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The Kingis Quair and Other Prison Poems: General Introduction


1 On the attribution of The Kingis Quair to James and the related issue of dating the poem, see below, p. 17nn1-2. Linne Mooney has been responsible for the choice of texts and for the edition of The Kingis Quair. Mary-Jo Arn, who joined the project late, contributed the edition of the selections from Fortunes Stabilnes. In general, Mooney has been responsible for the texts, Arn for the commentary, but each has read and made suggestions about the other's work.

2 The Waning of the Middle Ages is the English title to the first translation of Johan Huizenga's 1919 work Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen (trans. Fritz Hopman [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1924]).

3 In fact, because of its link with Boethius, prison literature was generally deemed a philosophical genre even as it was used as a vehicle for love poetry: witness its adaptations by Jean de Meun in the Roman de la Rose or Thomas Usk, himself another prisoner writing in a courtly/Boethian vein, in his monumental lament, The Testament of Love. Jean was one of the more influential translators of Boethius into the vernacular (in his instance French), just as Chaucer was with his English translation.

4 Unless otherwise indicated, this and all subsequent citations of Boethius are to John Walton's translation of 1410 as edited by Mark Science (EETS o.s. 170).

5 Murdac, a prisoner since 1402, was released in 1416, his release having been a greater priority for his father as governor of Scotland than that of the heir to the throne whose liberation would effectively depose him.

6 Rymer, Foedera 10.350. Cloth of gold was woven of finely drawn gold wire, usually woven in one direction while colored silk was used in the other.

7 Ashton, The Fleet: Its River, Prison, and Marriages (New York: Scribner and Welford, 1888), p. 239.
Many readers have noticed that the fifteenth century saw a remarkable flourishing of poems written either in conditions of physical captivity or on the subject of imprisonment. The largest body of this poetry (6,530 lines) is from the pen of Charles of Valois, duke of Orléans, who was captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and not released until 1440, a full twenty-five years later. The longest single poem on the subject, 1,379 lines, is James I of Scotland's The Kingis Quair, purportedly written at the time of his release from an eighteen-year imprisonment in England.1 This volume reflects the wide scope of these "prison poems" by bringing together a new edition of The Kingis Quair, a selection from Charles d'Orléans' Fortunes Stabilnes, a poem by George Ashby, who was imprisoned in London's Fleet prison, and the poems of two other poets, both anonymous, who wrote about physical and/or emotional imprisonment.

In her 1991 article "Chaucerian Prisoners: The Context of The Kingis Quair," Julia Boffey describes different kinds of prisons in Geoffrey Chaucer's writings: "Some prisons feature as simple circumstantial locations, necessary to the functioning of plot, but of no deeper symbolic resonance. . . . Other prisons are purely figurative, concerning ontological states in which human capacity is somehow restricted . . . [and,] frequently, these states of metaphorical imprisonment are connected with the experience of love" (p. 84). Sometimes both kinds of prison are featured, and metaphorically compared, in a single poem. Like Chaucer's knights Palamon and Arcite in The Knight's Tale, James I's circumstances in writing The Kingis Quair combined literal imprisonment with the metaphorical imprisonment of unrequited love - or at least the circumstances of his fictitious narrator did. This ambiguity of real versus fictitious narrators and the real versus metaphorical circumstances of their imprisonment applies as well to the other poems collected in this volume.

Medieval prison poetry was not simply a way of presenting a life story, or part of one, in rhyme. The temptation to read a man's (or woman's) life out of such poetry (in part because the historical facts of the authors' lives are incomplete) has caused many readers to reduce much of this kind of medieval literature to versified biography. But the interplay between art and life was just as vibrant and complex in the Middle Ages as it is today. The three poets in this volume whose identities are known were all imprisoned - that is, literally in prison, though with varying degrees of discomfort. Nevertheless, as artists, each of them used the idea of imprisonment in his own way to create a literary work or works that carried more meaning than just a "this-is-what-I-lived-through" biography or a "see-how-unjustly-I-have-been-treated" complaint.

