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might see his lady again. At last night came, and worn out in heart and mind he leaned his head #against the cold rough stone and slept.


AS Prince James slept he dreamed that a sudden great light shone into his prison, making bright all the room. A voice cried, “I bring thee comfort and healing, be not afraid.” Then the light passed as suddenly as it had come and the Prince went forth from his prison, no man saying him nay.

“And hastily by both the arms twain I was araiséd up into the air,
Caught in a cloud of crystal clear and fair.”

And so through “air and water and hot fire” he was carried, seeing and hearing many wonders, till he awoke to find himself still kneeling by his window.

Was it all a dream, Prince James asked himself, even the vision of the lovely lady in the garden? At that thought his heart grew heavy. Then, as if to comfort him, a dove flew in at his window carrying in her mouth a sprig of gilliflowers. Upon the stalk in golden letters were written the words, “Awake! Awake! lover, I bring thee glad news.”

And so the story had a happy ending, for Prince James knew that the lovely lady of the garden loved him. “And if you think,” he says, “that I have written a great deal about a very little thing, I say this to you:–

“Who that from hell hath creepéd once to heaven Would after one thank for joy not make six or seven, And every wight his own sweet or sore
Has most in mind: I can say you no more.”

Then, in an outburst of joy, he thanks and blesses everything that has led up to this happy day, which has brought him under “Love’s yoke which easy is and sure.” Even his exile and his prison he thanks.

“And thankéd be the fair castle wall Whereas I whilcome looked forth and leant.”

The King’s Quair reminds us very much of Chaucer’s work. All through it there are lines which might have been written by Chaucer, and in the last verse James speaks of Gower and Chaucer as his “masters dear.” Of Gower I have said nothing in this book, because there is not room to tell of every one, and he is not so important as some or so interesting as others. So I leave you to learn about him later. It is to Chaucer, too, much more than to Gower that James owes his music. And if he is grave like Gower rather than merry like Chaucer, we must remember that for nineteen years he had lived a captive, so that it was natural his verse should be somber as his life had been. And though there is no laughter in this poem, it shows a power of feeling joy as well as sorrow, which makes us sad when we remember how long the poet was shut away from common human life.
The King’s Quair is written in verses of seven lines. Chaucer used this kind of verse, but because King James used it too, and used it so well, it came to be called the Rhyme Royal.

King James’s story had a happy ending. A story with a happy ending must end of course with a wedding, and so did this one. The King of England, now Henry VI, was only a child. But those who ruled for him were quite pleased when they heard that Prince James had fallen in love with the beautiful lady of the garden, for she was the King’s cousin, Lady Jane Beaufort. They set James free and willingly consented that he should marry his lady, for in this way they hoped to bind England and Scotland together, and put an end to wars between the two countries. So there was a very grand wedding in London when the lovely lady of the garden became Queen of Scotland. And then these two, a King and Queen, yet happy as any simple lovers journeyed northward to their kingdom.

They were received with great rejoicing and crowned at Scone. But the new King soon found, that during the long years he had been kept a prisoner in England his kingdom had fallen into wild disorder. Sternly he set himself to bring order out of disorder, and the wilfull, lawless nobles soon found to their surprise that the gentle poet had a will of iron and a hand of steel, and that he could wield a sword and scepter as skillfully as his pen.

James I righted much that was wrong. In doing it he made for himself many enemies. But of all that he did or tried to do in the twelve years that he ruled you will read in history books. Here I will only tell you of his sad death.

In 1436 James decided to spend Christmas at Perth, a town he loved. As he neared the river Forth, which he had to cross on his way, an aged woman came to him crying in a loud voice, “My Lord King, if ye cross this water ye shall never return again in life.”

Now the King had read a prophecy in which it was said that a King of Scotland should be slain that same year. So wondering what this woman might mean, he sent a knight to speak with the woman. But the knight could make nothing of her, and returning to the King he said, “Sir, take no heed of yon woman’s words, for she is old and foolish, and wots not what she sayeth.” So the King rode on.

Christmas went by quietly and peacefully, and the New Year came, and still the King lingered in Perth. The winter days passed pleasantly in reading, walking, and tennis-playing; the evenings in chess-playing, music, and story-telling.

But one night, as James was chatting and laughing with the Queen and her ladies before going to bed, a great noise was heard. The sound of many feet, the clatter of armor mingled with wild cries was borne to the quiet room, and through the high windows flashed the light of many torches.

At once the King guessed that he was betrayed. The Queen and her ladies ran hastily to the door to shut it. But the locks had been broken and the bolts carried away, so that it could not be fastened.

In vain James looked round. Way of escape there was none. Alone, unarmed, he could neither guard the ladies nor save himself. Crying to them to keep fast the door as best they might, he sprang to the window, hoping by his great strength to wrench the iron bars from their places and escape that way. But, alas, they were so strongly set in the stone that he could not move them, “for which cause the King was ugly astonied.”*

*The Dethe of the Kynge of Scottis.

Then turning to the fire James seized the tongs, “and under his feet he mightily brast up a blank of the chamber,”* and leaping down into the vault beneath he let the plank fall again into its place. By this vault the King might have escaped, for until three days before there had been a hole leading from it to the open air. But as he played tennis his balls often rolled into this hole and were lost. So he had ordered it to be built up.

*The same.

There was nothing, then, for the King to do but wait. Meanwhile the noise grew louder and louder, the traitors came nearer and nearer. One brave lady named Catherine Douglas, hoping to keep them out, and so save the King, thrust her arm through the iron loops on the door where the great bolt should have been. But against the savage force without, her frail, white arm was useless. The door was burst open. Wounded and bleeding, Catherine Douglas was thrown aside and the wild horde stormed into the room.

It was not long ere the King’s hiding-place was found, and one of the traitors leaped down beside him with a great knife in his hand. “And the King, doubting him for his life, caught him mightily by the shoulders, and with full great violence cast him under his feet. For the King was of his person and stature a man right manly strong.”*

*The same.

Seeing this, another traitor leaped down to help his fellow. “And the King caught him manly by the neck, both under him that all a long month after men might see how strongly the King had holden them by the throats.”*

*The same.

Fiercely the King struggled with his enemies, trying to wrench their knives from them so that he might defend himself. But it was in vain. Seeing him grow weary a third traitor, the King’s greatest enemy, Robert Grahame, leaped down too into the vault, “with a horrible and mortal weapon in his hand, and therewithal he smote him through the body, and therewithal the good King fell down.”*

*The same.

And thus the poet King died with sixteen wounds in his brave heart and many more in his body. So at the long last our story has a sad ending. But we have to remember that for twelve years King James had a happy life, and that as he had loved his lady at the first so he loved her to the end, and was true to her.

Besides The King’s Quair, there are a few other short poems which some people think King James wrote. They are very different from the Quair, being more like the ballads of the people, and most people think now that James did not write them. But because they are different is no real reason for thinking that they are not his. For James was quite clever enough, we may believe, to write in more than one way.

Besides these doubtful poems, there is one other poem of three verses about which no one has any doubt. I will give you one verse here, for it seems in tune with the King’s own life and sudden death.

“Be not our proud in thy prosperite, Be not o’er proud in thy prosperity,
For as it cumis, sa will it pass away; For as it comes, so will it pass away; Thy tym to compt is short, thou may weille se Thy time to count is short, thou mayst well see For of green gres soyn cumis walowit hay, For of green grass soon cometh withered hay, Labour is trewth, quhill licht is of the day. Labour in truth, while light is of the day. Trust maist in God, for he best gyd thee can, Trust most in God, for he best guide thee can, And for ilk inch he wil thee quyt a span.” And for each inch he will thee requite a span.


An illustration of this chapter may be read in The Fair Maid of Perth, by Sir Walter Scott; The King’s Tragedy (poetry), by D. G. Rossetti in his Poetical Works. The best version of The King’s Quair in the ancient text is by W. W. Skeat.


THE fifteenth century, the century in which King James I reigned and died, has been called the “Golden Age of Scottish Poetry,” because of the number of poets who lived and wrote then. And so, although I am only going to speak of one other Scottish poet at present, you must remember that there were at this time many more. But of them all William Dunbar is counted the greatest. And although I do not think you will care to read his poems for a very long time to come, I write about him here both because he was a great poet and because with one of his poems, The Thistle and the Rose, he takes us back, as it were, over the Border into England once more.

