English Literature

Middle English Procession

London quickly received news of Henry V’s October 25, 1415, victory at Agincourt. Three days later, on October 28, the newly elected mayor, Nicholas Wotton, and many of London’s citizens processed on foot to Westminster to give thanks to God and praise for Henry before the queen and lords of the realm. In the month before the king arrived back in London on Saturday, November 23 (via Calais), the city prepared elaborate architectural sceneries, tableaux vivants, and other acts. Combined royal and civic ceremonies were common in the later Middle Ages, and this royal entry is in particular similar to Henry VI’s entry into Paris in 1431 and his return to London in 1432. For information on Agincourt and Gesta Henrici Quinti, see “Battle of Agincourt,” p. 46.British Library MS Cotton Julius E. iv, fols. 120v–122r. In F. Taylor and J. S. Roskell (eds. and trans.) (1975) Gesta Henrici Quinti (The Deeds of Henry the Fifth). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 101–13. Language: Latin Manuscript date: 1416–17 [H]aving taken a day’s rest in the port [of Dover], the king resumed his journey by way of the sacred thresholds of Canterbury Cathedral and the church of St. Augustine to his manor of Eltham, it being his intention to honour his city of London on the following Saturday with his personal presence. And the citizens, having heard the greatly longed-for, nay indeed most joyful, news of his arrival, had in the meantime made ready themselves and their city, as far as the time available allowed, for the reception of the most loving and most beloved prince whom God of his mercy had so gloriously and marvellously brought back home in triumph from a rebellious and stubborn people.

And as soon as it was light on that eagerly awaited Saturday,1 the citizens went out to meet the king as far as the heights of Blackheath, that is, the mayor and the twenty-four aldermen in scarlet and other citizens of lower degree in red gowns with parti-coloured hoods of red and white to the number of about twenty thousand on horses. All of them, according to their crafts, wore some particular richly fashioned badge, which conspicuously distinguished the crafts one from another. And when, about ten o’clock, the king came through their midst and the citizens had given to God glory and honour, and to the king congratulations and thanks for the victory he had gained and for his efforts on behalf of the common weal, the citizens hastened on ahead towards the city, and the king followed with his own, though only quite modest, retinue. And now to let my pen interpose amid these glorious deeds, some account of what the city and so many of its noble citizens had done to express its praise and to embellish itself. When the tower at the entrance to the bridge was reached, there was seen placed high on top of it and representing as it were the entrance into the city’s jurisdiction, an image of a giant of astonishing size who, looking down upon the king’s face, held like a champion a great axe in his right hand and like a warder the keys of the city hanging from a baton in his left.

At his right side stood a figure of a woman, not much smaller in size, wearing a scarlet mantle and adornments appropriate to her sex, and they were like a man and his wife, who in their richest attire were bent upon seeing the eagerly awaited face of their lord and welcoming him with abundant praise. And, all around them, projecting from the ramparts, staffs bearing the royal arms and trumpets, clarions, and horns ringing out in multiple harmony embellished the tower, and the face of it bore this choice and appropriate legend inscribed on the wall: Civitas Regis Justicie.2 And, proceeding farther as far as the little drawbridge, in front of this on each side there was found a lofty pillar resembling a turret which, constructed of timberwork with no less skill than artistry, was covered with linen cloth painted the colour of white marble and green jasper as if made of stones squared and dressed by the handiwork of masons. And the top of the pillar to the right bore the figure of an antelope, standing erect, with a shield of the royal arms resplendent hanging from its neck, and in its extended right forefoot it held a royal sceptre. And the top of the other pillar supported the figure of a lion, also standing erect, which in the claws of its right paw held aloft a staff with a royal standard unfurled. And over the foot of the bridge and spanning the route had been raised a tower, constructed and painted like the said pillars, and half-way up it, in a canopied niche richly fashioned, there stood a most beautiful statue of St. George in armour save for his head, which was adorned with laurel studded with gems sparking like precious stones, and behind the statue was a crimson tapestry all aglow with his heraldic arms on a large number of shields. And to its right hung his triumphal helm and to its left a shield of his arms of matching size.