Prison is a place, but it is also an idea, an idea that has engaged writers and thinkers from the Middle Ages right up to the present because it offers a way of expressing the helplessness we all feel at some point in our lives when we face the troubles of this world. The idea of prison gives us a setting in which to imagine our relationship to the world when we are feeling frustrated, limited, hedged in, stymied. We can then go on to identify the forces that have landed us in this situation (God, fate, political enemies, a lover) and those that can release us. Boethius, author of the highly influential sixth-century Latin work The Consolation of Philosophy (about which more below), was imprisoned physically by the emperor Theodoric, but he was interested in writing a philosophical treatise, not a political tract, so he identified his jailor (his enemy, the one who deprived him of his freedom) as Fortune and his savior as Lady Philosophy herself (who represents man's rational side). The image of Boethius' Fortune constantly turning her wheel to raise some men up and cast others down became a fruitful and productive conceit in the hands of late medieval writers and artists all over Europe.

James shapes his idea of the effects of prison into a story of moral improvement. Indeed, Boffey points to the Christian context of this poem as the principal difference between James' resolution and that of Chaucer's Arcite and Palamon in The Knight's Tale or of his Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde: "The prisoner's liberation here, from the physical confinement which symbolizes his ignorant and ungoverned subjection to the neutral power of fortune, is brought about because he is enabled through his love for another to perceive the beneficence and harmony of God's creation, and eventually to become a functioning part of it" (p. 96). We know that James I was released from English captivity at the point where the work ends, but in his poem he does not even mention it. Instead, he gives us a "sentence" or pronouncement on the meaning of the speaker's experience that includes heartfelt thanks to the "fair castell wall" (line 1331), without which the entire train of events would not have taken place.

Charles employs the idea of prison as a metaphor for the sufferings induced by the God of Love (or the lady, which amounts to the same thing): he calls this place the "Prisoun of Grevous Displesaunce." But he also plays with the idea of Fortune as a tyrannical woman who keeps him immobilized in his search for a way to win his lady's heart. In doing so, he opens up the whole range of ideas handed down by Boethius, who offered the figure of Fortune as the controller of all that happens in human life - and yet she is not ultimately in control, for she is subject to God, just as is Nature. The intellectual game played by poets like Charles or James involves the dramatic irony of presenting a speaker who believes that Fortune is omnipotent, though we know (if we have read Boethius) that she is not. The jailer thus jails himself; he has no one to blame for his "misfortune" but his own lack of vision or understanding. This "foolish narrator" also gives Charles (and many other poets) at times the wherewithal to turn the lover's "tragedy" into comedy, at his own expense.

George Ashby strikes a different note, though he works from many of the same sources. For one thing, he is both bourgeois and urban; the Fleet, where he was incarcerated was a well- known prison in the heart of London. For another, he eschews the subject of love in favor of complaint about the turns of Fortune in his life. In the pilgrimage of this life, he counsels patience as a way to "verrey [true] knowlege" (line 135). At the end of his poem, however, he brings us back to his prison cell ("Pryson propurly ys a sepulture" - line 344), showing us the foul prison of this life: he reminds us that prisoners and sinners are one and the same. In other words, prison, as real as it may seem at the opening of the poem, becomes a significant and extremely serious metaphor for the nature of the world, which makes more urgent his counsel of patience as the only way to endure its pains.

The two remaining poems in this volume are anonymous. The "Complaint of a Prisoner against Fortune" purports to be a lament written by an actual prisoner, but there is no way of establishing the truth of this implicit claim. The author strikes many of the same notes as Ashby does: "Fy on this world; it is but fantasie!" (line 99); "best is this world to sette at nought [account it worthless] / And mekely suffre all adversité" (lines 106-07); and he closes with the same appeal to the Christian God. "The Lufaris Complaynt," as the title suggests, is about lack of success in love. At one time attributed to Chaucer, this poem displays more obvious learning than the previous poem: the narrator compliments Chaucer, cites Boethius, and names such classical gods and heroes as Oedipus, Pluto, Tantalus, and Mars. The poet's use of Boethian ideas linked with the pains of love will sound familiar.

