“Caterpillars of the Commonwealth”: The Material and the Political in Ricardian Nature Allegories–By Allen Fulghum

Abstract: From anonymous poems written during the king’s reign to Shakespeare’s Richard II, literary critiques of Richard II have used nature allegories to explicate his flaws and chart the end of his reign. England becomes a garden or park, Henry Bolingbroke becomes an eagle or falcon, and Richard’s followers become stags, birds, bushes, grass, and “caterpillars of the commonwealth.” While scholarship has most often treated these texts as political allegories, recent scholars working on texts relating to Richard II, especially Shakespeare’s play, have begun to attend to the materiality of their natural subjects. This paper intends to produce a reading of these Ricardian critiques that accounts for both the material and the political dimensions of the nature allegory.

Focusing on the fourteenth-century poems “Richard the Redeless” and “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe,” as well as Shakespeare’s Richard II, this paper will demonstrate not only that the gardens, birds and bushes in these works are worthy subjects in their own right, but that the political issues being allegorized contain important material dimensions, particularly in regards to the ownership, cultivation of, and profit from land in Ricardian England. Nicole Shukin’s concept of “rendering” and Susan Crane’s work on the medieval bestiary’s metaphor offer a strategy of double-reading that encompasses these overlaps. Looking at the Ricardian nature allegory as a form of rendering and/or metaphor, we can produce readings that neglect neither the material nor the political elements, but rather illuminate how they reflect and interact with each other.

“Caterpillars of the Commonwealth”: The Material and the Political in Ricardian Nature Allegories

An anonymous poem written at the end of Richard II’s reign complains of “a busch that is forgrowe” [a bush that is overgrown], of “gras that is so grene, / Hit most be mowe” [grass that is so vigorous it must be mown], and of a “bagge … so roton on ych a side, / There nul no stych with odur abyde” [a bag … so rotten on each side, no stitch connects with another].[1] In Richard II, Shakespeare writes of “the caterpillars of the commonwealth,” “the weeds … that seem’d in eating [Richard] to hold him up”; Henry Bolingbroke resolves to “weed and pluck away” the caterpillars, and the gardener at Kings Langley explains that “we lop away, that bearing boughs may live.”[2] Another anonymous poem written about 1400, now known as “Richard the Redeless,” envisions a scene in which a falcon “baterid … on bushes aboughte / And gaderid gomes on grene ther as they walkyd” [battered … bushes about, and gathered men up from the green as they walked].[3] The falcon stands in for Bolingbroke; the bushes for Sir John Bushy, the grass Sir Henry Green. In Shakespeare’s play, the weeds and caterpillars are Richard’s “continual councillors.” These texts are linked by their use of natural allegory to represent of the flaws of Richard’s kingship, the corruption and incompetence of his court; they turn to ecological language to make complaints, propose solutions, and document the turbulent events of Richard’s usurpation. This paper will chart the use of natural allegory in these three critiques of Richard’s reign—especially where they concern Richard’s favorites Bushy, Bagot and Green—with the aim of showing how these weeds, grasses, bushes and caterpillars are simultaneous renderings of the material and the political.

Little is known about the two anonymous medieval poems discussed here: even the titles by which they are now known, “Richard the Redeless” and “There is a Busch that is Forgrowe,” are simply phrases that appear in the poems. Both date from about 1400, the year of Richard’s death in captivity; “Busch” was transcribed in the nineteenth century from a Ricardian-era manuscript that is now lost, while “Redeless” exists in a fifteenth-century manuscript that also includes a version of Piers Plowman.[4] Shakespeare’s Richard II is a very different text from these poems, but it is included here because the nature allegories it uses to discuss the problems of Richard’s reign is remarkably similar to those used in the poems. It is not the purpose of this paper to investigate Shakespeare’s influences or to argue that Shakespeare draws from these medieval poems. Certain passages of Richard II do, however, use a profusion of ecological language to delineate the failings of Richard and his followers, and this makes the play a rewarding text to examine alongside medieval sources in a discussion of how the nature allegory has been used to critique Richard’s reign.

