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XVI. Later Transition English

§ 2. Thomas Bek

For the history of England under the Old English and Norman kings, the chief authorities consulted were Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, the former being followed in the narration of events, and the latter in the descriptions and anecdotes of famous characters. Occasionally, other sources are drawn upon; for instance, the story of the duel between Canute and Edmund Ironside is from the Genealogia Regum Anglorum of Ailred of Rievaulx, and another work by the same author, the Vita Edwardi Regis et Martyris is, probably, the chief authority for the life and death of Edward the Confessor. For the reigns of Henry II and Richard I the life of Thomas á Becket in the South English Legendary, and the Annales Waverlienses supplied some material, the former furnishing almost word for word the accounts of the constitutions of Clarendon and of the death of the saint. Some passages seem to depend on folk-songs; and there are others, such as the account of the misfortunes which befell the duke of Austria’s land in revenge for his imprisonment of Richard I, that may be due to tradition. On the whole, however, the Chronicle does not supply much that is fresh in the way of legendary lore.

From the beginning of the reign of Henry III, the poem becomes valuable both as history and literature. The writer, whom we may now certainly call Robert, was, as we have seen, either an eye-witness of the facts he relates, or had heard of them from eye-witnesses. He had, moreover, a distinct narrative gift, and there are all the elements of a stirring historical romance in his story of the struggle that took place between the king and the barons for the possession of Gloucester. Not less graphic is the description of the town and gown riot in Oxford in 1263. We are told how the burgesses shut one of the city gates; how certain clerks hewed it down and carried it through the suburbs, singing over it a funeral hymn; how, for this offence, the rioters were put in prison, and how the quarrel grew to such a height that the citizens came out armed against the scholars. Robert relates with evident enjoyment the discomfiture of the former, and the vengeance taken by the clerks on their foes—how they plundered their shops, burned their houses and punished the mayor, who was a vintner, by taking the bungs from his casks and letting the wine run away. But, he adds, when the king came and heard of all this mischief, he drove the clerks out of the town, and forbade their returning till after Michaelmas.

Picturesque as such passages are, they are less valuable than the powerful description of the battle of Evesham and the death of Simon de Montfort, a passage too well known to call for further reference.

The form of this Chronicle is no less interesting than its theme. Its metre is an adaptation of the two half-lines of Old English poetry into one long line, one of its nearest relations being the Poema Morale. In spite of the well-marked caesura, a relic of the former division into halves, the line has a swinging rhythm especially suited to narrative verse, and the poem is of metrical importance as showing the work of development in progress.

It was not long after Robert had added his continuation to the Gloucester Chronicle that Thomas Bek of Castleford composed a similar work in the northern dialect. The unique MS. of this chronicle is preserved at Gättingen, and is as yet inedited. The work contains altogether nearly forty thousand lines, of which the first twenty-seven thousand are borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth, while the remainder, extending to the coronation of Edward III, are derived from sources not yet defined. The metre is the short rimed couplet of the French chroniclers.