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Usk, Thomas (ca. 1350–1388). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Thomas Usk was embroiled in the tumultuous
London political scene of the 1380s, gaining some
notoriety for switching parties and betraying his
former leader. He was, however, supported by the
king, RICHARD II, until Usk’s arrest and ultimate
execution at the hands of the “Merciless Parliament”
of 1388. At some point in the mid-1380s,
Usk wrote his only surviving work, The TESTAMENT
OF LOVE, a prose ALLEGORY based to a large extent
on BOETHIUS’s CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY.
Usk was born in London. His father was a cap
maker, and, like other tradesmen, Usk became a
part of the political life of the city that was dominated
by the trade guilds. Usk was a close supporter
of the mayor John of Northampton, a
leader of the Mercer’s Guild that controlled London
economically until 1383, when Northampton
was defeated for reelection by Nicholas Brembre,
supported by the Victualers’ Guilds. When
Northampton supporters rioted in London in
early 1384, Brembre came down hard on the rioters,
and arrested Northampton’s followers. Usk
fled London, but was caught and arrested in 1384.
It was at this point that Usk reversed his loyalties.
It is possible that a private interview with the
king himself ultimately swayed Usk’s decision.
While neither Brembre’s nor Northampton’s parties
seems to have been innocent of corruption,
Brembre was a strong supporter of the king; Usk
apparently decided that he was wrong to have supported
Northampton, and issued what is called his
“Appeal,” in which he details Northampton’s plots
against Brembre, and suggests that he had also
conspired with members of the court opposed to
the king. Usk’s testimony helped to convict
Northampton when he was brought to trial for
treason in August of 1384, and when Northampton
was condemned to death, he was saved only
when the queen,ANNE OF BOHEMIA, stepped in and
pleaded for clemency.Meanwhile Brembre put Usk
in protective custody for three months, to keep
him from possible retaliation by Northampton’s
disciples. It seems likely that Usk wrote most of his
Testament during this period of confinement, in
part to justify his apparent betrayal of Northampton—
though he probably continued to work on it
at least until his final arrest in 1387.
His shifting loyalties certainly worked in Usk’s
favor from 1385 to 1387, as he benefited from
Richard’s royal patronage. He became sergeant of
arms to the king in 1385, and, in September of
1387, was appointed under-sheriff of Middlesex
(including London). Fortune took a severe turn for
Usk, however, when the king’s uncle, the duke of
Gloucester, seized power and began to weed out
the king’s advisers. Usk was arrested in late 1387.
Following the execution of Nicholas Brembre,
Usk was brought to trial before what became
known as the “Merciless Parliament” on March 3,
1388.He was quickly convicted of treason and sentenced
to be hanged, drawn, and beheaded the following
day. The Testament of Love is Usk’s only
literary legacy.
Bibliography
Shoaf, R. Allen, ed. Thomas Usk: The Testament of
Love. Kalamazoo:Medieval Institute Publications,
1998.

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