England of the fifteenth century was rife with social change, religious dissent, and political upheaval. Amid this ferment lived John Capgrave O.S.A. — Austin (Augustinian) friar, doctor of theology, a leading figure in the society of East Anglia, a noted and prolific author, an outstanding religious leader.
He was such a saintly person that it has been stated that King Henry VII wished him to be canonized. In fact, some of this friar's early biographers refer to him as "Beatus", which was an allusion to this wish of Henry VII. Nowhere are the tensions and anxieties of this critical period, spanning the close of the medieval age and the dawn of early modern eras, more eloquently conveyed than in Capgrave's written works.
John Capgrave, the learned and travelled friar of Lynn in Norfolk, England, was the best-known man of letters of his time - the generation of his fellow-author Osbern Bokenham O.S.A., and the one after Geoffrey Chaucer. One of the most learned men of his day, he was a distinguished theologian, philosopher, and historian.
Capgrave also tried his hand at poetry. Speaking of himself, he versed:
Oute of the world to my profit I cam
Onto the brotherhood wich I am inne,
God gave me grace never for to blame,
To folwe the steppes of my Faders before
Wiche to the rule of Austin were swore.
Translated into contemporary English, the poem might read:
Out of the world of profit I came
Into the brotherhood which I am in,
God gave me grace never to blame
To follow the steps of my Fathers before
Which to the Rule of Augustine were sworn.
Capgrave was a notable figure both in the vibrant literary culture of England and in European intellectual history. He has also proved to be the most prolific writer of all English Augustinians. He was born at Lynn in Norfolk, England on the 21st April 1393. Thirty-seven miles north of Cambridge, Lynn was a thriving port on the estuary of the Ouse River in north-western Norfolk. Lynn stood at the south-eastern tip of the great English estuary known as the Wash.
Image (at left): The opening initial of Capgrave's commentary In Exodum, depicting the author kneeling before the duke, who paid for its production. From a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.The town was in medieval times called Bishop's Lynn. This is because it was taken under the wing of the Bishop of Norwich in the late eleventh century, one of the earliest of numerous deliberate seigneurial foundations of "new towns" that took place between that time and the mid-thirteenth century. (When Henry VIII subsequently took over the lordship of the town it was renamed King's Lynn.) Of all the religious orders in Lynn, only the Augustinians (Austin Friars) were located within the built-up section of the town. The friars had a large, well-appointed building near the marketplace, and were thoroughly engaged with urban life. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature describes late medieval Lynn as a prosperous port, under the lordship of the Bishop of Norwich but largely run by a wealthy mercantile elite. It was a gateway to northern Europe, witnessing a continual traffic of merchants and pilgrims, and its monasteries and friaries were connected to international networks of learning and culture. Fifteenth-century East Anglia was a literate and pious society in which clerics and the lay elite were a receptive audience for the edifying yet entertaining literature produced by clerical authors such as Capgrave, John Lydgate (circa 1370 - 1451), and Osbern Bokenham. Confusion about many details in the life of John Capgrave persisted until the meticulous research of Alberic de Meijer O.S.A. in the 1950s and beyond, although a few historical ambiguities still remain. The problem was compounded for writers as long ago as the sixteenth century by the existence of another English Austin Friar and scholar also named John Capgrave a generation previous to the Capgrave being studied here. This later even led to an unfounded but oft-repeated theory that these two Augustinians may have been related to one another as an uncle and nephew. The opening initial of Capgrave's commentary In Exodum, depicting the author kneeling before the duke, who paid for its production. From a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. John Leland, writing in the era of Henry VIII, described Capgrave's school days quaintly. He stated that Capgrave "stuck to his books as a limpet to a rock."