William Dunbar was perhaps born in 1460 and began his life when James III began his reign. He was of noble family, but there is little to know about his life, and as with Chaucer, what we learn about the man himself we learn chiefly from his writing. We know, however, that he went to the University of St. Andrews, and that it was intended that he should go into the Church. In those days in Scotland there were only two things a gentleman might be – either he must be a soldier or a priest. Dunbar’s friends, perhaps seeing that he was fond of books, thought it best to make him a priest. But indeed he had made a better soldier. For a time, however, although he was quite unsuited for such a life, he became a friar. As a preaching friar he wandered far.

“For in every town and place
Of all England from Berwick to Calais, I have in my habit made good cheer.
In friar’s weed full fairly have I fleichet,* In it have I in pulpit gone and preached, In Dernton kirk and eke in Canterbury, In it I passed at Dover o’er the ferry Through Picardy, and there the people teached.”


Dunbar himself knew that he had no calling to be a friar or preacher. He confesses that

“As long as I did bear the friar’s style In me, God wot, was many wrink and wile, In me was falseness every wight to flatter, Which might be banished by no holy water; I was aye ready all men to beguile.”

So after a time we find him no longer a friar, but a courtier. Soon we find him, like Chaucer, being sent on business to the Continent for his King, James IV. Like Chaucer he receives pensions; like Chaucer, too, he knows sometimes what it is to be poor, and he has left more than one poem in which he prays the King to remember his old and faithful servant and not leave him in want. We find him also begging the King for a Church living, for although he had no mind to be a friar, he wanted a living, perhaps merely that he might be sure of a home in his old age. But for some reason the King never gave him what he asked. We have nearly ninety poems of Dunbar, none of them very long. But although he is a far better poet than Barbour, or even perhaps than James I, he is not for you so interesting in the meantime. First, his language is very hard to understand. One reason for this is that he knows so many words and uses them all. “He language had at large,” says one of his fellow poets and countrymen.* And so, although his thought is always clear, it is not always easy to follow it through his strange words. Second, his charm as a poet lies not so much in what he tells, not so much in his story, as in the way that he tells it. And so, even if you are already beginning to care for words and the way in which they are used, you may not yet care so much that you can enjoy poetry written in a tongue which, to us is almost a foreign tongue. But if some day you care enough about it to master this old-world poet, you will find that there is a wonderful variety in his poems. He can be glad and sad, tender and fierce. Sometimes he seems to smile gently upon the sins and sorrows of his day, at other times he pours forth upon them words of savage scorn, grim and terrible. But when we take all his work together, we find that we have such a picture of the times in which he lived as perhaps only Chaucer besides has given us.

*Sir David Lyndsay.

For us the most interesting poem is The Thistle and the Rose. This was written when Margaret, the daughter of King Henry VII of England, came to be the wife of King James IV of Scotland. Dunbar was the “Rhymer of Scotland,” that is the poet-laureate of his day, and so, as was natural, he made a poem upon this great event. For a poet-laureate is the King’s poet, and it is his duty to make poems on all the great things that may happen to the King. For this he receives a certain amount of money and a cask of wine every year. But it is the honor and not the reward which is now prized.

Dunbar begins by telling us that he lay dreaming one May morning. You will find when you come to read much of the poetry of those days, that poets were very fond of making use of a dream by which to tell a story. It was then a May morning when Dunbar lay asleep.

“When March was with varying winds past, And April had, with her silver showers, Tane leave of nature with an orient blast; And pleasant May, that mother is of flowers, Had made the birds to begin their hours* Among the tender arbours red white,
Whose harmony to hear it was delight.”

*Orisons – morning prayers.

Then it seemed that May, in the form of a beautiful lady, stood beside his bed. She called to him, “Sluggard, awake anon for shame, and in mine honor go write something.”

“‘What,’ quoth I, ‘ shall I wuprise at morrow?’ For in this May few birdies heard I sing. ‘They have more cause to weep and plain their sorrow, Thy air it is not wholesome or benign!'”

“Nevertheless rise,” said May. And so the lazy poet rose and followed the lady into a lovely garden. Here he saw many wonderful and beautiful sights. He saw all the birds, and beasts, and flowers in the world pass before Dame Nature.

“Then calléd she all flowers that grew in field, Discerning all their fashions and properties; Upon the awful Thistle she beheld,
And saw him keepéd* by a bush of spears; Considering him so able for the wars,
A radiant crown of rubies she him gave, And said, ‘In field go forth, and fend the lave.**

And, since thou art a king, be thou discreet, Herb without virtue hold thou not of such price As herb of virtue and of odour sweet;
And let no nettle vile, and full of vice, Mate him to the goodly fleur-de-lis,
Nor let no wild weed full of churlishness Compare her to the lily’s nobleness.

Nor hold thou no other flower in such dainty As the fresh Rose, of colour red and white; For if thou dost, hurt is thine honesty Considering that no flower is so perfect, So full of virtue, pleasance and delight, So full of blissful angelic beauty,
Imperial birth, honour and dignity.'”

**Rest = others.

By the Thistle, of course, Dunbar means James IV, and by the Rose the Princess Margaret.

Then to the Rose Dame Nature spoke, and crowned her with “a costly crown with shining rubies bright.” When that was done all the flowers rejoiced, crying out, “Hail be thou, richest Rose.” Then all the birds – the thrush, the lark, the nightingale–cried “Hail,” and “the common voice uprose of birdies small” till all the garden rang with joy.

“Then all the birdies sang with such a shout, That I anon awoke where that I lay,
And with a start I turnéd me about To see this court: but all were went away: Then up I leanéd, half yet in fear,
And thus I wrote, as ye have heard to forrow,* Of lusty May upon the nineth morrow.”

*Before = already.

Thus did Dunbar sing of the wedding of the Thistle and the Rose. It was a marriage by which the two peoples hoped once more to bring a lasting peace between the two countries. And although the hope was not at once fulfilled, it was a hundred years later. For upon the death of Elizabeth, James VI of Scotland, the great- grandson of Margaret Tudor and James Stuart, received the crown of England also, thus joining the two rival countries. Then came the true marriage of the Thistle and the Rose.

Meanwhile, as long as Henry VII remained upon the throne, there was peace between the two peoples. But when Henry VIII began to rule, his brother-in-law of Scotland soon found cause to quarrel with him. Then once again the Thistle and the Rose met, not in peace, but in war. On the red field of Flodden once again the blood of a Scottish King stained the grass. Once again Scotland was plunged in tears.

After “that most dolent day”* we hear no more of Dunbar. It is thought by some that he, as many another knight, courtier and priest, laid down his life fighting for his King, and that he fell on Flodden field. By others it is thought that he lived to return to Scotland, and that the Queen gave to him one of the now many vacant Church livings, and that there he spent his last days in quietness and peace.

*Sir David Lyndsay.

This may have been so. For although Dunbar makes no mention of Flodden in his poems, it is possible that he may have done so in some that are lost. But where this great poet lies taking his last rest we do not know. It may be he was laid in some quiet country churchyard. It may be he met death suddenly amid the din and horror of battle.


In illustration of this chapter may be read “Edinburgh after Flodden” in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, by W. E. Aytoun. The best edition of the Poems of Dunbar in the original is edited by J. Small.


IF the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of Scottish poetry, it was also the dullest age in English literature. During the fifteenth century few books were written in England. One reason for this was that in England it was a time of foreign and of civil war. The century opened in war with Wales, it continued in war with France. Then for thirty years the wars of the Roses laid desolate the land. They ended at length in 1485 with Bosworth field, by which Henry VII became King.

But in spite of all the wars and strife, the making of books did not quite cease. And if only a few books were written, it was because it was a time of rebirth and new life as well as a time of war and death. For it was in the fifteenth century that printing was discovered. Then it was that the listening time was really done. Men began to use their eyes rather than their ears. They saw as they had never before seen.

Books began to grow many and cheap. More and more people learned to read, and this helped to settle our language into a form that was to last. French still, although it was no longer the language of the court or of the people, had an influence on our speech. People traveled little, and in different parts of the country different dialects, which were almost like different languages, were spoken. We have seen that the “Inglis” of Scotland differed from Chaucer’s English, and the language of the north of England differed from it just as much. But when printed books increased in number quickly, when every man could see for himself what the printed words looked like, these differences began to die out. Then our English, as a literary language, was born.

It was Caxton, you remember, who was the first English printer. We have already heard of him when following the Arthur story as the printer of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. But Caxton was not only a printer, he was author, editor, printer, publisher and bookseller all in one.

