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date: 30 March 2017

Thomas Hoccleve’s Poems for Henry V: Anti-Occasional Verse and Ecclesiastical Reform

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reconsiders the biographical and literary identities of Thomas Hoccleve, focusing on balades written by him in the first two years of Henry V’s reign, as well as on the Remonstrance to Oldcastle, a longer poem addressing Sir John Oldcastle and his fellow Lollard heretics. It argues that Hoccleve was not a proto-poet laureate, producing propaganda and occasional verse in return for royal patronage, but rather that such poems are anti-occasional. These balades and the Remonstrance were not written for royal patrons but are instead about royal power, particularly in relation to the defense of the faith and ecclesiastical reform. These topics were of interest not just to noble or bureaucratic readers, but also to ecclesiastics, many of whom Hoccleve may have known. Hoccleve’s voice and identity are thus at least partially clerical and ecclesiastical, and to some degree independent of royal authority.

Keywords: Thomas Hoccleve, balades, Remonstrance, Lancastrian, Henry V, John Oldcastle, patron, occasional poetry, Lollardy, ecclesiastical

Thomas Hoccleve, compared to many late medieval authors, is tangible and knowable.1 He notoriously tells us a great deal about himself in his poems, which combine political and moral advice with autobiographical revelation.2 His entertaining Male Regle de T. Hoccleve (1405) appeals for payment of his overdue wages by means of entertaining vignettes of life in medieval Westminster.3 The prologue to his Regiment of Princes (1411) describes Hoccleve’s career, his work as a clerk in the Privy Seal, and his fears for his future prospects, as well as citing topical events and contemporary misgovernance.4 The main text of the Regiment translates and synthesizes elements of three separate advice-to-princes works for Prince Henry, eldest son of Henry IV.5 Following Henry’s accession as king in 1413, Hoccleve continued to address topical issues in a series of short balades and in the longer Remonstrance to Oldcastle (1415). Toward the end of his literary and administrative career, Hoccleve composed a sequence of linked texts and translations now known as the Series (1420).6 The first two items in the Series record the personal and social consequences of Hoccleve’s mental breakdown, an illness substantiated by gaps in the records of his professional work and in the collection of his annuity, either from May to June 1414 or from late 1415 until December 1416.7

In addition to the works themselves, we are fortunate to have a great deal of corroborating and contextualizing material. We have copies of Hoccleve’s works in his own hand, not only his shorter poems and the Series, but also perhaps the Regiment of Princes.8 These authorial holographs provide texts untouched by scribal interference, as well as many details about the circumstances in which they were composed in their headings and glosses. Hoccleve’s career as a royal servant can be reconstructed by means of records of annuity payments, reimbursements, and other kinds of payments and rewards.9 We can track his daily activity via the surviving documents he copied, not only Privy Seal writs but also petitions, Chancery warrants, and documents for the King’s Council, and from his formulary (London, British Library MS Additional 24062), a collection of model documents.10 The poems themselves, especially the Regiment and Series, self-reflexively analyze aspects of their own composition, purpose, and likely appeal to potential or actual named readers.11 There is thus a mutually confirming relationship between what we know of Hoccleve’s biography, what he records about himself and his life in his verse, and the genre and purpose of the works.

Yet despite the abundance of surviving and corroborating detail, we must always remain on guard for the ways in which Hoccleve’s identity can be unexpectedly protean. For example, one might consider the balade sent to Henry Somer when he was chancellor of the exchequer, composed by Hoccleve on behalf of other members of the Court of Good Company, a club that held dinners at the Temple.12 The first part of this poem rehearses the contents of a letter from Somer that had advised that Court dinners, paid for by each member in turn, should be funded generously but should not be excessively lavish. Hoccleve responds by cautioning Somer that, though he can show moderation if he wishes, he must nonetheless arrange and pay for the next dinner as previously agreed. The balade is unrepentant regarding the Court’s “neewe gyse” (38), its recently extravagant festivities. It igently mocks Somer’s unnecessary penny-pinching—“Yee been discreet / thogh yee in good habownde” (47)—and confidently and convivially reminds Somer of his obligations. It appears that membership of the Court did indeed necessitate fairly generous expenditure. Even while urging restraint, Somer had sent three marks to fund the next dinner, a little over one-eighth of what Hoccleve claims to be his own annual income (26 marks) in the Regiment (932–935, 974–975). Given the specific date mentioned in the poem and what we know of Somer’s career, this short poem was written in the last week of April 1421.13 The poem to Somer was thus written a few months after the completion of the Series, which Hoccleve had begun in late November or early December 1419 and worked on throughout 1420, having a draft completed before May 1421.14 The Series depicts a melancholic, socially isolated poet, deeply conscious of his own mortality and undertaking his final poetic work (Dialogue, 239–294), while the balade to Somer presents a persona full of wit, joie de vivre, and sociability. It is not that one work falsifies the other or renders it inauthentic. Such juxtapositions simply remind us that Hoccleve’s self-presentation is inevitably partial and purposeful, temporary rather than defining, always to be read in the light of its context and circumstance.

There is thus a danger that our relatively detailed knowledge of Hoccleve’s life and works breeds, if not contempt, then at least too willing acceptance of his biography and literary career as mutually intelligible and unproblematic, suggesting little need to re-examine our assumptions about his poetic identity or to look for elements of his literary career that the current consensus may have obscured. Encouragingly, recent scholarship has begun to challenge literary history’s assumptions about Hoccleve, revealing new presences in and influences on his writing and positioning him not as a derivative writer, but as one with his own distinctive poetics, an early adopter of new modes and genres into English verse.15 This chapter likewise reconsiders one key aspect of Hoccleve’s poetry and identity, namely his relationship to royal power in the period from 1413 to 1415. If we skeptically and attentively question both his own writing and his supposed identity, it becomes clear that Hoccleve, despite all we know about him, is not necessarily who we think he is.