John Capgrave joined the Augustinian Order in Lynn, studied some of his theology at their Augustinian house in London, and became a priest in 1417 or 1418. He then remained in London, teaching and studying until 1422. He took the degree of Doctor of Divinity - the highest degree then awarded - in about 1433. This most probably was at Cambridge. (The earlier John Capgrave was a graduate of Oxford.) He was the author of forty-four books, of which only thirteen have survived.The period of his literary output extended from about 1433 until his election as Provincial of the Augustinians of England and Ireland in about 1452, when he was sixty years of age. He then resumed writing when once again he was no longer the Provincial.Capgrave spent much of his seventy-one years in the priory (convento) of the Augustinian Order in the thriving port of Lynn on the estuary of the Ouse River in northwestern Norfolk. At the time of Capgrave's birth in 1393, Lynn was the ninth largest city in England, with a population of around 5,000. (Earlier in 1377 the eight towns in England with populations estimated to have exceeded that of Lynn were London 34,971, York 10,872, Bristol 9,518, Plymouth 7,256, Coventry 7,226, Norwich 5,928, Lincoln 5,354 and Salisbury 4,839.) It boasted some seventy-five craft guilds and a merchant class that thrived upon the trade in wool, cloth, grain, and wine. In 1422 King's Lynn had fifty-two churches, chapels and oratories, and petitioned for permission to add to that number. At the centre of town stood a house (convento) belonging to the Augustinians, who were committed to preaching and worship in urban areas. He would have been very occupied in his home town, for the Augustinians were frequently called on to mediate conflicts between civic factions such as the merchants and the craft guilds; a number of craft guilds rented meeting space from the Austin Friars for their regular gatherings. The Augustinian Priory was certainly large enough for meetings between the townsmen and the Bishop of Norwich, and to entertain the visiting Duke and Duchess of Clarence and their retinue with three hundred horses in 1413 (probably before Capgrave joined the Order). Capgrave grew prominent within his order. From about 1441 to 1453, he was the leader of the large community in the Lynn house (convento). In 1446 the Lynn convento housed 30 priests and 16 candidates, not counting those who were deacons, subdeacons and clerics in minor orders.
Image (at right): A manuscript from England in the mid-fifteenth century. It was written by John Lydgate (circa 1370 - 1451), a priest contemporary of John Capgrave O.S.A. (1393 - 1464). Lydgate's manuscript is a medieval vernacular moralistic poem, "Siege of Troy," that he composed in 1412 - 1420. It was commissioned by Henry, Prince of Wales (who later became King Henry V). Capgrave would also have met the major political figures who lodged with the Augustinians while visiting Lynn; indeed, on one occasion in 1446 to Capgrave, as Prior, fell the task to entertain King Henry VI, who stayed in the Lynn convento. The King was then only twenty-four years of age, and was making a pilgrimage to England's holy places. In his petition to the King Capgrave declared that his house numbered 30 priests and 16 others on the way to priesthood - deacons, subdeacons, clerics in minor orders not counted - and sixteen postulants. The royal visit was anything but peaceful. Somebody used the occasion to make false accusations against the local Augustinians. When the misinformed king angrily challenged Capgrave about the matter, Capgrave bravely made a successful defence of the Order. The king was pacified and impressed by both Capgrave's fearlessness and by the flourishing convento he discovered, and henceforth took the convento under the protection of the royal family. Out of interest, it can be noted that the Augustinian Priory at Lynn received another royal visit from another English monarch, King Henry VII, on 25th August 1498. On this occasion King Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth and many great lords and nobles came to Lynn and stayed at Austin Friars, where the king was presented with ten great pikes, ten trenches, three couple of beams, twelve swans, two oxen, twenty sheep, a ton of wine, 30 dozen bread, two tons of ale, two tons of beer, and two loads of wood. The purpose of the donation, and whether the Austin Friars were the donors, is not recorded.Capgrave’s experience of the world was further broadened by travel to Italy - his only overseas voyage. Most probably during the great jubilee year of 1450, he visited Rome on Augustinian business (a General Chapter?). The future Augustinian saint, Rita of Cascia, visited Rome for the jubilee. Struck by illness in Rome, Capgrave had sufficient time there to be able to collect material for a guide book about that city, Ye solace of Pilgrims ("The Solace of Pilgrims"), a copy of which was only rediscovered in 1907. As reported in the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, The Solace of Pilgrims combines standard guidebook information about the classical and Christian histories of Rome with Capgrave's personal observations of the sights and customs of the city. In truth, Ye Solace of Pilgrims is a veritable medieval theological compilation. It is a kind of pilgrim guide for the ancient ruins of Rome, uses as its basis for information graphics or rough sketches as well as miraculous history, all of these typical of medieval Rome. It belongs to that class of writings which, instead of giving the pilgrims a description of the pagan monuments and the creations of christian art, excited their fantasy with myths and legends.
