restricted access 1. The First Secret
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Chapter 1 • The First Secret I have said that Adam Usk seems to keep a secret, and I have proposed to look for it. One answer has anticipated me. Independently and almost simultaneously, two scholars (mentioned at the end of the Introduction) discovered that Usk omitted from his story an important autobiographical detail. One of them, Andrew Galloway, has brilliantly defined the curious tonal effects of Usk’s prose: By turns, his Chronicle reeks of pride, rebellious criticism, guilt, and penance, especially the last. The literal social meanings and bases of his penitential moments are, however, blurred in favor of delineating the writer’s penitential posture abstracted from political choices and experiences.1 And he has explained them as effects of a secret from which Usk would deflect our attention: schism and treason. In midlife, this faithful servant of the English king and the Roman pope transferred his allegiance to the antipope at Avignon and bet on his king’s defeat at the hands of Owen Glendower’s Welsh rebels.2 The shame of his pointless treachery, Galloway argues, produces a dissociating guilt; this guilt in turn picks out the writer in a beam of intense but unspecific responsibility whose glare obscures his real defections. 12 Chapter 1 If this indeed were the secret behind Usk’s discursive hiccups, then we could stop here, but it is not. Neither his gloomy comments on the schism nor his tics of style derive from his dalliance with Avignon. More than that, though he conspicuously neglects to report this dalliance, he conspicuously neglects to hide it as well. Explaining why this secret is not “Adam Usk’s secret,” and indeed is no secret at all, offers a neat occasion to summarize the known facts of his life and of his chronicle’s composition. • Usk began writing it in 1401.3 From the parish of St. Mary’s, Usk, in Wales, which supplied his cognomen (he also was “Adam Porter”),4 he had built a successful career on patronage and education. Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, sent him to Oxford,5 where he studied the learned laws and began briskly swapping benefices.6 Early on, in 1381, he sought commission as a notary at the hands of Pileus de Prata, cardinal-priest of St. Praxed’s, who was in England that spring.7 In 1387, extraordinarius in canon law at Oxford, he saw the appellant lords march past after the battle at Radcot Bridge.8 He took his degree in civil law by about 1393, and held the chair in that subject until 1395, when he resigned it to Henry Chichele.9 He practiced as advocate in the court of chivalry and in the archbishop of Canterbury’s consistory court;10 Archbishop Arundel replaced Mortimer as his primary hope of preferment.11 Usk’s presence in the 1397 parliament (presumably in Arundel’s entourage), his service on various commissions,12 and the rank of his clients13 show his prominence at this time. His service at Henry IV’s accession shows it more dramatically : Usk, who had joined Bolingbroke and Arundel when they returned to England, accompanied them on the campaign from Ravenspur to Bristol , then served among those “bishops and doctors” charged with determining the grounds on which Bolingbroke would claim the throne. After the accession, he continued consulting for the king,14 and continued to practice in Chivalry and the Arches.15 His prominence at this time is The First Secret 13 revealed also by the occasions on which he could embarrass himself: he makes a false step in conversation with the ambassadors of Rupert of Bavaria, the new emperor, with Bishop Trefnant standing at his elbow.16 At this high point in his career, Usk began writing his chronicle. He wrote quickly. This point will be important; it is worth describing the unique manuscript in which it survives. In a will dated 20 January 1430 and proved on 26 March that year, Usk left to his kinsman Edward ap Adam a copy of Higden’s Polychronicon, most of which survives as British Library MS Additional 10104.17 Higden ’s compilation had driven its rivals from the field of universal history in late fourteenth-century England;18 it is an utterly unsurprising book for a civilian like Usk to have owned.19 It survives now in over a hundred manuscripts; in the early fifteenth century, there must have been thousands . As the work circulated, it accumulated continuations carrying its narrative forward from the...


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Subject Headings

  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400. Chronicon Adae de Usk, A.D. 1377-1421.
  • Adam, of Usk, active 1400 -- Literary art.
  • Written communication -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Richard II, 1377-1399 -- Historiography.
  • Great Britain -- History -- House of Lancaster, 1399-1461 -- Historiography.
  • Wales -- History -- 1063-1536 -- Historiography.
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