On this date in 1388, royal retainer Thomas Usk was convicted in a one-day trial of treason and immediately drawn, hanged and beheaded at Tyburn.
The man’s end was savage: cut down alive to savor his beheading, which took nearly 30 strokes of the sword. And by all odds, this minor character’s demise would have had scant legacy as one more drop in the ocean of Albion’s blood long-ago spilt.
It was Usk’s misfortune to enter the political arena during a violently evolving political crisis in the 1380’s, when the boy-king Richard II and the English nobility struggled for power. A self-taught scrivener, Usk comes to posterity’s notice in the train of London mayor John Northampton. He was arrested for this association, and having no aspiration to become “a stinking martyr,” obligingly switched to the king’s side and informed on his former master.
This act of faithlessness made Usk (among many others) a marked man when the nobles’ faction gained a decisive upper hand after the Battle of Radcot Bridge and sat in what history records as the Merciless Parliament. Many were executed or forced into exile.
Usk would number among the victims, but before being launched into eternity — as the euphemism went — with the rope, he touched eternity from his prison cell by writing The Testament of Love (several versions linked here).
Long attributed wrongly to Usk’s contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, the Testament — regrettably not available in anything like its original form — consists of the imprisoned author’s dialogue with Love, who descends as a spirit into his dungeon to counsel him as he pines for the affection of the (presumably) symbolic woman “Margaret”. The work is reminiscent in its dialectal style of that produced by another client of the executioner — Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy.
ALAS! Fortune! alas! I that som-tyme in delicious houres was wont to enjoye blisful stoundes, am now drive by unhappy hevinesse to bewaile my sondry yvels in tene! … witless, thoughtful, sightles lokinge, I endure my penaunce in this derke prison, caitived fro frendshippe and acquaintaunce, and forsaken of al that any word dare speke.
Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.