William Caxton, as he himself tells us, was born in Kent in the Weald. But exactly where or when we do not know, although it may have been about the year 1420. Neither do we know who or what his father was. Some people think that he may have been a mercer or cloth merchant, because later Caxton was apprenticed to one of the richest cloth merchants of London. In those days no man was allowed to begin business for himself until he had served for a number of years as an apprentice. When he had served his time, and then only, was he admitted into the company and allowed to trade for himself. As the Mercers’ Company was one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the merchant companies, they were very careful of whom they admitted as apprentices. Therefore it would seem that really Caxton’s family was “of great repute of old, and genteel-like,” as an old manuscript says.*

*Harleian MS., 5910.

Caxton’s master died before he had finished his apprenticeship, so he had to find a new master, and very soon he left England and went to Bruges. There he remained for thirty-five years. In those days there was much trade between England and Flanders (Belgium we now call the country) in wool and cloth, and there was a little colony of English merchants in Bruges. There Caxton steadily rose in importance until he became “Governor of the English Nation beyond the seas.” As Governor he had great power, and ruled over his merchant adventurers as if he had been a king.

But even with all his other work, with his trading and ruling to attend to, Caxton found time to read and write, and he began to translate from the French a book of stories called the Recuyell* of the Histories of Troy. This is a book full of the stories of Greek heroes and of the ancient town of Troy.

*Collection, from the French word recueillir, to gather.

Caxton was not very well pleased with his work, however–he “fell into despair of it,” he says–and for two years he put it aside and wrote no more.

In 1468 Princess Margaret, the sister of King Edward IV, married the Duke of Burgundy and came to live in Flanders, for in those days Flanders was under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy. Princess Margaret soon heard of the Englishman William Caxton who had made his home in Bruges. She liked him and encouraged him to go on with his writing, and after a time he gave up his post of Governor of the English and entered the service of the Princess. We do not know what post Caxton held in the household of the Princess, but it was one of honor we may feel sure.

It was at the bidding of the Princess, whose “dreadful command I durst in no wise disobey,” that Caxton finished the translation of his book of stories. And as at this time there were no stories written in English prose (poetry only being still used for stories), the book was a great success. The Duchess was delighted and rewarded Caxton well, and besides that so many other people wished to read it that he soon grew tired of making copies. It was then that he decided to learn the new and wonderful art of printing, which was already known in Flanders. So it came about that the first book ever printed in English was not printed in England, but somewhere on the continent. It was printed some time before 1477, perhaps in 1474.

If in manuscript the book had been a success, it was now much more of one. And we may believe that it was this success that made Caxton leave Bruges and go home to England in order to begin life anew as a printer there.

Many a time, as Governor of the English Nation over the seas, he had sent forth richly laden vessels. But had he known it, none was so richly laden as that which now sailed homeward bearing a printing-press.

At Westminster, within the precincts of the Abbey, Caxton found a house and set up his printing-press. And there, not far from the great west door of the Abbey he, already an elderly man, began his new busy life. His house came to be known as the house of the Red Pale from the sign that he set up. It was probably a shield with a red line down the middle of it, called in heraldry a pale. And from here Caxton sent out the first printed advertisement known in England. “If it please any man spiritual or temporal,” he says, to buy a certain book, “let him come to Westminster in to the Almonry at the Red Pale and he shall have them good cheap.” The advertisement ended with some Latin words which we might translate, “Please do not pull down the advertisement.”

The first book that Caxton is known to have printed in England was called The Dictes* and Sayings of the Philosophers. This was also a translation from French, not, however, of Caxton’s own writing. It was translated by Earl Rivers, who asked Caxton to revise it, which he did, adding a chapter and writing a prologue.

*Another word for sayings, from the French dire, to say.

To the people of Caxton’s day printing seemed a marvelous thing. So marvelous did it seem that some of them thought it could only be done by the help of evil spirits. It is strange to think that in those days, when anything new and wonderful was discovered, people at once thought that it must be the work of evil spirits. That it might be the work of good spirits never seemed to occur to them.

Printing, indeed, was a wonderful thing. For now, instead of taking weeks and months to make one copy of a book, a man could make dozens or even hundreds at once. And this made books so cheap that many more people could buy them, and so people were encouraged both to read and write. Instead of gathering together to hear one man read out of a book, each man could buy a copy for himself. At the end of one of his books Caxton begs folk to notice “that it is not written with pen and ink as other books be, to the end that every man may have them at once. For all the books of this story, called the Recuyell of the Histories of Troy thus imprinted as ye see here were begun on one day and also finished in one day.” We who live in a world of books can hardly grasp what that meant to the people of Caxton’s time.

For fourteen years Caxton lived a busy life, translating, editing, and printing. Besides that he must have led a busy social life, for he was a favorite with Edward IV, and with his successors Richard III and Henry VII too. Great nobles visited his workshop, sent him gifts, and eagerly bought and read his books. The wealthy merchants, his old companions in trade, were glad still to claim him as a friend. Great ladies courted, flattered, and encouraged him. He married, too, and had children, though we known nothing of his home life. Altogether his days were full and busy, and we may believe that he was happy.

But at length Caxton’s useful, busy life came to an end. On the last day of it he was still translating a book from French. He finished it only a few hours before he died. We know this, although we do not know the exact date of his death. For his pupil and follower, who carried on his work afterwards, says on the title-page of this book that it was “finished at the last day of his life.”

Caxton was buried in the church near which he had worked–St. Margaret’s, Westminster. He was laid to rest with some ceremony as a man of importance, for in the account-books of the parish we find these entries:–

“At burying of William Caxton for four torches 6s. 8d. For the bell at same burying 6d.”

This was much more than was usually spent at the burial of ordinary people in those days.

Among the many books which Caxton printed we must not forget Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which we spoke of out of its place in following the story of Arthur in Chapter VIII. Perhaps you would like to turn back and read it over again now.

As we have said, Caxton was not merely a printer. He was an author too. But although he translated books both from French and Dutch, it is perhaps to his delightful prefaces more than to anything else that he owes his title of author. Yet it must be owned that sometimes they are not all quite his own, but parts are taken wholesale from other men’s works or are translated from the French. We are apt to look upon a preface as something dull which may be left unread. But when you come to read Caxton’s books, you may perhaps like his prefaces as much as anything else about them. In one he tells of his difficulties about the language, because different people spoke it so differently. He tells how once he began to translate a book, but “when I saw the fair and strange terms therein, I doubted that it should not please some gentlemen which late blamed me, saying that in my translation I had over curious terms, which could not be understood by common people, and desired me to use old and homely terms in my translations. And fain would I satisfy every man. And so to do I took an old book and read therein, and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. . . . And certainly our language now used varieth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born. . . . And that common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth from another. In-so-much that in my days it happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames, for to have sailed over the sea into Zealand. For lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them.

“And one of them, named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house and asked for meat. And especially he asked for eggs. And the good wife answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not.

“And then at last another said that he would have eyren. Then the good wife said that she understood him well. So what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of language. . . .

“And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find. And thus between plain, rude, and curious I stand abashed. But in my judgement the common terms that be daily used, be lighter to be understood than the old and ancient English.”

In another book Caxton tells us that he knows his own “simpleness and unperfectness” in both French and English. “For in France was I never, and was born and learned my English in Kent, in the Weald, where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as in any place in England.”

So you see our English was by no means yet settled. But printing, perhaps, did more than anything else to settle it.

We know that Caxton printed at least one hundred and two editions of books. And you will be surprised to hear that of all these only two or three were books of poetry. Here we have a sure sign that the singing time was nearly over. I do not mean that we are to have no more singers, for most of our greatest are still to come. But from this time prose had shaken off its fetters. It was no longer to be used only for sermons, for prayers, for teaching. It was to take its place beside poetry as a means of enjoyment – as literature. Literature, then, was no longer the affair of the market-place and the banqueting-hall, but of a man’s own fireside and quiet study. It was no longer the affair of the crowd, but of each man to himself alone.

The chief poems which Caxton printed were Chaucer’s. In one place he calls Chaucer “The worshipful father and first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our English.” Here, I think, he shows that he was trying to follow the advice of “those honest and great clerks” who told him he should write “the most curious terms” that he could find. But certainly he admired Chaucer very greatly. In the preface to his second edition of the Canterbury Tales he says, “Great thank, laud and honour ought to be given unto the clerks, poets” and others who have written “noble books.” “Among whom especially before all others, we ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great philosopher, Geoffrey Chaucer.” Then Caxton goes on to tell us how hard he had found it to get a correct copy of Chaucer’s poems, “For I find many of the said books which writers have abridged it, and many things left out: and in some places have set verses that he never made nor set in his book.”

