Adam of Usk

Adam of Usk (Welsh: Adda Brynbuga) (c. 1352 – 1430) was a Welsh priest, canonist, and early historian and chronicler.

Born at Usk in Monmouthshire, South Wales, Adam received the patronage of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, who inherited the Lordship of Usk through his wife Philippa. Mortimer encouraged and enabled Adam to eventually study at Oxford, where he obtained his doctorate and became extraordinarius in Canon law.

Adam settled at Oxford University as a teacher of law. Here by his own admission he was involved in armed struggle of 1388 and 1389 between the Northerners and the Southerners, which included the Welsh.

Adam left Oxford and practiced his profession for seven years as an advocate in the archiepiscopal court of Canterbury, 1390-1397, sitting on the Parliament of 1397 and in 1399 accompanied the Archbishop and Bolingbroke’s army on the march from Bristol to Chester. These experiences and the connection with Thomas Arundel shaped his views thereafter, he was very hostile in his chronicle to Richard II.

He was a member of the commission appointed to find secure legal grounds for the deposition of King Richard II and met with the King during his captivity in the Tower of London.

Adam was rewarded for his part in Richard II’s surrender, imprisonment and fall with the living of Kemsing and Seal, and later with a prebend in the church of Bangor. These nicely supplemented his professional legal income and status. However one living, his title to the prebend of Llandygwydd in Cardiganshire given under the college of Abergwili, was to be contested by one Walter Jakes alias Ampney, who had obtained it by exchange in 1399. The two were in an affray, in Westminster, in November 1400, which resulted in charges being brought against Adam and his company, for highway robbery. The outcome is unknown, however it didn’t immediately limit his legal activities, he continued as a lawyer.

However, he forfeited the King’s favour and was either effectively banished or chose to leave England, with the sanction of the Crown, having begged for the Kings Pardon for the Westminster misdeed, which was granted in January 1403, for Rome in February 1402. Here Adam realised he could impress other influential people. Once in Rome he met Pope Boniface IX and Pope Innocent VII, both of whom were sufficiently impressed to offer him English Bishophrics in 1404 and later he was successively nominated to the sees of Hereford and St. David’s, but was unable to obtain possession of either.

Events outside his influence or control took over. The rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr was enveloping Wales and focusing attention from England. In the summer of 1405 riots swept Rome, driving the Pope from the city in August, stranding Adam and leaving him far from home, separated from patronage and exacerbated by Adams own dangerous illness, suffered probably as a result. Adam left Rome in June 1406, making his way to Bruges. Here he attended closely to events in Wales and England and again developed his legal work, in France and Flanders this time. He listened to the plans of Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland to overthrow King Henry IV, but adroitly avoided any implication, involvement or commitment to either side.

In 1408 Adam was ready to return to Wales, landed at Barmouth, and hoped to secure the Lordship of Powys, then held by Edward Cherleton – whose first wife’s dower had included the Lordship of Usk. Adam lived under Cherleton’s protection for some years at this period, as a poor Chaplain at Welshpool.

In March 1411 Adam was granted a royal Pardon which should have signalled his return to influence. However in 1414 Thomas Arundel died and a major patrons influence was removed. Adam spent the rest of his life and career in relative obscurity and died in early 1430. He is buried in the priory church at Usk, where his epitaph composed in Welsh cywydd metre can still be seen. His Will is also preserved. In it he makes many bequests to religious causes in the Diocese of Llandaff and to individual persons bearing Welsh names. He makes a legacy to his executor and one to a relative, one Edward ab Adam, quite a telling gift; Adam’s own copy of Ranulf Higdon’s Polychronicon, maybe his own inspiration as a young boy. With it he must have left the material that formed his chronicle to 1421, which twenty years later was put in manuscript form.

This chronicle is his major legacy, providing contemporary detail on events in Wales, England and abroad and an insight into the life of an educated man moving through important spheres of influence at the time. He met Kings and Popes, lived in major cities and towns and offers a glimpse of real history. It throws particular light on the Glyndŵr revolt.

His Latin chronicle of English history from 1377 to 1421, edited by Edward Thompson for the Royal Society of Literature, as “Chronicon Adæ de Usk” (London, 1876).

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