Existing criticism of the anonymous poems addresses them almost exclusively as political allegory. Lynn Staley locates the poems in a medieval georgic tradition that documents and informs discourse within political communities, while Ann Astell reads the animals of “Richard the Redeless” as a “pattern of heraldic reference” taken up in a more sophisticated form by the Gawain-poet.[5] Recent scholarship on Shakespeare’s Richard II, on the other hand, has seen a turn towards the ecological that proposes new, materialist readings of the play’s non-human elements; this is part of the broader “material turn” within humanities scholarship.[6] Reading such scholarship in relation to “Richard the Redeless” and “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe” suggests different ways of thinking about the material aspects of these Ricardian critiques. In their ecofeminist analysis of Richard II‘s garden scene, Rebecca Laroche and Jennifer Munroe resist the practice of reading the garden as a metaphor for the body politic; they connect the Queen’s body with the bank of rue, bringing into focus the material aspects of the realm’s “healing” process following the disruptions of Richard’s reign and usurpation.[7] Laroche and Munroe interweave language and the material when they suggest that the scene comprises multiple gardens “coexisting in the same space—metaphorically and materially.”[8] The same can be said of the ecological spaces in “Richard the Redeless” and “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe.” Shakespeare’s play and these medieval poems are alike in that they evoke the real bushes and greens of medieval England at the same time as they use these bushes and greens to allegorize political events.

Laroche and Munroe’s analysis of Richard II also encourages us to look at how these texts represent or allude to instances in which the political is enacted materially. Queen Isabel, for instance, is only in the garden at Kings Langley because Bolingbroke’s coup forced her to flee from court. She stands on the soil that will in about a year hold her king’s body, as Richard, upon his death at Pontefract Castle, was transported to Kings Langley and buried there. When the gardener explains that “the weeds … / that seemed in eating [Richard] to hold him up / Are plucked up root and all,” he is referring to their executions.[9] The executions of Bushy, Green and other followers are depicted similarly in “Richard the Redeless,” as the falcon “bated … boldeliche, as a brid wolde, / To plewme on his pray the pol fro the nekk” [swooped … boldly, as a bird would, to pull his prey’s head from its neck].[10] It would be a mistake to suggest that the plants and animals that furnish the allegory are real material, but the political acts being allegorized are abstract. Yet it would also be a mistake to conclude that the plants and animals are symbols used only to represent the political affairs of Richard’s reign. The political events depicted in the texts discussed here are material occurrences: a would-be king ordering his enemies to be beheaded is just as materially real as a falcon pulling its prey’s head from its neck. In these allegories, language is used as a connective tissue to bring together different components of the material world.

Susan Crane contends in Animal Encounters that the medieval bestiary is characterized by the connection of like and unlike things: beasts are connected to beasts, to humans, to the divine, in a form of cognition and classification that Crane terms “metaphor.”[11] The bestiaries on which Crane focuses reflect a medieval perspective that does not neatly delineate physical from spiritual, or material from meaning, but engages in the task of classification across these multiple dimensions.[12] The aim of this classification is not separation but unification; connections are made alongside differentiations in order to show that everything is drawn together by the divine.[13] Each beast exists in multiple dimensions, and is enmeshed with every other creature, including man. What arises from any given point of connection is new knowledge, or new understanding; the bestiary’s form of metaphor “produce[s] new insight by touching two known things together.”[14] The act of compilation and correlation is in itself an act of meaning-making. While bestiaries are substantially different from poems and plays in terms of form, purpose and audience, Crane’s conception of metaphor proves useful to a reading of the allegories discussed in this paper. Viewing the Ricardian nature allegory as a metaphor—a device that produces insight through unification—allows us to see one of the most crucial effects of this form of critique: it provides a new understanding of its subjects. A reader of “Richard the Redeless,” for instance, might already know about both falcons and Henry Bolingbroke, but a passage that connects a falcon killing its prey to Bolingbroke ordering his enemies’ executions causes the reader to think differently about both events.

Connecting material through language in order to produce meaning, then, is both a textual device and a reading strategy. Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital compellingly advances the concept of “rendering” as a mode of materialist analysis that encompasses diverse elements of a text, including the material, the political and the linguistic. Shukin argues that the multiple meanings of the word “rendering”—from representing an object through art, to processing animal tissue—suggest a form of critique that “resists both the ‘sheer culturalism’ of reading animals as empty signifiers and the converse essentialism of reifying them as natural signs.”[15] While Shukin is discussing animals, the practice of rendering can be extended into a means of reading any text that represents plants, insects, and other nonhuman organisms. To render is to merge the forms of critique that take the organism either as a concept with no real referent or as a being independent of culture. Furthermore, to render is to represent this merging; to create an analysis that enfolds, in one text, plural interpretations of a source.[16] Rendering allows us to consider that when the poet of “There is a Busch that is Forgrowe” writes of “the long gras that is so grene, / Hit most be mowe, and raked clene” [the long grass that is so vigorous, it must be mown and raked clean], they are simultaneously evoking the long grass itself and the political misdeeds of Sir Henry Green. This connection creates meaning: by likening Sir Henry Green to overgrown grass, the poem suggests that it is as necessary to remove Green from power as it is to mow and rake the grass.