This shows us how quickly stories became changed in the days when everything was copied by hand. When Caxton wrote these words Chaucer had not been dead more than about eighty years, yet already it was not easy to find a good copy of his works.

And if stories changed, the language changed just as quickly. Caxton tells us that the language was changing so fast that he found it hard to read books written at the time he was born. His own language is very Frenchy, perhaps because he translated so many of his books from French. He not only uses words which are almost French, but arranges his sentences in a French manner. He often, too drops the e in the, just as in French the e or a in le and la is dropped before a vowel. This you will often find in old English books. “The abbey” becomes thabbay, “The English” thenglish. Caxton writes, too, thensygnementys for “the teaching.” Here we have the dropped e and also the French word enseignement used instead of “teaching.” But these were only last struggles of a foreign tongue. The triumphant English we now possess was already taking form.

But it was not by printing alone that in the fifteenth century men’s eyes were opened to new wonder. They were also opened to the wonder of a new world far over the sea. For the fifteenth century was the age of discovery, and of all the world’s first great sailors. It was the time when America and the western isles were discovered, when the Cape of Good Hope was first rounded, and the new way to India found. So with the whole world urged to action by the knowledge of these new lands, with imagination wakened by the tales of marvels to be seen there, with a new desire to see and do stirring in men’s minds, it was not wonderful that there should be little new writing. The fifteenth century was the age of new action and new worlds. The new thought was to follow.



MANY of you have, no doubt, been to the theater. You have seen pantomimes and Peter Pan, perhaps; perhaps, too, a play of Shakespeare, – a comedy, it may be, which made you laugh, or even a tragedy which made you want to cry, or at least left you sad. Some of you, too, have been to “Pageants,” and some may even have been to an oratorio, which last may have been sung in a church.

But did you ever wonder how plays and theaters came to be? Did you ever think that there was a time when in all the length and breadth of the land there was no theater, when there were no plays either merry or sad? Yet it was so. But at a very early time the people of England began to act. And, strange as it may seem to us now, the earliest plays were acted by monks and took place in church. And it is from these very early monkish plays that the theater with its different kinds of plays, that pageants and even oratorios have sprung.

In this chapter I am going to talk about these beginnings of the English theater and of its literature. All plays taken together are called the drama, and the writers of them are called dramatists, from a Greek word dran, to act or do. For dramas are written not to be read merely, but also to be acted.

To trace the English drama from its beginnings we must go a long way back from the reigns of Henry VII and of Henry VIII, down to which the life of Dunbar has brought us. We must go back to the days when the priests were the only learned people in the land, when the monasteries were the only schools.

If we would picture to ourselves what these first English plays were like, we must not think of a brilliantly lighted theater pranked out and fine with red and gold and white such as we know. We must think rather of some dim old church. Stately pillars rise around us, and the outline of the arches is lost in the high twilight of the roof. Behind the quaintly dressed players gleams the great crucifix with its strange, sad figure and outstretched arms which, under the flickering light of the high altar candles, seems to stir to life. And beyond the circle of light, in the soft darkness of the nave, the silent people kneel or stand to watch.

It was in such solemn surroundings that our first plays were played. And the stories that were acted were Bible stories. There was no thought of irreverence in such acting. On the contrary, these plays were performed “to exort the mindes of common people to good devotion and holesome doctrine.”

You remember when Caedmon sang, he made his songs of the stories of Genesis and Exodus. And in this way, in those bookless days, the people were taught the Bible stories. But you know that what we learn by our ears is much harder to remember than what we learn by our eyes. If we are only told a thing we may easily forget it. But if we have seen it, or seen a picture of it, we remember it much more easily. In those far-off days, however, there were as few pictures as there were books in England. And so the priests and monks fell upon the plan of acting the Bible stories and the stories of the saints, so that the people might see and better understand.

These plays which the monks made were called Mystery or Miracle plays. I cannot tell you the exact date of our first Miracle plays, but the earliest that we know of certainly was acted at the end of the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century. It is not unreasonable to suppose, however, that there had been still earlier plays of which we know nothing. For the Miracle plays did not spring all at once to life, they began gradually, and the beginnings can be traced as far back as the ninth century. In an old book of rules for Winchester Cathedral, written about 959, there are directions given for showing the death and resurrection of Christ in dumb show chiefly, with just a few Latin sentences to explain it. By degrees these plays grew longer and fuller, until in them the whole story of man from the Creation to the Day of Judgment was acted in what was called a cycle or circle of short acts or plays.

But although these plays were looked upon as an act of religion, they were not all solemn. At times, above the grave tones of the monks or the solemn chanting of the choir, laughter rang out. For some of the characters were meant to be funny, and the watching crowd knew and greeted them as such even before they spoke, just as we know and greet the jester or the clown.

The demons were generally funny, and Noah’s wife, who argued about going into the ark. The shepherds, also, watching their flocks by night, were almost sure to make the people laugh.

But there were solemn moments, too, when the people reverently listened to the grave words of God the Father, or to those, tender and loving, of Mary, the Virgin Mother. And when the shepherds neared the manger where lay the wondrous Babe, all jesting ceased. Here there was nothing but tender, if simple and unlearned, adoration.

In those early days Latin was the tongue of the Church, and the Miracle plays were at first said in Latin. But as the common folk could not understand what was said, the plays were chiefly shown in dumb show. Soon, however, Latin was given up, and the plays were acted in English. Then by degrees the churches grew too small to hold the great crowds of people who wished to see the plays, and so they were acted outside the church door in the churchyard, on a stage built level with the steps. The church, then, could be made to represent heaven, where God and the angels dwelt. The stage itself was the world, and below it was hell, from out of which came smoke and sometimes flames, and whence might be heard groans and cries and the clanking of chains.

But the playing of Mysteries and Miracles at the church doors had soon to be given up. For the people, in their excitement, forgot the respect due to the dead. They trampled upon the graves and destroyed the tombs in their eagerness to see. And when the play was over the graveyard was a sorry sight with trodden grass and broken headstones. So by degrees it came about that these plays lost their connection with the churches, and were no more played in or near them. They were, instead, played in some open space about the town, such as the market-place. Then, too, the players ceased to be monks and priests, and the acting was taken up by the people themselves. It was then that the playing came into the hands of the trade guilds.

Nowadays we hear a great deal about “trades unions.” But in those far-off days such things were unknown. Each trade, however, had its own guild by which the members of it were bound together. Each guild had its patron saint, and after a time the members of a guild began to act a play on their saint’s day in his honor. Later still the guilds all worked together, and all acted their plays on one day. This was Corpus Christi Day, a feast founded by Pope Urban IV in 1264. As this feast was in summer, it was a very good time to act the plays, for the weather was warm and the days were long. The plays often began very early in the morning as soon as it was light, and lasted all day.

The Miracles were now acted on a movable stage. This stage was called a pageant, and the play which was acted on it was also in time called a pageant. The stage was made in two stories. The upper part was open all round, and upon this the acting took place. The under part was curtained all round, and here the actors dressed. From here, too, they came out, and when they had finished their parts they went back again within the curtains.

The movable stages were, of course, not very large, so sometimes more than one was needed for a play. At other times the players overflowed, as it were, into the audience. “Here Herod rages on the pageant and in the street also” is one stage direction. The devils, too, often ran among the people, partly to amuse them and partly to frighten and show them what might happen if they remained wicked. At the Creation, animals of all kinds which had been kept chained up were let loose suddenly, and ran among the people, while pigeons set free from cages flew over their heads. Indeed, everything seems to have been done to make the people feel the plays as real as possible.

The pageants were on wheels, and as soon as a play was over at the first appointed place, the stage was dragged by men to the next place and the play again began. In an old MS. we are told, “The places where they played them was in every streete. They begane first at the abay gates, and when the first pagiante was played, it was wheeled to the highe crosse befor the mayor, and soe to every streete. And soe every streete had a pagiant playinge before them at one time, till all the pagiantes for the daye appoynted weare played. And when one pagiante was neare ended worde was broughte from streete to streete, that soe they mighte come in place thereof, exceedinge orderly. And all the streetes have theire pagiantes afore them all at one time playinge togeather.”*

*Harleian MS., 1948.

Thus, if a man kept his place all a long summer’s day, he might see pass before him pageant after pageant until he had seen the whole story of the world, from the Creation to the Day of Judgment.

In time nearly every town of any size in England had its own cycle of plays, but only four of these have come down to us. These are the York, the Chester, the Wakefield, and the Coventry cycles. Perhaps the most interesting of them all are the Wakefield plays. They are also called the Townley plays, from the name of the family who possessed the manuscript for a long time.