Anti-Occasional Verse

Hoccleve wrote a sequence of topical poems between Henry V’s accession in March 1413 and his first French campaign in the summer of 1415.16 In the autograph collection of Hoccleve’s works in Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino (California), MS HM 111, French headings date the composition of each text in this group in relation to key events of the new king’s reign.17 One balade was made for Henry V in March 1413 on the day on which the lords spiritual and temporal paid their homage to their new king at Kennington Palace. Another was written soon after the bones of Richard II were brought from King’s Langley to Westminster Abbey for reinterment. A pair of balades addresses the king and his Garter Knights, inferentially relating their date of composition to one of the annual Garter assemblies at Windsor, most likely in 1414.

Last in this sequence is the Remonstrance, a longer poem addressed to the fugitive Lollard Sir John Oldcastle, the heading of which tells us that it was written in late July and early August 1415, when Henry and his troops were assembling at Southampton in preparation for the voyage to Harfleur. This group of poems has been decisively characterized either as occasional poetry or as instances of propaganda, whether the promulgation of a particular message on behalf of the Crown or a more symbolic form of agitprop.18 These poems are, it is claimed, “the sort of occasional pieces one expects from an officially sanctioned poet” (Meyer-Lee), or “appropriate poems on contemporary events, directly expressive of royal policies” (Pearsall), or “public poems that were probably commissioned by the King” (Perkins), while Hoccleve is, by inference, variously labeled “an acknowledged quasi-official writer of verse on political occasions” (Seymour), “an unofficial laureate poet for the Lancastrian regime” (Knapp), “a quasi-laureate” (Meyer-Lee), “a spokesman for official policy” (Simpson), or someone who attained “an official or ‘laureate’ status as publicist or celebrator of Lancastrian values and activities” (Strohm).19

These formulations are important not only because they provide the literary-historical framework on which broader accounts of Hoccleve’s literary career are predicated, but also because they summarize a series of assumptions and expectations that influence how his work is read. In this circular argument, in which Hoccleve’s supposed role and the supposed nature of his poetry are assumed simultaneously, each reciprocally confirming the other, Hoccleve’s verse is purportedly composed to order for a particular event or purpose and thus is to some degree officialized and made to participate in royal self-representation. Or if not a part of such royal ceremonial, it disseminates the Crown’s own priorities, implying that poetry in English could in the early fifteenth century play a part in the purposeful and organized circulation of material, material intended to eclipse and replace unwelcome alternative accounts or to preemptively deflect criticism. Yet in the categorizations of Hoccleve’s role in 1413–1415 cited above, one can see a certain amount of equivocation. The absence of documentary corroboration to show that Hoccleve was rewarded (either financially or by way of formal status or title), and the lack of codicological and textual evidence for the public distribution of these poems, engenders a degree of caution, rendering Hoccleve merely quasi- or un-official, if an unofficial laureate is not in fact a contradiction in terms.

Just as Hoccleve’s status as official poet does not fully convince, so too the poems themselves are not straightforward examples of public versifying. It is notable, most significantly, that all of these poems are anti-occasional. The homage balade and the paired Garter balades have elaborate and difficult rhyme schemes and hence are formally deferential, fit for a king, as one might expect if they were presented or performed on a public occasion. Yet in their content they do not seek to reproduce or commemorate elements of the public display that defined the ceremonies by which Hoccleve dates their moment of composition and the status of their addressees. The homage ceremony, for example, must have been a striking occasion, combining a declaration of willingness, the clasping together of hands, a kiss, a promise of fealty, and a solemn oath. Usually forming part of coronation ritual, in March 1413 this ceremony, in unprecedented fashion, took place before the coronation because the lords spiritual and temporal were already gathered at Westminster awaiting the resumption of the parliament that had been suspended during Henry IV’s final illness.20

Hoccleve’s balade, however, does not commemorate this ceremony of allegiance. In the first stanza, Hoccleve does acknowledge that Henry’s accession has on this day changed their relationship. Henry’s kingship now makes Hoccleve “lige to your souereyntee” (7): Hoccleve is now subject as well as client, and Henry is now king as well as patron. But in the middle three stanzas Hoccleve moves on to plain imperatives, directing Henry toward self-governance and virtue. He emphasizes the new king’s duties to protect his subjects, defend the rights of the church, and defend the faith from heresy. Whereas the lords on this day offered loyalty and fidelity, Hoccleve offers “[g]ood wil” (38) but most of all presents Henry with reminders of his new responsibilities and duties. He points out Henry’s obligations—“Yee ther to bownde been of duetee; / Your office it is now” (28–29)—on the day on which Henry’s lords offer him their submission and allegiance. The balade may have been written on the occasion of the homage ceremony, but it is not a poem written for or about this ceremony.

More significantly, the balade mentioning Richard’s reinterment postdates the occasion to which it and its heading refer (“Ceste balade ensuyante feust faite tost apres [… ]”) and addresses not the king but senior ecclesiastics. This ceremonial occasion is not sufficient in its own right, but appears as a prelude by which other actions are invited. The balade presents itself not as advice or complaint, but as an acknowledgment of fault made in the first-person plural on behalf of a group. Hoccleve writes as “we” (5) and “us” (6) who have strayed into heresy. But, the balade argues, both the “reuerent goostly fadres” (17), whom Hoccleve apostrophizes, and “we, your sones” (17), their spiritual dependents on whose behalf Hoccleve speaks, should thank God for the provision of a king who fights heterodoxy. Yet as well as thanking God for such a king, the balade raises the prospect, hypothetically, of a king who himself might be a heretic, who believes in “þat wrong opinioun” (28) and who would hence pervert the true faith. Nevertheless, Hoccleve reassures us, Henry V is not such a king, and in fact his reburial of Richard demonstrates his benevolence. The balade implicitly invites further proof that Henry is not the hypothesized heretic king, that he will act as the church’s champion just as he as acted authoritatively to rebury Richard with great solemnity at Westminster.

