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Usk, Thomas (c.1354–1388), scrivener, author, and administrator, is remembered for his tragic role in the struggles for power around the throne of the young Richard II and as the author of the prose treatise The Testament of Love. In that work he refers to London as the ‘place of his kindly engendrure’ and the city in which he was ‘forth growen’ (ed. Skeat, I.vi.101; Shoaf, 97), and this is borne out by London documents which identify his father as a David Usk, a hurer (‘cap maker’), and his mother as Alice, who jointly owned property ‘beside Newgate’ in 1364; by 1375 Alice was the wife of John Curson. There is further confirmation in the statement of the chronicler Henry Knighton that after his execution his head was set up over Newgate ‘to disgrace his kinsfolk, who lived in that part of the city’ (Knighton's Chronicle, 500). His exact date of birth is unknown; in the Testament of Love he talks of the events of 1381–3 as happening ‘in my youth’ (Skeat, I.vi.53; Shoaf, 94f.). However, he is mentioned in legal records of 1375–6 in the functions of mainpernor and attorney, which implies adult citizenship and the completion of a scrivener's apprenticeship by that time. By 1381 Usk was working as a scriveyn, or copyist, in the city of London, at a time when tension between the victualling and non-victualling guilds had reached its height, fuelled by anxiety about food supplies and rising prices. The power of the victuallers, in particular Sir Nicholas Brembre and Sir William Walworth, whose support had been crucial to the king during the peasants' revolt, was being challenged by John Northampton, a prominent member of the Drapers' Company, who looked for support both from the lower masters and ordinary citizenry of London and from John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.

Usk enters the documented history of the period, in August 1384, with his own Appeal (legal accusation) against John Northampton, John More, Richard Norbury, and William Essex. In this document he details his own part, first as one of Northampton's confidential clerks and later as an active collaborator, in Northampton's attempt during his two years as mayor (from October 1381 to October 1383) to undermine the power of the victualling guilds within the common council of the city and secure his own re-election. Although in reality there was much support in the city for Northampton's efforts to rein in the victuallers and bring down the price of food, Usk's accusation implied that Northampton and the three others were motivated solely by a desire for their own advancement. It was to this end, according to Usk, that they arranged to pack the meetings of the common council with their own supporters, pass legislation designed to reduce the power of aldermen and increase that of the guilds, challenge the retail monopoly of the victualling trades, and whip up feeling among the poor against the senior officers of the city.

Usk's position in the non-victuallers' faction progressed from that of a scrivener, employed ‘to write thair billes’ to that of ‘ful helpere & promotour’ (Chambers and Daunt, 23, 29–30). He confesses, for instance, to acting on Northampton's behalf to procure a parliamentary edict against usurers in the city that would permanently disqualify senior officers who were Northampton's adversaries, and attempting to influence the Commons in favour of the Northampton party's candidates. Usk also confesses to participating in dubious canvassing methods (such as the placing of armed men at the doors of the Guildhall to keep out rival supporters) in an attempt to secure the re-election of Northampton as mayor in October 1383. When Northampton's aims were thwarted by the election of Brembre, Usk was one of a delegation sent by Northampton to Gaunt to persuade him to intervene and overturn the election. As Gaunt refused to be drawn in, Northampton assembled his supporters from about thirty crafts and set out from Cheapside to carry a new election by weight of numbers, but he was dissuaded by the aldermen. Then, with Usk's active co-operation, he embarked on a course of popular agitation against Brembre, which culminated on 7 February 1384 in Northampton's arrest.

Usk himself was arrested in July or August 1384 and placed in the custody of the mayor. By 18 August, the day of the council at Reading at which Northampton was first arraigned, Usk had gone over to Brembre's party and written his Appeal, which was personally enacted before the king. Immediately afterwards he was returned to London under the jurisdiction of the mayor. He apparently took no personal part in the second trial of Northampton, and that of More and Norbury, in the Tower of London on 12 September, but the prosecution case was again based on his statement, in a Latin adaptation. Usk was formally pardoned ‘for all treasons, felonies and other offences wherof he is indicted in the city of London’ by a signet letter of 24 September 1384 (CPR, 1381–5, 467), but the intentions of the Brembre party remained equivocal. An exchequer document from July 1385 authorizes payment of expenses to Brembre for a period of custody lasting six months, and suggests the possibility of a trial of Usk himself on a charge of making false accusations against Northampton and his partners. Moreover, the autobiographical stratum of The Testament of Love, which transparently relates the events of 1381 to 1384, pictures Usk in prison and abandoned by those with whom he had allied himself. Though in this allegorical work his imprisonment can be read as metaphor, he is clearly at the time of writing (which must have been after 1384) at a low point in his fortunes and in doubt about his prospects.

In fact, Usk was not to enjoy any mark of royal favour until the following summer (1385), when, as a serjeant-at-arms of the king, he received a paid commission to raise ships and men for the relief of Damme. He enjoyed his position as a lowly member of the king's affinity for little more than two years. In August and September 1387 Thomas Usk, the king's serjeant-at-arms, is named as a mainpernor in deeds of commitment of several manors in Sussex and Kent to Nicholas Exton, a mayor of London belonging to the Brembre faction, and in the same year he was appointed under-sheriff of Middlesex at the king's request, conveyed to the mayor and sheriffs of London in a letter of the privy seal dated 2 September. By December, however, he was under arrest and at the mercy of the lords appellant.