The fifteenth century was, in England, a time of upheaval and crises of many kinds. In 1422 Henry V died, leaving behind an heir only nine months old. The struggles of the regents over who should control the government - and more specifically the ongoing hostilities with France (and how they should be financed) - created chaos at the top and economic distress at all levels of society. In the second half of the century, the so-called Wars of the Roses created a different kind of socio-political chaos. The Black Death returned at intervals to claim significant numbers of lives and to reinforce deep feelings of insecurity about the tenuousness of life. There was agricultural depression. The incomes of the nobility were falling. But none of these problems was new, and listing them may give the reader the impression that there is some justification for the use of the phrase "the waning of the Middle Ages" to describe the fifteenth century.2 Historians these days dispute the idea that the fifteenth century represented some sort of decline in medieval civilization, and recent scholarship has emphasized the religious, social, and cultural vitality of the period. We cannot, therefore, chalk up the apparent emergence of something we call "prison poetry" to some sort of supposed late medieval crime wave or national depression. Prison was a literary trope and a generic marker as much as it was a description of real life. Nor was it intended to induce feelings of misery. On the contrary, in the hands of a good writer it was a vibrant and flexible literary tool for organizing and giving power to the thought of a poet, whether on the vagaries of the pursuit of love, on fortune, on the nature of this world, or on faith in God.3

Literary Context

Most readers of this volume will come to it after studying the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, and all of the writers whose works are compiled here were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Chaucer. James I of Scotland makes the most evident use of his work, especially the part of The Knight's Tale in which Palamon and Arcite see Emelye from their prison window and instantly fall in love with her, but he also makes regular use of lesser echoes and devices that are detailed in the notes to his poem. The lyrics from Charles d'Orléans' poetry included here reflect neither the range nor the depth of Chaucer's influence on the duke, though there is something in the tone of the poet's double ballade on Fortune's stability (a unique idea) that is reminiscent of Troilus' wrong-headed attempts to sort out his problems in Book Four of Troilus and Criseyde. The anonymous "Complaint of a Prisoner against Fortune" was at one time attributed to Chaucer, and it is easy to hear in it echoes of the end of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.

The major literary influence on these poets was not the works of Chaucer, however, but Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius (AD c. 480-524) was a Roman statesman and philosopher. In his De consolatione, he writes of being stripped of his honors and thrown into prison by the emperor Theodoric (who later had him executed). While in prison he is visited by a wondrous lady, whom he discovers is Lady Philosophy. She asks what his problem is (a question he finds impertinent since its answer seems to him transparent) and proceeds to demonstrate to him, in the course of a long dialogue, that if he is true to the wise teachings he has espoused all his life, he will see that his present misfortunes are nothing more than superficial trials. All fortune is good fortune, she says, for what we call bad fortune will either teach us something about the non-essential nature of this world, cause us to change our situation, or spur us to call on God for help. Boethius' work was widely known in the late Middle Ages, and the concepts of the mutability of fortune and of consolation in the face of it are found everywhere, in both literary and non-literary contexts. Boethius' text attracted translators in every period of early English literature: King Alfred translated it in the ninth century; Chaucer followed in the late fourteenth. John Walton (relying heavily on Chaucer's work) provided a fifteenth-century translation, and Queen Elizabeth I herself translated it in the sixteenth.

The big question in the mind of the eponymous character that Boethius creates is written in the form of a prayer in verse:
Oo God, þat all þing rewlest certanlie,
Now onely mannes werk thow hast for3ete.

Why schall fortune turnen vp-so-doun
Thing wiche þat is in thy gouernement,
Thise wicked folk to set in hy renoun,
And dryuen doun þe good [and] innocent[?] (CP 1.m.5.4.7-5.4)4


[good reputation]
The biblical prophet Jeremias expressed the same perennial question in other words: "Why doth the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress and do wickedly?" (Jeremias 12:1). From the point of view of one who believes in the power of Fortune,
Sche . . . of wrecchis ha þ right no pite
Thogh þat þei waile and wepen day and nyght.
Sche skorneþ eke, so wondir hard is sche,
Þe wailynge þat hire-seluen haþ hem dight. (CP 2.m.1.2.1-4)
[wretches (miserable people)]

[also; wondrously]
But Philosophy explains that change is the nature of Fortune, who controls the world (under the all-seeing eye of God). If Fortune ceased to turn her wheel, she would cease to be Fortune. In modern terms, we might say that change is natural; if change ceased (if people did not age, if seeds did not sprout), the result would be not nature, not life, but death. Besides, asks Lady Philosophy on behalf of Fortune, "What wrong haue I the done? / What good of thyne haue I beraft away / Þat was thyn owne?" (2.pr2.1.6-8). We come into this world as naked babies with nothing, she says, and we can take nothing with us when we leave it. Fortune gives us everything we have and so has the right to take it away at any moment. If we do not complain about the goods she gives, how can we complain when she takes them away?