The book has three parts. The first section, of twenty-six chapters, deals with civic Rome, its walls, gates, bridges and monuments. The second section covers the seven principal churches and the forty-seven stational churches. The third section, all of which is no longer extant, treats in twelve chapters the twelve Roman churches dedicated to Mary. All of Capgrave's descriptions, and his transcription of the wording on monuments, is completely accurate. The Solace of Pilgrims is first-hand evidence of Capgrave's keen sense of observation and the balanced nature of his judgment as a writer. It has been called the best medieval guide book about Rome composed in English. Judging from internal evidence, The Solace of Pilgrims was definitely written after 1447 and before 1452. Capgrave happily admitted that he journeyed to seek new sights, and the text is full of engaging digressions on matters such as the East Anglian theatre or the dress of Roman brides. His persona in this text performs pilgrimage in a scholarly or touristic style: though pious, he inquires about the provenance of relics—wondering, for example, why the various fragments of the Cross should be so obviously made of different woods—and he shows a less than ascetic susceptibility to the beauty of classical artworks.
It should be noted that for 140 years during the 15th and 16th centuries there were three Augustinian church venues in Rome, i.e., Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant’Agostino and on the Quirinal Hill the Church of Santa Susanna. The latter was under Augustinian administration from 1448 to 1587. Capgrave described all of these churches. He dedicated Ye Solace of Pilgrims to Sir Thomas Tuddenham, whose estate was at Oxburgh near Lynn. He was a notorious extortionist, who with his fellow justice of the peace, Thomas Heydon, blackmailed and terrorized the Norfolk gentry. He evidently was a benefactor of the Austin Friars because he was buried in their church in London after his execution for treason in 1461. The precise association that Capgrave had with him is unknown. While in Europe circa 1450 Capgrave also visited Paris and its famed Augustinian studium generale (international study house for the training of Augustinians). There he demonstrated the trend of humanism by noting in the library the most recent works on the origins and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine. In this way he saw the work by Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. entitled Collectanea Augustiniana ("An Augustinian Collection"), and made it the basis of his own later work, The Life of St Augustine. There he also found Vitasfratrum ("Life of the Brothers") by Jordan, and made use of it in what he wrote in his Famous Henries about Jordan's former teacher at Paris, Henry of Friemar O.S.A..
Despite his administrative obligations, Capgrave was a prolific author. Among his forty-four books were some very large ones. For example his commentary on every book of the Bible comprised twenty-two volumes, of which only three now survive - those on Genesis, Exodus and Acts of the Apostles. Each of these three surviving commentaries is a large volume of 187 folios (double-columned manuscript pages), which would probably fill 1,000 pages of a modern printed book. Even if all of the missing commentaries on the remaining books of the Bible were not as large as these three extant ones, Capgrave possibly had a literary output that approached the 6,000,000 words of Saint Augustine of Hippo that still exist, although a fair proportion of Capgrave's words were compiled and copied from other texts, and not directly of his own composition.
Capgrave's Commentary on Genesis occupied him from October 1437 to September 1438. The Commentary on Exodus of 186 folios was written between 1438 and 1440. Capgrave's purpose in his Biblical commentary was to popularise the Bible, and to make it more a source of personal sanctification. For each passage in Genesis, Capgrave first gives the literal or historical sense, then its deeper allegorical meaning, and finally its practical moral application. He cites the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine of Hippo. Rarely did he include a thought of his own; when rarely he did so, it was usually when dealing with the moral application of a passage. In the preface of his Commentary on Genesis, dedicated to Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, a patron of English humanists, Capgrave speaks of the art of literary criticism observed in his work. In truth, however, this work is a veritable medieval theological compilation.