In similar fashion, the pair of Garter balades convert Garter ritual and pageantry into a new ideal of heresy suppression in both larger semantic units and small verbal detail.21 Henry must hold up Christ’s banner, and if he does so, God will “stalle” (32) him in glory, this installation superseding his physical installation in his individual stall as Sovereign of the Garter. The Garter Knights present themselves as “foos to shame” (41), which Hoccleve then redefines as the defeat of heresy. Whichever of the knights does not demonstrate anti-heretical zeal in his actions, it is as if “nakid is he” (4), despite his other honors and status. The Order’s rich mantles and collars are insignificant and as if nonexistent if the Garter Knights do not overcome Christ’s heretical foes. Once again, it is not so much that the balade was written for the occasion its heading specifies, but that the occasion is redirected toward other purposes.

In the case of the Oldcastle poem, the disparity between the king’s immediate priorities and the subject matter of Hoccleve’s poetry is even more marked. This poem does not concern itself with polemic about the immediate events of midsummer 1415, whether that might be Henry’s impending French campaign or the uncovering of the plot against the king that led to the execution of one of Henry’s closest friends, Henry, third Baron Scrope of Masham, alongside his co-conspirators on August 6.22 It is instead topical on a larger scale, spanning Oldcastle’s trial in the summer of 1413, his escape from prison in October of that year, and the rebellion to which his name became attached in January 1414, after which Oldcastle was both pursued and intermittently offered pardon if he gave himself up.23 It may also tacitly represent Hoccleve’s response to the execution of the heresiarch Jan Hus at the Council of Constance on July 6, 1415. Each poem moves decisively away from a discrete instance of royal agency, whether this be ceremonial, military, or punitive, toward a reiteration of the overarching responsibilities of a king and his knights to act as defenders of the faith. Hoccleve is most concerned to argue that heresy is a constant danger and that the most important duty of the king and his knights is to obey and protect Holy Church. They must defend orthodoxy, eradicate heresy, and protect the rights of the church from any oppression.

Writing for or Writing to the King?

These poems’ anti-occasional nature makes it unlikely that the descriptions quoted above, delineating both Hoccleve’s specific status and the place and purpose of court poetry during the reigns of the first two Lancastrian kings, are adequate or accurate. Such equivocating labels expose the distortions that occur when literary history attempts to describe the specificities and innovations of Hoccleve’s body of works by approximating modern terms and concepts. Some of the categorizations listed above are borrowed from the field of contemporary public relations (publicist, spokesman). So too is the assumption that certain speakers and the texts they produce are officialized by royal authority, though the mechanism by which such authorization occurs is not made clear. Equally anachronistic is the suggestion that Hoccleve is a kind of proto-poet laureate. Presumably such laureation would be in the more modern sense of a poet appointed as an officer of the royal household rather than as a poet worthy of laureation by the Muses, given that, as Robert J. Meyer-Lee has recently shown, Hoccleve stands apart from Lydgatean laureate poetics as expressed in “poetry which self-consciously presents itself as an object of high culture.”24

Nevertheless, each of these categorizations responds to very real changes occurring in the first quarter of the fifteenth century in the intended and actual audiences of English poetry, especially political poetry discussing the theory and practice of kingship. Lancastrian court poetry, to an unprecedented degree and manner, acknowledged and confirmed “a direct and personal relationship between poet and ruler.”25 Whereas prior generations addressed the king or prince on matters of governance in imagination rather than actuality, the biographies of Henry Scogan and John Gower, along with Hoccleve and John Lydgate, indicate that their addresses to royal readers could not simply be fictive or apostrophic, but rather had the potential to be actual and authentic.26 English verse was now reckoned as a fit medium through which to address kings and princes on matters of kingship and governance by those who were personally known to them. It is tempting to see this direct address as a form of propaganda and to see Hoccleve’s supposedly occasional poems as a key example of this new trend. Yet if these texts were not occasional poems intended as propaganda, then their mode (both second-person address and third-person reference to the king) and their subject matter (the duty of secular power to defend the faith) require alternative explanations.

Rather than being royal propaganda, they are more closely aligned with clerical appeals to Henry V to act against Lollard heretics. The Lancastrian reaction to heresy was intermittent, ambivalent, and cautious. Although the Crown did cooperate with the church in the burning of heretics from 1401, nonetheless its anti-heresy measures were sporadic and short lived.27 Oldcastle’s trial and escape in the summer and autumn of 1413 provide the best example of such royal hesitation in the prosecution of heretics.28 Despite evidence of his active heresy dating from 1410 onward, Oldcastle had continued to receive royal favor. As evidence of his involvement with Lollardy accumulated in the spring and summer of 1413, Oldcastle’s relationship with the king resulted in efforts to prosecute him proceeding slowly and cautiously. Henry himself spent much time in conversation with Oldcastle, intending to persuade him toward orthodoxy. After his sentencing, the king obtained a stay of execution, during which time Oldcastle escaped. Thus despite Henry V’s later reputation as a zealous defender of orthodoxy, in the first years of his reign clerical voices sought opportunities, both direct and indirect, to encourage more decisive action against heresy.29 Ian Forrest has shown that Archbishop Arundel used mandates to his clergy for prayers and processions as an “indirect means” of encouraging Henry to resist Lollardy more energetically in 1413 and early 1414.30 When he wrote to summon the clergy of the province of Canterbury to convocation in autumn 1413, Arundel emphasized that the church could not act to suppress Lollardy without the support of the king.31 Arundel’s strategy was double-edged, both reassuring his clergy that royal assistance was being sought but also appealing to the king by tactful indirection. Hoccleve’s balades share this quality of tact and strategy, carefully but determinedly first capturing Henry’s attention and then turning it toward the ongoing and urgent defense of the faith.32 Like Arundel’s mandates and summons to his clergy, the balade written soon after Richard II’s reinterment apostrophizes the higher clergy, but its references to the king constitute a similar sort of sideways glance, inviting further royal action.

