In This Article Adam Usk

  • Introduction
  • Manuscripts, Editions, and Extracts
  • Usk’s Life and Career I: The Reign of Richard II
  • Usk’s Life and Career II: The Welsh Revolt, Disgrace, and Last Years
  • Surveys of Historical Writing in Late Medieval England
  • Political Background to Usk’s Career
  • Usk as a Writer

Medieval Studies Adam Usk
by
Chris Given-Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0232

Introduction

The chronicler Adam Usk was born in the parish of Usk in South Wales around 1350 and died there in early 1430, but the life he led was far from parochial, involving intrigue, betrayal, great danger, and considerable achievement. Trained as a lawyer at the University of Oxford, he briefly rose to prominence in the service of the archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry IV of England following the latter’s usurpation of the throne in 1399. In the spring of 1401, when he was at the height of his influence, he began writing the chronicle for which he is primarily remembered. Although written as a continuation of the Polychronicon, or universal chronicle, of Ranulf Higden, it is generally treated as a separate chronicle in its own right. It covers the years 1377 to 1421 and describes, often briefly, several of the major events that occurred in England and Wales during the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V but is especially important for its accounts of the downfall of King Richard II and of the Welsh revolt against English rule led by Owain Glyndwr, which are cited by almost all historians of these momentous events. Within a year of starting to write his chronicle, however, Usk decided to go abroad to seek promotion at the papal court in Rome, where his indiscretions led within a few years to him being branded a traitor by Henry IV and deprived of his benefices, so that it was another nine years before he was pardoned and allowed to return to England and a further three before, in 1414, he decided to resume his chronicle, which he continued to do in an increasingly desultory fashion until the summer of 1421. Unusually for a medieval chronicler, Usk wove much autobiographical material into his narrative, but the controversies in which he became embroiled meant that he was obliged to be highly selective in what he wrote, leading to much speculation by modern historians and literary scholars about his truthfulness and his periodically oblique and quasi-penitential mode of narration. In his will of January 1430, he bequeathed his chronicle to a kinsman, Edward ap Adam, but it was not until the 19th century that it was rediscovered and edited, since when it has been extensively used as an important independent account of the events through which Usk lived and in which he participated.

Manuscripts, Editions, and Extracts

The chronicle of Adam Usk is divided between two manuscripts: fos. 155–176 of Additional Manuscript 10,104 in the British Library, London; and an uncatalogued quire of six folios in the muniment room of Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. That these were originally part of the same manuscript there is no doubt. The British Library manuscript was Usk’s own copy of Higden’s Polychronicon from the creation of the world to 1342, with an anonymous continuation from 1342 to 1377, on the unused folios of which Usk composed his own chronicle before bequeathing the whole manuscript to Edward ap Adam, probably his nephew. Marginal jottings by Elizabethan antiquaries indicate that for some 200 years after Usk’s death, the manuscript remained undivided, but at some point before 1836, when the British Library acquired Additional Manuscript 10,104, the final quire became separated. How and why it ended up at Belvoir Castle is not known. It meant, however, that the first published edition of Usk’s chronicle, by Thompson in 1876, comprised only the twenty-two folios in the British Library manuscript, ending abruptly in 1405. Within another thirty years, remarkably, the final quire, with the text from 1405 to 1421, was discovered and identified at Belvoir Castle, so that Thompson 1904 comprises the first edition with translation of the whole chronicle. Given-Wilson 1997 is similarly based upon both the British Library and the Belvoir Castle manuscripts and is a complete edition and translation with a lengthy introduction describing the manuscripts and the story of their discovery. Given-Wilson 1995 is the most detailed account of the process by which Usk composed his chronicle, which was in four sections: the first covered the years from 1377 to early 1401 and was written in the spring of 1401; the second covered April 1401 to February 1402 and was composed contemporaneously; the third covered February 1402 to February 1414 and was written in 1414; and the fourth covered April 1414 to June 1421 and was composed contemporaneously. Eleven different scribes acted as Usk’s amanuenses in writing his chronicle. Translated extracts from Usk’s chronicle can also be found in Given-Wilson 1993, relating to the capture, deposition, and death of Richard II, and in Livingston and Bollard 2013, and Marchant 2014, on the Glyndwr revolt.

  • Given-Wilson, C. Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397–1400. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.7765/MMSO.35265E-mail Citation »

    Includes translated extracts from Usk’s chronicle illustrating the importance of his account of the later years and deposition of Richard II.

  • Given-Wilson, C. “The Dating and Structure of the Chronicle of Adam Usk.” Welsh History Review 17 (1995): 520–533.

    E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates that Usk’s chronicle was written in four sections over a period of twenty years, from 1401 to 1421.

  • Given-Wilson, C. The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377–1421. Oxford: Oxford Medieval Texts, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    The standard modern edition and translation of Usk’s chronicle, with a 90-page introduction discussing his life, career, and approach to the writing of history.

  • Livingston, M., and K. Bollard. Owain Glyn Dwr: A Casebook. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    Documents of various kinds, including extracts from chronicles, relating to the Glyndwr revolt and its legacy, in original language with facing-page translations, interspersed with explanatory essays.

  • Marchant, A. The Revolt of Owain Glyndwr in Medieval English Chronicles. York, UK: York Medieval Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed study of the chronicles of the first two decades of the 15th century and their attitudes to the Welsh revolt, which devotes extensive discussion to Usk’s chronicle and includes translated extracts from it in an appendix.

  • Thompson, E. Chronicon Adae de Usk 1377–1421. London: Royal Society of Literature, 1904.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first complete edition and translation of Usk’s chronicle, following Thompson’s 1876 edition of the first part of the chronicle, also published by the Royal Society of Literature, before the discovery of the manuscript of the latter part of the text.

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