The charge that might be levied against nature allegory—that to use a plant or an animal to explicate a political situation is to erase the material dimension of that organism in and of itself—can be defended against by reading the text itself as a rendering of the material, political and textual. Far from robbing its nonhuman subjects of their unique materiality, “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe” and “Richard the Redeless” carefully attend to the nonhuman material. The solutions proposed to the complaints in “There Is a Busch,” for instance, double as sound advice for a gardener: the poet writes that when “the busch is bare and waxus sere” [the bush is bare and dried-up], they see no choice but to “hewe hit downe, crope and rote, / And to the toun hit lede” [cut it down from top to root and bring it to the town].[17] In “Redeless,” Richard’s guard, liveried and blazoned with the White Hart, are like harts “hornyd of kynde” [antlered by nature]; but the season has passed, and though the time for shedding has ended, the herd keeps their horns “half yere after” [half a year after].[18] The behavior of the allegorical herd here, as Richard’s guard retain their White Hart blazons long after they should, is not inconsistent with ecological reality: the deer’s antler cycle proceeds in response to seasonal changes in light, and shedding may very well be delayed.[19] In constructing these natural allegories, the poets of “Busch” and “Redeless” use their political complaints as an occasion to reflect on the ecosystems with which they are familiar; they also use their knowledge of these ecosystems to illuminate and communicate their political beliefs.

What the poets understand as fact is, of course, not always so: in the third part of “Redeless,” for instance, the poet embarks on an extended description of a partridge who broods over another partridge’s eggs, only to be usurped when the “kynde dame,” or natural mother, returns.[20] Partridges have not been observed to sit on other partridges’ eggs; the Vulgate, however, includes a proverb on ill-gotten riches that begins, “Perdix fovit quæ non peperit” [Like the partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay], and one might assume that poet was drawing from his reading as a source, rather than direct observation of the bird.[21] Nonetheless, the twenty-four lines describing “the propirté of partriche” [the properties of the partridge]—that in summer she builds a nest by a riverbank, and warms the eggs she lays; that the intruder partridge “sesith on hir sete with hir soft plumes, / And hoveth the eyren that the hue laide” [seizes her seat with her soft feathers and broods over the eggs that the mother laid]—is evidence of an attention to the creatures’ lives in and of themselves.[22] Whether the text accurately represents the behavior of the partridge is irrelevant; what is notable about it is that the detail it lavishes on its ecological subjects exceeds the purpose of pure allegory, rendering its political content with a surprisingly materialist poetic technique.

One can see evidence of rendering most clearly in “Richard the Redeless” in passages where the strict form of the allegory begins to disintegrate, allowing the human to interrupt the nonhuman subjects that are meant to represent it. The account of Bagot’s fall at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke begins as a passage about animals whose political meaning can only be inferred, similar to the passages featuring harts and partridges discussed previously: a falcon flies through the fields hunting wild birds, and alights on them as soon as he spots them. But in its last clause the sentence moves abruptly from the avian realm to the human, as the birds are described as ones who “rentis and robis with raveyn evere laughte” [always seized robes and revenues].[24] That Richard’s favorites were living grandly on other people’s money is an accusation made throughout the two poems discussed here, and the complaint in and of itself is unsurprising. But to refer directly to “rentis and robis” is surprising, in that it shatters the illusion that the passage is dealing with beasts rather than humans.

This destabilizing movement between the beast and the human occurs from the level of the word to the structure of the poem itself. The play between harts/hearts, as the liveried guard with the White Hart on their chests are compared to the “homeliche hertis that the harme hente” [simple hearts that were injured], links the body of the human to the body of the beast; the simple hearts of ordinary men overlap with the chests of Richard’s guard, and the harts on their livery, and the harts in the parks and forests of England.[25] On a larger scale, passages of allegory and literality follow one another, becoming enmeshed: the prologue and Passus Primus address Richard and his political flaws directly, Passus Secundus is chiefly allegory, and Passus Tercius begins with allegory only to return to direct treatment.

