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  Thomas Hoccleve (c.1367–1426), workshop of Hermann Scheerre, c.1412 [kneeling, right] Thomas Hoccleve (c.1367–1426), workshop of Hermann Scheerre, c.1412 [kneeling, right]
Hoccleve [Occleve], Thomas (c.1367–1426), poet and clerk, may have derived his name from Hockliffe, Bedfordshire, but nothing is known of his family. The date of his birth can be inferred from his Dialogue with a Friend (c.1420), where he speaks of himself as then aged ‘fifty wyntir and three’ (Hoccleve, Dialogue, 1.246). Hoccleve's early years are unrecorded, but his education evidently included instruction in French and Latin, then the official languages used at the privy seal. He joined that office at the age of about twenty, probably at Easter 1387, since he says in the Regiment of Princes (c.1411) that he has been writing for the seal ‘xxti year and iiij, come Estren’ (‘for twenty-four years, come Easter’; Hoccleve, Regiment, 11.804–5). His career there continued until shortly before his death, for some thirty-eight years. He started as an under-clerk: in a will of 1392 Guy Rouclif left 5 marks and a ‘book called the War of Troy’ to Thomas Hoccleve ‘my clerk’. Later he became one of the five or six senior clerks of the office, and his career there can be traced in a long series of chancery and exchequer records of grants and payments. On 12 November 1399 the new king, Henry IV, granted him an annuity of £10 for life, a grant raised to 20 marks (£13 6s. 8d.) in 1409; and half-yearly payments continued until the last on 11 February 1426. He also enjoyed other benefits, among them board and lodging in the privy seal hostel, money for robes at Christmas, two corrodies, and occasional bonuses, as well as fees and favours from privy seal clients. Towards the end of his career he compiled a volume of more than a thousand model privy seal documents, in French and Latin, for the benefit of other clerks. This formulary is now BL, Add. MS 24062.

Further information about Hoccleve's life is to be found in his poems, which contain an unusual amount of autobiographical material. La male regle de T. Hoccleve (1405–6) describes his early years in London and Westminster as a period of youthful dissipation, of eating and drinking to excess and staying up too late. It must have been during this period, however, that he made the acquaintance of Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), whom he celebrates in the Regiment of Princes as his master in the art of English poetry, and whose portrait he caused to be preserved there. Hoccleve's earliest datable poem is the Letter of Cupid (1402), a rendering into very Chaucerian rhyme-royal stanzas of a poem by the French poetess Christine de Pisan, then fashionable at the court of Henry IV. This Letter and the Male regle are chief among his poems surviving from before the Regiment. Other short petitionary pieces throw light on his financial difficulties, complaining, as he commonly does, of ‘coynes scarsetee’. It was at some time during this period that he abandoned thought of taking holy orders and married a wife, as he says, ‘only for love’ (Hoccleve, Regiment, 1.1561); he was married by 1410.

The Regiment of Princes, addressed to the future Henry V, was by far the most successful of Hoccleve's writings. It survives in no fewer than forty-three manuscripts. In a long prologue, the poet describes how, after a sleepless night in his privy seal hostel ‘at Chestre Ynne, right fast be the Stronde’ (Hoccleve, Regiment, 1.5), he walks out in the fields and meets an old beadsman, from whom he receives words of consolation for his worries about poverty and advancing age. The old man advises that he should seek the good lordship of Prince Henry by addressing a poem to him. The second half of the Regiment accordingly offers the prince advice on the virtues necessary in a good ruler, drawing on such sources as the De regimine principum of Giles of Rome and the pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta secretorum. An early copy of the Regiment made for John Mowbray (BL, Arundel MS 38) preserves a picture, probably from the workshop of Hermann Scheerre, which shows the poet as a somewhat idealized 45-year-old in the act of presenting his book to Henry. Once Henry became king in 1413, Hoccleve continued to write for and about him, celebrating public occasions such as a gathering of the Garter knights and the king's triumphal return from France in 1421. He lays stress upon Henry's role as champion of religious orthodoxy against Lollard heretics, notably in a poem addressing the Lollard insurrection under Sir John Oldcastle in January 1414. The poet had no time for:
Th'errour which sones of iniquitee
Han sowe ageyn the feith.
(Works: Minor Poems, 40)
Hoccleve's major work during the reign of Henry V, however, was a sequence of linked poems now known as the Series. This consists of a Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend, which together form a prologue to two stories translated from the Gesta Romanorum and a piece on the art of dying from the Horologium sapientiae of Heinrich Suso. The Complaint and Dialogue were written, for the most part, in 1420. In them the poet recalls an earlier ‘wylde infirmitee’ when he temporarily lost his ‘wit’ and ‘memorie’ (Hoccleve, Complaint, 11.40ff.). He recovered from this illness, he says, ‘five years ago last All Saints’, that is, on 1 November 1414 (ibid., 11.55–6); but people have continued ever since to doubt his mental stability. This suspicion is shared even by the poet's friend, who advises him in the ensuing Dialogue against risking his precarious health by undertaking further literary labours; but by the end of the Dialogue, having convinced the friend of his full recovery, Hoccleve stands ready to embark on the first of the Gesta stories. The Series claims a part in the poet's personal rehabilitation after his illness; but it also addresses itself, like much of Hoccleve's verse, to a great man from whom patronage may be expected—in this case, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, whose praises are sung in the Dialogue. Of the six surviving manuscripts, one was written by Hoccleve himself (Durham University Library, Cosin MS V.iii.9); but this copy is directed in a final stanza, not to Humphrey, but to Humphrey's aunt, Joan Neville, countess of Westmorland.

Hoccleve's annuity was confirmed under the new king, Henry VI, on 24 January 1423, and the poet continued to work in the privy seal, probably until some time in 1425. None of his datable poems can be assigned to these last years; but it was during this period that he produced not only his formulary, but also the three holograph manuscripts which between them contain all his surviving poetic output apart from the Regiment. These are the Durham Series and two manuscripts now in the Huntington Library, California (MSS HM 111 and HM 744). On 4 March 1426 the exchequer issue rolls recorded the last of a series of payments to Hoccleve reimbursing him for red wax and ink bought earlier for office use; but he died soon after. On 8 May 1426 his corrody in Southwick Priory was granted to Alice Penfold to be held ‘in manner and form like Thomas Hoccleve now deceased’ (Brown, 270 n.1).

J. A. Burrow

Sources  

exchequer, exchequer of receipt, issue rolls, TNA: PRO, E403 · patent rolls, TNA: PRO, C 66 · Hoccleve's works, ed. F. J. Furnivall, 3: The regement of princes, EETS, extra ser. 72 (1897) · Hoccleve's works: the minor poems, ed. F. J. Furnivall and I. Gollancz, rev edn, rev. J. Mitchell and A. I. Doyle, EETS, extra ser., 61, 73 (1970) · J. A. Burrow, Thomas Hoccleve (1994) · A. L. Brown, ‘The privy seal clerks in the early fifteenth century’, The study of medieval records: essays in honour of Kathleen Major, ed. D. A. Bullough and R. L. Storey (1971), 260–81

Archives  

BL, Arundel MS 38 · BL, Add. MS 24062 · Bodl. Oxf., poems and treatises · Hunt. L., MSS HM 111, HM 744 · U. Durham L., Cosin MS V.iii.9


Likenesses  

workshop of H. Scheerre, manuscript illumination, c.1412, BL, Arundel MS 38, fol. 37r [see illus.]