Thomas Hoccleve Essay - Critical Essays

Hoccleve, Thomas


Thomas Hoccleve c. 1367-c. 1426

English poet.

The medieval English poet Thomas Hoccleve is often grouped together with John Lydgate and others as one of the “English Chaucerians,” followers of the first major English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Hoccleve was best known by early critics for his association with authors of greater renown, such as the more widely read poet Lydgate. However, the passage of time has improved Hoccleve's reputation. His penchant for autobiographical detail and his political verse—both of which distinguish him from Chaucer—have won him the interest of modern scholars. Some critics consider Hoccleve to be the earliest English autobiographer, and he is also noted for producing the first English version of the Fürstenspiegel, or advice to monarchs, in verse.

Biographical Information

Despite Hoccleve's autobiographical inclination, not much is known of his early years. Based on his name, some biographers believe his family may have come from the village of Hockliffe, in Bedfordshire. Scholars place his birth year as somewhere between 1366 and 1369; leading Hoccleve scholar J. A. Burrow proposes 1367 as the most likely date, with later dates only a remote possibility. The facts of Hoccleve's education are unknown; it assumed that he was not a university graduate. However, in 1387 Hoccleve began working as a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal in Westminster, a position that would have required a knowledge of French and Latin, indicating some degree of formal education. In a career in the office of the Privy Seal that lasted for nearly forty years, he was responsible for issuing authenticated royal documents and correspondence, and for authorizing the activities of the Chancery and Exchequer in matters ranging from minor purchases to the issuance of pardons. In 1394 King Richard II granted Hoccleve a corrody, a type of pension, giving him the right to free room and board at the Priory of Hayling on the Isle of Wight; Burrow suggests that Hoccleve likely accepted a cash payment in lieu of the accommodations, as was common. At some time in the late fourteenth century Hoccleve met Chaucer; the means of their acquaintance is unknown, and in fact the acquaintance itself has at times been disputed. Most of the evidence for Hoccleve's relationship with Chaucer, whom he considered his poetic mentor, comes from Hoccleve's own poems. Hoccleve also describes himself as poor in his poetry, reflecting the financial struggles of the court during the reign of King Henry IV, who took the crown from Richard II in 1399. Hoccleve's first work for which a date is known with certainty is “Letter of Cupid,” which was published in 1402. A translation and adaptation of the popular French poet Christine de Pisan's 1399 Epistre au Dieu d'Amours, the poem was one of Hoccleve's most popular works. His next major poem is the strongly autobiographical “La Male Regle” (“The Ill-Regulated Youth,” 1406), in which Hoccleve complains of the hardships of his life, many of which, he confesses, he brought on himself. Despite the exaggerations of the poem, scholars have generally agreed that Hoccleve likely did describe his physical ailments, financial strains, and moral failings accurately. Hoccleve married around 1410 or 1411, indicating that he had changed his mind about former plans to enter the priesthood. Nothing at all is known of his wife, although Hoccleve asserts in his poetry that he loved her. Following his marriage he began work on De Regimine Principum (Regement of Princes, 1411-12), which he presented to the future Henry V, then Prince Hal, with the hope of winning the favor of the heir to the throne. Consisting of advice to the prince on the proper conduct of a monarch, the poem was Hoccleve's most successful and widely read work. The prologue includes a lengthy dialogue between Hoccleve and a beggar, and an address to Chaucer. Several surviving copies of the poem include a portrait of Chaucer that Hoccleve commissioned to be included in the work. Hoccleve continued to write poems for Henry V, but there is no indication that his financial status improved, although he continued to draw a small annuity. At some point following the publication of the Regement, Hoccleve suffered from a period of mental illness, perhaps depression. The illness probably began sometime around 1414; Burrow and others have noted that between 1414 and 1417 Hoccleve did not go to the Exchequer to collect his annuity, suggesting the period of his malady. Hoccleve mentions his illness in his “Complaint,” one of the works that makes up his Series, a collection of works written primarily between 1419 and 1422. Henry VI ascended to the throne in 1422, and Hoccleve's annuity was continued, although by 1423 he was probably no longer working in the Privy Seal office. Nonetheless, at that time he was likely working on the comprehensive Formulary, a painstakingly detailed guide to the workings of the office, written to assist his successors. He was also granted another corrody in 1424, having petitioned Henry V's younger brother, Humphrey of Gloucester. Records relating to this corrody in Southwick, Hampshire, provide evidence of the date of Hoccleve's death. The documents indicate that a payment was made to Hoccleve in March 1426 but by May of that year the pension was granted to someone else, suggesting that Hoccleve had died in the interim.

