Sunday, 16 July 2017

Adam of Usk: an unsung local hero - or was he?

   Whenever my microadventures take me abroad into England, I always try to find a Welsh connection to famous sites. Even when overawed by the Tower of London I still looked out for this link and was thrilled to realise that Adam of Usk had been here on a historic mission: to visit the imprisoned King Richard II. He also met with other kings as well as popes but is little recognised in his home town although he maintained ties with Usk and the surrounding area throughout his life. At one time he was the incumbent of St. Cybi's Church, Langibby, in Monmouthshire near Usk.

His reputation
   He is probably buried in St. Mary's Church, Usk but, if you want to pay homage - and I hope to convince you that he is worthy of it - you have to go down the right-hand aisle, pass behind the choir screen to the eastern side, clamber over a lectern cunningly placed as an obstacle and peer at a small brass plaque in ancient Welsh. To be fair, there is a leaflet which translates this in the words of a Mr. T.R.N. Edwards: "Bring praise to the grave of one noble in learning. A celebrated London lawyer and a 'Judge of the World' privileged in wit, may heaven be thine, a scholar. A Solomon of wisdom, a wonder. Here sleeps Adam of Usk, eloquent, wise man of ten commotes. Behold, this place is full of learning." Even then the Welsh were not renowned for the succinctness - and neither was he.
   Who's Who in Late Medieval England, in an uncharitable summary, notes his tendency to self-aggrandisement: he "was once silenced by a bishop for an untimely display of learning. Vain and boastful, he probably exaggerated the eminence of his friends, the quality of his advice, and his influence on decisions and events, for he revealed himself to be a man without tact, sense of timing, discretion or judgement." You'd meet him in any Welsh pub any evening - and enjoy his company!

His life
Usk Castle
   What did he actually do then? Born probably in 1352 in the Gatehouse of  Usk Castle, he wrote a Chronicle in Latin, though apparently not in the purest form of that language, and not in strictly chronological order, starting with the coronation of Richard II and closing during the reign of Henry V. The value lies chiefly in the fact that he was present at many of the important events he describes. When he visited Richard II, he records: "I was present while he dined and I marked his mood and bearing." He went to Oxford under the patronage of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, and took the degree of Doctor of Laws and canon law. He pleaded in the court of the archbishop, Thomas Arundel for 7 years and writes of the trial of his brother, Richard giving the detail of how he was made to remove his belt and scarlet hood before being led off to his beheading on Tower Hill.
    His opinion on the downfall of Richard II is that one cause was the unruly behaviour of his 400 Cheshire guards "very evil; in all places they oppressed his subjects unpunished and beat and robbed them." An account of the famous encounter between the Dukes of Hereford and Norfolk has again the ring of an eye-witness version as he notes the wet ditch surrounding the appointed place as well as the fact that Hereford "appeared far more gloriously distinguished with diverse equipments of seven horses." We read also: "the matter of setting aside King Richard and of choosing Henry, Duke of Lancaster, in his stead and how it was to be done ... was commissioned to be debated on by certain doctors, bishops and others of whom, I, who am now noting down these things, was one." Momentous - as any reader of Shakespeare will agree.
The mundane side
   There are stories of a more domestic nature such as that of King Richard's greyhound which lay at his side "with grim and lion-like face" until that owner fled whereupon it found its way from Carmarthen to Shrewsbury to Henry IV where it crouched before this new master "with a submissive but bright and pleased aspect" and was allowed to sleep on his bed. The deposed Richard took it "sorely to heart" when the dog then refused to acknowledge him. This tale is mentioned also by Froissart.
   My favourite narrative is that surrounding the death of John of Usk, Abbot of Chertsey, who, with 13 brother monks, died of the plague. A brother, William Burton roused him from sleep, bidding him to be of good cheer for he would do well. The abbot replied: "Blessed be God! I shall fare well. Be silent and hearken!" The monk said: "Unto what shall I hearken?" I love his questioning mind as it is just what I would have asked. It seems he was supposed to hear angels singing but was unworthy and failed.
 His troubles
   Adam seems to have fallen from grace - probably for the theft of "A horse, colour black, saddle and bridle, value one hundred shillings, together with the sum of fourteen marks in cash, all the property of one Walter Jakes." In addition, he had unwisely been remonstrating with Henry IV on the faults of his government and vanished to Rome where he was well received by the Pope and given positions. He was deeply involved with the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr and writes about it - there are other elements of roughness in his life such as his presence in Oxford broils leading to loss of life between men of the South and Wales on the one hand and men of the North on the other. For this he was indicted "as the chief leader and abettor of the Welsh, and perhaps not unrighteously." There is much to like in this honest summary. On his return from Rome, he was again in trouble and had to go into hiding. He was prone to dreams and visions which were always notably apt and he seems to have been of a superstitious nature. The Chronicle ends on an anxious note concerning the rebellious attitude of the people over the taxation imposed by Henry V because of his French wars.
His Will
   He probably died in 1430 and had requested to be buried in Usk Church, though no-one knows exactly where.

Amongst other bequests, he left the Historia Policronica of Ralph Higden to his kinsman, Edward ap Adam and another book of theological wisdom to the church in Usk, the vicar receiving a legacy worth a few pounds in modern money. Some of the nuns of Usk Priory were related to him and they all received about half that: he had secured for them important concessions from the Pope in his lifetime. His main gift is the Chronicle of events from 1377 to 1421, with its vivid, if somewhat disorganised, sense of immediacy and personal involvement. It is available in a scanned edition plus translation by Edward Maunde Thompson which is admittedly quite hard to follow, originated by the Royal Society of Literature.

I fear I may have absorbed by osmosis some of his garrulousness and lack of cohesion here but I have become intrigued by him and will pursue my research further and let you know what I find. I'd like him to become better known although much what we believe of his life is speculation.

To read about the planting of Usk town by the Normans, click here. There are 3 posts about Owain Glyndwr, you could start with this one.  Usk Castle is also of great historic interest. My visit to the Tower of London led me to write about the menagerie that was once part of its identity. For more about Llangybi, click here.


No comments:

Post a Comment