With his right hand he held the hilt of the sword with which he was girded and with his left a scroll which extended over the ramparts, containing these words: Soli deo honor et gloria.3 And the tower was distinguished by this prophetic message of congratulation on the front: Fluminis impetus letificat civitatem dei,4 and at the top it was embellished by spears bearing the royal arms unfurled, standing above the canopies and the ramparts. And in a house next to and behind the tower were innumerable boys representing the hierarchy of angels, clad in pure white, their faces glowing with gold, their wings gleaming, and their youthful locks entwined with costly sprays of laurel, who, at the king’s approach, sang together in sweetly sounding chant accompanied by organs, following their texts, this angelic anthem: [Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini].5 And when, further on, the tower of the conduit in Cornhill was reached, that tower was found to be covered over with crimson cloth stretched out like a tent on staffs wrapped in similar cloth. Lower down, in four prominent places, the arms of St. George, St. Edward, St. Edmund, and of England encircled the middle of the tower with, in between them, escutcheons of the royal arms, amongst which was set this legend of pious import: Quoniam Rex sperat in domino et in misericordia altissimi non commovebitur.6 And higher up on the ramparts and serving for their adornment were the arms of the royal house borne aloft on staffs. And under an awning was a company of prophets with venerable white hair in tunicles and golden copes, their heads wrapped and turbaned with gold and crimson, who, when the king came by, released in a great flock, as an acceptable sacrifice to God for the victory he had conferred, sparrows and other tiny birds, of which some descended on to the king’s breast, some settled upon his shoulders, and some circled around in twisting flight.

And the prophets sang in sweetly sounding chant, following their texts, this psalm of approbation: Cantate domino canticum novum, Alleluia. Quia miribilia fecit, Alleluia. Salvavit, etc.7 From there they proceeded to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which, to make it look like a building, had had spread over it a green cover strewn and inwoven with escutcheons of the city’s arms in gay profusion on poles draped in the same colour. And there adorned the tower higher up on the ramparts, staffs with coats of arms, borne aloft as elsewhere, and the middle of it, all round . . . And under an awning were men of venerable old age in the garb and of the number of the apostles, having the names of the twelve apostles written in front of them, together with twelve kings of the English succession, martyrs and confessors, girt about the loins with golden belts with sceptres in their hands, crowns upon their heads, and their emblems of sanctity plain to see, who, at the kings’ approach, in perfect time and in sweetly sounding chant, following their texts, sang the psalm [Salvasti enim nos de affligentibus nos, et odientes nos confudisti].8 And they delivered to him round leaves of silver intermingled with wafers of bread, equally thin and of the same size and shape, and wine from the pipes and spouts of the conduit, that they might receive him with bread and wine just as Melchizedek did Abraham when he returned with victory from the slaughter of the four kings.9 And when they had proceeded farther, to the cross in Cheapside, that cross was not to be seen. Instead, built round it was what resembled a very fine castle which, constructed of timberwork with no less ingenuity than decorative effect, was adorned with graceful towers, pillars, and ramparts in rich profusion, having on both sides of it, to a good height of almost a spear’s length and a half, vaulted arches, one end of each of which had, with considerable skill, been made to rest on the castle itself, and, reaching out over the street, the other end rose up from among the adjacent buildings as if originally built when they had been, and under these arches, through a space that was wide enough and to spare, being as broad as a spear’s length, people rode as if through two gateways. And there was written on the front of the gateways on each side: Gloriosa dicta sunt de te, civitas dei.10 And the covering of the castle was of linen fabric painted in colours to look like white marble, and green and crimson jasper as if the whole work had been made by the art of masonry from squared and well-polished stones of great price. There adorned the top of the castle and a very high tower the arms of St. George with, on one side, the king’s arms and, on the other, those of the emperor, borne aloft on spears, and the arms of members of the royal house and of the great nobles of the realm adorned the lower turrets. And from the middle of the castle there projected out towards the king a gatehouse, very fine indeed and no less ingeniously constructed, from which extended a wooden bridge with about fifteen steps, and it was of a fair width and waist-high from the ground, and the gatehouse, covered and elegantly furnished with hangings on the posts and pales on either side to enhance its appearance, was constructed elaborately and yet securely enough to prevent anyone from forcing a way in.