Ultimately, Fortune is neither good nor evil. Fortune just is, and she is ever-changing. Our only defense, therefore, is self-control. Do not covet fame, wealth, beauty, or any of the goods of this world. Enjoy them when they come, but be prepared at any moment to bid them goodbye. Lady Philosophy goes even further to suggest to Boethius that
. . . contratious Fortune profiteth more to men than Fortune debonayre. For alwey, whan Fortune semeth debonayre, thanne sche lieth, falsly byhetynge the hope of welefulnesse; but forsothe contraryous Fortune is alway sothfast, whan sche scheweth hirself unstable thurw hir chaungynge. The amyable Fortune desceyveth folk; the contrarie Fortune techeth. (Boece, 2.pr8.11-19)
In pleasing you, she deceives you; in withholding good things from you, she teaches wisdom (and teaches you who your real friends are). The only attitude that will get you anywhere is patience. Turn your back on Fortune (which is a kind of illusion anyway), hold to the good, and be grateful for whatever comes your way - a hard lesson, to be sure, but a surprisingly popular one in late medieval England, at least as a literary trope.

James I and Charles, Duke of Orléans

James I of Scotland (1394-1437) was the third son of Robert III of Scotland (the second apparently died in early childhood). Robert III (formerly John, earl of Carrick) was considered infirm and therefore forced to share his rule with his ambitious younger brother, Robert, duke of Albany. Robert III's eldest son, David, duke of Rothesay, showed himself to be profligate and inept in the three years in which he held the office of lieutenant to the king (1399-1402), so that when this three-year lieutenancy was ended in 1402, the duke of Albany had him arrested and taken to Falkland Castle, where he soon died. This left young James as heir to the throne, the only remaining barrier to Albany's ambitions and the figurehead whom each side of Scottish conflicts over power wished to control. In early 1406, as these conflicts reached crisis proportions, a small faction contrived to get James out of harm's way by sending him abroad. As a boy of twelve, therefore, in mid-March 1406, James was put aboard a ship for France, together with a small retinue including the earl of Orkney, Sir Archibald Edmonstone, and William Giffart, the latter who, having been marshall to his mother Queen Annabella, was destined to spend ten years of his captivity with James. Perhaps due to the secrecy of their task or to the suddenness of the decision to evacuate the prince from Scotland, no safe-conduct was requested from Henry IV of England, so the ship (a merchant vessel from Danzig) was fair game for the English pirates who captured it off Flamborough Head on 22 March. After the pirates recognized their prize and turned him over to the English king, James remained in English hands for the next eighteen years until his release in December 1423, at the age of thirty. Only two weeks after James' capture, on 4 April 1406, his father Robert III of Scotland died (of grief or shock at his son's capture), leaving James as rightful sovereign but unable to claim the crown as long as he remained in English hands.

James was initially taken to the Tower of London, the great fortress begun by William the Conqueror, where he remained for a year in the company of Griffith, the young son of Owen Glendwr. He spent some time in Nottingham because of an outbreak of the plague in the capital, and was housed elsewhere from time to time, but whenever he was brought to London, it was to the Tower (e.g., 1413-14 and 1416-18), the safest stronghold in the kingdom. This should not suggest, however, that he was kept, either at the Tower or in other castles, in some sort of dungeon. In the mid-fourteenth century King John of France, another royal prisoner, was housed in the Tower for more than two years, and in stark contrast to our own day, noble or royal prisoners (usually prisoners of war) were accommodated more like special guests than like criminals or enemies. As well as serving as fortifications, castles were by definition aristocratic or noble dwellings that provided suitable settings for important social occasions demonstrating the power of the owner. They were repositories for documents and treasure and sites for dispensing justice; they were sometimes surrounded by vast parks stocked with animals for hunting; and the structures themselves might include chapels, halls, chambers, and kitchens, as well as strong rooms for holding criminals. Within the confines of the Tower of London's outer walls, Henry III had built a magnificent palace (demolished in the seventeenth century), and the royal apartments, as well as the White Tower itself, were suitable for housing members of the nobility, whether in or out of favor, in the style to which they were accustomed. English kings and queens had themselves resided in the Tower from time to time since the twelfth century, though the Tower was also used as a prison and had dungeons that fully deserved the name.

