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Lady Margaret by E.M.G. Routh (pub. 1924)




ALTHOUGH Lady Margaret had not in her youth the educational opportunities which she helped to obtain for her grandchildren and their contemporaries, her intellectual attainments were considerable. 'She was of singular wisdom', said Fisher, 'far passing the common rate of women', and she had 'a ready wit to conceive all things albeit they were right dark'. Like her son, she was perhaps 'rather studious than learned'. Her books were her great treasures and she had a fine collection of them, both in English and French.

Among others, she had in her library 'a Frenche boke of velome with diverse stories, atthe begynnyng the booke of Genesis with pictures lymned'; 'a greate volume of velom couered with blake veluet, which is the secund volume of Froysart'; there was a 'booke of velom of Gower in Englisshe' and another of Canterbury Tales; a 'prynted booke called Magna Carta in French'; 'a greatte volume of velom named John Bokas lymned',[1] and 'a grette volume of velom of the siege of Troye yn English'. [2]

She was very fond of her French books of devotion and meditation and herself translated several of them into English 'for her exercise and the profit of other'. Among these was a book called The Mirroure of Golde for the sinful soule,[3] 'the whiche hath ben traslated at parice oute of laten into frenche . . . and now of late translatede oute of frenche i[n] to Englisshe by the right excelle[n]t princesse Margarete moder to oure souerain lorde kinge Henry the VII and Countesse of Richemond and Derby'. The preface says:

'For to know the order and maner how to procede in this lytell boke; it is to know it shall be divided in seven chapitoures after the seven dayes of the weeke To thentent that the synfull soule, soyled and defowled by synne, maye in every chapitoure, have a new mirroure wherein he may beholde and consyder the face of his soule.'

The still new art of printing had in the Countess of Richmond a willing and generous helper. William Caxton set up his press in the Almonry at Westminster under her special protection, and he, Pynson, and Wynkyn de Worde all printed books at her request and expense; de Worde in 1509 styled himself 'Prynter unto the moost excellent pryncesse my lady the kynges moder'.

Her choice in books was not always so serious as the Mirror of Gold, for she lent to Caxton a French romance which she had bought from him some time before, and which, he said, he received from 'her good grace, and her commaundement wyth all for to reduce and translate it in to our maternal and Englysh tongue'.

In a charming preface the old printer begs his lady to 'pardonne me of the rude and comyn englyshe, for I confesse me not lerned ne knowynge the arte of rethoryke, ne of such gaye termes as now be sayd in these dayes and used. But I hope that it shall be understonden of the redars and herers. And that shall suffyse.'

This 'lytyl boke', dedicated to the Lady Margaret (who is, by an oversight, called 'Duchess of Somerset' -- her mother's title), was entitled The Hystorie of Kynge Blanchardyne and Queen Eglantyne his Wyfe.[4] 'I knewe wel', wrote Caxton, 'that the storye of hit was honeste and joyefull to all vertuouse noble yong gentylmen and wymmen for to rede therein as for their passe time.' He thought it was just as desirable for 'gentyl yonge ladyes and damoyselles' to read of 'noble fayttes and valyaunt actes of armes and warre which have been achevyd in olde tyme of many noble prynces lordes and knyghtes' and to 'see and know their walyauntnes (valiantness) for to stand in the specyal grace and love of their ladyes', and to 'lerne to be stedfaste and constaunte in their parte to theym' -- as it was 'to occupye the yen (eyes) and studye over moche in bokes of contemplation'-- and therefore -- 'at thynstaunce and requeste of my sayd lady' -- he translated and printed the book, telling in English the story of the 'Proud Lady in love' (Lorguylleuse d'amours) who was at last obliged to cast away her disdain and confess that love is the best ornament of courage. It may perhaps be inferred that Lady Margaret would not have disapproved of an occasional novel, even for 'gentyl yonge damoysellys' reading for their degree at the present day.

