bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Henry V writes to Martin V in English

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 23 February, 2011

I had one of those moments yesterday when a long-gone moment seems suddenly immediate. I was sitting in the peaceful surroundings of the Archivio Segreto and looking through a collection of Martin’s V letters — the collection itself is eighteenth-century, copying from fifteenth-century records. One letter that caught my eye opens:

Cognovimus ex certis litteris quae tua propria manu scriptis dicuntur in Idiomati Anglicam [sic] per interprete nobis expositis Serenitatem tuam egre tulisse quod Venerabilis frater Thomas Episcopus Cicestrensis iam pridem in quodam publico Consistorio fuerit in sedendo tractatus minus honorabiliter quam Oratori Regio conveniret…

You can quite imagine the scene: Thomas Polton, English royal proctor at the the papal curia, holds in his hand a letter that he had received from his master. He hands it to the Roman pope who returns it as he can not make head nor tail of the text, but Polton assures him that it is in Henry’s hand and translates the English into the lingua franca of Latin on the spot. He explains that the king’s English expresses his righteous anger at a slight done to Polton himself in the seating-plan of a meeting — that sort of detail that those of us beyond the diplomatic world can too easily take as downright petty — a slight (Polton goes on to explain) that the king took as being against his own person. You can also imagine Polton himself conjuring up another scene, distant in place but not in time, as he describes how his master the king, on campaign in France, must have been so angry to take the time to demand quill and parchment, so that he could express immediately his  fury in his own words. We might wonder: did Henry actively choose English as a mark of defiance of international protocol, a slight meant to reflect the slight he claimed he felt? Or was it that he did not have the requisite skills to be able to compose on the spur of the moment in a more learned language? I suppose what lies behind that question is a character judgement on whether Henry V was one of those who is unable to control their emotions or whether he was the consummate politican who could manufacture anger and make it felt far from his own physical presence.

The date of the letter is 13th June 1422 — less than two months later the author of the English note would lie dead. As to the note itself, that, of course, is lost. I have not checked in detail but Martin’s conciliatory response, from which I quoted, does not seem to have gained much notice. I would be happily corrected but I can not find it summarised in the relevant volume of the Calendar of Papal Letters or, on a quick search, can I find mention of it in the relevant writings of the great scholars who have written on Angl0-papal relations in this period, Johannes Haller and Magaret Harvey. But, for me at least, it provides a lively vignette of both that whirlwind-king and the ritualism of the papal curia. The image of Polton standing before Martin V and explaining the letter he held in his hand will stay in my mind for some time.

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