Da Vinci Code in the archives
‘Jackpot!’ That’s what Aline Douma thought when she found the box containing at least nine Medieval documents that no one had studied before. They turned out to be exactly what the lecturer of historical linguistics needed to date a poem the origins of which had been contested since 1899.
The poem was just any document; it had an important political function. The writer, civil servant George Ashby, provided the English king Henry VI of House Lancaster with political advice.
These so-called mirrors for princes were often written by people like Ashby. While they were politically savvy, they weren’t able to directly advise the king. ‘Sometimes their messages were a little awkward’, says Douma. ‘But they could also take the form of flattery, of bootlicking.’
In an act of war, the House of York banished Henry VI to France in 1461, which meant Ashby lost his job. He was sent to jail in 1462 and potentially left for France when he got out.
The exact date of the poem is of importance for its exact meaning
In response to the war, Ashby wrote one of these mirrors for princes to Henry IV’s son, possibly as part of a campaign to prepare for the return of the House of Lancaster to England.
The exact date of this document remained a mystery. Earlier theories put it somewhere between 1460 and 1470, but this isn’t specific enough. ‘Because of the power struggles between Lancaster and the rival royal family of York, it was a time of political upheaval’, says Douma. ‘The exact date of the poem is of importance for its exact meaning.’
So Douma travelled to England to look for documents in the archives. She hoped to find some clue about Ashby’s life there. ‘Medieval society was incredibly bureaucratic’, she says. ‘Documents detailing a person’s possessions, for instance, were carefully preserved, since they were about money.’
I was probably the first person in centuries to look through these documents
There was just one bump in the road: due to the lack of funding, the archives hadn’t properly catalogued things. Sometimes, all that was known about a box of documents was the period or region they were from. ‘Digging through kind of feels like you’re in The Da Vinci Code’, says Douma. ‘I was probably the first person in centuries to look through these documents.’
Before she left for her trip, Douma knew the London Metropolitan Archives had two boxes that their catalogues claimed contained three or four documents on Ashby. Once she arrived at the archives, however, the situation turned out to be a bit more complex. ‘One box had been lent out in 2020. It had supposedly been returned. Except nobody could find it.’
Fortunately, the other box had what she needed: documents that mention Ashby, including pieces from the period between 1460 and 1470, when he was supposed to be in France. An entirely new discovery, says Douma. ‘I was probably the first person to even see these documents.’
One of the documents stems from 1467 and details a quarrel with someone who’d occupied one of his estates in England. ‘The document had been written in Ashby’s own handwriting. That meant I was pretty certain that he hadn’t gone to France. Besides, by that time he was pretty old and no longer involved in politics, while the poem was in fact about politics’, says Douma.
This means the poem was likely written earlier. ‘It most likely dates back to somewhere between March 1461, when Lancaster was banished, and the fall of 1462, when Ashby was imprisoned. The person who had earlier dated Ashby’s poem agreed with me.’
In another stroke of luck, the lost box from the archives has been found. ‘Who knows, maybe it contains even more undiscovered sources’, says Douma. ‘Although I haven’t had a chance to go through it yet.’