1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Usk, Thomas

USK, THOMAS (d. 1388), the author of The Testament of Love, was born in London. His name was first added to the history of English literature in 1897 by Mr Henry Bradley's discovery that The Testament of Love, an important prose work hitherto attributed to Chaucer, bore in the initial letters of its chapters a statement of authorship — " Margarete of virtw, have merci on thin Usk." By the light of this perception, various autobiographical statements became luminous, and there remained no possible doubt that the author was Thomas Usk, who was clerk of the closet to John of Northampton when he was mayor of London from 1381 to 1383. In July 1384 Usk was seized and put in prison, but was released on promise of bringing charges against the mayor. Usk had no wish to be what he called " a stinking martyr," and he freely produced evidence which sent John of Northampton to gaol.

For this he was not forgiven by the duke of Gloucester's party, although he continued to hold confidential posts in London until the close of 1386, when he was appointed sub-sheriff of Middlesex. But he fell with the king, in the triumph of the duke of Gloucester, and on the 3rd of February 1388 Usk, among others, was tried for treason and condemned. He was sentenced " to be drawn, hung and beheaded, and that his head should be set up over Newgate." John of Malvern, in his continuation of Ralph Higden's Polychronicon,[1] gives a horrid description of his execution, which occurred on the 4th of March 1388, in circumstances of rude barbarity; it took thirty blows of a sword to sever Usk's head from his shoulders. Professor Skeat has shown that the date of his book must be about 1387, for in it he reviews the incidents of his career, including the odd facts that, after his first imprisonment in 1384, he challenged any one who " contraried " his " saws " — that is to say, denied his allegations — to fight, but that no one took up his wager of battle. From 1381 to 1383, while Chaucer was comptroller of customs, Usk was collector, and they were doubtless acquainted. In The Testament of Love, the god is made to praise " mine own true servant, the noble philosophical poet in English," who had composed " a treatise of my servant Troilus." Usk had at one time been a Lollard, but in prison he submitted to the Church and thought he was forgiven. His solitary work is remarkable, and the most elaborate production in original English prose which the end of the 14th century has bequeathed to us. It is, however, excessively tedious, and of its obscurity and dullness a very amusing proof is given by the fact that successive editors — and even Dr Henry Bradley and Professor Skeat— did not discover till too late that the leaves of the original MS. had been shuffled and the body of the treatise misarranged. No MS. of The Testament of Love has been preserved; it was first printed by W. Thynne in his edition of Chaucer, 1532. In 1897 Professor Skeat, with cancelled sheets to cover the unlucky mistake above referred to, issued a revised and annotated text in his Chaucerian and other Pieces.

(E. G.)

  1. Ed. J. R. Lumby, Rolls Series (1886), vol. ix. p. 147.