Academic journal article Parergon

The Prisoner's Voice in Conflicting Narratives of Loyalty and Political Legitimacy in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article Parergon

The Prisoner's Voice in Conflicting Narratives of Loyalty and Political Legitimacy in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

British Library MS Harley 4380 is a copy of the fourth volume of Jean Froissart's Chroniques, dating to c. 1470 and covering Anglo-French politics from 1389 until Richard Il's deposition and death in 1399-1400. Folio 134 is dominated by a striking image: to the left, the king's uncle Thomas of Woodstock, the duke of Gloucester, is being led by a group of grim-faced soldiers, one of them grasping his arm and another taking his horse's bridle (Figure 1). Gloucester, looking devastated, is turning back to hold a hand out in supplication to King Richard, whose face appears coldly averted from his pleading uncle. In the right background is Pleshey Castle, Gloucester's home and the place where he was arrested in July 1397 in a move that shocked England's political community. To the left is the ship that would immediately bear Gloucester away to the fortress of Calais, which looms in the distance. Within weeks of his arrest, the duke would lie dead in his prison cell at Calais, murdered on Richard's orders. During the parliament held in September, under a thin veneer of judicial objectivity, he was tried and convicted post mortem as a traitor. His conviction was secured on the strength of his first-person vernacular confession, extracted a day or two prior to his death at Calais and then read out on his behalf before the king, Lords and Commons in parliament. (1)

The duke's end foreshadowed that of Richard II. In October 1399 Henry IV deposed him and usurped the English throne, justifying his actions on the grounds that Richard's tyrannous misgovernment was destroying the realm. Henry then gave Richard a dose of his own medicine, imprisoning him first in the Tower of London and then in the Lancastrian stronghold of Pontefract castle where he died in February 1400, probably on Henry's orders. (2) However, Richard's death in prison would not be the end of the story; in late 1400 stories began to circulate that Richard had escaped Pontefract and fled the country. The former king's imagined body in exile became a political focus for dissenters against Lancastrian rule, who were accused of fomenting plots to secure his restoration. In a series of treason prosecutions from the early 1400s, Richard's 'survival' and imminent return was witnessed in textual form through first-person prison confessions that became part of the legal record.

The crises of 1397-99 and the treason cases of the early 1400s involving tales of Richard's survival are not generally considered together in historical analyses. Gloucester's conviction as a traitor is most commonly interpreted as the outcome of factional conflict and royal tyranny; his story usually ends when his personal honour is restored as part of the process of Richard's deposition. (3) Meanwhile, the accounts of Richard's survival, viewed separately from the events of 1397-99, tend to be seen either as symptoms of deep but unfocused popular discontent, or as wishful thinking on the part of a lingering hardcore of Ricardian loyalists. (4) More creatively, Paul Strohm reads the Ricardian survival myths through a Lacanian framework, as narratives of absence, desire, and uncanny return from the realm of the symbolic to the realm of the 'real'. (5)

This article brings together the evidence from treason trials both before and after Richard II's deposition to show that when the sources are analysed through a lens that considers exile and imprisonment as conceptual categories with political and ethical dimensions, and not simply as material punishments, this opens up new interpretative possibilities. Beginning with Gloucester's conviction and tracing the themes of exile and imprisonment through prosecutions from the early 1400s, I argue that the ethical weight of prison writing in the form of confessions, when combined with the authenticating power of first-person vernacular speech in judicial contexts, could produce legal testimonies that resisted or subverted the prosecution narratives they were intended to reinforce. …

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