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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XII. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century, I

§ 2. John Capgrave

John Capgrave, the learned and travelled friar of Lynn in Norfolk, was the best known man of letters of his time. His reputation was based upon comprehensive theological works, which comprised commentaries upon all the books of the Bible. Condensed from older sources, besides a collection of lives of saints, leves of the Famous Henries and a life of his patron Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. All these were in Latin. But he composed in English, for the simple, a life of St. Katharine in verse and one of St. Gilbert of Sempringham in prose, as well as a guide for pilgrims to Rome and a volume of Annals, presented to Edward IV.

Capgrave’s chronicle, so far as originality goes, makes some advance on Trevisa, being a compilation from a number of sources with an occasional observation of the writer’s own. He seems to have regarded it in the nature of notes: “a schort remembrauns of elde stories, that whanne I loke upon hem and have a schort touch of the writing I can sone dilate the circumstaunces.” Valuable historically, as an authority on Henry IV, it also attracts attention by the terseness of its style. It “myte,” says the author. “be cleped rather Abbreviacion of Cronicles than a book”; but graphic detail appears in the later portain, dealing with Capgrave’s own times. It is he who tells us that Henry V “after his coronacion was evene turned onto anothir man and all his mociones inclined to vertu,” though this is probably in testimony to the peculiar sacredness of the anointing oil. Capgrave was a doctor in divinity and provincial of his order, the Austin Friars Hermit; he was extremely orthodox, violently abusive of Wyclif and Oldcastle, an apologist of archbishops, yet, like other chroniclers, restive under the extreme demands of the papacy.

Even apart from his signal achievement in literature, the lively character and ironical fate of Reginald Pecock must attract interest. A learned man original thinker, he was yet astoundingly vain. Though Humphrey of Gloucester was his first patron, he was raised to the episcopate by the party which ruined the duke, and shared that party’s unpopularity. An ardent apologist of the newest papal claims and of the contemporary English hierarchy, he was, nevertheless, persecuted by the bishops and deserted by the pope. Finally, his condemnation on the score of heretical opinions was brought about by the malice of a revengeful political party.