James was not only well housed but well educated in the years that followed, becoming accomplished in Latin, French, and music, as well as in the other liberal and martial arts including wrestling, jousting, and archery. The fifteenth-century chronicler Thomas Walsingham records that Henry IV joked that the Scots could have saved themselves the trouble of trying to send James to France since he could learn French as well at the English court. He also learned statecraft from his English captors, observing the strong central government of the English court as a model of kingship that he would later try to impose on the Scottish barons after his release and return to personal rule in Scotland.

James may have been influenced in terms of political views and cultural tastes by his fellow prisoners as well, for he was not by any means the only prisoner either in English or Scottish hands at the time. In Scotland in his youth he had been tutored at St. Andrews with a contemporary prisoner of the Scots, Henry Percy, son of Henry "Hotspur" Percy, earl of Northumberland. The Scots also held at Stirling Castle, until his death in 1419, a man purporting to be the deposed English king, Richard II. Other captives of the English included Griffith, son of Owen Glendwr, with whom James shared the first three years of his captivity; Murdac, son and heir of Robert, duke of Albany, with whom he shared occupancy of the Tower in the early years of Henry V's reign (1413-15),5 and two French dukes: Charles, duke of Orléans, and his cousin, the duke of Bourbon, both captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and held in the Tower in the months immediately following the battle.

In fact, seeing James' English experience through the lens of Charles' captivity, which is much better documented than his own, allows us to fill in some of the blanks. The two princes were of nearly the same age (both orphaned early in life) and attended by tutors, secretaries, chaplains, and other companions. Though kept conveniently out of the political picture as (potential) rulers of their respective countries, both were permitted to communicate with their families and followers back home and to carry out their duties as best they could in absentia (in part to enable them to raise ransom money to pay their English "hosts"). Both were known, in the long run, as lovers of peace and an ordered society. They were natural allies - which means that the opportunities to fraternize afforded to them by their captors (who knew the dangers of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland all too well) would have been extremely limited.

Both royal prisoners were moved from castle to castle and in and out of the Tower depending on the political climate and financial situation of the times. James was housed at various times at Windsor, Nottingham, and Kenilworth Castles in the Midlands, and Pontefract Castle in the north, as well as in London at the Tower and at Westminster. Charles was similarly moved from one nobleman's castle to another, though never in the custody of the same nobleman as James. Financial records survive that tell us that Charles' "keepers" were reimbursed for their expenses and their trouble in accommodating him, and this is confirmed by records of James' keeping. In the early years of his captivity, James was maintained at a cost of 6 shillings and 8 pence a day, as compared with the contemporary maintenance of Owen Glendwr's son at 3 shillings, 4 pence a day. In 1415 James was given into the custody of Sir John Pelham, at the cost to the government of seven hundred pounds a year - almost two pounds per day - though other accounts suggest that he was not always so well accommodated. A stream of safe-conducts were issued for the duke of Orléans' household officers and servants from France to carry news and take back instructions. They even brought along a little dog. The duke traveled frequently with his hosts; his fellow-prisoner, the duke of Bourbon, had his horses and hawks brought to him from France so that he could indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, hunting.

Other kinds of evidence tell us that royal prisoners were involved in the social life of the lords who harbored them. Charles wrote a series of short lyrics that make sense only as gambits in a kind of social play that must have been common in late medieval northern Europe - the giving of little gifts, compliments, and even kisses. One social occasion, much grander than that of a provincial court in which we know Charles took part, was the banquet (and probably other festivities) surrounding the visit in 1416 of Sigismund, the king of Hungary and later Holy Roman Emperor, who was on a diplomatic mission to England and France to attempt to negotiate an end to the Hundred Years' War. It would be very surprising if James, who was being held elsewhere in the Tower at the time, had not also been put on display on such an occasion - no doubt as a measure of the glory and power of England. Although James' living situation may have differed from Charles' in the early years of his captivity on account of his youth, the assumption that he lived in much the same circumstances as his French counterpart is not unreasonable.

Unlike Orléans, however, James did not spend the whole of his captivity in England. In June of 1420, Henry V called him to France in order to use him in his contest with the army of the French. At the siege of Melun he forced James to order those Scots who were fighting alongside their French allies to lay down their arms. Having no choice, he did so, but the Scots refused to obey him because the order was given under duress, and when the siege ended a number were hanged for their obduracy. James returned to France to appear on the English side of the war in the autumn of 1421, but in the intervening spring he had played a different role for the king. At the queen's coronation banquet, dressed in a doublet of scarlet, trimmed in ermine, he was given the place of honor at the queen's side, after which he accompanied the king and queen on a royal progress through the Midlands. He was also probably present in France at the king's death and appeared as one of the chief mourners at Henry's funeral in 1422. We have no way of knowing what James' response to these events were, whether he had made his peace with the English and so acted willingly or whether he was displeased at being required to playact for his captors.

