Usk, Thomas (DNB00)
|←Usher, Richard||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 58
visers, of whom Brembre was one, and it is probable that Usk was arrested about the same time.
At the meeting of the ‘Merciless’ parliament on 1 Feb. 1388 the indictment of the five ‘evil counsellors’ of the king was presented. One of its counts was that they had appointed as under-sheriff ‘a false villain of their faction, named Thomas Usk,’ for the purpose of bringing about the trial and condemnation, on false charges of treason, of the Duke of Gloucester and others of the king's loyal subjects. Usk was brought before the parliament on 3 March, and accused of having endeavoured to compass the death of Gloucester and his associates. His only defence was that he had acted in obedience to the commands of his liege lord. On 4 March he was condemned to death, and the sentence was carried out the same evening. He made an edifying end. ‘As he was being dragged from the Tower to Tyburn he devoutly repeated “Placebo,” the seven penitential psalms, “Te Deum,” “Quicunque vult,” “Nunc dimittis,” and the prayers appropriate to those in the article of death, and exhibited the profoundest contrition for his sins.’ To the last, however, he maintained the truth of the accusations he had formerly made against John of Northampton. He was first hanged, then cut down while still alive, and finally beheaded ‘by nearly thirty strokes of the sword.’ His head was set up over Newgate ‘to disgrace his kinsfolk, who lived in that part of the city’ (Knighton, ii. 294).
‘The Testament of Love,’ as Usk calls his only known literary work, is a prose composition in three books, and is a close imitation of Chaucer's translations of Boethius, many passages of which are almost literally copied. The author represents himself as visited in prison by the apparition of a beautiful lady, who makes herself known to him as Love. She listens to his vindication of his past conduct, consoles him for his unmerited sufferings, and instructs him how to gain the favour of an allegorical personage who is referred to as ‘the Margaret Pearl,’ and who at the end of the book is explained to represent ‘holy church.’ The initial letters of the chapters form an acrostic, which reads ‘Margarete of virtw, have merci on thin [= thine] Usk.’
The precise date at which the book was written is uncertain. Usk speaks of his ‘first imprisonment’ (in 1384) as a thing of the past, but implies that at the time when the earlier chapters, at least, were written he was again in prison. It is difficult to suppose that a piece containing nearly sixty thousand words can have been written between Usk's arrest in November 1387 and his execution on 4 March 1388. Possibly it was composed during an unrecorded second imprisonment between the end of 1384 and the middle of 1387. It is unlikely that this second imprisonment was merely metaphorical, though, as the writer had evidently free access to books, his references to ‘chains’ and ‘dungeon’ cannot be interpreted literally.
Apart from its historical and philological interest, ‘The Testament of Love’ is worthless. It was obviously written for the purpose of conciliating those on whom the author's fate might depend. While he endeavours to justify his treachery towards John of Northampton, Usk's chief concern is to make it appear that he is now a pious and contrite soul, whose hopes are fixed in heaven, and from whom no further ‘meddling’ in political matters need be apprehended. Apparently he hoped to secure the good offices of Chaucer; a passage containing a florid eulogy of ‘Troilus and Creseide’ is introduced in an awkward manner which suggests that it was written for a special purpose; and the writer's display of familiarity with the translation of Boethius and with ‘The House of Fame’ (portions of which he paraphrases) may have been intended to gain the goodwill of the poet. It is very likely that Usk sent a copy of his work to Chaucer, and the discovery of the manuscript among Chaucer's papers may have been the circumstance that caused the book to be attributed to his authorship. The mistaken attribution received a seeming confirmation from the passage in the first version of Gower's ‘Confessio Amantis,’ in which Chaucer is admonished to ‘do make his testament of love.’ As it is now ascertained that the passage in question was written not before 1390, it may possibly contain a playful allusion to the title of Usk's work.
No manuscript of ‘The Testament of Love’ is known to exist. It was first printed in William Thynne's edition of Chaucer's works in 1532, and reprinted, with progressive deterioration of the text, in the various editions of Chaucer down to that of John Urry [q. v.] in 1720, and again in the first volume of Chalmers's ‘English Poets.’ Thynne's own text abounds in blunders throughout, and the third book was reduced to nonsense by an extraordinary series of dislocations, evidently due to an accidental displacement of the leaves of the manuscript. The restoration of the true order of the text by the present writer (Athenæum, 6 Feb. 1897) rendered it possible to interpret the acrostic, the exis- tence of which had been discovered by Professor Skeat in 1893. A trustworthy edition of the book is contained in Professor Skeat's volume of ‘Chaucerian and other Pieces,’ published in 1897.
Until 1844 ‘The Testament of Love’ was universally regarded not only as a genuine work of Chaucer, but as an authority of the highest value for the biography of the poet. In that year Sir Harris Nicolas proved that the supposed autobiographical statements were irreconcilable with the known facts of Chaucer's life; but he did not question the traditional view of the authorship, which was disproved by Wilhelm Hertzberg in 1866. The evidence of the acrostic, combined with that of the autobiographical allusions, leaves no possibility of doubt that Usk was the real author.[John of Malvern in Higden's Polychronicon (Rolls ser.), ix. 45, 46, 134, 150, 169; English continuation of Higden (Rolls ser.), vol. viii.; Chronicon Angliæ (Rolls ser.), p. 360; Walsingham's Historia Anglicana; Knighton's Chronicle; Rolls of Parliament, vol. iii.; Skeat's Chaucerian and other Pieces, Introduction, pp. xviii–xxxi; The Testament of Love (ib.), pp. 1–145.]