Major Works

Hoccleve wrote in a number of genres popular in his day. His first major work, the “Letter of Cupid,” is an example of courtly poetry in the manner of the lines of the Roman de la Rose. It contains a dream vision, complex allegory, and wit typical of the courtly style. The original poem by Christine de Pisan was a defense of women, often considered an early example of proto-feminist literature. In Hoccleve's translation, however, the humor becomes ambiguous; scholars have long been uncertain whether Hoccleve was faithfully delivering Pisan's message to an English audience or slyly mocking her. Hoccleve's most important work, the Regement of Princes, was also written for a courtly audience. Effectively an instruction manual for a prince, the Regement was one of the earliest English examples of the genre, which increased in popularity during the medieval era and the early Renaissance. The work follows the pattern of the well-known Secreta Secretorum, an eighth-century work often incorrectly attributed to Aristotle. The Regement lists the virtues important to a monarch, exemplified in legends and historical events. Hoccleve instructed Prince Henry in dignity, justice, mercy, generosity, peace, and similar topics; he used the sections on liberality and prudence to remind the prince to pay his annuity. The Regement is preceded by a prologue considered by many scholars to be at least as interesting as the Regement itself. Like the earlier “La Male Regle,” the prologue is highly autobiographical, offering the poet a forum for voicing his grievances and for repeating his debt to Chaucer. In fact, the very form of the poem is Chaucerian, consisting mainly of rhyme royal stanzas (ababbcc), which had been popularized by the earlier poet. Several of Hoccleve's poems were at one time attributed to Chaucer, including the “Letter of Cupid” and such short religious poems as “Mother of God” (before 1426) and “Prologue and a Miracle of the Blessed Virgin” (before 1426). Another of his religious poems, “Learn to Die,” which is included in the Series, is the first poetic treatment of the so-called ars moriendi (art of dying) theme in English. Hoccleve also addressed more explicitly political subjects in his shorter verse, most often ballads praising the king, written for a court audience. An exception is the “Address to Sir John Oldcastle” (1415), in which he accused the Lollard knight of heresy and urged him to return to the Church. He also wrote works in the minor genre of the “begging” poem, which, like Chaucer's Complaint to His Purse, were designed to solicit money from his benefactors. Hoccleve wrote little of the narrative poetry at which his mentor had excelled, apart from the anecdotes included in the Regement. The Series, however, does include two poetic narratives drawn from a highly popular collection of stories entitled Gesta Romanorum: “The Tale of Jerelaus' Wife” and “The Tale of Jonathas and Fellicula.” Later scholars have also considered Hoccleve's highly personal work in the context of autobiography, a genre that did not exist in the Middle Ages but one whose conventions Hoccleve nonetheless sometimes observed.

Critical Reception

Hoccleve was widely read in his day, but the larger lights of Medieval literature quickly relegated him to the status of a minor poet in later centuries. Early criticism of Hoccleve tended to focus on his relationships with other poets, both personal and literary. He claimed Chaucer among his acquaintances, referring often to him in his poetry and relying on Chaucerian forms and themes for his own writing; thus scholarship has often grouped Hoccleve among the minor “sons of Chaucer.” In this context, Hoccleve is frequently paired with John Lydgate, who wrote successfully in many of the genres attempted by Hoccleve. Lydgate, a cleric, was better educated than Hoccleve and much more influential. Because both were deeply influenced by Chaucer, comparisons between the two often serve to demonstrate their different understanding of their mentor. As Derek Pearsall has noted, when placed next to Lydgate, the Chaucerian vernacular style of Hoccleve stands out all the more, as does Hoccleve's adoption of a Chaucerian narrative persona and sense of irony. Jerome Mitchell has also suggested that Hoccleve's rhetorical style and diction owe a great deal to Chaucer's influence. More recent criticism, however, has attempted to bring Hoccleve out from under Chaucer's shadow, arguing that Hoccleve typically wrote in forms Chaucer showed little interest in. In particular, as J. A. Burrow has suggested, Chaucer did not often address political themes explicitly, nor did he revel in autobiographical detail in the manner of Hoccleve. Hoccleve's unusual level of self-disclosure has been of particular interest to scholars, such as Malcolm Richardson, who has emphasized the accuracy with which Hoccleve described the life of a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal. However, some critics have questioned the extent to which Hoccleve truly revealed the details of his life. D. C. Greetham has contended that the persona Hoccleve presented served mainly as a literary device. Hoccleve's uncertain view of women has also continued to interest critics. While earlier critics tended to view Hoccleve's “Letter of Cupid” as a straightforward rendering of Christine de Pisan's feminist view, later scholars such as Karen A. Winstead have held that the tone and style of Hoccleve's work suggest that he was satirizing rather than merely translating the French original. The historical turn in literary studies has also brought increased attention to Hoccleve, particularly his Regement of Princes. Larry Scanlon, for instance, has stressed the role of poems such as the Regement in shaping contemporary beliefs about kingship and authority.

