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The Canon of John Lydgate Project


The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

The Poet: John Lydgate
John Lydgate was born about 1370 in the village of Lidgate (or Lydgate), Suffolk; he died, probably in 1449. Most of his life was spent as a monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds: he joined the monastery about 1382, and was there ordained a priest in 1397. He is said to have spent some time in Oxford, probably reading theology in the Benedictine's Gloucester College: there is a letter from Prince Henry (later Henry V) of about 1406 to the Abbot and Convent of Bury, declaring that he has heard from the Chancellor of Oxford University much good of one "Dan J. L." (almost certainly John Lydgate), and he requests that the Abbot and Convent give permission for this student to continue his studies (the letter appears in Legge 411-412). Lydgate spent much time out of the abbey: he seems to have been in fairly frequent attendance upon the royal court, spending periods of time in London, Windsor, and even Paris (in 1426-1427), where he translated into English the "Dance of Death" (or "The Daunce of Machabree"; see the Index of Middle English Verse no. 2590; also see the Manual of the Writings in Middle English 6: 1824-1825 and 2088-2091), and a French poem by Lawrence Calot on "The Title and Pedigree of Henry VI," a versified genealogical justification of the king's claim to the crown of France, which accompanied a large pictorial genealogical tree intended for public display (IMEV no. 3808; Manual 6: 1850-1851 and 2115-2116). In 1423 Lydgate became Prior of the Benedictine house at Hatfield Regis (now Hatfield Broad Oak), and he was permitted to resign this post and to return to Bury in 1434. However, it is not certain how much time he actually spent at Hatfield, since during this decade he also appears to have been very active in the royal court; indeed, Schirmer speculates that the move from Bury to Hatfield may have been one of convenience, for it cut in half the distance to the royal palace in Windsor (p. 90). Schirmer goes on (pp. 91-92) to argue that Lydgate's residency at Hatfield was probably only 1423 to 1426, and thereafter he is found with the court in Paris, London, and Windsor.

Lydgate returned to the cloister for the latter years of his remarkably long life (he died at about age 80), and it is most likely that it was at Bury that he died and was buried, though there is a tradition (not very credible) that his remains lie in St. Mary's Church in the village of Lidgate. At the same time, it is also difficult to know how much credence to give to a claim by certain archaeologists of the eighteenth century, who excavated the crypt beneath the ruins of the church of the Abbey, and who reported finding there part of Lydgate's tomb (see King; also Whittingham 14).

[You may wish to view a map of Bury St. Edmunds, the village of Lidgate, and environs: 16K.]

Lydgate was a prolific poet, and is credited as the author of some 140,000 lines of verse and one prose tract (approximately four times the output of Shakespeare). He confessed himself to be a disciple of IMEV no. 2516; Manual 6: 1913-1917 and 2168-2173), Fall of Princes (IMEV no. 1168; Manual 6: 1835-1840 and 2099-2106), Siege of Thebes (IMEV no. 3928; Manual 6: 1901-1904 and 2155-2158), The Life of Our Lady (IMEV no. 2574; Manual 6: 1867-1871 and 2128-2130), but these are only a few of the approximately 200 titles--from courtly love lyrics to saints lives--with which he is generally credited. Lydgate included among his patrons Henry IV and Henry V, and already he had produced poems celebrating Henry VI at his coronation at Westminster (6 Nov. 1429; IMEV nos. 2211 and 1929; Manual 6: 1851-1852 and 2116-2117), for his return from France and entry to London (21 [perhaps 14] Feb. 1432; IMEV no. 3799; Manual 6: 1852 and 2117-2118), as well as "The Title and Pedigree of Henry VI," mentioned above, translated from a French poem in 1427 at the request of the Protector, the Earl of Warwick.

The versified story of the Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund (IMEV no. 3440; Manual 6: 1830-1833 and 2096-2097) was written as a gift, from Abbot Curteys and the brethren of Bury St. Edmunds, for the child king Henry VI, who visited the abbey for a lengthy stay from Christmas 1433 through Easter (28 March) to St. George's Day (23 April), 1434. Derek Pearsall suggests that, given how well-known Lydgate was to the court, to the Protector, and almost certainly to the young king himself, "[i]t would not be extravagant to suppose that Lydgate's presence at Bury was one of the reasons for the king's visit . . ." (27). Henry was, during this stay, inducted as a member of the abbey fraternity, considered an exclusive privilege and a very high honour, but an honour shared by many of Lydgate's aristocratic patrons (a list of the members of the fraternity during the time of Abbot Curteys is included in the Victoria County History article on Bury, p. 71). Henry's affection for the abbey continued through his adult life: he frequently corresponded with Abbot Curteys (letters preserved in Curteys's Registers (London, British Library, MSS Addit. 14848 and 7096) and printed in IMEV no. 3748; Manual 6: 1811-1813 and 2077-2078), thus commemorating the patron saint of St. Albans abbey as he had earlier done the patron of his own abbey, Bury St. Edmunds.

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 22 Nov. 1995

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