Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hugh Despenser: a finger in every pie...

... and lo, the pie was then abruptly smashed and everyone did make a grab for the finger. And they clamoured over the rings thereupon.

Cotton Vesp. A xviii[1] contains a cartulary of Ramsey Abbey of the mid-1300s. On f. 113v there’s a list of the abbots from its founding (though incomplete) with a sentence or less about each. Except for Simon of Eye, abbot from 1316-1342. In place of his entry, we have a long and detailed obituary, amounting to a short biography or chronicle (pp. 349-353 in Macray’s edition). It is headed “De obitu Simonis Eye quondam Abbatis, et de diversis notabilibus per ipsum factis in vita sua” (Of the death of Simon of Eye sometime Abbot and of the diverse deeds of note performed by him in his lifetime); but the “notabiles” that the composer saw fit to record are obsessively, almost exclusively, concerned with money.

The first page and a half in Macray’s edition, after a brief introduction (in which we are informed that he spent lavishly on strengthening the church against “persecutiones” and “insultus”), are almost entirely a list of “Item adquisivit” and “Item emit” (also he acquired, also he bought).

The second section of the obituary is a more expansive narrative of his abbacy, but it is also heavily structured by the movement of money. The title seems to suggest a story marked by the conventions of martyrdom – ‘Placita et adversitates quae sustinuit pro ecclesia sua’ – but if so, Simon’s trials and sufferings are only financial. Even the grand narrative of national affairs is phrased in these terms. For 1326, the year in which Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer invaded England, deposed Edward II and set his son on the throne in his place, this author reports that the abbot “sustinuit magnum certamen et laborem cum illis de Ramesey [the village] propter mutationem saeculi quia dominus Rex cum matre sua applicuit in Angliam” (351). The dramatic deposition and incarceration of a crowned king appears only as it causes trouble to Simon de Eye and arguments with the villagers.

But this next section in particular entertains me.  The monk writing is terribly indignant over what happened the following year, when Isabella, Mortimer and Edward III stopped by to visit.  The villagers got uppity again, and the men and women of Ramsey, because of “malam voluntatem versus dictum abbatem” (ill will towards that abbot), accused him of treachery before the king.  The charge was “ipsum habere magnam partem thesauri Hugonis le Despenser nuper suspensi” – that he had taken to himself a large part of the wealth of Hugh Despenser, then lately hanged.

Poor Hugh. To the best of my knowledge he hadn’t any property in the area (though, let’s face it, he had some just about everywhere by that stage), but his thesauri seems to have reached legendary status, especially in a country still suffering through the effects of the Great Famine (technically ended 1322, but all those abandoned villages and unsown crops and reduced labour forces take their toll).  Accusations and acquisitions naturally attend the downfall.  Even if Eye had not grabbed some (and the author doesn’t comment on that, because he’s too busy being indignant), it was obviously credible enough or easily enough imagined that the villagers thought it was a good accusation to effectively get the king on their side in their ongoing struggles with the abbey.

The most entertaining thing, I find, is that the author isn’t really concerned with telling the story of the accusation and its outcome, but rather the story of how outrageous and ungrateful those sorry little plebeians were, and how poor long-suffering Simon was such a martyr for putting up with them.  His last word on the subject is that “[p]ropter quae idem abbas pacifice sustinuit magnam tribulationem, ac diffusas fecit expensas pro dicto falso clamore sedando” – on account of these accusations that abbot pacifically suffered great trials, and it cost him many expenses to subdue that false clamour.

And note the terms in which his martyrdom is expressed? Good old money.


The relevant passage:

… dominus Rex cum matre sua Regina et aliis filiis et cum Rogero de Mortuo Mari, instinctu dicti Johannis de Hothom tunc cancellarii Regis, venerunt apud Rameseiam cum tota familia eorum, ubi plures de Rameseia tam viri quam mulieres, attendentes malam voluntatem versus dictum abbatem, in adventu ipsorum Regis et Reginae dictum abbatem false et malitiose accusabant et traditorem regni vocabant, asserentes ipsum habere magnam partem thesauri Hugonis le Despenser nuper suspensi. Vendicabant etiam mercatum de Rameseia, communiam in diversis locis, et alias libertates eis injuste ablatas et subtractas. Propter quae idem abbas pacifice sustinuit magnam tribulationem, ac diffusas fecit expensas pro dicto falso clamore sedando.


[1] Published in the appendices of the Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis, which should be called the Liber Benefactorum Rameseiensis, as the main manuscript calls itself. Ed. W. Dunn Macray. London: Longman and Co., 1886. Rolls Series 83. 351.