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William Caxton's Godeffroy of Boloyne

Godeffroy of Boloyne is a translation of the first nine books of William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum. William Caxton drew from a previously redacted French version as his source, and published the work in 1481. The chronicle focuses on the feats and accomplishments of the armies of the First Crusade, the conquest of Jerusalem, and the brief rule of Godfrey de Bouillon (the first King of Jerusalem).  

While The Crusades Project focuses primarily on literary reinventions of the crusades, this particular chronicle warrants consideration alongside the other works explored here because of its redactor and printer, William Caxton.  Caxton is famous both for the introduction and popularization of printing in late medieval England, and for his edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.  Godeffroy, his edition of the Morte, and his known printing of crusading indulgences reveal a persistent investment in promoting crusading efforts against the Ottoman Turks. As discussed in the entry on Malory, Caxton may well have inserted the concluding passage in which Lancelot’s knights depart for the Holy Land to fight the Turks (Roland, “Arthur and the Turks”). Caxton’s Godeffroy, in turn, reflects similar anxieties over Ottoman expansion (in addition to revealing late medieval interest in crusading history) in the prologue:
Ffor as it is so, that thystoryagraphes haue wreton many a noble hystorye, as wel in metre as in prose, By whiche thactes & noble fayttes of thauncyent conquerours ben had in remembraunce, and remayne in grete, large / and aourned volumes / and so schal abyde in perpetual memorye, to thentente that glorious Prynces and hye men of noble and vertuouse courage, shold take ensample tempryse werkys leeful and honneste / Fyrst, for goddes quarrell / in mayntenyng oure fayth and the libertees of holy chirche, For the recuperacion of the holy land, whiche our blessyd lord Ihesu Criste hath halowed by his blessyd presence humayne / and by shedyng therin for oure redempcion his precious blood; ffor the releef of such christen men as there dwelle in grete myserye and thraldomm, And also for the defence of theyr Royammes, Londes, Enherytages / and subgettes.  And for thyse causes tendeuoyre theym in theyr noble persones / with alle theyr puyssaunces and power, tadresse and remyse theym in theyr auncyent Fraunchyses and lyberte . . . (1.9-25)
Thenn for thexhortacion of alle Cristen prynces / Lordes / Barons / Knyghtes / Gentilmen / Marchanntes / and all the comyn peple of this noble Royamme, walys & yrlond, I haue emprysed to translate this book of the conquest of Iherusalem out of ffrenssh in to our maternal tongue, to thentente tencourage them by the redyng and heeryng of the merueyllous historyes herin comprysed, and of the holy myracles shewyd that euery man in his partye endeuoyre theym vnto the resistence afore sayd, And recuperacion of the sayd holy londe. (4.20-28).
Caxton repeats these sentiments and advocations at the close of the chronicle as well:
Thus endeth this book Intitled the laste siege and conquest of Iherusalem . . . translated & reduced out of ffrensshe in to englysshe by me symple persone Wylliam Caxton to thende that euery cristen man may be the better encoraged tenterprise warre for the defense of Cristendom, and to recouer the sayd Cyte of Iherusalem in whiche oure blessyd sauyour Ihesu Criste suffred deth for al mankynde, and roose fro deth to lyf / And fro the same holy londe ascended in to heuen.  And also that Cristen peple one vyned in a veray peas / myght empryse to goo theder in pylgremage with stronge honde for to expelle the sarasyns and turkes out of the same that our lord myght be ther seruyd & worshipped of his chosen cristen peple in that holy & blessyd londe in which he was Incarnate, and blissyd it with the presence of his blessyd body whyles he was here in erthe emonge vs / by whiche conquest we myght deserue after this present short and transitorye lyf, the celestial lyf to dwelle in heuen eternally in ioye without ende, Amen / Which book I presente vnto the mooste Cristen kynge, kynge Edward the fourth, humbly whiche book I began in marche, the xij daye and fynysshyd the yere of the regne of our sayd sauerayn lord kyng Edward the fourth . . . (311.23 – 312.10)
In both the prologue and the epilogue, Caxton calls for a crusade, a move in line with a wide array of late medieval literature from France and England. As Dana Cushing observes, however, Caxton chooses his words carefully. For instance, instead of directly calling for a crusade in his conclusion, he articulates the need for such a venture by reflecting upon the union of Christian kingdoms necessary to make such a campaign possible.  Caxton’s closing appeal, then, “appears pious but it has been constructed, perhaps quite consciously, in such a way as to glorify the ideal without committing the King” (Cushing viii).

The central figure of the chronicle, Godfrey de Bouillon, was not only a historical figure but also a legendary one in late medieval culture.  Elevated beyond most other crusaders—even Richard I—he was one of the three Christian Worthies (King Arthur and Charlemagne being the other two). Caxton was deeply invested in the production of works that focused on these particular Worthies. According to William Kuskin:
The Worthies Series begins with Caxton’s review of the Nine Worthies in his 1481 prologue to Godeffroy, and ends with his list of the three editions in his December 1485 prologue to Charles. Printed in July 1485, Caxton’s prologue to Le Morte Darthur both discusses the Nine Worthies and mentions Godeffroy (512).
Kuskin argues that Godeffroy was but one piece of Caxton’s literary campaign to generate support for an anti-Turkish crusade.  He states that the printing of crusading indulgences was a relatively common practice in late fifteenth-century Europe, and that Caxton himself “printed at least nine indulgences in total, six of which were aimed at raising money to aid in defense against Turkish advances in the Mediterranean” (Kuskin 546 n. 22).  He printed an extension of the 1475 Jubilee Indulgence to England in 1476, which sought to raise funds for a crusade against the Turks, and in 1480 — the year of Godeffroy’s publication — Caxton printed three indulgences all calling for “the defense of Rhodes against Turkish incursions” (Kuskin 546 n. 22). This activity reveals that idea of crusading remained culturally current even into the later fifteenth century, nearly four hundred years after the First Crusade.

Caxton was a significant shaper of literary culture in late medieval England, and his works—Godeffroy especially—reveal his considerable investment in matters of crusading, even as the possibilities of launching a successful crusade against the Turks seemed unlikely.  In this way, the anxieties that fuel and inspire the production of Godeffroy align rather closely with many of the crusades romances explored elsewhere in this project.

Caxton, William. Godeffroy of Boloyne or The Siege and Conqueste of Ierusalem. Ed. Mary Noyes Colvin. London: Oxford University Press, EETS 1893.
Cushing, Dana. A Middle English Chronicle of the First Crusade: The Caxton Eracles. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.   
Kuskin, William. “Caxton’s Worthies Series: The Production of Literary Culture.” ELH 66 (1999): 511-551.