Over this bridge there went out from the castle to meet the king a choir of most beautiful young maidens very chastely adorned in pure white raiment and virgin attire, singing together with timbrel and dance as if to another David coming from the slaying of Goliath11 (who might appropriately be represented by the arrogant French) this song of congratulation, following their texts: “Welcome Henry ye fifte, kynge of Englond and of Fraunce.” And from the very top of the castle to the bottom, on the towers, ramparts, arches, and pillars, were innumerable boys like a host of archangels and angels, beautiful in heavenly splendour, in pure white raiment with gleaming wings, their youthful locks entwined with jewels and other resplendent and exquisite ornaments, and they let fall upon the king’s head as he passed beneath golden coins and leaves of laurel, singing together in perfect time and in sweetly sounding chant accompanied by organs, to the honour of Almighty God and as a token of victory, this angelic hymn, following their texts: Te deum laudamus, te dominum confitemur, etc.12 And when, further on, they had come to the tower of the conduit in the way out from Cheapside towards St. Paul’s, they saw encircling that tower about half-way up many canopied niches skilfully contrived, and in each one was a most exquisite young maiden like a statue decked out with emblems of chastity richly fashioned, and all of them, crowned with laurels and girt about with golden belts, held in their hands chalices of gold from which, with gentlest breath scarcely perceptible, they puffed out round leaves of gold upon the king’s head as he passed by. And higher up the tower was covered by a canopy, sky-blue in colour with clouds inwoven, massed with great artistry. There adorned the very top of it the figure of an archangel seemingly made of the brightest gold and with other vivid colours resplendently intermingled, and the four poles on which the canopy was borne were themselves upheld by four angels of a design no less artistic. And underneath the canopy was enthroned a figure of majesty in the form of a sun and, emitting dazzling rays, it shone more brightly than all else. Around it, in heavenly splendour, archangels moved rhythmically together, psalming sweetly and accompanied by every kind of musical instrument, following their texts . . . And there adorned the ramparts of the tower . . . borne aloft on posts. And in order that that tower should with its legend seem to conclude, in the same strain as the preceding legends, the tributes of praise to the honour and glory not of men but of God, it presented to the gaze of those passing by this culmination of praise: Deo gracias. And apart from the dense crowd of men standing still or hurrying along the streets, and the great number of those, men and women together, gazing from windows and openings however small along the route from the bridge, so great was the throng of people in Cheapside from one end to the other that the horsemen were only just able, although not without difficulty, to ride through.

And the upper rooms and windows on both sides were packed with some of the noblest ladies and womenfolk of the kingdom and men of honour and renown, who had assembled for this pleasing spectacle and who were so very becomingly and elegantly decked out in cloth of gold, fine linen, and scarlet, and other rich apparel of various kinds, that no one could recall there ever having previously been in London a greater assemblage or a more noble array. Amid these public expressions of praise and the display made by the citizens however, the king himself, wearing a gown of purple, proceeded, not in exalted pride and with an imposing escort or impressively large retinue, but with an impassive countenance and at a dignified pace, and with only a few of the most trusted members of his household in attendance there following him, under a guard of knights, the dukes, counts, and marshal, his prisoners. Indeed, from his quiet demeanour, gentle pace, and sober progress, it might have been gathered that the king, silently pondering the matter in his heart, was rendering thanks and glory to God alone, not to man. And then, after he had visited the thresholds of the apostles Peter and Paul,13 he departed to his palace of Westminster, the citizens escorting him.

33 thoughts on “Middle English Procession

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