The beginning of Henry V’s reign was therefore not a high-water mark of propaganda and royal self-representation, but rather a time when many different speakers, most especially the church, sought to harness the royal power necessary to protect and advance their own interests. In the aftermath of the deposition of Richard II, Henry IV’s reign was, as James Simpson argues, “a moment in which a variety of institutional jurisdictions made powerful claims for a contract with the king.” 33 Royal authority was redefined not as absolute power but as an interdependent and mutually reliant relationship between a sovereign and his subjects. The start of Henry’s son’s reign likewise offered new opportunities to reconstitute royal authority. Most significantly, the church sought to harness and reshape definitions of kingship, prioritizing defense of the faith against heresy and obedience to ecclesiastical authority. In the spring of 1413, for example, as Henry IV’s final illness made the prospect of a new sovereign imminent, the convocation of Canterbury clergy was opened and then prorogued. The opening sermon was given by Richard Godmersham, Benedictine monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, on the theme “Love the light of wisdom, all ye that bear rule over peoples” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:23).34 The text of the sermon does not survive, and we cannot know how Godmersham expounded upon his theme, but it seems likely that (as with Arundel’s mandates and summons) this convocation sermon was aimed not only at its immediate audience, but also at others who might be told indirectly about its content. Its circumstances strongly suggest that the convocation intended not simply complaint against or criticism of a dying sovereign, but rather offered their future monarch a version of royal prudence grounded on the king’s role as defender of the faith and obedient servant of the church.

Taking account of ecclesiastical as well as political discourse in this period allows us to reposition not only Hoccleve’s sequence of balades, but also his voice, his identity, and the authority with which he addressed the king. As with the mandates, summons, and sermon quoted above, Hoccleve sought to harness royal power in the defense of orthodoxy. His is a clerical, moral voice speaking to royal authority on behalf of orthodoxy and the church rather than disseminating a predetermined representation of Lancastrian sovereignty. Hoccleve participates in and contributes to the continuous negotiation of the relationship between church and Crown and between the ecclesiastical and secular domains.

The Remonstrance and Its Sources

Hoccleve’s adoption of this clerical, moral voice can be seen most fully in the Remonstrance or Address to Sir John Oldcastle. The poem is divided into two parts, the first apostrophizing the fugitive Oldcastle and the second addressing the Lollard heretics who have supposedly led Oldcastle astray. The tone of the poem is polemical, reproducing and manipulating stereotypes of gender and social status in defense of orthodoxy.35 Its rhetorical histrionics, its laments over Oldcastle’s errors and disgrace, and its derisive summaries and rebuttals of Lollard belief associate it with the poetic exuberance and invention of medieval English verse-satire, most closely the anonymous poem beginning “Lo, he that can be Cristes clerc” (DIMEV 3145). As many readers have pointed out, the Remonstrance cannot literally be meant for the attention of Oldcastle or his fellow heretics. Its apostrophes are rhetorical, a performance for other readers to witness fictively. Yet as with the balades for Henry V, to call the Remonstrance propaganda is both to make assumptions about its wider circulation far beyond the evidence offered by the single surviving manuscript and to fail to take account of this poem’s complex circumstances regarding its fictional, implied, intended, and historical audiences. This is clear if we consider the Remonstrance’s citations and glosses. Alongside his rhetorical and polemic strategies, Hoccleve also co-opts the authority of patristic quotation and examples from ecclesiastical history. Though the poem suggests reading matter for Oldcastle (the story of Lancelot, the sieges of Troy and Thebes) that should take the place of heterodox doctrinal and ecclesiological speculation, Hoccleve nonetheless presents patristic authority and church history in the first half of the poem that apostrophizes Oldcastle as an individual. Such authorities in the Huntington autograph are accompanied either by the full source quotation or its location in Latin marginal glosses.

Some of this material is taken from well-known works of basic doctrinal instruction and exhortation. The first is from Fulgentius’s De fide ad Petrum (a text attributed to Augustine in the Middle Ages), a doctrinal guidebook written to aid a pilgrim in the maintenance of true faith and the avoidance of heresy. Hoccleve quotes from the second half of the work, which reiterates, in a series of statements, what the orthodox Christian must firmly believe and never doubt (firmissime tene et nullatenus dubites … ).36 Oldcastle must be in no doubt that heresy will result in his soul’s damnation, notwithstanding baptism, alms-giving, or martyrdom (33–44). Likewise, Hoccleve takes the imagery that illustrates confession’s necessary part in salvation from the pseudo-Augustinian Visitatio infirmorum, a widely known ars moriendi treatise.37 The soul is a stone that must be prepared for its place in the wall of the heavenly city by the hammer blows of confession and penance (89–96). In both cases, Hoccleve cites the Augustinian authority of doctrinal works that devote themselves to the salvation of the laity to underscore the spiritual peril to which Oldcastle’s heresy exposes him. Elsewhere in the poem, Hoccleve draws on the history of the early church, especially notable figures who provide model instances of the relationship between ecclesiastical and imperial power and between spiritual and temporal jurisdictions. The sixth-century Emperor Justinian is cited both as lawgiver and as example. From the beginning of Justinian’s Codex Hoccleve cites Marcian’s imperial decree that neither the clergy nor the laity should debate the faith in public (185–192).38 Justinian also appears later in the poem as an exemplary figure who approved of gifts of temporalities to the church (433–438). The fourth-century emperor Theodosius is cited as a model of obedience to the church (51–60) who, following his tyrannical slaughter of both guilty and innocent in the Thessaloniki massacre, submitted to the rebukes of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and obeyed the bishop’s calls for repentance. Hoccleve also apostrophizes Constantine as a figure not only obedient to the church but also an emperor who honored and respected sacerdotal authority (217–232). He cites part of Constantine’s ingenious speech to the bishops assembled at the Council of Nicaea, who were distracted by petty squabbles and complaints from addressing the Arian heresy, the true purpose of the Council. Constantine refused to inspect any of the prelates’ petitions, instead restricting the judgment of priests to God alone. The emperor tells the bishops that neither he nor any layman can judge or correct the behavior of priests, who have been provided by God as gods for the laity.

