1388: Thomas Usk, leaving “The Testament of Love”

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 — BoethiusConsolation 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.

Themed Set: The Written Word

Capital punishment’s limitless literary potential has drawn the written word to it since time immemorial.

We touch through the condemned, a living creature poised on the threshold of death, that most universal and awful mystery of existence: small wonder that one of history’s most successful religions traces its foundation, its symbology, and its most sublime literature, to the execution of a Roman subject 2,000 years ago.

Conversely, the condition of a human being — even an infamous malefactor — helpless before the scaffold elicits the interest of the empathetic soul, awakens it to the compelling challenges of life.

What are justice, goodness, mercy?

What is an individual’s place (for an execution is an intrinsically social event) among his or her fellows?

Sophocles poses this question in Antigone; so does Stephen King in The Green Mile; between and beyond them lie unnumbered works both immortal and obscure, from every land and time and genre that if they have no other virtues at least concur upon one essential fact:

The death penalty makes for damned good drama.

Just as artists draw Calvary into their work, that work has drawn artists themselves unto Calvary — or the specter of the Calvary drawn artistry from seemingly modest men and women. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully” as Dr. Johnson had it, and we might observe this oft-repeated pith was issued in the most urgent context: a petition for clemency for a condemned clergyman who hanged at Tyburn nevertheless.

These stories — the fictional and the factual, borderless at the plane of the eternal; the gesture of saying what must not be said either in mortifying defiance of one’s milieu or from the ironic safety of certain death — these stories are mileposts marking a timeless path: from the bosom of a community to expulsion, where the corporeal death (however awful and real) is for its witnesses the metaphor of isolation, the lot alike of great heroes, great villains … and great artists.

From March 4 – 11, in the longest themed set yet employed in these pages, Executed Today takes an incomplete tour through the annals of artistry and execution.