The prose translation of The grete shyppe of Fooles of this Worlde was made from French into English by Henry Watson 'thrugh the entysement and exhortacyon of the excellent prynces Margarette, Countesse of Rychmounde and Derby', [5] and printed after her death by Wynkyn de Worde. There is a better known metrical version by Alexander Barclay of this curious old book, which had been already translated into Latin and French from the original German of Sebastian Brandt.[6]

The ship typified the follies and errors of mondaynes (the word mondaine is used in its modern sense); the sea was 'this present world'; 'the fools being in the ship is the sinners'. The follies and vices of fashion able life were severely criticized in the book, and the writer ridiculed the extravagant dress of the period, pouring scorn on humans who 'by their presumption thinketh to do better than God. O what error, what abominable sin!' Some 'beareth great beards for fear that they seem not more ancient', and others 'array their bodies and visages in such a fashion that they seem young but yet they be old'. (A perennial fashion apparently!) 'There be some that have their necks all charged with great chains and be all replenished with golden jewels, their hands full of gems and rings. Ample bonnets, with low necks . . . great hats that is set all upon one side' (this fashion, too, comes in at fairly frequent intervals) -- 'gowns long, full of pleats and the sleeves as large as a sack. Cloaks bended with divers colours. The gowns have double re-braced collars.' All this, and much more, 'is the guise of the infidels, of the Turks and Saracens' (and therefore unsuitable for Christian people) 'vile and abominable'.

Lady Margaret no doubt deplored the extravagance and vanity which were just then as prevalent as usual. (Bishop Fisher reproved women in general for feeling more ashamed of a spot on the face, or of mud on their clothes, than they did of sin-stains on their souls.) Her tastes were simple, though she had some rich Court-gowns of velvet and cloth of gold; one of her portraits [7] shows her wearing a red square-cut dress and white chemisette with gold and jewelled edging, a black hood with gold embroidery, and a pearl necklace.

John Gerson's Imitatio Christi, in three books, was translated 'at the special request and commandment' of Lady Margaret, by William Atkinson, D.D., and she herself translated from the French the 'Forthe Boke of ye folowynge Jesu Cryst and of ye Contempnynge of the World'. This 'fourth book' has been described as 'a separate tract by an anonymous author'; it was published as a sequel to the first three and was printed with them by Wynkyn de Worde and by Pynson, at Lady Margaret's command. [8]

She persuaded Bishop Fisher to publish a volume of his sermons on the Seven Penitential Psalms, [9] and she encouraged the printing of books of prayers and a revised Breviary 'Secundum Usum Sarum'. [10] A book which was reprinted several times in the sixteenth century was Scala Perfectionis, Englyshed the Ladder of Perfection, by Walter Hylton; it was first printed in 1494, by Wynkyn de Worde in Caxton's house, by Lady Margaret's command. [11]

An epilogue to the edition of 1533 states that the book 'expoundeth many notable doctrines in contemplation which is right expedient to those that set their felicity in occupying themselves specially for their souls' health'. At the end of the first edition appeared the following stanzas:

Infynyte laud, with thankynges many folde
I yielde to God, me socouryng with his grace
This boke to finyshe, whiche that ye beholde
Scale of Perfection calde in euery place;
Whereof thauctor Walter Hylton was,
And Wynkyn de Worde this hath sett in print
In William Caxton's hows, so fyll [12] the case
God rest his soul. In joy ther mot it stynt. [13]
This heuenly boke, more precyous than golde
Was late dyrect, with great humylyte,
For godly plesur thereon to beholde,
Unto the right noble Margaret, as ye see,
The kynges moder of excellent bounte,
Henry the seventh, that Jhu hym preserue.
This myghty pryncesse hath commanded me
T'emprynt this boke, her grace for to deserue.

The foregoing instances serve to illustrate not only Lady Margaret's well-known care for 'the honour and increase of learning in divinity', but also her love of literature and her kindly interest in men of letters. Another indication of this may be found in a brief contemporary allusion to 'My lady the King's Mother's Poet' -- of forgotten name and fame -- who was at one time a member of her household.