Usk, Thomas (DNB00)
|←Usher, Richard||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 58
USK, THOMAS (d. 1388), the author of ‘The Testament of Love,’ formerly ascribed to Chaucer, was born in the city of London. His family resided in the neighbourhood of Newgate. The documents of the period mention several persons bearing the same surname, to whom he may possibly have been related; a Roger Usk and Agnes his wife, living in London, received a life interest in property at Queenhithe by a will dated 1368 (Sharpe, London Wills, ii. 111); in 1377 a Roger Usk was commissioned at Westminster to arrest a runaway friar (Cal. Pat. Rolls, Richard II, i. 91); and a Nicholas Usk was treasurer of Calais in 1403 (Issue Rolls of Exchequer, p. 287). The chronicler Adam of Usk (who mentions Thomas Usk's execution) does not come into consideration, as he was so called from his birthplace, his real surname being unknown [see Adam].
The statement that Usk was a priest (English Continuation of Higden, Rolls ser. viii. 467) is probably erroneous; but he belonged to the clerical order, and his book gives evidence of considerable theological and philosophical reading. It appears from his own statements that he had at one time held lollard opinions, which he afterwards recanted. He says further that in his youth he was induced by his zeal for the welfare of his native city to enter into certain conspiracies professing to aim at bringing about a reform in the government of London, but that he discovered, to his great grief, that the leaders whom he had followed were actuated by base and self-interested motives. He admits, however, that desire for personal advancement had had too great a share in determining his own conduct. He professes to have made great sacrifices for the cause which he had espoused, paying for the maintenance of some of his fellow-conspirators ‘till they were turned out of Zealand.’ He also says that he had spent some time in exile, and had been treated with gross ingratitude by those whom he had assisted.
The meaning of these autobiographical allusions is in part elucidated by the facts that are known from other sources respecting Usk's life. He was private secretary to John de Northampton [q. v.], the leader of the democratic and Wyclifite party in the city of London; and during Northampton's two years' mayoralty (1381–3) was the chief instrument in carrying out his patron's designs against the power of the city companies. It appears from Usk's own language that he occupied a highly lucrative and influential position. At the end of 1383 Northampton was defeated in a contest for the mayoralty by Sir Nicholas Brembre [q. v.], and in February 1384 the new lord mayor caused his rival to be arrested on a charge of sedition. Usk appears from his own statements to have fled the country; but, failing to receive the help in money which he expected from his friends in England, he was obliged to return, and early in August was committed to Newgate (Cal. Pat. Rolls, Richard II, ii. 500) as an accomplice in his master's crimes. On promising to reveal all he knew he was set at liberty, and was entertained for a time in the house of the lord mayor.
On 18 Aug. Northampton was brought before the king and his council at Reading, and Usk appeared as the principal witness against him, accusing his master of a long series of crimes, to which he confessed that he had himself been accessory. Northampton angrily denied the charges, and challenged his accuser to single combat. His contumacious behaviour exasperated the king, who ordered him to be hanged; but, on the intercession of the queen, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life. In September Richard, sensible of the illegality of his procedure, caused Northampton to be brought before the judges at the Tower. Usk was again the accuser, and (according to his own assertion, which is indirectly corroborated by Walsingham) offered to prove the truth of his words by wager of battle. Northampton was sentenced to death, but reprieved. On 24 Sept. Usk received the king's pardon (ib. ii. 467). It was generally believed that he had been suborned by Brembre to make false charges against his master. In ‘The Testament of Love’ he shows himself deeply sensible of the odium which his treachery had brought upon him. He endeavours to justify himself for having revealed secrets which, as he admits, he had sworn to preserve. From some of his expressions it appears that he had failed to gain the confidence of his new associates, and that his recantation of lollard heresies had proved unavailing to procure his reconciliation with the church. No further mention of him occurs until 7 Oct. 1387, when the king addressed a letter to the lord mayor, thanking the citizens for having, at his request, appointed Usk under-sheriff. The appointment appears to have been made with some reluctance, and the king promised that it should not be treated as a precedent (Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, i. 231).
In the following month Usk's fortunes underwent a fatal reverse. The king was compelled by the rebellion headed by his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, to consent to the impeachment of his five principal ad- 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.]