Such coincidences of circumstance between James I and Charles d'Orléans are not all that surprising in an age overshadowed by the Hundred Years' War, but there are some even more striking similarities: both men were excellent poets (perhaps the finest of the first half of the fifteenth century), and both wrote in English, a language not exactly their own (the English James learned at his mother's knee was quite different from that of London). They drew on a knowledge of French poetry (of which there was an ample supply circulating in the England of their day) as well as on the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. They were both deeply influenced by Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, a work about the loss of freedom, the seeming unfairness of life's experiences, and ways to surmount the difficulties dealt us by Fortune. Though Charles may have met John Lydgate, there is no evidence that he borrowed anything from him, but James seems to have been influenced by some of Lydgate's poetry, especially The Complaint of the Black Knight, a poem modeled on Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. James and Charles both wrote dream visions in which allegorical figures appeared. Both wrote of being imprisoned by circumstance and by Love; both were musicians (they played the harp, a lap-sized instrument popular in courtly circles), as well as poets and lovers of books. We might rightly call them "intellectuals." Much as we would wish otherwise, however, it is unlikely that either knew the work of the other. James did not write The Kingis Quair until after he and Charles had shared time in the Tower, and, if those scholars are correct who say he wrote it only after he returned to Scotland, it is virtually certain that Charles could not have known it. Their poetic productions are thus a good hedge against our tendency to see such borrowings as in any way specific to them. The parallels that are drawn in the Explanatory Notes below point rather to ideas and phraseology that were abroad generally in literary circles.

Charles had to wait until his release in 1440 (when he was forty-six) to meet his future bride, the sixteen-year-old niece of the duke and duchess of Burgundy, but James apparently fell in love with a noble English lady during his captivity, though it is extremely unlikely that his poem presents an accurate account of their first encounter. (They probably met at Windsor Castle in May of 1423.) It is impossible to know precisely the proportions of political expediency and "true love" in the balance of his decision, but James was betrothed early in 1424 to Joan Beaufort, niece of Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester and uncle of Henry VI. At some time during the first two weeks of February 1424, they were married in London (actually in Southwark, at the church of St. Mary Overie - over-the-water - across the river from London and, coincidentally, the place where John Gower is buried). That the marriage was a sumptuous affair, as suited the royal house of Scotland, we know from a warrant issued in January by Henry VI for a quantity of "cloth of gold" to James, to be used for wedding garments.6 They left for Scotland on 15 February. James, soon to be crowned king, was thirty. His 1,379-line poem, The Kingis Quair, is thought by many to have been written after his release and possibly after his marriage but while he was still in England, that is, in the first weeks of February 1424, perhaps as a tribute to his wife for St. Valentine's Day.

George Ashby

George Ashby, whose poem is slighter than James' (350 lines), claims to write from the Fleet prison, known in the nineteenth century as a debtor's prison. The reason for Ashby's imprisonment, however, may have been more political than economic. In the late Middle Ages the Fleet held prisoners from many walks of life and social ranks. In 1421, for example, Henry V sent Lord Grey de Codenore to the Fleet for remaining in England after he had been exiled. And under Henry VI seven prisoners captured earlier at the battle of Harfleur were committed to the Fleet. Lodgings could be had at several levels of comfort, for which prisoners (at least until the early modern period) were expected to pay. In this period there is one sense in which the Fleet could be called a debtor's prison, for among those imprisoned there were citizens who were debtors to the king. John Ashton even writes that "in the fifteenth century it was a very common practice for delinquents who were confined in other London prisons to confess themselves, by a legal fiction, debtors to the King, in order to get into the Fleet prison, which was more comfortable" (emphasis added).7 We should not, therefore, necessarily imagine Ashby in irons in a dungeon (or in a modern jail), but in more habitable and well-furnished surroundings than either - at whatever level of luxury he could afford. Another reason for prisoners requesting incarceration in the Fleet was its custom of permitting its prisoners to walk about at large during the day, in order to allow the possibility of raising the money to pay off their debts. Ashby's references to having been deprived of all his liberty should thus be taken relatively, unless it was stipulated specifically that he should not be allowed this privilege (for which no evidence survives).