Year after year the same guild acted the same play. And it really seemed as if the pageant was in many cases chosen to suit the trade of the players. The water-drawers of Chester, for instance, acted the Flood. In York the shipwrights acted the building of the ark, the fishmongers the Flood, and the gold- beaters and money-workers the three Kings out of the East.

The members of each guild tried to make their pageant as fine as they could. Indeed, they were expected to do so, for in 1394 we find the Mayor of York ordering the craftsmen “to bring forth their pageants in order and course by good players, well arrayed and openly speaking, upon pain of losing of 100 shillings, to be paid to the chamber without any pardon.”*

*Thomas Sharp, Dissertation on the Pageants.

So, in order to supply everything that was needful, each member of a guild paid what was called “pageant silver.” Accounts of how this money was spent were carefully kept. A few of these have come down to us, and some of the items and prices paid sound very funny now.

“Paid for setting the world of fire 5d. For making and mending of the black souls hose 6d. For a pair of new hose and mending of the old for the white souls 18d. Paid for mending Pilate’s hat 4d.”

The actors, too, were paid. Here are some of the prices:–

“To Fawson for hanging Judas 4d.
Paid to Fawson for cock crowing 4d.

Some got much more than others. Pilate, for instance, who was an important character, got 4s., while two angels only got 8d. between them. But while the rehearsing and acting were going on the players received their food, and when it was all over they wound up with a great supper.


IN this chapter I am going to give you a part of one of the Townley plays to show you what the beginnings of our drama were like,

Although our forefathers tried to make the pageants as real as possible, they had, of course, no scenery, but acted on a little bare platform. They never thought either that the stories they acted had taken place long ago and in lands far away, where dress and manners and even climate were all very different from what they were in England.

For instance, in the Shepherd’s play, of which I am going to tell, the first shepherd comes in shivering with cold. For though he is acting in summer he must make believe that it is Christmas-time, for on Christmas Day Christ was born. And Christmas-time in England, he knows, is cold. What it may be in far-off Palestine he neither knows nor cares.

“Lord, what these weathers are cold! and I am ill happed; I am near hand dulled so long have I napped; My legs they fold, my fingers are chapped, It is not as I would, for I am all lapped In sorrow.
In storm and tempest,
Now in the east, now in the west, Woe is him has never rest
Mid-day or morrow.”

In this strain the shepherd grumbles until the second comes. He, too, complains of the cold.

“The frost so hideous, they water mine een, No lie!
Now is dry, now is wet,
Now is snow, now is sleet,
When my shoon freeze to my feet,
It is not all easy.”

So they talk until the third shepherd comes. He, too, grumbles.

“Was never syne Noah’s floods such floods seen; Winds and rains so rude, and storms so keen.”

The first two ask the third shepherd where the sheep are. “Sir,” he replies,

“This same day at morn
I left them i the corn
When they rang lauds.
They had pasture good they cannot go wrong.”

That is all right, say the others, and so they settle to sing a song, when a neighbor named Mak comes along. They greet the newcomer with jests. But the second shepherd is suspicious of him.

“Thus late as thou goes,
What will men suppose?
And thou hast no ill nose
For stealing of sheep.”

“I am true as steel,” says Mak. “All men wot it. But a sickness I feel that holds me full hot,” and so, he says, he is obliged to walk about at night for coolness.

The shepherds are all very weary and want to sleep. But just to make things quite safe, they bid Mak lie down between them so that he cannot move without awaking them. Mak lies down as he is bid, but he does not sleep, and as soon as the others are all snoring he softly rises and “borrows” a sheep.

Quickly he goes home with it and knocks at his cottage door. “How, Gill, art thou in? Get us a light.”

“Who makes such din this time of night?” answers his wife from within.

When she hears that it is Mak she unbars the door, but when she sees what her husband brings she is afraid.

“By the naked neck thou art like to hang,” she says.

“I have often escaped before,” replies Mak.

“But so long goes the pot to the water, men say, at last comes it home broken,” cries Gill.

But the question is, now that they have the sheep, how is it to be his from the shepherds. For Mak feels sure that they will suspect him when they find out that a sheep is missing.

Gill has a plan. She will swaddle the sheep like a new-born baby and lay it in the cradle. This being done, Mak returns to the shepherds, whom he finds still sleeping, and lies down again beside them. Presently they all awake and rouse Mak, who still pretends to sleep. He, after some talk, goes home, and the shepherds go off to seek and count their sheep, agreeing to meet again at the “crooked thorn.”

Soon the shepherds find that one sheep is missing, and suspecting Mak of having stolen it they follow him home. They find him sitting by the cradle singing a lullaby to the new-born baby, while Gill lies in bed groaning and pretending to be very ill. Mak greets the shepherds in a friendly way, but bids them speak softly and not walk about, as his wife is ill and the baby asleep.

But the shepherds will not be put off with words. They search the house, but can find nothing.

“All work we in vain as well may we go. Bother it!
I can find no flesh
Hard or nesh,*
Salt or fresh,
But two toom** platters.”


Meanwhile, Gill from her bed cries out at them, calling them thieves. “Ye come to rob us. I swear if ever I you beguiled, that I eat this child that lies in this cradle.”

The shepherds at length begin to be sorry that they have been so unjust as to suspect Mak. They wish to make friends again. But Mak will not be friends. “Farewell, all three, and glad I am to see you go,” he cries.

So the shepherds go a little sadly. “Fair winds may there be, but love there is none this year,” says one.

“Gave ye the child anything?” says another.

“I trow not a farthing.”

“Then back will I go,” says the third shepherd, “abide ye there.”

And back he goes full of his kindly thought. “Mak,” he says, “with your leave let me give your bairn but sixpence.”

But Mak still pretends to be sulky, and will not let him come near the child. By this time all the shepherds have come back. One wants to kiss the baby, and bends over the cradle. Suddenly he starts back. What a nose! The deceit is found out and the shepherds are very angry. Yet even in their anger they can hardly help laughing. Mak and Gill, however, are ready of wit. They will not own to the theft. It is a changeling child, they say.

“He was taken with an elf,
I saw it myself,
When the clock struck twelve was he foreshapen,”

says Gill.

But the shepherds will not be deceived a second time. They resolve to punish Mak, but let him off after having tossed him in a blanket until they are tired and he is sore and sorry for himself.

This sheepstealing scene shows how those who wrote the play tried to catch the interest of the people. For every one who saw this scene could understand it. Sheepstealing was a very common crime in England in those days, and was often punished by death. Probably every one who saw the play knew of such cases, and the writers used this scene as a link between the everyday life, which was near at hand and easy to understand, and the story of the birth of Christ, which was so far off and hard to understand.

And it is now, when the shepherds are resting from their hard work of beating Mak, that they hear the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest.” From this point on all the jesting ceases, and in its rough way the play is reverent and loving.

The angel speaks.

“Rise, herdmen, quickly, for now is he born That shall take from the fiend what Adam was lorn; That demon to spoil this night is he born, God is made your friend now at this morn. He behests
At Bethlehem go see,
There lies that fre*
In a crib full poorly
Betwixt two beasties.”


The shepherds hear the words of the angel, and looking upward see the guiding star. Wondering at the music, talking of the prophecies of David and Isaiah, they hasten to Bethlehem and find the lowly stable. Here, with a mixture of awe and tenderness, the shepherds greet the Holy Child. It is half as if they spoke to the God they feared, half as if they played with some little helpless baby who was their very own. They mingle simple things of everyday life with their awe. They give him gifts, but their simple minds can imagine no other than those they might give to their own children.

The first shepherd greets the child with words:–

“Hail, comely and clean! Hail, young child! Hail, maker as methinks of a maiden so mild. Thou hast warred, I ween, the demon so wild.”

Then he gives as his gift a bob of cherries.

The second shepherd speaks:–

“Hail! sovereign saviour! for thee have we sought. Hail, noble child and flower that all thing hast wrought. Hail, full of favour, that made all of nought. Hail! I kneel and I cower! A bird have I brought To my bairn.
Hail, little tiny mop,
Of our creed thou art crop,*
I would drink to thy health,
Little Day Star!”

The third shepherd speaks:–

Hail! darling dear full of Godhead! I pray thee be near when that I have need! Hail! sweet is thy cheer! My heart would bleed To see thee sit here in so poor weed
With no pennies.
Hail! put forth thy dall.*
I bring thee but a ball:
Have and play thee with all
And go to the tennis.”