Capgrave wrote ten theological works. The only one surviving, De Fidei Symbolis ("The Symbols of the Faith"), is not particularly ground-breaking. It is his historical studies and his early advocacy of writing in English (rather than in Latin) that are significant. Capgrave's conscious cultivation of his English mother tongue did not only proceed from humanistic tendencies, but also from a deep love of his country, a love which was increased by his contact with some of the leading figures of England at the time. He deeply felt the humiliation of his people, when he saw Bordeaux, England's last hold on France, taken in 1453; when he saw piracy rampant against British merchant vessels, and some of his confreres held for ransom.
His keen resentment over the loss of English prestige might also he the reason why he does not dedicate a single line to the heroic deeds of the French patriot, Jeanne d'Arc (St Joan of Arc), in his Lives of Illustrious Henries. His literary work gained him and the Augustinian Province some excellent friends. In addition to Bishop Grey and Sir Thomas Tuddenham he found much favour with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Thomas Kemp, Bishop of London and later a cardinal, and of course his own confrere John Lowe O.S.A., who by then was Bishop of St Asaph and Rochester.
He dedicated books to all of them and they in turn, no doubt, paid for the high expense of their publication. Capgrave's example stimulated other gifted men of his Province to follow him in writing. Ralph Marham O.S.A. wrote his Manipulus Chronicorum in Latin, John Bury O.S.A. on the other hand used his English mother tongue frequently, and Osbern Bokenham exclusively. Capgrave reached the zenith of his literary activity in about 1445, when he completed The Life of St Katherine of Alexandria, in five volumes, and then did likewise to one of his most important historical works, his Lives of Illustrious Henries, in about 1446 (the year that King Henry VI visited the Augustinian Priory at Lynn). The later is possibly the only one of his works that he published in parallel volumes in English (Lives of Illustrious Henries) and Latin (Liber de illustribus Henricis).
The work is sectioned into three parts. The first section contains the lives of six emperors Henry I - VI, who lived between 918 and 1198. The second section contains the lives of six English kings, Henry I – VI (1100 – 1446). The third section contains the lives of twelve other persons named Henry who lived between 1031 and 1406. Among these twelve personalities are a King of Denmark, a king of France, a French count who became king of Jerusalem, the grandfather of English King Henry IV, a bishop of Norwich, a number of nobleman, and an Augustinian friar named Henry of Friemar (circa 1255 – 1340), whose historical writings on Augustine and on the Order of St Augustine that Capgrave would subsequently see at the Augustinian studium generale in Paris.
Capgrave addressed his works to a wide range of patrons, the grandest of whom was King Henry VI, who was pleased enough with the dedication of Liber de illustribus Henricis ("A Book about Illustrious Henries") to agree to act as patron of the Augustinian Priory at Lynn. The historical work of Capgrave Liber de illustribus Henricis looks forward to a new period. In this work the author abandons the arid method of the annals and seeks to gather historical material around a central figure. In doing this he shows the typical relish of the humanist for the human personality - in this instance, famous persons named Henry. Another significant historical work was his Chronicle of England, whose coverage of events ends with the year 1417, although the manuscript was dedicated to King Edward IV in 1464. For this book, Capgrave is known to have collected material for many years. For example, he copied therein what Henry of Friemar O.S.A. and then Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. had written about Pope Alexander IV having a vision of St Augustine:
In the same tyme Seynt Austen appered onto Alisaundre the Pope with a grete hed and a lytil body ; and the Pope inquired whi he appered soo. Augustine seid, for his succession were not called to dwelle in cites and townes, as were the Prechoures and the Menoures. And anon the Pope mad a bulle, in which we had leve to dwelle in citees and gyve ensaumple of good lyf. (Translation: In the same time Saint Austin appeared to Alexander the Pope with a great head and a little body, and the Pope enquired why he appeared so. Augustine said, for his succession were not called to dwell in cities and towns as were the Preachers (Dominicans) and Minors (Franciscans). And anon the Pope made a bull, in which we had leave to dwell in the cities and give example of good life.)
The Augustinian library at the Priory (convento) in Lynn was described as "superb," and contained many books from which Capgrave researched and copied generously. It is known that Capgrave maintained a scriptorium in the Lynn Priory, consisting of at least three scribes in addition to himself, who participated with him in producing copies of Capgrave’s own works as well as those of other authors. Capgrave left instructions in his autograph manuscripts for other scribes to follow when making copies of his works, as in the case of the De illustribus Henricis, and commented on the work of his scribes in other manuscripts. This scriptorium was present in Lynn and open for business for outside contractors, because the introduction to Capgrave’s Life of Saint Augustine states this fact. (One churlish twenty-first century commentator has commented that Augustine's mother is so heavily featured in Capgrave's Life of Saint Augustine that it could be re-named Life of Saint Monica.)
