John of Gaunt employed Geoffrey Chaucer as a diplomat and spy. Before there were UFO’s there was a flying Chaucer.
Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most marvelous plays. King Richard (like me at a faculty meeting) is caught up in events he cannot understand and cannot shape. In this great speech he laments the human condition: “…of comfort no man speak/ Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth/ Let’s choose executors and talk of wills/ ….nothing can we call our own but death/ And that small mold of the barren earth/ Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.” Then Richard turns to the uneasy head that wears the crown: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings –/ How some have been deposed, some slain in war . . . ./ Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,/ All murdered. For with the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king …” Death keeps court infusing the king with vain conceit “As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humored thus/ Comes at the last and with a little pin/ Bores through his castle wall, and farewell King.” Finally, Richard moves to this true and pathetic conclusion: “I live with bread like you, feel want,/ Taste grief, need friends[.]” (III.ii. 145ff.)
John of Gaunt, who appears in The Tragedy of Richard the Second, was also the protector of the proto-reformer, John Wyclif. With his restless mind, quick temper and sustained capacity for invective, Wyclif would have made a fine academic. Wyclif believed that authority was lodged with the people of God who needed a translation of God’s Word in a language they could read. In addition, Wyclif’s concern for the evangelism of the poor led to a movement called Lollardry whose number may have included Jeff Chaucer.
Because Richard II married Anne of Bohemia, there was a lively commerce between England and the newly-founded University of Prague. Wyclif’s writings were known in Bohemia and influenced another reformer, John Hus. Hus was caught in the Great Schism, which involved trying to figure out which of the three sets of buns (bums?) warming on the papal throne was the right pair. Being two cheeky, as most people are, Hus chose the wrong set. In addition, Hus opposed the sale of indulgences a century before Martin Luther. With safe conduct to and from the Council of Constance, Hus was ordered to recant doctrines which he had never taught. Refusing, he was burned at the stake in 1415 or burned to a steak in 1415.
This material belongs to our family history because there is a clear line from John Wyclif to John Hus to Martin Luther to John Calvin to us. There are always some among the gallant dead who can speak to the courageous living. At the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, John Eck associated Luther’s doctrine with Hus whereupon Dr. Martin asserted, “We are all Hussites.” Properly speaking, male followers of John Hus are called Hussites – female followers should be called Hussies. With Luther’s admission, his implacable enemy, Duke George exclaimed, “To hell with you!” and stormed out of the presbytery meeting to get a cup of coffee which is also known as abomination in Gilead.
Obviously these important historical facts need to come into contact with our ordinary lives or they will disappear forever into the miasma of memory. Therefore we should remember that one of the supporters of John Hus was good King Wenceslas who looked out on the feast of Stephen. Christians celebrate the descent of our Lord, clothed in flesh, on December 25 and the ascent of his first martyr, covered with blood, on December 26.
Wenceslas, the patron saint of Czechoslovakia, was murdered by his own brother at the church door on the way to celebrate the Eucharist. This brother, frightened by reports of miracles occurring at the tomb of Wenceslas, had the remains transferred to Prague, which then became a great pilgrimage site (sight?). We cite the virtues of Good King Wenceslas once a year in the well-known Christmas carol.
To be precise, the Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol and the King Wenceslas of John Hus are two entirely different men – separated by 400 years! But most people are held in Czech not knowing anything about even one King Wenceslas and we know something about two. After all, what’s a small anachronism between good friends?