Saturday, September 24, 2011

Famous Last Words (1484)

"Jesus Christ! More trouble . . . "
--last words of the poet Wm Collyngbourne

So, about a decade ago I read R. M. Wilson's THE LOST LITERATURE OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, a fascinating glimpse into works we know once existed that have now vanished beyond recall. One particular story, about the fate of a poet who annoyed Richard the Third, stuck in my mind. In any case, it's quite an interesting book, and eventually I bought my own copy, apparently during my only visit (so far) to the Bay Area, in August 2000.* But when I came to consult it some time later (probably when preparing my 2004 Blackwelder conference paper, 'And All the Days of Her Life are Forgotten'), I cdn't find the story I recalled anywhere. Eventually I discovered that there were two editions of the book, and it turns out that the passage I sought doesn't appear in the original [1952] edition I'd bought. I concluded it must be only in the later [1970] revised edition,** which must therefore be the one I read.

And so Tuesday [the 13th] when I visited Suzzallo-Allen, I not only found to my delight that the Smith Reading Room (with its stained glass windows and catherdral ceiling) is open again but was even able to sit at Senator Magnuson's desk. And while at the library I was able both to check a troubling reference in one of the PICTURING TOLKIEN essays I'd just read and to find both versions of Wilson's book. A quick check showed that the passage I remembered was indeed in the 1970 edition and not in the original.

Here's all the original [1952] version has to say about Collyngbourne [p. 199]:

". . . The well-known couplet

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our dog
Rule all England under a hog,***

was posted on the doors of St Paul's by William Collyngbourne.

And here's what Wilson adds in 1970:

". . . The well-known couplet

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our dog
Rule all England under a hog,

was posted on the doors of St Paul's by William Collyngbourne, and for this he was, in 1484,

put to the moost cruell deth at the Tower Hylle,
where for hym were made a newe payer of galowes.
Vpon the whiche, after he hadde hangyd a shorte season,
he was cutte downe, beynge alyue, & his bowellys rypped
out of his bely, and cast into the fyre there by hym,
and lyued tyll the bowcher put his hande into the bulke
of his body; insomuch that he sayd in the same instant,
'O Lorde Ihesu, yet more trowble,' & so dyed
to the great compassion of moche people.

[p. 194]

This episode serves as a reminder that Richard III was not the kinder, gentler king that Josephine Tey & others wd have us think (he was after all a usurper responsible for the deaths of many members of his own family -- in which he was v. like his successor, Henry VII; one suspects the two men were pretty much peas in a pod). Most of England's kings and queens have been pretty brutal in their dealings with those who crossed them, and those with shaky claims to the throne (like Richard and Henry) even more so than most. It's also a reminder of the days when people took poetry seriously.****

Quite aside from this, though, I think what attracted me to this quote and made it stick in my memory is the slight hint of exasperation in poor Collyngbourne's final response to what was happening to him. First hanged, then cut down, then disembowled, then having his entrails (intestines) burned before his eyes, and only dying when they reached in and started to remove his heart and other vital organs is a particularly grisly way to go, specifically designed to inflict as much pain and torment as possible. Maybe that's why Collyngborne's last words are so memorable; it's easy to feel a kind of fellow feeling for someone in extremis who sums things up so well.

--John R.

[when first drafted this post]:
current Kindle book: RENDER UNTO ROME by Jason Berry [2011]
current audiobook: NATION by Terry Pratchett [2008]
current project: "'A Fragment, Detatched': The Hobbit and The Silmarillion"

current Kindle book: THE ATTENBURY EMERALDS by Jill Paton Walsh
current audiobook: The Learning Company: lectures on Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (on loan from Jeff)
current project: ibid.

for future reading: since reading Wilson's book, I've learned from Doug Anderson that it was inspired by a series R. W. Chambers did back in the 1920s. Given how highly Tolkien admired Chambers as a scholar, I definitely need to track down those original articles at some point.

*At least so I deduce from the fact that I've written in my name, 'Palo Alto', and the date (Friday August 4th '00) on the inside front cover, and a few pages in is a bookmark for Feldman's Books in Menlo Park.

**his preface to the latter notes that "the original work has been completely re-written, with numerous verbal changes, many additions, a few omissions, and some re-arrangement of the material . . ."

***an unflattering reference to Richard III's ministers, Wm Catesby (Speaker of the House), Sir Richard Ratcliffe (who seems to have been R.III's general assistant and factotum, & Lord Lovell (Lord Chamberlain), all of whom are familiar to generations of English students and play-goers from their villainy in Shakespeare's play RICHARD III (the 'hogge' is King Richard himself, whose personal emblem was a wild boar, just as Lovel's was a wolf).
And of course 'Ratcliffe' is the only reasonably famous literary character known to me to bear a version of my own name.

****a little online research shows that Collingbourne also plotted with Henry Tudor against Richard's reign, but the specific charges upon which he was condemned to gruesome death were (a) conspiracy AND (b) writing those verses.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

I'm glad I took you to Feldman's, then, even if what you got was the wrong edition. (You may remember the furious argument at Lewiscon over A.N. Wilson's biography which was solved when we discovered that the text was silently amended in the softcover.)