Principal Works

“Letter of Cupid” (poetry) 1402

“La Male Regle” [“The Ill-Regulated Youth”] (poetry) 1406

De Regimine Principum [Regement of Princes] (poetry) 1411-12

“Address to Sir John Oldcastle” (poetry) 1415

Series (collected poetry) 1419-22

“Mother of God” (poetry) before 1426

“Prologue and a Miracle of the Blessed Virgin” (poetry) before 1426

Poems by Thomas Hoccleve, Never Before Printed (poetry) 1796

The Regement of Princes [edited by Thomas Wright] (poetry) 1860

*The Minor Poems in the Phillipps MS. 1851...

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Jerome Mitchell (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Jerome. “The Autobiographical Element in Hoccleve.” Modern Language Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1967): 269-84.

[In the essay that follows, Mitchell attempts to distinguish convention from fact in the self-referential passages of Hoccleve's works. While Mitchell suggests that elements such as Hoccleve's extreme poverty and his bout with mental illness may be fictional or exaggerated, he contends that they are convincing and sincere. Also, Hoccleve's detail, loose organization, and conversational style suggest a greater degree of self-revelation than was typical in medieval English poetry.]

Many scholars have felt that the autobiographical element is the...

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John V. Fleming (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Fleming, John V. “Hoccleve's Letter of Cupid and the ‘Quarrel’ over the Roman de la Rose.Medium Aevum 40, no. 1 (1971): 21-40.

[In this essay, Fleming examines the “Letter of Cupid,” Hoccleve's translation of Christine de Pisan's L'Epistre au Dieu d'Amours. Instead of seeing the work as a critique of de Pisan's defense of women, Fleming proposes that the “Letter of Cupid” obliquely attacks de Pisan's criticisms of the Roman de la Rose.]

It is not in the spirit of launching a Hoccleve ‘revival’ that I would invite a re-examination of Hoccleve's ‘Letter of Cupid.’ But poems are historical as well as literary...

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J. A. Burrow (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Burrow, J. A. “Autobiographical Poetry in the Middle Ages: The Case of Thomas Hoccleve.” Proceedings of the British Academy 68 (1982): 389-412.

[In this essay, Burrow responds to critics who interpret Hoccleve's persona as mere convention with no basis in reality, and suggests that ignoring the autobiographical aspects of Hoccleve's poetry denies the reader a useful basis for understanding his works.]

Thomas Hoccleve earned his living as a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal, but he also employed his pen in the copying of poetry, his own included. Three autograph copies of his work survive, in fact; and one of these (now Huntington MS HM 744) formerly...

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John Burrow (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Burrow, John. “Hoccleve's Series: Experience and Books.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies: Recent Essays, pp. 259-273. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

[In the following essay, Burrow reviews the structure of Hoccleve's collection of writings titled the Series. Burrow emphasizes similarities to Chaucerian works, especially the Canterbury Tales, and examines Hoccleve's tendency toward self-reference.]

Criticism has hardly begun to do justice to the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve. The names of Hoccleve and Lydgate are often coupled together, like Gray and Collins, or Moody and Sankey; but the two poets are different in many ways. Lydgate is, in...

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Malcolm Richardson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Richardson, Malcolm. “Hoccleve in His Social Context.” Chaucer Review 20, no. 4 (1986): 313-22.

[In this essay, Richardson reconstructs the life Hoccleve likely led as a king's clerk in the fourteenth century. Richardson finds that the pathetic persona Hoccleve created in his poetry was not merely a generic convention, but rather an accurate picture of Hoccleve's circumstances and social status.]

Among other things, the unfortunate poet Thomas Hoccleve is that most characteristic modern literary figure, the little man who tries unsuccessfully to maneuver in a bureaucracy designed to crush him. This Hoccleve persona is one of the most meticulously...

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D. C. Greetham (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Greetham, D. C. “Self-Referential Artifacts: Hoccleve's Persona as a Literary Device.” Modern Philology 86, no. 3 (1989): 242-51.

[In the essay below, Greetham places Hoccleve between Chaucer and Robert Burton (author of Anatomy of Melancholy) on a continuum extending from medieval writers to post-modern authors like John Fowles and Woody Allen. Comparing Hoccleve to both earlier and later authors, Greetham argues that Hoccleve could be fruitfully considered a Menippean satirist in the tradition of Boethius.]