Hoccleve names his source for his account of Theodosius as Book Nine of the sixth-century Epiphanius-Cassiodorus Historiae ecclesiasticae tripartitae in his marginal gloss, also giving in Latin the opening words of a passage as a finding aid.39 To locate the source of the Constantine material, he provides verbatim in the margin an excerpt from the emperor’s words to the bishops.40 From the Latin quoted, however, his source for both is Rufinus’s continuation (written AD 402) of Eusebius’s Historia ecclesiastica.41 Hoccleve draws on the authority not only of the history of the early church but also of well-known and influential monuments of ecclesiastical historiography. Heresy not only imperils the soul of the individual heretic, but also threatens to alter existing relationships between secular and spiritual power and thus requires a defense by means of exemplary and foundational church history. Such examples are in the Remonstrance ostensibly presented to the absent Oldcastle and his fellow Lollards to argue that Lollardy should not presume to alter doctrine and reform the church, because spiritual authority surpasses all temporal authority. Just as the sun’s light is more powerful than that of the moon, so “a popes auctoritee” exceeds a “kynges might” (315–316).

Yet Hoccleve’s reasoning here not only divides and ranks the lay and clerical spheres, but also presents a model of imperial authority defined by its relationship to the church. Indeed, immediately after his address to Constantine, Hoccleve offers thanks that Henry V himself follows in the footsteps of this emperor, the archetype of a ruler obedient to the church and famous for supposedly endowing the church with profitable landed estates. Here in the Remonstrance Hoccleve offers up the model of temporal rulers defined by their obedience to and protection of the church, just as he had earlier done in the first of the Garter balades. The first Garter poem invokes Henry as heir to Justinian’s devout concern for the health of the Christian faith and as the image and equal of Constantine in his love of and obedience to Holy Church (1–4, 9–12). Hoccleve positions the king not as a military or chivalric figure (such as the Order of the Garter’s patron saint, St. George, whose feast day Henry had raised to a greater double feast in June 1413), but as an imperial defender of faith, characterized by obedience and subordination to ecclesiastical authority.42

If Hoccleve were a convincing poet laureate, and these works were credible examples of sponsored or occasional poetry, it would be easy to see his choice of these figures as propaganda, disseminating Henry’s preferred self-representation. Henry’s reputation would certainly coalesce around this archetype later during his reign and posthumously.43 Yet in the first years of his reign, such examples were not part of royal symbolism but were cited by clerical voices to appeal to Henry for action against heresy while simultaneously resisting unwelcome reform of or encroachment on the church’s privileges. John Scattergood has drawn attention to a group of English sermons by an unknown author, one of which is likely to have been preached in Henry’s presence on January 6, 1414, just before the Lollard uprising.44 This sermon argues that the laity should not be involved in spiritual matters that should remain the province of the clerical estate. Another undated sermon in the group reminds a lay audience of the “excellens of presthod,” emphasizing that it is prelates who should punish deficient priests and, if they are negligent in doing this, then “our soveragne lord” will command his bishops to take action.45 The sermon’s author laments the fact that priesthood is constantly dishonored. The preacher calls out to Constantine, demanding to know what has become of such obedient care of the church: “Haa, good Lord, Emperour Constantine, where is by-com þi pite and honour, þat þou somtyme had vppon Cristes churche? [… ] I pray God send þe an eyre þat wold follow þi steppes.”46 The author of these sermons is troubled by lay criticism of the clergy, conscious of clerical dereliction and the need for reform, anxious for action not only against heresy but also anticlericalism, and yet fearful of externally imposed reform or disendowment.47 Figures such as Constantine (as invoked in the undated sermon that positions the sovereign as imagined if not actual audience) provide a resolution of these conflicting impulses, a pattern for church reform that nonetheless curbs royal action to that which the church itself desires.48

Hoccleve and the “Steppes Clergial”

Hoccleve’s citation of Constantine, Theodosius, and similar figures places him alongside such ecclesiastical voices, seeking both to encourage royal action and yet to determine the limits of such intervention, sometimes directly and sometimes via indirect or imagined communication. The Remonstrance, amid its several other impulses, speaks not for the king but to the king, even though Hoccleve acknowledges that Henry too is absent, beginning his military adventure in France. So despite his proximity to the Crown, it is not his status as royal clerk and client that defines Hoccleve’s identity, both in terms of his biography and the subject-position from which he writes. His is not the voice of a prince-pleaser, propagandist, or proto-laureate, but rather a clerical voice, not only in its administrative sense but also partly ecclesiastic, if not strictly sacerdotal. Hoccleve tells us in the Regiment that he had intended to be a priest if he had been promoted to a benefice, suggesting he was already in minor orders, but that none had been forthcoming, and so he had married (1447–1453).