In the following year Usk shared the fate of the circle of the king's advisers by whose influence he had briefly achieved preferment, when the lords appellant persuaded the Merciless Parliament to pass sentence of death on Michael de la Pole, Simon Burley, Robert de Vere, and others, for treasonably misleading the king. In the parliamentary proceedings Usk is named as an accomplice of Brembre in a conspiracy against the life of the duke of Gloucester, and one of the charges against Alexander Neville, archbishop of York, is that of advising the king to bestow lands and offices on Usk. On 4 March Usk himself was impeached of treason in full parliament and condemned to be drawn and hanged. It is reported by the Westminster chronicler that he went to his death with great piety and contrition, reciting funeral offices, but maintaining to the end his loyalty to the king and the truth of his accusations against Northampton. His execution at Tyburn was brutal: ‘Thomas Usk was hanged and immediately taken down and, after about thirty strokes of the axe, beheaded’ (Westminster Chronicle, 315).

The Testament of Love, Usk's only known composition apart from the Appeal, is a prose treatise in English in three books. It was first printed, from a manuscript since lost, by William Thynne in his 1532 edition of the works of Chaucer, to whom the work was sometimes attributed until the true author was identified in the late nineteenth century by Henry Bradley. In 1897 Thynne's print became the basis of a conjecturally restored text edited by W. W. Skeat in volume 7 (Chaucerian and other Pieces) of his Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Written in the form of a Boethian dialogue between a prisoner and a Lady Love who appears to him in a vision, it shows textual knowledge of recent works of Chaucer, including The Hous of Fame, Boece, and Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer himself is referred to by the Lady Love as the author of ‘the boke of Troilus’ and ‘myne owne trewe servaunt, the noble philosophical poete in English’ (ed. Skeat, III.iv.248–9, 258–9; Shoaf, 266). Usk has evidently been influenced by his reading of Chaucer in his discussions of such topics as fortune and the freedom of the will, and in his portrayal of the character Love as representative of both earthly and divine love. But his book is far from being a slavish imitation of the Boece. It draws on a number of other sources than Chaucer, including the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden and writings of St Anselm on predestination, grace, and free will. Its genre is that of many-layered allegory, allowing a number of parallel interpretations on various figural and actual levels; its aim, apparently, is to vindicate his political choices and actions through a presentation of his philosophy of life. The narrator himself expounds the multiple significances of his character Margaret, who is named repeatedly as his mistress and potential benefactress in his conversations with Love: she is (like the margarite or pearl) ‘grace, lerning, or wisdom of god, or els holy church’ (Skeat, III.ix.102–3; Shoaf, 305). The identification of Margaret with holy church convinced Skeat that Usk's object was to clear himself of the taint of Lollardy. The suggestion of heresy can, however, also be read as political allegory, in which case he is pleading for acceptance as a penitent by the royal party. On yet another level of interpretation Margaret is clearly a ‘deedly [mortal]’ woman (Skeat, II.xii.121; Shoaf, 217), who is addressed as his courtly mistress in an acrostic composed of the first letter of the prologue and each of the book's thirty-three chapters: ‘Margarete of virtw have merci on thin Vsk’. Usk was himself witness at Reading to the effective intervention of Queen Anne to mitigate the punishment of Northampton and it is possible that his Testament has a similar aim in relation to himself in the period after his pardon in September 1384, while he was still in danger of being disposed of by the court circle as of no further use.

For all its obscurity, the Testament of Love is important as an early example of the use of the vernacular in an original prose composition and as exhibiting the response to Chaucer's works of a contemporary reader and disciple. Its baffling versatility is a fitting tribute to a writer and politician who has been described as a ‘supple code-switcher’ in all his doings.

Ronald Waldron

Sources  

corporation of London documents, GL, hustings rolls 91/186, 187; 103/38, 39, 279; 108/47 · A. H. Thomas and P. E. Jones, eds., Calendar of plea and memoranda rolls preserved among the archives of the corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, 2 (1929) · R. R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of letter-books preserved in the archives of the corporation of the City of London, [12 vols.] (1899–1912), vols. G–H · R. R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of wills proved and enrolled in the court of husting, London, AD 1258 – AD 1688, 2 vols. (1889–90) · H. T. Riley, ed., Memorials of London and London life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth centuries (1868) · exchequer issue rolls, TNA: PRO, E403/508/m.17; E403/510/m.6 · miscellanea of the exchequer, TNA: PRO, E163/5/28 · Chancery records · R. W. Chambers and M. Daunt, eds., A book of London English, 1384–1425 (1931), 18–31 [Usk's Appeal] · T. Usk, ‘The testament of love’, Chaucerian and other pieces, ed. W. W. Skeat (1897), [vol. 7] of The complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1894–7), xviii–xxxi, 1–144 · T. Usk, The testament of love, ed. R. A. Shoaf (1998) · A. Middleton, ‘Thomas Usk's “perdurable letters”: the Testament of love from script to print’, Studies in Bibliography, 51 (1998), 63–116 · E. Powell and G. M. Trevelyan, eds., The peasants’ rising and the Lollards (1899) · RotP, vol. 3 · L. C. Hector and B. F. Harvey, eds. and trans., The Westminster chronicle, 1381–1394, OMT (1982) · Knighton's chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G. H. Martin, OMT (1995) [Lat. orig., Chronica de eventibus Angliae a tempore regis Edgari usque mortem regis Ricardi Secundi, with parallel Eng. text] · P. Nightingale, A medieval mercantile community: the Grocers’ Company and the politics and trade of London, 1000–1485 (1995) · R. Bird, The turbulent London of Richard II (1949) · R. Bressie, ‘The date of Thomas Usk's Testament of love’, Modern Philology, 26 (1928–9), 17–29 · P. Strohm, ‘The textual vicissitudes of Usk's Appeal’, in P. Strohm, Hochon's arrow (1992), 145–60

Archives  

TNA: PRO, miscellanea of the exchequer, E 163/5/28 no. 9