Until very recently, we took Thomas Hoccleve at his word. When he claimed to have “lewde speche” and “yonge konynge,”1 C. S....

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J. A. Burrow (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Burrow, J. A. “Hoccleve and Chaucer.” In Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honor of Derek Brewer, 54-61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the essay that follows, Burrow briefly outlines Hoccleve's debt to Chaucer as well as the ways in which Hoccleve might be appreciated more favorably on his own terms. Although Hoccleve's literary art owes much to his mentor, his best work is in the explicit political themes and autobiographical details that Chaucer himself eschewed.]

Some twelve years after Chaucer's death, Thomas Hoccleve paid tribute to the eloquence, wisdom, and piety of his predecessor in three passages of The Regement of...

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Larry Scanlon (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Scanlon, Larry. “The King's Two Voices: Narrative and Power in Hoccleve's Regement of Princes.” In Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380-1530, edited by Lee Patterson, pp. 216-47. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

[In this essay, Scanlon considers Hoccleve's Regement of Princes in terms of medieval English thought on kingship and authority. Drawing from Ernst Kantorowicz's work on political theology, The King's Two Bodies, Scanlon looks at how Hoccleve's poem constructs and critiques the voice of the king. For Scanlon, the Regement reflects the increasing power of vernacular literature to influence and disseminate...

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David R. Carlson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Carlson, David R. “Thomas Hoccleve and the Chaucer Portrait.” Huntington Library Quarterly 54, no. 4 (1991): 283-300.

[In the essay below, Carlson argues for the authenticity of the Chaucer portrait Hoccleve commissioned for his Regement of Princes. In Carlson's view, Hoccleve promoted his relationship with Chaucer, an earlier recipient of royal favor, as a part of his petition for patronage, and contends that the portrait would only be effective if it were a true likeness.]

Of the numerous images proposed as representations of Chaucer in early manuscript illuminations, one portrait type has some claim to be a “true portraiture of Geffrey...

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Anna Torti (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Torti, Anna. “Specular Narrative: Hoccleve's Regement of Princes.” In Glass of Form: Mirroring Structures from Chaucer to Skelton, pp. 87-106. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1991.

[In the following essay, from her study of mirror metaphors in medieval English literature, Torti discusses Hoccleve's Regement of Princes in terms of its function as autobiography. Torti argues that in his construction of a “mirror” in which Prince Henry can see examples of statesmanship, Hoccleve often reflects an image of himself.]

Critical evaluation of Thomas Hoccleve as a mere imitator of Chaucer has had too long a currency,1 and Hoccleve himself is...

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Karen A. Winstead (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Winstead, Karen A. “‘I am al othir to yow than yee weene’: Hoccleve, Women, and the Series.Philological Quarterly 72, no. 2 (1993): 143-55.

[In this essay, Winstead addresses the question of whether Hoccleve's praise of women is genuine or satiric, focusing on two poems from the Series, “Jereslaus's Wife” and “Jonathas and Fellicula.” Winstead considers the role of the bumbling narrator, whose “praise” of women may effectively function as criticism.]

In 1399, Christine de Pisan began her assault on the misogynistic writings that were so popular in late medieval Europe with her Epistre au dieu d'amours, a poem in which...

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Charity Scott Stokes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Stokes, Charity Scott. “Thomas Hoccleve's Mother of God and Balade to the Virgin and Christ: Latin and Anglo-Normal Sources.” Medium Aevum 64, no. 1 (1995): 74-84.

[In the essay below, Stokes examines Hoccleve's sources in order to better appreciate his art and rehabilitate his reputation as a poet. Stokes looks at the influence of the Latin Prayer O intemerata et in aeternum benedicta, specialis et incomparabilis virgo on Hoccleve's “Mother of God.” She also discusses various Anglo-Norman sources for his “Balade to the Virgin and Christ,” including several on women and courtly love.]

The tide of critical appreciation has been...

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Further Reading


Matthews, William. “Thomas Hoccleve.” In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500, edited by Albert E. Hartung, pp. 746-56. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1972.

Briefly outlines Hoccleve's life and achievements and gives descriptions (including sources) and a brief summary of each of Hoccleve's works.


Bennett, Henry S. “Thomas Hoccleve.” In Six Medieval Men and Women, pp. 69-99. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Offers Hoccleve's biography as one example of the medieval writer's life, emphasizing Hoccleve's work in the Privy Seal office and its influence on his...

(The entire section is 470 words.)