Yet Hoccleve’s life as a married Privy Seal clerk and his commitment to vernacular poetry did not dissociate him entirely from the clerical estate. His surviving corpus bears the traces of personal devotion and pastoral initiative, not only in his choice of works for translation but also in the number of lyrics in praise of the Virgin and the Trinity. He also retained a desire to communicate and embody clerical doctrine and sentence. As the Remonstrance’s citations and glosses indicate, Hoccleve versifies Augustinian doctrine and ecclesiastical history, ostensibly for Oldcastle and his fellow Lollards, but also for his absent king and for whoever else might have read the poem. Rather than seeing him as a royal spokesman, we should see in Hoccleve’s verse a poetic, self-defined equivalent of the license given to preachers, confessors, and suppliants, a license to direct royal attention regarding the duties and obligations of kingship, to transmit and reiterate doctrine and sentence, and to presume to address (and to be seen to presume to address) an actual or future sovereign’s conscience and the state of his soul. Gower, naming his own role in addressing Henry IV in the explicit to his short English poem “In Praise of Peace” (circa 1401), called this pose and voice that of the “humilis orator.”49

Hoccleve’s political and topical poetry likewise takes advantage of new possibilities of actual and imagined royal readership, invited by Henry V’s own interest in vernacular verse and his family’s longer-standing patronage of literature, most especially of Gower’s Confessio Amantis.50 English verse now offered a medium by which a sovereign’s attention, simultaneously in actuality and imaginatively, might be speculatively harnessed, shaped, and advised. Hoccleve’s verse is neither sponsored nor officialized by the Lancastrian Crown. Rather it makes use of flickerings of intermittent interest and engagement. In the Regiment, Hoccleve extends the prince and his circle’s interest in Chaucer and his works, and their citation of Aristotle’s advice to Alexander (in Henry Beaufort’s opening speech to parliament in January 1410), in order to turn the prince’s attention not only to material from his three named sources, but also, via the poem’s glosses and citations, to scripture, especially those books associated with King Solomon, and to canon law in the form of Gratian’s Decretum.51 Alongside Hoccleve’s autobiographical and petitionary strategies, the interplay between the framing prologue and the text of the Regiment proper, and the interplay between individual exempla and other elements of the poem, the Regiment also offers a synthesis of other learned materials and discourses, often at the beginning of sections before Hoccleve turns to exemplary narrative. To be sure, Hoccleve is no great scholar: he sometimes mis-cites or mis-attributes his citations and glosses, while many of his sententiae are taken from florilegia such as the Liber scintillarum. Yet, as well as the Regiment being a “kynges draght” (2120) informed by Hoccleve’s working knowledge of royal governance gained in the Privy Seal, parts of this king’s draft are also abstract, theoretical, and would-be learned, as the range of material traced in Charles Blyth’s editorial apparatus demonstrates.

As Hoccleve admits in his humility topos, his desire is not to kiss the footsteps of classical poets, but, reworking Chaucer’s Troilus envoy, he fears for his ability to match the “steppes clergial” (2150) of his three named sources. This is in fact such a change of step that it represents a step-change, somewhat separate from the broader pattern of fifteenth-century assimilation of Chaucer’s prior innovations. Lydgate explores and extends Chaucerian genres, especially narratives of pre-Christian history and courtly love-vision. Hoccleve (though of course influenced and inspired by Chaucer’s innovations of form, of textual subjectivity, and of framed narratives and narratives in series, and by the possibilities of monologue and dialogue) avoids these genres in favor of versified translation (both of entire works and small-scale inclusions and quotations), topical comment, exempla, and devotional lyric.52 It is the topical, the exemplary, and the pastoral cure of souls (both his own soul and the souls of others) to which he remains committed, albeit in muted, melancholic, and idiosyncratic fashion, in the Series.53

Hoccleve’s dedication to the “steppes clergial” constitutes an important part not only of his own writing and self-image but also of his likely readership. Alongside Hoccleve’s contacts with royal and aristocratic patrons, fellow administrators, and citizens of London, we should remember his links with the clerical estate, especially those who played a part in the spiritual life of the royal household and those ecclesiastics involved in the business of government. Here I echo Vincent Gillespie’s suggestion that Hoccleve’s poems “can be read in the light of the changing domestic ecclesiastical mood, with which he seems to have been closely in touch, perhaps through professional circles.”54 Keepers of the Privy Seal such as Nicholas Bubwith and Thomas Langley became prelates as their administrative careers advanced. Hoccleve addresses a witty and familiar balade to Langley when chancellor, naming the bishop as his spiritual father and his own “good lord” (10) and positioning himself as Langley’s “seruant” (3) and “clerc” (18).55 Hoccleve asks for Langley’s help in gaining payment of his delayed annuity, asking Langley to treat him not as a more distant “stepchyld” (23) but as a spiritual son. If he existed, we might also consider the unnamed “deuout man” (Dialogue, 235) who purportedly encouraged Hoccleve to translate Lerne to Dye, the second chapter of the second book of Heinrich Suso’s Horologium sapientiae. Even those whose riotous behavior he jokes about in the Male Regle, Prentys and Arundel, were not fellow members of the Privy Seal but rather clerks of the Chapel Royal, later promoted to dean of St. Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, and dean of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, respectively.56 The Male Regle itself appears adapted into a shorter balade in one of the administrative registers of Canterbury Cathedral.57 Hoccleve’s audience may well in part have come from within the large network of secular and regular clergy who were connected to the royal household, who participated in royal council and administration, or whose ecclesiastical institutions attracted royal patronage. Such men might also usefully be identified as the implied audience of at least some part of Hoccleve’s oeuvre, united by their shared knowledge of scripture, Bible commentary, pastoralia, ecclesiastical history, and canon law, to name but a little of the learning indicated in Hoccleve’s translations, citations, and glosses. Many of these men participated in the councils of Pisa and Constance and thus may have seen in Hoccleve’s allusions to the ecumenical councils of the early church (many of which provided exemplary instances of imperial and ecclesiastical cooperation in response to heterodoxy) a mirror of their own ecclesiastical reforms.

