Crowned King The Anonymous 1415

A poem in the alliterative Piers Plowman tradition, "The Crowned King" is often viewed as political propaganda. Such a designation, however, fails to recognize the subtle political theory that underlies the poem— one that places it in line with the practical political theory of the prologue of Piers Plowman. Knights, clergy, and the peasantry have obligations to their king—an image of the divine "Crowned King," referenced in the poem as Christ—although the poem is more focused on the obligations of the earthly and yet unnamed king, Henry V. It is set on the eve of Corpus Christi (May 29, 1415) and uses the form of a dream vision, in which the poet overhears a kneeling cleric giving words that hover between advice and warning to the king.

The first 42 lines of the poem set up the historical frame, the dream vision, and the attitude of the poet toward his subject. The opening features the poet on a high hill and looking down on a "dale deppest of othre" (l. 32) containing a great and diverse multitude of people. Though this seems to echo the opening imagery of Piers Plowman, the location is used only to situate his dream, rather than to place theological implications on the landscape. In the midst of this scene, the poet/ dreamer believes he hears the king requesting "A soleyn subsidie" ("solemn subsidy," l. 36) in order to fund his wars in France. Those who are able to pay are supposed to bear the taxation burden for the poor, at least in theory. The poet engages in the king's shortsighted and potentially exploitative vision, rather than sounding a rallying cry of patriotism.

The remainder of the poem, lines 43-144, provides counsel to the king that initially seems motivated by the request for the "soleyn subsidie" (l. 36) but becomes more far ranging in thought. Described as the "sawes [wisdom] of Salomon" (l. 44), the advice assumes the position of an authoritative discourse on the medieval community. In the position of justice, the king is to "justifie the trouthe" (l. 53) and to rule with reason, again echoing imagery from Piers Plowman about the king, who requires the aid of Conscience and Reason to govern correctly. As the chief minister of justice, the king should be particularly fair to the labor force since he enjoys the riches from their work.

"The Crowned King" is not, however, a poem of social protest. The king is not condemned for his luxury, but rather is counseled to remember its source. Working with his nobles in Parliament is seen as an act of strength as it brings together community support and empowerment. Further, the king is exhorted to "Be kende to thi clergi and comfort the pouere: / Cherissh thy champyons and chief men of armes" (ll. 93-94). Love is the uniting force of this community, yet the speaking cleric knows that the rule of arms is important; thus, the best wielder of arms should be appointed to the position of "marchall" (l. 102). Strong knights along with a wise counselor/philosopher are also important to good, stable rule. A wise king should avoid being covetous and should instead reward his people. The poet is keenly aware of the vulnerable but important position of the poor in the social order. The cleric recommends the king follow the example of Christ, the "crowned kyng" (l. 141), who always acted out of care and compassion, even in suffering. The poem then concludes with a wish for Christ's kingdom, where there is "Prosperite and pees" (l. 144), perhaps in contrast to the contemporary situation of war with France.

Contextualized within the Corpus Christi tradition, "The Crowned King" at first appearance seems to be an almost doctrinaire statement of the king's two bodies—just as Corpus Christi celebrates Jesus' two bodies—divine and incarnated. More subtly, the poem takes the form of wise counsel to suggest to the king the simultaneously strong position he can hold and the dependent position he also occupies. Bound together by love, a typically Langlandian notion, the medieval community will thrive if the king listens to his people. Such a poem seems almost ironically addressed to Henry V, a popular and compassionate ruler. It may also be seen as a keen observation on the impact of the Hundred Years War.

See also alliterative revival.

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