Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Fifteenth-Century Political Verses from the Holkham Archives

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Fifteenth-Century Political Verses from the Holkham Archives

Article excerpt

The verses printed for the first time below are found in a mid-fifteenthcentury document in the archives of Holkham Hall, in north Norfolk, and the circumstances of their preservation, together with their dialect, suggest that it was at or near Holkham that they were set down, and probably composed. Spirited in style but plangent in tone, partisan, avowedly ephemeral, and manifestly designed for reading aloud or recitation to a popular audience, they provide a striking evocation of how a set of ordinary people in a remote corner of England perceived the unstable condition of the realm some three hundred years before the existing park and Palladian hall at Holkham were created. Though they may lack the polish of some of the more accomplished political poems of the mid-century,1 the Holkham verses are worth editing for the urgent and genuine sense of contemporary verite that they unmistakably convey, and also, since they can be precisely dated and localized, for their linguistic interest.

Deed no. 116 in the Holkham archives consists of a membrane roll measuring approximately 24 1/2 X 9 1/4 inches (62 X 23.5 cm.), damaged and uneven at both the top and foot. It began life as a manorial document of a familiar type, a terrier, listing (in Latin) the holdings of a particular individual named John Sewale in Burghall, one of several manors in the township at Holkham. It is dated 29 September 1433, and was presumably drawn up by a bailiff or steward, who were the estate servants normally responsible for compiling such documents.2 The terrier occupies the face of the roll, and the dorse at this time remained blank. Many places and topographical features in the locality of Holkham are mentioned, and numerous holders of adjacent lands identified, either corporately, such as the Bishop of Norwich, the Prior of Walsingham, and the Abbot of Dereham, or personally, such as Sir William Calthorp, otherwise known as an associate of the Paston family.3 Sewale's terrier is closely connected with other seigneurial documents in the Holkham archives, and it is endorsed with a later fifteenth-century inscription that reads (under ultraviolet light) 'T Gregges rentall and a terrer made', which probably refers to Thomas Grigges, one of the principal landholders at Holkham in the latter half of the fifteenth century.' Marginal annotations by a later hand or hands show that the terrier must have remained in use for some time after its compilation. In particular, in the left-hand margin against each entry either `australi? or 'borealis' has been entered to indicate the geographical orientation of the terrain, providing (as we shall see) a possible connection with a curious feature of the verses overleaf. The terrier was a working document, and since it was later used in the compilation of other estate records, it obviously remained in the vicinity of the Holkham lands to which it refers, perhaps in the possession of the estate servant who compiled it, or a successor. Some time during this period the opportunity was taken to write out a set of topical verses on the blank dorse of the roll.5

The hand which set down the verses employed a current and informal version of the anglicana script. It is not the same as the somewhat more professional-looking hand of the terrier, and in appearance (as well as linguistically) it resembles some of the more untutored hands to be found amongst the Paston letters and papers of the same period. The spelling, indeed, is markedly provincial, and includes a few forms that might be considered outre even by fifteenth-century East Anglian standards.6 Once the verses had lost their topicality the roll must presumably have returned to its place amongst the archives of the Holkham estates, where it remains to this day. It thus seems more than likely that we owe their preservation, and probably their composition, to someone who lived or worked in that area of north Norfolk.

In presenting the text, the following editorial procedures have been adopted. …

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