The Chronicle of England is incomplete, but suddenly ceases in the middle of a column, probably because of his death. It was a considerable achievement, being the first serious work since Anglo-Saxon times to be composed in the English language, rather than in Latin. It shows Capgrave's awareness of and deep concern with current affiars, especially his passsionate detestation of Wyclif and of heretical teachings. Of interest to the history of the Order of Saint Augustine (Austin Friars) is Capgrave’s assertion in his Chronicle of England that the Augustinian beginnings there happened in 1230. He was aware that the Grand Union did not happen until 1256, hence was thinking of one of the constituent religious orders that were amalgamated at the Grand Union. One such group was the Order of Hermits of Brother John the Good (the Gianboniti). They became approved as a mendicant order in 1225, and were assigned the Rule of Saint Augustine.
There is a document in the Public Records Office indicating that in 1227 King Henry II ordered an inquiry whether he could give the friars hermits of Saint Augustine the Chapel of St Lawrence on the road to Clayanger. (Roth p. 146 of August 1952). Unfortunately, neither the outcome of the enquiry nor other details are available. The fact is admitted that some of the communities of Gianboniti located outside of by the year 1252 may have been in England. Could this expectation, combined with the information above, have been the prompting for Capgrave’s assertion? If so, did Capgrave have further evidence that has subsequently been lost to historians? Capgrave's example of writing in English stimulated other contemporary Augustinians with literary and poetical talents to do likewise. This included John Bury O.S.A., who used English in most of his works, and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A
Capgrave also compiled the Nova Legenda Angliae ("New Legends of England"). This was the first comprehensive collection of the lives of English saints. The Nova Legenda tells the lives of some saints in a long-rhymed form using a Suffolk dialect. It is a lengthy work for, when printed in 1901, it filled two volumes with a total of 1,200 pages. But this work was really complied in 1366 by John of Tynemouth (or Tinmouth), a Benedictine monk at Saint Albans. Of the 168 lives covered by Capgrave, all but about fourteen were largely copied from Tynemouth. He merely edited and re-arranged it - and even that amount of contribution by Capgrave has recently been seriously doubted by some experts - although Nova Legenda for centuries has passed under his name. Even if one totally credits no involvement at all by Capgrave in the Nova Legenda, Capgrave's other undoubted works nevertheless prove him to have been a scholar of unusual eminence. Capgrave wrote histories of the Order of Saint Augustine, but unfortunately these are among his lost works. He composed in English a Life of Saint Augustine, which probably was a translation of the Latin work, Vita S. Augustini by Jordan of Saxony O.S.A.
Capgrave definitely saw a copy of Jordan’s work at the Augustinian studium generale in Paris in 1450. Another lost work is his De Viris Illustribus Augustinianis, which was probably a translation into English of the Vitasfratrum of Jordan of Saxony O.S.A., also probably seen by Capgrave in Paris. Whereas during that fourteenth century Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. and other Augustinians writing on the origins and identity of the Order of Saint Augustine usually adopted a defensive - and even combative - stance against the claims of precedence by the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, Capgrave had a nature that allowed him to be more conciliatory.
When he had first gone to the Augustinian studium generale at Cambridge, in a university sermon and in the subsequently written Concordia or De Augustino er suis Sequacibus ("About Augustine and his followers"), Capgrave wrote to promote concordia ("to reforme charite", as he said) between all Orders that followed the Rule of Augustine of Hippo, especially between the Austin Friars and Canons Regular of St Augustine, dedicating Concordia to John Watford, the abbot of the Augustinian Canons in Northampton. He wrote a rhymed life of Augustine, which is still extant, and a book on famous Augustinians, which unhappily is lost. He composed the Life of St Gilbert of Sempringham in deference to Nicholas Reysby, Master General of the Gilbertines, who also followed the Rule of St Augustine. His admiration for this Order, its origin and mode of life could scarcely be expressed in warmer words.
