JOHN LYDGATE. The Fall of Princes, in Middle English, from Laurent de Premierfait’s French version of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium, decorated manuscript on vellum [England, mid-15th century]
The Audley End Lydgate: a splendid Middle English manuscript of one of the greatest (and longest) texts of the Middle Ages, composed by one of the outstanding poets of English literature, and once owned by Mary Sidney, lady-in-waiting at the court of Elizabeth I. No copy has been on the market since 1979 and it is unlikely any will be offered again.
410 x 280mm. 147 leaves, modern foliation in pencil 1-147 followed here. 56 lines in two columns, 16 stanzas per page, initials in red and blue, some with marginal scroll decoration in red, catchwords survive. Contemporary corrections and textual insertions marked by red crosses (lacking the first 6 leaves, 4 leaves after f.92, one after f.141, and the final few leaves of text after f.147, occasional repairs to vellum, e.g. to lower margins of f.106, text of f.141 slightly defective, some staining and spotting and marginal cropping). 19th-century calf over wooden boards, covers inlaid with fragment of 16th-century binding preserving the initials 'M.S.' (Mary Sidney) (upper cover detached).
Provenance: The names James Baker, John Dowman and John Salisburiensis are inscribed in the margins of f.105v in a 16th-century hand — Mary Sidney (née Dudley) (c.1530-1586): her autograph ownership inscription, dated 28 November 1552 on front endpaper: 'This bouk is mine Mary Sidney / If it fonde before it be lost / Lett them that finde it of it make no bost / In seyine the[y] fonde it before it was lost / For of souch gayn is liek to come mouche payne 1552'. Mary was lady-in-waiting at the court of Elizabeth I, and the mother of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. A daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, she was marginally implicated in her father's attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the English throne and affected by his attainder. Well-educated, fluent in Italian, French, and Latin, she was interested in alchemy, romances, and writing poetry — Various 16th-century pen-trials and inscriptions, including ‘Thomas Myddleton’ (1557) on front endpaper — apparently given by Mary Sidney to Elizabeth Neville (née Bacon), who in 1578 married Sir Henry Neville (c.1520-1593) of Billingbear House, Berkshire, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to King Henry VIII. Elizabeth was the 'Lady Nevell' of My Ladye Nevells Booke, a manuscript of keyboard music by William Byrd. The name 'Elizabeth N[...]' appears beneath Mary Sidney's inscription – by descent to her son Henry Neville (1564-1615), English courtier, politician and diplomat and thence to the Lords Braybrooke — a letter addressed to the 4th Lord Braybrooke and dated 9 March 1840 is tipped into the front of the volume. It is signed Frederic Madden (1801-1873), the famed palaeographer and Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Madden describes the manuscript, and advises that it be rebound while preserving 'the leather on the sides with Lady Mary Sidney's initials'.
The manuscript is no 38 in the Fall of Princes section of J. Boffey and A.S.G. Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse (2005). It is one of thirty-four complete or originally complete copies. The only others remaining in private hands are in Belvoir Castle (Duke of Rutland) and Longleat House (Marquess of Bath). This manuscript is one of only four not known to the poem’s modern editor, Henry Bergen, when he prepared his Early English Text Society edition (1924-27).
Content: John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes ff.1-147v. Text beginning 'Whos masonrie is off no costage' (lacking the prologue and the beginning of Book 1; breaking off on f.92v with 'For to be crowned in that regeous' and picking up again on f.93 with 'To fortifie, the said Hanyball'; breaking off again on f.141v with 'After deyed in mystchiff and in drede' and picking up again on f.142 with 'Next to Bochas of Poyle cam kyng') and ending 'In Inglond aftir abood ful many a yeer' (lacking final few leaves of text).
John Lydgate (c.1370–1449/50?), poet and prior of Hatfield Regis, was born at Lidgate in Suffolk, 'wher Bachus licour doth ful scarsli flete' (The Fall of Princes, Book 8, l. 194), a few miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds where he would spend most of his life, and where, presumably, there was a better supply of wine to refresh his ‘drie soule’. He was a jester and a scoffer, who went to bed late and got up late, did not wash for dinner, and hated rebukes or correction. He was also the preeminent English poet of the century, writing, in the vernacular, about the historical challenges of war with France, looming civil war in England, and new theological forces. He wrote for household, parish, city, monastery, church, and state. Although an official poet of sorts — perhaps the first major official poet in the English poetic tradition — he was not by any means a merely celebratory or sycophantic writer. Instead, he drew on his authority both as poet and as monastic historian to shape a challenging literary space and to underline the treacherousness of history. Despite his exceptional cultural significance – his reputation in the 15th century surpassed perhaps even that of Chaucer and Gower – Lydgate has, for different reasons, been marginalized by many literary historical movements since the 16th century.
The Fall of Princes, begun c.1431 at the request of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, and completed in 1438 or 1439, was Lydgate’s most ambitious work. It is based on Laurent de Premierfait’s French version of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium, and runs to 36,365 lines in nine books. The long task weighed heavily even on Lydgate, who makes a number of semi-comic references to it, and at some point wrote a begging poem, the Letter to Gloucester (Minor Poems, 665–7), a witty request for funds. The poem follows the pattern familiar to English readers from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale of a succession of ‘tragedies’ ranging chronologically from Adam to King Jean of France, captured at Poitiers in 1356. The fallen princes pass in front of the author, Bochas, in his study, lament, tell their stories, or urge him to do so. There is much evidence of his wide reading and of a sympathy for the stories of the ancient world. He urges the traditional doctrines of moderation, the avoidance of pride, and the pursuit of virtue, and demonstrates the horror of discord and strife between kinsfolk. This advice, though couched in general terms, was highly relevant to contemporary princes.