They knew about redacted versions of events in 1400.
The usurper and regicide Bolingbroke (so-called Henry IV) sent out trusted servants to inspect the abbey chronicles following Richard II’s death, for any hint of support for the king he had murdered. If any were found, and there was plenty of support throughout Richard’s twenty-two year reign, the offending pages were ripped out, blotted out, rewritten – redacted – to conceal the truth.
Gagging orders, as now, were nothing new. Rewards were handed out in the form of pensions and court appointments for those who penned flattering versions of Lancastrian ‘alternative truth.’
Chaucer’s rival poet Gower can be seen in all his eternal smug greed in Southwark Cathedral, lying on his velvet, gold-braided cushions. He amply demonstrates the reward for following the party line. He even rewrote his earlier work praising King Richard to make it look as if he was praising ‘King’ Henry. A lesson in how to get on as true then as now. Goggle-eyed visitors see only an image of the rich fruit of his deceit and not what lies beneath.
But where is Chaucer’s tomb? Isn’t he the more illustrious poet? Nobody really knows. The memorial put up to him decades later when the memory of Bolingbroke’s perfidy was long buried underneath layers of lies is just that, a memorial. No body. No tomb. Such was the official fate of one of our earliest and greatest writers.
The reason I’m so interested in this is because I’ve just written a new novel about the death of King Richard II. It’s called The Hour of the Fox and has nothing to do with Hildegard and the abbot this time. I tried to find out how the enormity of killing a king was presented to the ordinary man and woman in the streets and fields.
Chaucer inevitably figured in it because he was connected both by his work and by marriage to the House of Lancaster. How did he cope with that? I wondered. Research when writing about real people who actually lived and breathed is a tricky business. Evidence is not always easy to find and even when it exists it can be ambiguous. It’s my burden that I feel we have a binding duty to be as accurate as we can be about what we say about the once living. We have to honour their memory because, no matter how long ago they lived, they were as real as we are and we wouldn’t like lies told about ourselves, would we? I’d go so far as to say we have a sacred covenant with the past to search out the truth and to tell no lies.
How does that fit in with the idea of fiction? What about fantasy history of which we have so much these days? I’ll leave that with you for now. I’d like to know if it matters to you as much as it does to me.