Looking for this more unfamiliar Hoccleve makes clear the need for a model of late medieval literary patronage that encompasses possibilities beyond commission, sponsorship, and propaganda. Direct address or dedication to royal or noble patrons might be first speculative then real, whereas royal readership might be not only actual, but also imagined and simultaneously overseen by others, perhaps most especially by coterie readerships of well-informed observers, not only members of government bureaucracy but also ecclesiastics who counseled, confessed, and served the familia regis, as well as defending orthodoxy and the institutional church.58 In light of this likely stratification of readership and circulation, royal interests and self-interest should not be seen to subsume all other elements of Hoccleve’s works, nor be the criteria against which their purposes are defined or their success or failure measured. Hoccleve, like other ecclesiastics and clerics, sought to make use of royal and aristocratic interests and fashions, whether they were formal, bibliographic, occasional, or thematic, to harness and direct secular power toward related but not identical priorities. The facts of Hoccleve’s writing in verse, or writing in English, or his citations of Chaucer both explicit and implicit, were not ends in themselves but means. Rather than writing for or on behalf of royal authority, royal authority itself was the subject of interest for Hoccleve’s audience. Hoccleve was not an official poet or proto-laureate, but rather, at least in some parts of his diverse literary career, a clerical commentator, occupying in verse a position analogous to that of a preacher, prayer-giver, adviser, or educator. This is a less familiar Hoccleve to us at present, but one who is ripe for future research.


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(1) For the chronology of Hoccleve’s life and works, see J. A. Burrow, Thomas Hoccleve, Authors of the Middle Ages: English Writers of the Late Middle Ages 4 (Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1994).

(2) Thomas Hoccleve, Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall and I. Gollancz, rev. Jerome Mitchell and A. I. Doyle, Early English Text Society Extra Series 61 and 73 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970); Thomas Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes, ed. Charles R. Blyth (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999).

(3) J. A. Burrow, “Autobiographical Poetry in the Middle Ages: The Case of Thomas Hoccleve,” Proceedings of the British Academy 68 (1983): 389–412; Sarah Tolmie, “The Professional: Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 341–373.

(4) David Lawton, “Dullness and the Fifteenth Century,” English Literary History 54 (1987): 761–799, esp. 766–767; Sarah Tolmie, “The Priue Scilence of Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 281–309.

(5) Larry Scanlon, Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 299–322; Derek Pearsall, “Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes: The Poetics of Royal Self-Representation,” Speculum 69 (1994): 386–410; James Simpson, “Nobody’s Man: Thomas Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes,” in London and Europe in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Julia Boffey and Pamela King, Westfield Publications in Medieval Studies 9 (London: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, 1995), 149–180; Nicholas Perkins, Hoccleve’s “Regiment of Princes”: Counsel and Constraint (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2001); R. F. Yeager, “Death Is a Lady: The Regiment of Princes as Gendered Political Commentary,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 26 (2004): 147–193.

(6) J. A. Burrow, “Hoccleve’s Series: Experience and Books,” in Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays, ed. Robert F. Yeager (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1984), 259–273.

(7) Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue, ed. J. A. Burrow, Early English Text Society Original Series 313 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), lv–lxiii; Linne R. Mooney, “Some New Light on Thomas Hoccleve,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 293–340, esp. 301–307.

(8) Thomas Hoccleve: A Facsimile of the Autograph Verse Manuscripts: Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino (California), MSS HM 111 and HM 744;University Library, Durham (England), MS Cosin V. III. 9, intro. by J. A. Burrow and A. I. Doyle, Early English Text Society Special Series 19 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Linne R. Mooney, “A Holograph Copy of Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 263–296.

(11) Perkins, Hoccleve’s “Regiment”; Sebastian James Langdell, “‘What World Is This? How Vndirstande Am I?’: A Reappraisal of Poetic Authority in Thomas Hoccleve’s Series,” Medium Ævum 78, no. 2 (2009): 281–299; David Watt, The Making of Hoccleve’s “Series, Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies (Liverpool UK: Liverpool University Press, 2013).

(15) W. A. Davenport, “Thomas Hoccleve’s La Male Regle and Oxymoron,” English Studies 82 (2001): 497–506; Jennifer Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), chap. 5; Stephanie A. V. G. Kamath, Authorship and First-Person Allegory in Late Medieval France and England (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2012), chap. 3.

(16) Hoccleve, Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems, pt. I, items 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8 (pp. 8–24, 39–42, 47–48).

(17) Thomas Hoccleve: A Facsimile, MS HM 111, items 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8.

(18) Paul Strohm, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399–1422 (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 119–124.

(19) Robert J. Meyer-Lee, Poets and Power from Chaucer to Wyatt (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 90–91; Pearsall, “Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes,” 394; Perkins, Hoccleve’s “Regiment”, 194; Selections from Hoccleve, ed. M. C. Seymour (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), xiii; Ethan Knapp, “Thomas Hoccleve,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature, 1100 to 1500, ed. Larry Scanlon (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 191–204, esp. 196; James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution (1350–1547), vol. 2 of The Oxford English Literary History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 250; Paul Strohm, “Hoccleve, Lydgate and the Lancastrian Court,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 640–661, esp. 640.

(20) Christopher Allmand, Henry V (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1997), 64.

(21) Richard Barber likewise argues that Hoccleve seeks to enlarge the role of the Garter Knights “to the active defence of religion, and to the suppression of heresy” in Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Company of the Garter (London: Allen Lane, 2013), 472. I am grateful to Professor Chris Given-Wilson for this reference. See also Hugh E. L. Collins, The Order of the Garter, 1348–1461: Chivalry and Politics in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 264.

(22) T. B. Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415 (Gloucester, UK: Alan Sutton, 1988).

(23) Maureen Jurkowski, “Henry V’s Suppression of the Oldcastle Revolt,” in Henry V: New Interpretations, ed. Gwilym Dodd (Woodbridge, UK: York Medieval Press, 2013), 103–129.