Like Chaucer and the poet Thomas Hoccleve before him, Ashby was a government employee. He was for forty years (see line 64) a clerk of the Signet to Henry VI and to his queen, Margaret of Anjou, working on both sides of the Channel. The signet office, with the king's secretary at its head, was the only part of the administration of late medieval England which was always at the king's side (though this does not, of course, imply personal contact between the clerks of the signet and the king). At some time after his release from the Fleet, Ashby seems to have directed the education of Henry VI's son Edward before the prince died (most likely as a result of foul play) in 1471. It is probable that Henry's successor, the Yorkist Edward IV - seeing Ashby as an adherent of the Lancastrian dynasty he toppled - was the ultimate source of Ashby's misery ("Pullyng myn houses downe" and "Puttyng on me many fals lesyng," lines 21 and 26) and imprisonment. When he first usurped power in 1461, Edward acted with the swiftness and brutality necessary to strengthen his hold on the English throne while the old king still lived. Read this way, Ashby's lament at the lack of faith of his friends might be seen as reflecting their fear of being associated with a known Lancastrian adherent. We might therefore imagine Ashby as a fairly well educated bureaucrat (he must have known Latin, French, and English) working in London or in the provinces in the entourage of the king and associating with the post-1450 counterparts of Chaucer and Hoccleve. In The Complaint of a Prisoner of the Fleet, Ashby seems to resent that he is treated as "neyther wytty ne sage / Whyche grevyd me sore" (lines 75-76). Though he was obviously of a vastly inferior social status compared with James I or Charles d'Orléans, we might also imagine him, like them, employing the metaphor of Fortune's wheel to express his frustration at being deprived of his liberty for political reasons.

Editorial Principles

Base texts for these editions are given in the introductions to individual texts. The following editorial principle applies to all editions: editorial changes have been made only where necessary for understanding. Those changes that have been made are not marked in any way in the text itself, but are indicated in the Textual Notes. All medieval abbreviations, including the medieval equivalent of the ampersand, have been silently expanded. We have ignored otiose strokes and normally transcribed on, with a macron over the n, as oun. In other instances we have read the macron over a vowel as n (e.g., me as men, my as myn, or begyneth as begynneth). And, in some instances, we have deemed the macron to be redundant (e.g., the scribe writes non, with a macron over the second n, where the word should simply be spelled non). See the Introduction to Ashby's poem for differences in these practices that are particular to that poem.

Go To The Kingis Quair Introduction
Go To The Kingis Quair Text
Select Bibliography

General Bibliographies

Brown, Carleton, and Rossell Hope Robbins. The Index of Middle English Verse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

Peck, Russell A. Chaucer's "Romaunt of the Rose" and "Boece," "Treatise on the Astrolabe," "Equatorie of the Planetis," Lost Works, and Chaucerian Apocrypha. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. Items 192-192g.

Robbins, Rossell Hope, and John L. Cutler. Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

Sources and Influences

Boethius. Boethius: De Consolatione Philosophiae. Trans. John Walton. Ed. Mark Science. EETS o.s. 170. London: Oxford University Press, 1927; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1971.

---. Boethius: The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy. Ed. and trans. H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester. Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973. [Latin text with facing-page English translation by Tester].

Charles d'Orléans. Fortunes Stabilnes: Charles of Orleans's English Book of Love: A Critical Edition. Ed. Mary-Jo Arn. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 138. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995.

---. Poésies. Ed. Pierre Champion. 2 vols. Les Classiques français du moyen âge 34, 56. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1923-27.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Third ed. Gen. ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Chaucerian and Other Pieces. Ed. Walter W. Skeat. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1935, 1972.

de Deguileville, Guillaume. The Pilgrimage of Human Life (Le Pèlerinage de la vie humaine). Trans. Eugene Clasby. Garland Library of Medieval Literature 76. New York: Garland, 1992. [In prose.]

The Floure and the Leafe, The Assembly of Ladies, The Isle of Ladies. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1990.

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. Ed. Russell A. Peck. 3 vols. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000-04.

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la Rose. Ed. Ernest Langlois. Société des Anciens Textes Français. 5 vols. Paris: Firmin-Didot et cie, 1914-24.

---. Ed. Félix Lecoy. 3 vols. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1973-75.