And so the pageant of the shepherds comes to an end, and they return home rejoicing.

This play gives us a good idea of how the Miracles wound themselves about the lives of the people. It gives us a good idea of the rudeness of the times when such jesting with what we hold as sacred seemed not amiss. It gives, too, the first gleam of what we might call true comedy in English.


A LITTLE later than the Miracle and Mystery plays came another sort of play called the Moralities. In these, instead or representing real people, the actors represented thoughts, feelings and deeds, good and bad. Truth, for instance, would be shown as a beautiful lady; Lying as an ugly old man, and so on. These plays were meant to teach just as the Miracles were meant to teach. But instead of teaching the Bible stories, they were made to show men the ugliness of sin and the beauty of goodness. When we go to the theater now we only think of being amused, and it is strange to remember that all acting was at first meant to teach.

The very first of our Moralities seems to have been a play of the Lord’s Prayer. It was acted in the reign of Edward III or some time after 1327. But that has long been lost, and we know nothing of it but its name. There are several other Moralities, however, which have come down to us of a later date, the earliest being of the fifteenth century, and of them perhaps the most interesting is Everyman.

But we cannot claim Everyman altogether as English literature, for it is translated from, or at least founded upon, a Dutch play. Yet it is the best of all the Moralities which have come down to us, and may have been translated into English about 1480. In its own time it must have been thought well of, or no one would have troubled to translate it. But, however popular it was long ago, for hundreds of years it had lain almost forgotten, unread except by a very few, and never acted at all, until some one drew it from its dark hiding-place and once more put it upon the stage. Since then, during the last few years, it has been acted often. And as, happily, the actors have tried to perform it in the simple fashion in which it must have been done long ago, we can get from it a very good idea of the plays which pleased our forefathers. On the title-page of Everyman we read: “Here beginneth a treatise how the high Father of heaven sendeth Death to summon every creature to come to give a count of their lives in this world, and is in the manner of a moral play.” So in the play we learn how Death comes to Everyman and bids him follow him.

But Everyman is gay and young. He loves life, he has many friends, the world to him is beautiful, he cannot leave it. So he prays Death to let him stay, offers him gold and riches if he will but put off the matter until another day.

But Death is stern. “Thee availeth not to cry, weep and pray,” he says, “but haste thee lightly that thou wert gone the journey.”

Then seeing that go he must, Everyman thinks that at least he will have company on the journey. So he turns to his friends. But, alas, none will go with him. One by one they leave him. Then Everyman cries in despair:–

“O to whom shall I make my moan
For to go with me in that heavy journey? First Fellowship said he would with me gone; His words were very pleasant and gay,
But afterward he left me alone.
Then spake I to my kinsmen all in despair, And also they gave me words fair;
They lacked no fair speaking,
But all forsake me in the ending.”

So at last Everyman turns him to his Good Deeds–his Good Deeds, whom he had almost forgotten and who lies bound and in prison by reason of his sins. And Good Deeds consents to go with him on the dread journey. With him come others, too, among them Knowledge and Strength. But at the last these, too, turn back. Only Good Deeds is true, only Good Deeds stands by him to the end with comforting words. And so the play ends; the body of Everyman is laid in the grave, but we know that his soul goes home to God.

This play is meant to picture the life of every man or woman, and to show how unhappy we may be in the end if we have not tried to be good in this world.

“This moral men may have in mind,
The hearers take it of worth old and young, And forsake Pride, for he deceiveth you in the end, And remember Beauty, Five Wits, Strength, and Discretion, They all at the last do Everyman forsake, Save his Good Deeds; these doth he take. And beware, – an they be small,
Before God he hath no help at all. None excuse may be there for Everyman.”


Everyman: A Morality (Everyman’s Library).


PERHAPS the best Morality of which we know the author’s name is Magnificence, by John Skelton. But, especially after Everyman, it is dull reading for little people, and it is not in order to speak of this play that I write about Skelton.

John Skelton lived in the stormy times of Henry VIII, and he is called sometimes our first poet-laureate. But he was not poet- laureate as we now understand it, he was not the King’s poet. The title only meant that he had taken a degree in grammar and Latin verse, and had been given a laurel wreath by the university which gave the degree. It was in this way that Skelton was made laureate, first by Oxford, then by Louvain in Belgium, and thirdly by Cambridge, so that in his day he was considered a learned man and a great poet. He was a friend of Caxton and helped him with one of his books. “I pray, maister Skelton, late created poet-laureate in the university of Oxenford,” says Caxton, “to oversee and correct this said book.”

John Skelton, like so many other literary men of those days, was a priest. He studied, perhaps, both at Oxford and at Cambridge, and became tutor to Prince, afterwards King, Henry VIII. We do not know if he had an easy time with his royal pupil or not, but in one of his poems he tells us that “The honour of England I learned to spell” and “acquainted him with the Muses nine.”

The days of Henry VIII were troublous times for thinking people. The King was a tyrant, and the people of England were finding it harder than ever to bow to a tyrant while the world was awakening to new thought, and new desires for freedom, both in religion and in life.

The Reformation had begun. The teaching of Piers Ploughman, the preaching of Wyclif, had long since almost been forgotten, but it had never altogether died out. The evils in the Church and in high places were as bad as ever, and Skelton, himself a priest, preached against them. He attacked other, even though he himself sinned against the laws of priesthood. For he was married, and in those days marriage was forbidden to clergymen, and his life was not so fair as it might have been.

At first Wolsey, the great Cardinal and friend of Henry VIII, was Skelton’s friend too. But Skelton’s tongue was mocking and bitter. “He was a sharp satirist, but with more railing and scoffery than became a poet-laureate,”* said one. The Cardinal became an enemy, and the railing tongue was turned against him. In a poem called Colin Cloute Skelton pointed out the evils of his day and at the same time pointed the finger of scorn at Wolsey. Colin Cloute, like Piers Ploughman, was meant to mean the simple good Englishman.

*George Puttenham.

“Thus I Colin Cloute,
As I go about,

And wandering as I walk,
There the people talk.
Men say, for silver and gold
Mitres are bought and sold.”

And again:–

“Laymen say indeed,
How they (the priests) take no heed Their silly sheep to feed,
But pluck away and pull
The fleeces of their wool.”

But he adds:–

“Of no good bishop speak I,
Nor good priest I decry,
Good friar, nor good chanon,*
Good nun, nor good canon,
Good monk, nor good clerk,
Nor yet no good work:
But my recounting is
Of them that do amiss.”

*Same as canon.

Yet, although Skelton said he would not decry any good man or any good work, his spirit was a mocking one. He was fond of harsh jests and rude laughter, and no person or thing was too high or too holy to escape his sharp wit. “He was doubtless a pleasant conceited fellow, and of a very sharp wit,” says a writer about sixty years later, “exceeding bold, and would nip to the very quick when he once set hold.”*

*William Webbe.

And being bold as bitter, and having set hold with hatred upon Wolsey, he in another poem called Why come ye not to Court? and in still another called Speake, Parrot, wrote directly against the Cardinal. Yet although Skelton railed against the Cardinal and against the evils in the Church, he was no Protestant. He believed in the Church of Rome, and would have been sorry to think that he had helped the “heretics.”

Wolsey was still powerful, and he made up his mind to silence his enemy, so Skelton found himself more than once in prison, and at last to escape the Cardinal’s anger he was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster. There he remained until he died a few months before his great enemy fell from power.

As many of Skelton’s poems were thus about quarrels over religion and politics, much of the interest in them has died. Yet, as he himself says,

“For although my rhyme is ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rain-beaten,
Rust and moth eaten,
If ye take well therewith,
It hath in it some pith.”

And it is well to remember the name of Colin Cloute at least, because a later and much greater poet borrowed that name for one of his own poems, as you shall hear.

But the poem which keeps most interest for us is one which perhaps at the time it was written was thought least important. It is called The Book of Philip Sparrow. And this poem shows us that Skelton was not always bitter and biting. For it is neither bitter nor coarse, but is a dainty and tender lament written for a schoolgirl whose sparrow had been killed by a cat. It is written in the same short lines as Colin Cloute and others of Skelton’s poems–“Breathless rhymes”* they have been called. These short lines remind us somewhat of the old Anglo-Saxon short half-lines, except that they rime. They are called after their author “Skeltonical.”

*Bishop Hall.

