Why the English Serve Their King on Bended Knee

A few weeks into the reign of Edward VI, in early 1547, a French embassy arrived at the English court. They stayed for six days. François de Scépeaux, Sieur de Vieilleville (1509–1571), the special ambassador, was received by the Duke of Somerset, recently appointed Lord Protector, and the whole court. Allegedly, Vieilleville’s secretary, Carloix, later wrote memoires. To what extent these memoirs have been embellished in the early 17th century we shall discuss in a later post, however it is probably safest not to take them too seriously as a historical source.

On this tapestry King Ahasverus is served on bended knee; two members of some order of chivalry also attend, on their knees and bare-headed. The great master of the household (or someone like him) receives the food on a plate from a kneeling page (c.1500)

I’ve been working to copy (not copy & paste) parts of Carloix’s text and give you a full translation, however I also put it here in the French original. It’s fun to read! Please enjoy!

Carloix reports:

Ce duc de Sommerset n’estoit gueres bien voulu des milorts et autres seigneurs d’Angleterre, ny même du Roy, car il entreprenoit sur l’Etat, et s’en fasoit si bien accroire, que son opinion, bonne ou mauvaise, effaçoit toutes les autres; et ce qui le rendoit plus odieux à tous les etats du royaume, estoit que, de sa seule et privée authorité, il s’estoit qualifié Protecteur d’Angleterre, pour lequel estat il tiroit plus de vingt milles nobles a la roze par an; et outre ce, il avoit de la même puissance et authorité, créé et estably Thomas Semer, son frere puisné, amiral de toute la mer.

Coutume de servir les rois d’Angleterre à genoux

Monsieur de Vieilleville sejourna six jours à Londres, durant lesquel il fut fort magnifiquement festoyé des princes et milorts, et principalment en un festin royal où il disna entre le Roy et le dit duc de Sommerset, aprés lequel estoit assis M. de Thevalle, beaufrere de M. de Vieilleville, fort vaillant et sage chevalier, qui avoit epousé madame Françoise de Scepeaulx, tres-vertueuse et tres-belle dame; et au dessous de luy Thomas, amiral, sans qu’il y en eust d’autres à table.

Et servirent les millorts chevaliers de l’ordre de la Jartiere, portans les plates après le grand-maître, les testes nuës; mais, approchant de la table, ils se mettoient à genoux, et venoit le grand-maître prendre le service de leurs mains, estant ainsi agenoilez: ce que nous trouvasmes fort ètrange, de voir ainsi anciens chevaliers, gens de valeur et grands capitaines de plus illustres maisons d’Angleterre, faire l’estat que font les enfans d’honneur et pages de la chambre devant nostre Roy, qui ont seulement les testes nuës portant les service, mais ils ne s’agenoillent nullement, et en sont quites pour une reverance d’entrée et d’issuë de la salle où se fait le festin. Et estans en difficulté de juger de qui approchoit le plus cette façon, ou de la tirannie, ou de l’idolatrie, un gentilhomme anglais qui nous écoutoit nous y satisfit fort promptement, disant en bonne langage française qu’elle participoit de tous les deux, avec cette raison:

«Si vous faites aux vieilles gens, si experimentez en toutes choses qu’ils n’ont plus besoing de rien apprendre, faire des choses puerilles, vous pouvez bien penser qu’ils sont contrains d’y obeyr, car le vieillart n’a rien si odieux que de contrefaire l’enfant; par ainsi il faut conclure que s’ils refusoient ce commandement quand nostre Roy veut monstrer ses magnificences et grandeurs, qu’il seroient d’estre chassez de la Cour, privez de leur estat, et peut estre de la vie: doncques est tirannie.

Et quant aux testes nuës et agenoillements quis sont ordinaires devant la face de nostre Roy, puisque cela appartient à un seul Dieu; vous ne pouvez ignorer que ce ne soit idolâtrie. Mais vostre Roy en use plus chrestiennement, et ne tient pas une si turquesque rigueur à ses sujets et serviteurs; aussi il n’y a pas un de vous autres Français qui ne voulust librement sacrifier sa vie pour son prince. Icy tout au contraire: car des douze que sont à genoulx, les sept que voyez derniers voudroient avoir coupé la gorge au Roy et au duc de Sommerset son oncle maternel:»

(Mémoires de la vie de François de Scépeaux, Sieur de Vieilleville. Vol I. Edited by C. B. Petitot, 1822, pp. 153–155)

That Duke of Somerset was hardly well-liked by the milorts and other gentlemen of England, because it was he who ran the state and because he only let his own opinion – whether good or bad – prevail over all others. And thus it happened that the Duke of Somerset became hated by all the estates of England, because he, by his own private authority, made himself Protector of England, which also made him throw over 20 million nobles out of the window per annum. And of the same authority, he also created and established Thomas Seymour, his little brother, Lord Admiral of all the Seas.

The custom to serve the Kings of England on bended knee

Monsieur de Vieilleville stayed six days in London, during which he was very magnificently entertained by the princes and milorts, and principally with a royal feast where he dined between the king and the said Duke of Somerset, the latter of whom was assisted at table by M. de Thevalle, brother-in-law of M. de Vieilleville and a very valient and wise knight who had married Madame Françoise de Scepeaux, a very virtuous and beautiful lady; and below him [was seated] Thomas, the admiral, without any others at the table.

And the milorts were served by knights of the Garter, who brought the dishes behind the great master of the household, bare-headed; but, approaching the table, they went on their knees, and the grand master came and took the dishes out of their hands, while they remained on their knees: We found this very strange, thus to see these worthy knights and gentlemen, and great captains, of the greatest houses of England, to do that which the children of honour and pages do before our king; they, however, only carry the dishes bare-headed, but do never kneel, and are done with curtsying at entering and leaving the hall where the feast is taking place. While we were thus having difficulty judging whether this be tyranny or idolatry, an English gentleman who had overheard us approached us, saying in good French that he participated in the two, the tyranny and the idolatry, for this reason:

“If you find these worthy people, so experienced in everything that they need not learn anything more, to engage in such childish things, you may well think that they are constrained to obey, as they would be chased from court, lose their estates, and even their lives, if they would refuse to proclaim the greatness of our king with these fooleries: So much for tyranny.

As for the bared heads and bended knees before our king, they should be for God only; you cannot ignore this is idolatry! But your king is of most Christian habits, nor does he use such Turkish rigour towards his subjects and servants; so among you there will be no Frenchman who will not freely sacrifice his life for his prince. Here it is the other way round! For of the twelve who knelt, the last seven would gladly cut the king’s and the Duke of Somerset’s throat!”

(Translation copyright © 2018 Christine Hartweg)

The mysterious Englishman’s speech goes on quite a bit, and we shall see in the next post what else he had to say, about Henry VIII and his wives, among other things; we’ll also find out who he was …

coninued here

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
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