---. Trans. Charles Dahlberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971; rpt. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1983.

---. Trans. Harry Wolcott Robbins. Ed. Charles W. Dunn. New York: Dutton, 1962; rpt. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Hoccleve, Thomas. Selected Poems. Ed. Bernard O'Donoghue. Manchester, UK: Carcanet New Press, 1982.

---. The Regiment of Princes. Ed. Charles R. Blyth. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.

Lydgate, John. The Temple of Glas. Ed. J. Schick. EETS e.s. 60. London: Oxford University Press, 1891; rpt. 1924; rpt. London: Kegan Paul, 1987.

---. Troy Book: Selections. Ed. Robert R. Edwards. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998.

Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Ed. William Harris Stahl. Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 48. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952; rpt. 1990.

Ovid (P. Ovidius Naso). Ovid. Vol. 3: Metamorphoses, Books 1-8. Ed. and trans. Frank Justus Miller. Third ed., rev. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977; rpt. 1984, 1994. [Latin text with facing-page English translation.]

---. Ovid. Vol. 4: Metamorphoses, Books 9-15. Ed. and trans. Frank Justus Miller. Third ed., rev. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 43. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984; rpt. 1994. [Latin text with facing-page English translation.]

Ovide Moralisé: Poème de commencement du quatorzième siècle, publié d'après tous les manuscrits connus. Ed. Cornelius de Boer, Martina G. de Boer, and Jeannette Th. M. van 't Sant. 5 vols. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke akademie van wetenschappen te Amsterdam: Afdeeling letterkunde, Nieuwe reeks, deel 15, 21, 30, 37, 43. Amsterdam: J. Müller, 1915-38.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Dual-Language Version. Ed. and trans. William Vantuono. New York: Garland, 1991.

Walton, John. See Boethius.

Other Works Cited

Boffey, Julia. "Chaucerian Prisoners: The Context of the Kingis Quair." In Boffey and Cowen, 1991. Pp. 84-102.

Boffey, Julia, and Janet Cowen, eds. Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry. King's College London Medieval Studies 5. London: Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 1991.

Champion, Pierre. Vie de Charles d'Orléans (1394-1465). Paris: Honoré Champion, 1911.

Curtius, E. R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, rpt. 1979.

Epstein, Robert. "Prisoners of Reflection: The Fifteenth-Century Poetry of Exile and Imprisonment." Exemplaria 15 (2003), 157-98.

Field, P. J. C. The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

Greimas, Algirdas Julien, and Teresa Mary Keane. Dictionnaire du moyen français: La Renaissance. Paris: Larousse, 1992.

Hanna, Ralph, III, and A. S. G. Edwards. "Rotheley, the De Vere Circle, and the Ellesmere Chaucer." Huntington Library Quarterly 58 (1996), 29-35.

Hassig, Debra. Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hunt, Tony. Plant Names of Medieval England. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1989.

Means, Michael H. The Consolatio Genre in Medieval English Literature. University of Florida Humanities Monograph 36. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1972. [See especially pp. 96-99.]

Minnis, Alastair J., ed. The Medieval Boethius: Studies in the Vernacular Translations of "De consolatione Philosophiae." Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1987.

Patch, Howard R. The Goddess Fortuna in Mediaeval Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Rymer, Thomas. Foedera. Second ed. 17 vols. London: J. Tonson, 1727-29.

Scattergood, V. J. "The Date and Composition of George Ashby's Poems." Leeds Studies in English 21 (1990), 167-76. Rpt. in Reading the Past: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ed. V. J. Scattergood. Blackrock: Four Courts Press, 1996. Pp. 258-65.

---. Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485. History and Literature. London: Blandford Press, 1971.

Common Abbreviations
De cons.
Book of the Duchess (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Consolation of Philosophy (trans. Geoffrey Chaucer)
Confessio Amantis (John Gower)
Complaint of the Black Knight (John Lydgate)
Consolation of Philosophy (trans. John Walton)
The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
De consolatio philosophiae (Boethius)
Fortunes Stabilnes (Charles d'Orleans)
House of Fame (Geoffrey Chaucer)
The Kingis Quair (James I of Scotland)
The Legend of Good Women (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Middle English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
Parliament of Fouls (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Romaunt of the Rose (trans. Geoffrey Chaucer)
Roman de la Rose (Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Lorris)
Troilus and Criseyde (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Temple of Glas (John Lydgate)