For this month’s installment from our House of Commons 1422-1461 Section we hear from Dr Simon Payling about poet and long-time servant to the Lancastrians, George Ashby of Warwickshire…
THE HISTORY OF PARLIAMENT: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 1422-1461, edited by Linda Clark, is out now. For further details about the volumes, including purchasing information, visit the Cambridge University Press website, here.
George Ashby, MP for Warwick in the Parliament of 1459, is worthy of notice as the only known poet among the MPs of Henry VI’s reign. His poetry reflected his own troubled times and the personal difficulties that assailed him as a loyal servant of Henry VI. His most notable surviving work, De Activa Pollecia Principis, was a poem of political and moral advice for that King’s son, Edward, prince of Wales, written from exile (in all probability, although the matter is disputed) after Edward IV had taken the throne. The poem reflected a lifetime of service to the ill-fated house of Lancaster.
Of humble origins in Warwickshire, Ashby had risen through the royal bureaucracy. Appointed in the early 1420s as clerk of the signet to Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, by 1437 he had advanced to a position as one of the clerks of the royal signet, the most personal of the King’s seals. The King’s belated marriage provided him with another opportunity to further himself. He was among those who, between November 1444 and April 1445, accompanied William de la Pole, marquess of Suffolk, on the great embassy to bring the new queen to England from Nancy. On his return he entered the young queen’s service, taking office as clerk of her signet. The series of royal grants he had enjoyed since the late 1430s now put him into a position to acquire a worthwhile stake in landed society. His employment at court put a premium on its acquisition in the vicinity of London, and, by 1447, he had purchased an estate at Harefield in Middlesex. It was there that he and his descendants made their home.
From the late 1440s the disorder of royal finances posed a threat to Ashby’s new prosperity. Like others, he faced continual difficulty in securing payment of his wages and fees, a problem which finds an echo in his De Activa Pollecia. There he advised Prince Edward to ‘paie youre men theire wages and dutee, That thei may lyve withoute extortion’. His own experience finds further echo in his injunction to the prince to eschew the resumption of grants once made for, ‘it is nought a man to be cherisshed, And aftur for povertee perisshed’.
The increasing polarization of politics in the late 1450s brought Ashby more profound problems. Although it briefly brought him to a new prominence, with election, as a royal nominee, to represent Warwick in the partisan Lancastrian Parliament of 1459, it then brought his long administrative career to an abrupt end. As an intimate servant of Queen Margaret, he could not expect to escape unscathed from Edward IV’s seizure of the throne. He was not attainted, as other Lancastrian loyalists were, but he was imprisoned. His poem, Prohemium unius prisonarii, written between March 1463 and March 1464, tells us that he had then been incarcerated ‘a hoole yere and more’ in the Fleet. His committal was, according to his own testimony, both ‘ageynst ryght and reason’ and ‘By a gret commaundment of a noble lord, To whom I must obey for hys gret myght’. Since there is no other source for his arrest and imprisonment, one can only speculate as to this lord’s identity; the obvious candidate is, however, Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who may have held a grudge against him as MP for his borough in 1459. Predictably, Ashby’s poem emphasizes the great cost of his imprisonment, both material and psychological: his enemies took advantage, ‘Takyng awey myn hors, money and goodes, Pullyng myn houses downe and my gret woodes … Nat leuyng me a dyssh neyther a cup’; he was thus ‘put to unpayable det, Lykly to be therfor a wrechyd thrall’; and his friends, ‘disdeyned me To vysyte … forgetyng me and let me be’.
It is not known when his imprisonment ended, but end it did, for Ashby appears to have joined the Lancastrian court in exile at Koeur-la-Petite in north-eastern France. There, when ‘fallen in decrepit age Right nygh at mony yeres of foure score’, he wrote De Activa for the benefit of the young prince, an act of homage to his long service to Lancaster. Presumably he returned to England at the time of Henry VI’s Readeption in October 1470 but, frustratingly, the last years of his life are lost in obscurity. The deaths of his protégé, Prince Edward, at the battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471 and of his old master, Henry VI, soon after, must have come as grievous blows to him, although he himself did not suffer from Edward IV’s restoration. His own death followed on 20 Feb. 1475, and he was buried at Harefield.
You can find the full ‘Medieval MP of Month’ blog series here.