(26) David Matthews, Writing to the King: Nation, Kingship, and Literature in England, 1250–1350 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010). For Scogan, see The Chaucerian Apocrypha: A Selection, ed. Kathleen Forni (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005), 148–152; and Robert Epstein, “Chaucer’s Scogan and Scogan’s Chaucer,” Studies in Philology 96 (1999): 1–21, esp. 13. For Gower, see The Minor Latin Works, ed. and trans. R. F. Yeager, with In Praise of Peace, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005), 107–118. For Lydgate, see Nicholas Perkins, “Representing Advice in Lydgate,” in The Lancastrian Court: Proceedings of the 2001 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. Jenny Stratford (Donington, UK: Shaun Tyas, 2003), 173–191.

(27) Ian Forrest, The Detection of Heresy in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43, 46.

(29) Margaret Aston, Faith and Fire: Popular and Unpopular Religion, 1350–1600 (London: Hambledon, 1993), 78–79.

(31) Records of Convocation, IV: Canterbury (1377–1414), ed. Gerald Bray (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005–6), 411–412.

(32) Compare Daniel Wakelin’s comments on Hoccleve’s strategies in his chapter “Hoccleve and Lydgate,” in A Companion to Medieval Poetry, ed. Corinne Saunders (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 557–574, esp. 561–564.

(34) Records of Convocation, XIX: Introduction, ed. Gerald Bray (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006), 86.

(35) Helen Barr, Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), chap. 1; Andrew Cole, Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), chap. 5; John Scattergood, “Erasing Oldcastle: Some Literary Reactions to the Lollard Rising of 1414,” in Heresy and Orthodoxy in Early English Literature, 1350–1680, ed. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and John Flood (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), 49–74.

(36) Chapter 82. See Sancti Fulgentii Episcopi Ruspensis Opera, ed. J. Fraipont, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 91A (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1968), 757.

(37) ProQuest Information and Learning Company, Patrologia Latina Database, vol. 40, col. 1148 (available at

(38) Codex Justinianus, I. I. 4.

(39) Hoccleve, Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems, 10. Hoccleve locates his source as “historia tripartitia, libro ix” and cites a passage beginning “Cum apud Thesolonicam ciuitatem.”

(41) Book 10, chap. 2 and Book 11, chap. 18 and 19. See Eusebius Werke 2.2 Die Kirchengeschichte, ed. Eduard Schwartz and Theodor Mommsen (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999), 961 and 1022–1024.

(43) See, for example, “Soteltes at the Coronation Banquet of Henry VI,” in John Lydgate: Mummings and Entertainments, ed. Claire Sponsler (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2010), 82, lines 9–16; Peter Heath, Church and Realm, 1272–1461: Conflict and Collaboration in an Age of Crisis (London: Fontana, 1988), chap. 9.

(44) Scattergood, “Erasing Oldcastle,” 62; Middle English Sermons Edited from British Museum MS Royal 18 B XXIII, ed. Woodburn O. Ross, Early English Text Society Original Series 209 (London: Oxford University Press, 1940), items 39–43 (pp. 220–288).

(45) Middle English Sermons, 280–283 (quoting from 280 and 282).

(47) Similar maneuvers can be found in a 1414 letter to Henry V written by the University of Oxford, containing articles for the reform of the church drawn up on the king’s orders. In its prefatory address, the university invoked for Henry the examples of Theodosius, Marcian (whose decree against public debating of the faith Hoccleve cites from the Codex Justinianus), and Constantine. See Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae… , ed. David Wilkins (London: 1737), 3:360; Aston, Faith and Fire, 79.

(48) Similar strategies were adopted by Lydgate and by the author of the Digby political poems. See Robert J. Meyer-Lee, “The Emergence of the Literary in John Lydate’s Life of Our Lady,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 109 (2010): 322–348; and Natalie Calder, “‘The Puple Is Godes, and Not Ȝoures’: Lancastrian Orthodoxy in the Digby Lyrics,” Review of English Studies 65, no. 270 (2014): 403–420, doi:10.1093/res/hgt090.

(50) Jeanne E. Krochalis, “The Books and Reading of Henry V and His Circle,” Chaucer Review 23 (1988): 50–77; Lynn Staley, “Gower, Richard II, Henry of Derby, and the Business of Making Culture,” Speculum 75 (2000): 68–96; R. F. Yeager, “Gower’s Lancastrian Affinity: The Iberian Connection,” Viator 35 (2004): 483–515.

(51) “Henry IV: January 1410,” Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275–1504, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, British History Online Premium, (accessed November 23, 2013).

(52) For Chaucer’s influence, see Jerome Mitchell, Thomas Hoccleve: A Study in Early Fifteenth-Century English Poetic (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968), chap. 6; Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1999), chap. 4; Nicholas Perkins, “Haunted Hoccleve? The Regiment of Princes, the Troilean Intertext, and Conversations with the Dead,” Chaucer Review 43 (2008): 103–139.

(53) Kathryn C. Little, Confession and Resistance: Defining the Self in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 112–128; Steven Rozenski Jr, “‘Your Ensaumple and Your Mirour’: Hoccleve’s Amplification of the Imagery and Intimacy of Henry Suso’s Ars Moriendi,” Parergon 25, no. 2 (2008): 1–16; Vincent Gillespie, “Chichele’s Church: Vernacular Theology in England After Thomas Arundel,” in After Arundel: Religious Writing in Fifteenth-Century England, ed. Vincent Gillespie and Kantik Ghosh (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011), 3–42; Robyn Malo, “Penitential Discourse in Hoccleve’s Series,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 277–305; Ashby Kinch, Imago Mortis: Mediating Images of Death in Late Medieval Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2013), chap. 2.

(56) Jenni Nuttall, The Creation of Lancastrian Kingship:Literature, Language and Politics in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 68–69.

(57) David Watt, “Thomas Hoccleve’s La Male Regle in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives,” Opuscula: Short Texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance 2, no. 4 (2012).; Rory G. Critten, “‘Her Heed They Caste Awry’: The Transmission and Reception of Thomas Hoccleve’s Personal Poetry,” Review of English Studies 64, no. (265 (2013): 386–409.