a moment to be refreshed by reading of any holy teaching without disturbance.’ ... (37-8>

But other times, he just wanders off into legend:

Again, once when riding in a street which lay outside the graveyard to the east of a certain church, wherein the pyx that hung over the altar did not contain the sacrament of the Eucharist, he on that account did not bare his head, as he was wont always at other times to do most reverently in honour of the sacrament; and when many of his lords and nobles wondered thereat, he gave them his reason, saying: ‘I know that my Lord Jesus Christ is not there for me to do so in his honour.’ And it was found to be so as he had said. Nay, those who were his privy servants say that the king often saw our Lord Jesus presenting Himself in human form in the sacrament of the altar in the hands of the priest. (35-6)

... And once there, he stays there!

Also in the extreme pressure of his wars in the parts of the North, it is told by some who came from that region, that when there was for a time a scarcity of bread among his fellow-soldiers and troops... bread was so multiplied by his merits and prayers that a sufficiency and even a superfluity was forthcoming for all... (43)

Jesus really should have thought to get the copyright on that trick.

Henry the Sixth: A reprint of John Blacman's Memoir. Ed. and trans. James, M. R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1919.


Lady D. said...

I'm surprised you manage to get any posts done at all with all the degree work you have to do!

It was very interesting reading about Henry VI because I don'treally know anything about him. In many ways he reminds me of Edward II - having a strong war-like dad and not being much into governing himself. Although for some reason (Ed's possible sexuality perhaps?) Edward has had much more attention and also more condemnation.

I would have loved to have seen that 'dancing girls' moment! I bet his face was a picture! Mind you, I bet he wasn't much fun to be around with all that piety and stuff.

Ceirseach said...

Plus the civil war (though much longer than Ed's), the wife who was later dubbed a she-wolf leading an army (though in his name), the lack of conformation to gender roles and the reliance on the opinion of favourites - though definitely no kissing of favourites. Because he was a good boy. Poor silly man.

I rather like him, I admit. He seems to have operated on the basic assumption that everyone was nice and clever and trustworthy and meant well, which is not really a very safe assumption in his position...

But yes, I doubt he was much fun to be around. :)