His love of the Augustinian Order was expressed in his rhymed Life of Saint Katherine. In fifteenth-century Suffolk dialect, he wrote:
My cuntre is Nortfolk of the town of Lynne
Oute of the world to my profite I cam
On-to the brotherhood whiche I am inne.
God gave me grace nuevere for to blynne [cease]
To folwe the steppes of my faderis before
Whiuche to the reule of Austyn were swore. (St Katherine 18.104.22.168)
A modern rendition
My country is Norfolk, of the town of Lynn
Out of the world to my profit I came
into the brotherhood which I am in.
God gave me the grace never to cease
to follow the steps of my Fathers before
which to the Rule of Austin (Augustine) were sworn.
Capgrave's The Life of St. Katherine of Alexandria was very much a product of East Anglian culture. Though Capgrave acknowledges only one English source for his narrative (a possibly fictional legend relayed by a London priest), his The Life of St. Katherine reads as if it were written by someone who had read Chaucer, and was conversant with the works of John Lydgate (circa 1370 - 1451) and Osbern Bokenham O.S.A. and with biblical drama. Capgrave’s 8000-line verse about the life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria make him a major contributor to what was truly a golden age of hagiographical writing in fifteenth-century England. All of Capgrave's surviving works except his Katherine survive in manuscripts - including lavish presentation copies - that he himself produced - or supervised the production of - at the scriptorium within his Lynn convento. Capgrave may have viewed his writing as an extension of his responsibilities first as head of the Lynn house and then as head of all English Augustinians, for he dedicated his works to patrons who could aid his house and the Augustinian Order.
Capgrave's explicit statements on the live issues of his day are orthodox and conservative. He vehemently attacked those whom he saw as enemies of the Church: Abbreuacion of Cronicles condemns the followers of Wyclif (reformers who advocated the alienation of Church property), and The Life of St Augustine includes gratuitous slander of their morals. He was elected as the Augustinian Prior Provincial of England by unanimous vote - an extremely rare occurrence! - at the Provincial Chapter held at Winchester on 22nd July 1453, and re-elected thus at King's Lynn two years later. From 1453 to 1457, therefore, he oversaw thirty four-houses Augustinian houses in England, Wales, Ireland, and possibly Scotland, and with a total of over 500 members. He made official visits to the Augustinian houses in England, and served as liaison with the Augustinian Prior General in Rome. Religious life in the England of his day was waning rather than waxing.
Capgrave is not known to have done anything against the ever-growing tendency for personal independence, though his dislike is evident from his attitude towards honorary papal chaplains (i.e., friars who received permission from Rome to work and live away from an Augustinian community). For the same reason he disliked the constant recruiting of his best men for the services of noble families. For example, John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, employed the Austin Friars Robert Newark and Clement Wells. John Crowche served as chaplain to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and John Hettingham, alias Byart, of Clare held the same position in the household of John Vere, Earl of Oxford. John South was assigned to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and John Tyson to Queen Margaret of England.
Some of these friars served as secretaries to these lords or as educators of their children, others were needed as military chaplains and went with the troops overseas or to the northern parts of England. Such chaplaincies were not always beneficial to individual friar, as many of these chaplains needed benefices to maintain their external standard of living, and as a consequence their vows of poverty and obedience suffered. Capgrave died in Lynn on the 12th of August 1464, at the age of 71 years, and was buried there in his beloved place of birth. With Capgrave's death a certain downward trend in studies seems to have followed in the English Augustinian Province. The Provincial William Gallion was given credit for having "roused his province from its slothfulness," and his successor, John Tuneys (or Toneys), obtained considerable proficiency in Greek and possibly even published a Greek grammar. The leading humanist among Austin Friars, Bernard André O.S.A., was neglected by the Reformers. All their praise was reserved for an ex-Augustinian, Dr Robert Barnes.