What chiefly makes The Book of Philip Sparrow interesting is that it is the original of our nursery rime Who Killed Cock Robin? It is written in the form of a dirge, and many people were shocked at that, for they said that it was but another form of mockery that this jesting priest had chosen with which to divert himself. But I think that little Jane Scoupe at school in the nunnery at Carowe would dry her eyes and smile when she read it. She must have been pleased that the famous poet, who had been the King’s tutor and friend and who had been both the friend and enemy of the great Cardinal, should trouble to write such a long poem all about her sparrow.

Here are a few quotations from it:–

“Pla ce bo,*
Who is there who?
Di le sci,
Dame Margery;
Fa re my my,
Wherefore and why why?
For the soul of Philip Sparrow
That was late slain at Carowe
Among the nuns black,
For that sweet soul’s sake,
And for all sparrows’ souls,
Set in our bead rolls,
Pater Noster qui,
With an Ave Mari,
And with the corner of a creed,
The more shall be your need.

*Placebo is the first word of the first chant in the service for the dead. Skelton has here made it into three words. The chant is called the Placebo from the first word.
. . . .
I wept and I wailed,
The tears down hailed,
But nothing it availed
To call Philip again,
That Gib our cat hath slain.
Gib, I say, our cat
Worried her on that
Which I loved best.
It cannot be expressed
My sorrowful heaviness
And all without redress.
. . . .
It had a velvet cap,
And would sit upon my lap,
And seek after small worms,
And sometimes white bread-crumbs. . . . .
Sometimes he would gasp
When he saw a wasp,
A fly or a gnat
He would fly at that;
And prettily he would pant
When he saw an ant;
Lord, how he would fly
After the butterfly.
And when I said Phip, Phip
Then he would leap and skip,
And take me by the lip.
Alas it will me slo,*
That Philip is gone me fro.

. . . .
For it would come and go,
And fly so to and fro;
And on me it would leap
When I was asleep,
And his feathers shake,
Wherewith he would make
Me often for to wake.
. . . .
That vengeance I ask and cry,
By way of exclamation,
On all the whole nation
Of cats wild and tame.
God send them sorrow and shame!
That cat especially
That slew so cruelly
My little pretty sparrow
That I brought up at Carowe.
O cat of churlish kind,
The fiend was in thy mind,
When thou my bird untwined.*
I would thou hadst been blind.
The leopards savage,
The lions in their rage,
Might catch thee in their paws
And gnaw thee in their jaws.

*Tore to pieces.
. . . .
These villainous false cats,
Were made for mice and rats,
And not for birdies small.
. . . .
Alas, mine heart is slayeth
My Philip’s doleful death,
When I remember it,
How prettily it would sit,
Many times and oft,
Upon my finger aloft.
. . . .
To weep with me, look that ye come, All manner of birds of your kind;
So none be left behind,
To mourning look that ye fall
With dolorous songs funeral,
Some to sing, and some to say,
Some to weep, and some to pray,
Every bird in his lay.
The goldfinch and the wagtail;
The gangling jay to rail,
The flecked pie to chatter
Of the dolorous matter;
The robin redbreast,
He shall be the priest,
The requiem mass to sing,
Softly warbling,
With help of the red sparrow,
And the chattering swallow,
This hearse for to hallow;
The lark with his lung too,
The chaffinch and the martinet also; . . . .
The lusty chanting nightingale,
The popinjay to tell her tale,
That peepeth oft in the glass,
Shall read the Gospel at mass;
The mavis with her whistle
Shall read there the Epistle,
But with a large and a long
To keep just plain song.
. . . .
The peacock so proud,
Because his voice is loud,
And hath a glorious tail
He shall sing the grayle;*

The owl that is so foul
Must help us to howl.

*Gradual = the part of the mass between Epistle and Gospel. . . . .
At the Placebo
We may not forgo
The chanting of the daw
The stork also,
That maketh her nest
In chimnies to rest.
. . . .
The ostrich that will eat
A horseshoe so great,
In the stead of meat,
Such fervent heat
His stomach doth gnaw.
He cannot well fly
Nor sing tunably.
. . . .
The best that we can
To make him our bellman,
And let him ring the bells,
He can do nothing else.
Chanticlere our cock
Must tell what is of the clock
By the astrology
That he hath naturally
Conceived and caught,
And was never taught.
. . . .
To Jupiter I call
Of heaven imperial
That Philip may fly
Above the starry sky
To greet the pretty wren
That is our Lady’s hen,
Amen, amen, amen.


RENAISSANCE means rebirth, and to make you understand something of what the word means in our literature I must take you a long way. You have been told that the fifteenth century was a dull time in English literature, but that it was also a time of new action and new life, for the discovery of new worlds and the discovery of printing had opened men’s eyes and minds to new wonders. There was a third event which added to this new life by bringing new thought and new learning to England. That was the taking of Constantinople by the Turks.

It seems difficult to understand how the taking of Constantinople could have any effect on our literature. I will try to explain, but in order to do so clearly I must go back to the time of the Romans.

All of you have read English history, and there you read of the Romans. You know what a clever and conquering people they were, and how they subdued all the wild tribes who lived in the countries around them. Besides conquering all the barbarians around them, the Romans conquered another people who were not barbarians, but who were in some ways more civilized than themselves. These were the Greeks. They had a great literature, they were more learned and quite as skilled in the arts of peace as the Romans. Yet in 146 B.C., long before the Romans came to our little island, Greece became a Roman province.

Nearly five hundred years later there sat upon the throne an Emperor named Constantine. And he, although Rome was still pagan, became a Christian. He was, besides, a great and powerful ruler. His court was brilliant, glittering with all the golden splendor of those far-off times. But although Rome was still pagan, Greece, a Roman province, had become Christian. And in this Christian province Constantine made up his mind to build a New Rome.

In those days the boundaries of Greece stretched far further than they do now, and it was upon the shores of the Bosphorus that Constantine built his new capital. There was already an ancient town there named Byzantium, but he transformed it into a new and splendid city. The Emperor willed it to be called New Rome, but instead the people called it the city of Constantine, and we know it now as Constantinople.

When Constantinople was founded it was a Roman city. All the rulers were Roman, all the high posts were filled by Romans, and Latin was the speech of the people. But in Constantinople it happened as it had happened in England after the Conquest. In England, for a time after the Conquest, the rulers were French and the language was French, but gradually all that passed away, and the language and the rulers became English once more. So it was in Constantinople. By degrees it became a Greek city, the rulers became Greek, and Greek was the language spoken.

In building a second capital Constantine had weakened his Empire. Soon it was split in two, and there arose a western and an eastern Empire. As time went on the Western Empire with Rome at its head declined and fell, while the Eastern Empire with Constantinople as its capital grew great. But it grew into a Greek Empire. Even very clever people cannot tell the exact date at which the Roman Empire came to an end and the Greek or Byzantine Empire, as it is called, began. So we need not trouble about that. All that is needful for us to understand now it that Constantinople was a Christian city, a Greek city, and a treasure-house of Greek learning and literature.

Thus Constantinople was the Christian outpost of Europe. For hundred of year the Byzantine Empire stood as a barrier against the Saracen hosts of Asia. It might have stood still longer, but sad to say, this barrier was first broken down by the Christians themselves. For in 1204 the armies of the fourth Crusade, which had gathered to fight the heathen, turned their swords, to their shame be it said, against the Christian people of the Greek Empire. Constantinople was taken, plundered, and destroyed by these “pious brigands,”* and the last of the Byzantine Emperors was first blinded and then flung from a high tower, so that his body fell shattered to pieces on the paving-stones of his own capital.

*George Finlay, History of Greece.

Baldwin, Count of Flanders, one of the great leaders of the Crusade, was then crowned by his followers and acknowledged Emperor of the East. But the once great Empire was now broken up, and out of it three lesser Empires, as well as many smaller states, were formed.

Baldwin did not long rule as Emperor of the East, and the Greeks after a time succeeded in regaining Constantinople from the western Christians. But although for nearly two hundred years longer they kept it, the Empire was dying and lifeless. And by degrees, as the power of Greece grew less, the power of Turkey grew greater. At length in 1453 the Sultan Mohammed II attacked Constantinople. Then the Cross, which for a thousand years and more had stood upon the ramparts of Christendom, went down before the Crescent.

Constantine XI, the last of the Greek Emperors, knelt in the great church of St. Sophia to receive for the last time the Holy Sacrament. Then mounting his horse he rode forth to battle. Fighting for his kingdom and his faith he fell, and over his dead body the young Sultan and his soldiers rode into the ruined city. Then in the church, where but a few hours before the fallen Emperor had knelt and prayed to Christ, the Sultan bowed himself in thanks and praise to Allah and Mohammed.

