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The Canon of John Lydgate Project

The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

The Occasion: Henry VI visits Bury St. Edmunds, 1433-1434
The versified story of the Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund was written as a gift, from Abbot Curteys and the brethren of Bury St. Edmunds, for the child king Henry VI, who, while still in his minority, at the age of twelve, visited the abbey for a lengthy stay from Christmas 1433 through Easter (28 March) to St. George's Day (23 April), 1434. Henry was, during this stay, inducted as a member of the abbey fraternity, considered an exclusive privilege and a very high honour, but an honour shared by many of Lydgate's aristocratic patrons (a list of the members of the fraternity during the time of Abbot Curteys is included in the Victoria County History article on Bury, p. 71).

Henry's visit to Bury is described in Abbot Curteys's Register, Part 1 (London, British Library, MS Addit. 14848), ff. 128r-128v: "De adventu regis Henrici VI ad monasterium de Sancto Edmundo 1433"; the text is printed in Ord; a summary of this description is found in the Victoria County History article on Bury (p. 65) and in Arnold's Memorials 3: xxxi-xxxii. Harley 2278, the presentation manuscript of the Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund, includes a miniature showing the king kneeling at the shrine of St. Edmund.

Thomas Arnold's summary of the "De adventu" follows:
Henry VI., after his futile coronation at Paris in 1431, had been brought back to England, and was royally received in London. Bury had a poet at this time,--the famous John Lydgate; who, three years before, when Henry was crowned at Westminster (November 6th 1429), had presented to him a ballad beginning "Most noble prince of Crysten princes all." When the king passed through London in 1433, Lydgate wrote a ballad entitled "The royal receiving of Henry the 6 into his noble citie of London after his returne out of France." Probably other means of recommending himself and his community to the king and council were also used by the poet; as the result of which the council determined, on All Saints' day 1433, that Henry and the court should spend the Christmas at Bury, and continue their stay till tbe feast of St. George (April 23) in the following year. Of this visit Curteys has left an account in his register; Lydgate also, in his life of St. Edmund, thus speaks of it:--

        Whan sixte Henry in his estat roial
        With his sceptre of Yngland and of France
        Heeld at Bury the feste pryncipal
        Of Cristemesse with ful gret habundance,
        And aftir that list to have plesance--
        As his consail gan for him provide--
        There in his place til hesterne for to abide;

        Whiche is an house of his fundacioun,
        Where his preestis synge ay for him and preie,
        Of ful hool herte and trewe affeccioun,
        That God his noblesse in al vertu conveie,
        And grante him wynne toforn or that he deie
        A palme of conquest, and, whan that he shal fyne,
        To be registrid among the worthy nyne.
The abbot was at Elmeswell (Vol. I., p. 275) when the message from the council reached him. Returning to the convent, he immediately set 80 masons and artificers to work, to enlarge and adorn the abbot's palace. Then he consulted the alderman, and it was agreed between them that in the procession which went forth to meet the king, the alderman and burgesses should be robed in scarlet, and inferior persons in red. So it was done; the townsmen, headed by their alderman, turned out five hundred strong; the monks were in costly "cappas." Owing to the ruined state of the campanile, and the danger of falling stones, the procession met the king on the south, not on the west side of the great church; the king was lifted, or helped, off his palfrey, by his governor the earl of Warwick; the bishop of Norwich (William Alnwick) and the abbot, with due welcome, gave him holy water, and the procession marched up to the high altar, singing the anthem from St. Edmund's office "Ave rex gentis Anglorum." To this auspicious beginning all the rest of the visit seems to have corresponded. The abbot made liberal presents both to the king and the nobles, in aid of which the prior and convent made him a noble grant of one hundred pounds. The king lodged at first in the abbot's palace, but after the Epiphany moved to the prior's residence near the east end of the church, so as to be nearer to the vineyard across the Lark, and the open country beyond. The courtiers hunted the fox and the hare in the fields and woods to the eastward. On the 23rd January the royal Party went to Elmeswell, where they had great enjoyment of fishing and hawking. Lent was passed at the prior's lodging, and then Easter was celebrated with great solemnity and splendour. When the set time came for departure, the Duke of Gloucester and all the courtiers were admitted to the spiritual privileges of the monks--made, so to speak, honorary members of the house. The king prayed before St. Edmund's shrine; then he passed into the chapter-house, where the abbot solemnly admitted him also into the holy brotherhood of the community, and gave him the fraternal kiss--
        Which [the king] at departyng in Bury from his place,
        Lyst of his noblesse and magnanymite
        And of his owyn special grace,
        Mevyd in hym-silf of his benignyte,
        And ther chapitle a brother forto be,
        Yeving his chapleyns occasion and matier
        Ay to remembre on him in ther praier.
Finally, at the suggestion of his uncle the duke of Gloucester, the king took a grateful and affectionate leave of the monks, and rode off on his way. The abbot requested Lydgate, the poet of the house, to make a metrical Life of the royal martyr, their founder, for presentation to the king:--
             --to the king forto do plesaunce,
    Thabbot William, his humble chapeleyn,
    Gaf me in charge to do myn attendaunce 
    The noble story to translate in substaunce, 
    Out of the latin aftir my kunnyng,
    He in ful purpose to yeve it to the king.
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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 9 Nov. 1995

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