In summary, it can be said that John Capgrave was guided by sound religious principles, was very orthodox in his theology, led a saintly life, had a prodigious literary output, was a strong advocate of the use of the English language as a literary vehicle, was eminently successful as the Prior of the Augustinian community at Lynn and as Provincial could make a firm stand despite a natural inclination towards mildness. As an author, he used traditional genres to promote his own independent viewpoint on some of the most pressing controversies of his day, including debates over vernacular theology, orthodoxy and dissent, lay (and particularly female) spirituality, and the state of the kingdom under King Henry VI.
His writings in English prose are generally plain in style. For literary effect, however, he used rhyme royal, established by Chaucer's example as a prestigious form. In a few of his most elaborate literary productions, including Life of Saint Katharine and Life of Saint Norbert, the verse is handled competently and is especially effective when representing colloquial dialogue. He read and imitated Chaucer as well as other vernacular writers such as Marco Polo and John Mandeville, though he differed from other fifteenth-century writers in that he did not proclaim himself an unworthy imitator of Chaucer's genius. Capgrave was proud of his authorship. One of his characteristic asides in Life of St Augustine refers to writing books as a guarantee of immortality, and he concluded another book with the Chaucerian phrase “go little book” and a record of his name and membership of the Order of St Augustine. Composition was only one component of his authorship. Surviving manuscripts of Capgrave's work include several autograph and presentation copies, indicating that he took pains to produce prestigious objects that might attract patrons who could protect him and his Order.
Along with Osbern Bokenham O.S.A., John Capgrave O.S.A. was one of the persons in England who contributed to the name that the Order of Saint Augustine achieved for its patronage of and participation in humanism early in the European Renaissance. In his person and in the way he lived his Augustinian life, Capgrave regarded by some as a saint. His constant preoccupation with writing the lives of saints filled him with their spirit to such an extent that it is said that King Henry VII was one who called for his canonization (especially because of Capgrave's devotion to Henry VI), although no such process eventuated. Although Capgrave died in 1464, it took until the middle of the following century before a biography of him appeared. Its author was John Leland, in the context of a commentary upon numerous earlier British writers. Subsequent references to Capgrave generally appeared in bibliographies rather than in biographies, with unchecked inaccuracies of fact routinely repeated and further propagated.
Much of the relatively recent visibility to scholars and historians of John Capgrave largely stands on the strong shoulders of three Augustinians who were historical giants in the years between 1950 and 1990. During that period Alberic de Meijer O.S.A., Francis Roth O.S.A. and Edmund Colledge O.S.A. successfully performed groundbreaking research that effectively paved the way for their long-dead brother in Augustine to receive more of the recognition from academics in medieval history and English literature that he deserved.
The 1950s marked the rebirth and restoration of the Anglo-Scottish Province that had ceased under the pressure of Henry VIII in 1538, and attracted the attention of top-flight Augustinians in historical scholarship to the Austin Friars of old. The first two names mentioned above were German and Dutch Augustinians respectively, while Edmund Colledge O.S.A. was a quintessentially eccentric English academic long before he joined the Austin Friars late in life. In 1955 Alberic de Meijer O.S.A. summarised Capgrave as being a devout religious, a profound scholar, a keen observer, a trustworthy witness and the first English-speaking historian with a literary reputation. He had no hesitation in stating that John Capgrave was the greatest of all English Austin Friars (see written sources below).
John Capgrave: Augustinian friar, historian, and theologian. Entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908).http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03308b.htm
Capgrave’s St Katherine Online. Originally Published in John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine. Available online in TEAMS Texts, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999. Introduction at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/katintro.htm and text begins at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/kathfrp.htm
Colledge O.S.A., Edmund. "John Capgrave's Literary Vocation." Analecta Augustiniana 40 (1977): 187-95.
De Meijer O.S.A., Alberic. "John Capgrave, O.E.S.A." Augustiniana 5 (1955): 400-40; 7 (1957): 118-48, 531-75.
Fredeman, Jane C. "John Capgrave's 'Life of St. Augustine.'" Augustiniana 28 (1978): 288-309. 28 (1978): 288-309.
Fredeman, Jane. "The Life of John Capgrave, O.E.S.A. (1393-1464)." Augustiniana 29 (1979): 197-237. 29 (1979): 197-237.
Roth O.S.A., Francis. The English Austin Friars, 1249-1538. 2 vols. New York: Augustinian Historical Institute, 1966, 1961. AN4318