And now we come to the point where the taking of Constantinople and the fall of the Greek Empire touches our literature.

In Constantinople the ancient learning and literature of the Greeks had lived on year after year. The city was full of scholars who knew, and loved, and studied the Greek authors. But now, before the terror of the Turk, driven forth by the fear of slavery and disgrace, these Greek scholars fled. They fled to Italy. And although in their flight they had to leave goods and wealth behind, the came laden with precious manuscripts from the libraries of Constantinople.

These fugitive Greeks brought to the Italians a learning which was to them new and strange. Soon all over Europe the news of the New Learning spread. Then across the Alps scholars thronged from every country in Europe to listen and to learn.

I do not think I can quite make you understand what this New Learning was. It was indeed but the old learning of Greece. Yet there was in it something that can never grow old, for it was human. It made men turn away from idle dreaming and begin to learn that the world we live in is real. They began to realize that there was something more than a past and a future. There was the present. So, instead of giving all their time to vague wonderings of what might be, of what never had been, and what never could be, they began to take an interest in life as it was and in man as he was. They began to see that human life with all its joys and sorrows was, after all, the most interesting thing to man.

It was a New Birth, and men called it so. For that is the meaning of Renaissance. Many things besides the fall of Constantinople helped towards this New Birth. The discovery of new worlds by daring sailors like Columbus and Cabot, and the discovery of printing were among them. But the touchstone of the New Learning was the knowledge of Greek, which had been to the greater part of Europe a lost tongue. On this side of the Alps there was not a school or college in which it could be learned. So to Italy, where the Greek scholars had found a refuge, those who wished to learn flocked.

Among them were some Oxford scholars. Chief of these were three, whose names you will learn to know well when you come to read more about this time. They were William Grocyn, “the most upright and best of all Britons,”* Thomas Linacre, and John Colet. These men, returning from Italy full of the New Learning, began to teach Greek at Oxford. And it is strange now to think that there were many then who were bitterly against such teaching. The students even formed themselves into two parties, for and against. They were called Greeks and Trojans, and between these two parties man a fierce fight took place, for the quarrel did not end in words, but often in blows.


The New Learning, however, conquered. And so keenly did men feel the human interests of such things as were now taught, that we have come to call grammar, rhetoric, poetry, Greek and Latin the Humanities, and the professor who teaches these thing the professor of Humanity.


WHILE the New Learning was stirring England, and Greek was being for the first time taught in Oxford, a young student of fourteen came to the University there. This student was named Thomas More. He was the son of a lawyer who became a judge, and as a little boy he had been a page in the household of Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Archbishop was quick to see that the boy was clever. “This child here waiting at the table, whoever will live to see it, will prove a marvellous man,”* he would say. And so he persuaded More’s father to send the boy to Oxford to study law.

*William Roper, The Mirrour of Virtue.

Thomas remained only two years at Oxford, for old Sir John, fearing he was learning too much Greek and literature and not enough law, called his son home and sent him to study law in London. It must have been a disappointment to the boy to be taken from the clever friends he had made in Oxford, and from the books and studies that he loved, to be set instead to read dry law-books. But Thomas More was most sunny-tempered. Nothing made him sulky or cross. So now he settled down quietly to his new life, and in a very short time became a famous and learned lawyer.

In was after More left Oxford that he met the man who became his dearest friend. This was Desiderius Erasmus, a learned Dutchman. He was eleven years older than More and he could speak no English, but that did not prevent them becoming friends, as they both could speak Latin easily and well. They had much in common. Erasmus was of the same lively, merry wit as More, they both loved literature and the Greek learning, and so the two became fast friends. And it helps us to understand the power which Latin still held over our literature, and indeed over all the literature of Europe, when we remember that these two friends spoke to each other and wrote and jested in Latin as easily as they might have done in English. Erasmus was one of the most famous men of his time. He was one who did much in his day to free men’s minds, one who helped men to think for themselves. So although he had directly perhaps little to do with English literature, it is well to remember him as the friend of More. “My affection for the man is so great,” wrote Erasmus once, “that if he bade me dance a hornpipe, I should do at once what he bid me.”

Although More was so merry and witty, religion got a strong hold upon him, and at one time he thought of becoming a monk. But his friends persuaded him to give up that idea, and after a time he decided to marry. He chose his wife in a somewhat quaint manner. Among his friends there was a gentleman who had three daughters. More liked the second one best, “for that he thought her the fairest and best favoured.”* But he married the eldest because it seemed to him “that it would be both great grief and some shame also to the oldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage. He then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy toward her, and soon after married her.”*

*W. Roper.

Although he chose his wife so quaintly More’s home was a very happy one. He loved nothing better than to live a simple family life with his wife and children round him. After six years his wife died, but he quickly married again. And although his second wife was “a simple ignorant woman and somewhat worldly too,” with a sharp tongue and short temper, she was kind to her step- children and the home was still a happy one.

More was a great public man, but he was first a father and head of his own house. He says: “While I spend almost all the day abroad amongst others, and the residue at home among mine own, I leave to myself, I mean to my book, no time. For when I come home, I must commen with my wife, chatter with my children, and talk with my servants. All the which things I reckon and account among business, forasmuch as they must of necessity be done, and done must they needs be unless a man will be stranger in his own home. And in any wise a man must so fashion and order his conditions and so appoint and dispose himself, that he be merry, jocund and pleasant among them, whom either Nature hath provided or chance hath made, or he himself hath chosen to be the fellows and companions of his life, so that with too much gentle behaviour and familiarity he do not mar them, and by too much sufferance of his servants make them his masters.”

At a time, too, when education was thought little necessary for girls, More taught his daughters as carefully as his sons. His eldest daughter Margaret (Mog, as he loved to call her) was so clever that learned men praised and rewarded her. When his children married they did not leave home, but came with their husbands and wives to live at Chelsea in the beautiful home More had built there. So the family was never divided, and More gathered a “school” of children and grandchildren round him.

More soon became a great man. Henry VII, indeed, did not love him, so More did not rise to power while he lived. But Henry VII died and his son Henry VIII ruled. The great Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, became More’s friend, and presently he was sent on business for the King to Bruges.

It was while More was about the King’s business in Belgium that he wrote the greater part of the book by which he is best remembered. This book is called Utopia. The name means “nowhere,” from two Greek words, “ou,” no, and “topos,” a place.

The Utopia, like so many other books of which we have read, was the outcome of the times in which the writer lived. When More looked round upon the England that he knew he saw many things that were wrong. He was a man loyal to his King, yet he could not pretend to think that the King ruled only for the good of his people and not for his own pleasure. There was evil, misery, and suffering in all the land. More longed to make people see that things were wrong; he longed to set the wrong right. So to teach men how to do this he invented a land of Nowhere in which there was no evil or injustice, in which every one was happy and good. He wrote so well about that make-believe land that from then till now every one who read Utopia sees the beauty of More’s idea. But every one, too, thinks that this land where everything is right is an impossible land. Thus More gave a new word to our language, and when we think some idea beautiful but impossible we call it “Utopian.”

As it was the times that made More write his book, so it was the times that gave him the form of it.

In those days, as you know, men’s minds were stirred by the discovery of new lands and chiefly by the discovery of America. And although it was Columbus who first discovered America, he did not give his name to the new country. It was, instead, named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo wrote a book about his voyages, and it was from this book that More got some of his ideas for the Utopia.

More makes believe that one day in Antwerp he saw a man “well stricken in age, with a black sun-burned face, a long beard, and a cloak cast homely about his shoulders, whom by his favour and apparel forthwith I judged to be a mariner.”

This man was called Raphael Hythlodaye and had been with Amerigo Vespucci in the three last of his voyages, “saving that in the last voyage he came not home again with him.” For on that voyage Hythlodaye asked to be left behind. And after Amerigo had gone home he, with five friends, set forth upon a further voyage of discovery. In their travels they saw many marvelous and fearful things, and at length came to the wonderful land of Nowhere. “But what he told us that he saw, in every country where he came, it were very long to declare.”

More asked many questions of this great traveler. “But as for monsters, because they be no news, of them we were nothing inquisitive. . . .. But to find citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws, that is an exceeding rare and hard thing!”

The whole story of the Utopia is told in the form of talks between Hythlodaye, More, and his friend Peter Giles. And More mixes what is real and what is imaginary so quaintly that it is not wonderful that many of the people of his own day thought that Utopia was a real place. Peter Giles, for instance, was a real man and a friend of More, while Hythlodaye was imaginary, his