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Gower’s “Confessio” and the “Nova statuta Angliae”: royal lessons in English law
Rosemarie McGerr (Indiana University – Bloomington)
ES. Revista de Filología Inglesa 33.1 (2012)
This essay examines parallels between the discussion of kingship and law in the Confessio Amantis and the account of Edward II’s deposition that opens the Nova statuta Angliae, a comparison that reveals how each text employs a hybrid discourse that creates multiple frames of reference for the reader. Manuscript copies of both texts appear to have been commissioned for Richard II in the early 1390s, at a time when the king sought to defend against limitations of his power, and the Confessio has been depicted as a commentary on the king’s fulfillment of his responsibilities. This essay shows how both texts interweave discourses of legal argument, romance narrative, advice to princes, and religious exemplum in ways that strengthen their representation of the king’s sacred obligation to uphold the laws of the land, based on the English coronation oath that entered textual circulation in the fourteenth century.
Many scholars agree that Gower’s Confessio Amantis shares qualities with medieval works in the “mirror for princes” genre. Although the Confessio circulated in several forms, probably beginning in the early 1390s, they all embed within Book VII an extensive account of Aristotle’s instruction of Alexander the Great on the principles of good kingship. In some versions of the Confessio, Book VIII offers an additional commentary on the duties of kings, and an additional discussion of kingship forms part of the prologue. Though the different forms of the poem depict its patron as either Richard II or Henry of Lancaster, Earl of Derby, who deposed Richard in 1399 and became Henry IV, the theme of good kingship remains strong in the Ricardian and Lancastrian versions. More recently, however, scholars have begun to note that the Confessio also has affinities with several medieval English legal texts that circulated during the 1380s and 1390s, some of which Richard II either commissioned or received as gifts.