A Norfolk Gentlewoman and Lydgatian Patronage: Lady Sibylle Boys and Her Cultural Environment

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The poetry of John Lydgate (c.1370-1449/50) is often discussed in terms of the poet's illustrious and powerful patrons: literary commissions for royal figures such as Henry V (Troy Book), Henry VI (numerous mummings and pageant poems), and Charles VI (A Devowte Invocacioun to St Denys) demonstrate the dynamic and significant interface of fifteenth-century poetry and politics. (2) The recent renaissance of Lydgate scholarship (in particular that inaugurated by Paul Strohm and Lee Patterson and now significantly augmented by Robert Meyer-Lee, Nigel Mortimer, and Maura Nolan) and historical enquiry into late medieval cultural politics (by Christine Carpenter, Richard Firth Green, and John Watts) has shown that life was, in Nolan's terms, 'inescapably political, that politics govern[ed] all vectors of daily practice'. (3) My concern in this essay is to interrogate, and perhaps to extend, this assessment to the literary patronage of a fifteenth-century Norfolk gentlewoman, Lady Sibylle Boys (c., 1370-c.1456). Sibylle Boys has traditionally been identified as the patroness of two of Lydgate's shorter poems, 'Epistle to Sibille' and 'Tretise for lauandres'; both the poems and their putative patron have been dubbed 'minor' and 'marginal'. Henry Noble MacCracken included both poems in his volumes of Lydgate's 'minor' poems, Derek Pearsall charges with 'quaint antiquarianism' those who view poems like the 'Tretise' as anything more than simple commissions, and most recently Robert Meyer-Lee has described Sibylle Boys as a member of 'marginal gentry' and the poems associated with her as 'purely didactic and mundane'. (4) This essay aims to reconstruct the cultural life of Sibylle Boys and in so doing enable a new, and nuanced, evaluation of this kind of culture. Sibylle Boys--female, 'provincial', gentry--and the poems associated with her --'mundane' curiosities--should not, I contend, be seen as a minor figure but rather one whose cultural life was 'mainstream', prestigious, and shows the full valence and manipulation of Chaucerian and Lydgatian authorities. Hence my title employs the term 'environment' to connote a commissioned text's status as both 'cause' and 'symptom' of--or artefact in conversation with--its contexts; these contexts can include literary, political, social, financial, and personal spheres. A text's 'environment' can encompass a wide range of practices, of association, kinship, and patronage; it also encompasses formal, informal, and semi-formal engagements with images, texts, intertexts, and books, and responds to concerns of class, gente, gender, politics, affinity, and wealth. (5) By using a capacious understanding of environment I hope to delineate the factors both at work on and exploited by Sibylle Boys as patroness and by John Lydgate as patronized poet.

First, it is necessary briefly to sketch Boys's biography. Sibylle Boys was the daughter and heiress of Sir Robert Illey (d. before 1398), knight, and Lady Catherine Illey (d. 1417) of Plumstead Parva (Norfolk) (6) She was apparently born around 1370, making her close in age to Lydgate himself; she is described in a papal letter of 1451 as being about 80 years old. (7) She married Sir Roger Boys (d. c.1422) of Honing and Ingham (Norfolk), with whom she had two children, Thomas (d. 1432) and Robert (d. 1450). (8) Sibylle Boys's husband was a member of the ultra-prestigious and influential Guild of St George at Norwich, which included the leading families of Norfolk and some key players in the world of Lancastrian politics. (9) Both of the Boyses' children predeceased their mother.

Thomas left to his mother all his silver, the furniture of his Norfolk chapel, and a horse called Powys. (10) Robert Boys rose to a position of considerable prominence and power by the 1440s; he left a widow, Jane, and a daughter, Katherine. (11)

Boys was running the estates of her late husband soon after his death, certainly by 1424, and did not remarry. …