A transition from the indirectly to the directly political must not be understood as a departure from material concerns. Critiques of Richard’s kingship are innately tied to the political use of the ecological: one of the most common complaints about Richard was that he taxed land and agricultural goods, to the detriment of his subjects, in order to sustain his and his followers’ lavish lifestyle. Passus Quartus of “Redeless” begins with a complaint, echoing the earlier description of the royal favorites as birds who seize revenues, that for all the fee-farms, estate fees, and taxes on wool and other cloth through which Richard profits, he seems unable “to paie the pore peple that his purvyours toke” [to pay the poor people from whom his purveyors took].[26] Bagot is named as a culprit as the poet writes, “whanne the reot and the reevell the rent thus passid, / And no thing ylafte but the bare baggis, / Than felle it afforse to fille hem ageyne” [when the riot and the revel cost more than they could afford, and there was nothing left but the empty bag/purse, they had to fill it again].[27] Allegory mixes with metonymy; cultivated land becomes a purse full of coins, and the man becomes the purse. This wordplay renders the process by which the land is worked, animals are raised, agricultural products are taxed, and the profits are used to fuel Bagot’s consumption.

Bushy and Green are similarly put to task in Shakespeare when Bolingbroke states, as one of the reasons for their executions, that while he was exiled they “fed upon [his] signories, / Dispark’d [his] parks and fell’d [his] forest woods.”[28] In these lines, the complaint is that of an aristocratic landowner: Bolingbroke is angry that the parks and woods that belonged to him and his father were, upon his exile and his father’s death, seized by Richard and used to reward his non-aristocratic favorites. This is consistent with history, in Bolingbroke’s case and in others. Richard’s appropriation of lands that rightfully belonged to English nobility is also brought up in “Richard the Redeless,” as the poet describes “the nownagies that newed him evere — / As March and Mounbray, and many mo other” [the nounages that he perpetually renewed / Like those of March and Mounbray, and many others].[29] The mention of nounages, however, appears in the same passage as the complaint that Richard did not “paie the pore peple that his purveyours toke”: the “Redeless” poet is making note of the vast range of English people who were affected by Richard and his followers, from the poor people who worked the land to the noblemen who owned it.

Richard’s “continual councillors” are depicted in these three texts as destructive organisms—as “caterpillars of the commonwealth”—because they are physically consuming, making a part of themselves, and by doing so destroying, the (Eng)land that is worked and owned and indeed constituted by others. Shakespeare’s gardener represents this parasitic relationship between Richard’s favorites and the land of the realm when he complains of “the noisome weeds which without profit suck / The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.”[30] The ecological language vividly illustrates the deleterious effect their behavior has on the land itself, and on those who depend on the land for their livelihood, whether noble, wealthy, common or poor. The gardener’s allegory puts forward a view of ecology in which weeds must be plucked and fruit-bearing trees must be pruned; in this way Shakespeare aligns with “Busch” and “Redeless,” in which bushes must be cut, deer must lose their antlers, and falcons are celebrated for hunting other birds. Whether the human manages the nonhuman (as in the case of a gardener plucking weeds) or the nonhuman manages the nonhuman (falcons hunting birds), England is figured as a land whose unruly aspects must be constantly controlled. This ecological realm, in the words of Laroche and Munroe, “coexist[s] in the same space” as the political realm, and must be controlled in a similar fashion: Richard’s White Hart guard must have its livery removed, Bushy and Green must have their lives ended. These texts contend, first of all, that if the ecological realm must be controlled, the political must be as well. But more importantly, they contend that these processes of control are one and the same: to control the political is to control the ecological, and vice versa.

What makes the nature allegory so potent as a form in which to critique Richard and his followers is that it reveals the essential interrelation between England’s ecological and political realms. The misdeeds of Richard and his followers which are criticized in these allegories are, as we have seen, misuses of the land and the things that live off the land: Richard overtaxes agricultural products, he strips land from his enemies and redistributes it to his favorites, he appropriates the money that both the common people and the nobility should be earning from the land. Meanwhile Richard’s followers profit from his corruption, as they are given the land and money that Richard has wrongfully taken. To correct Richard’s misrule is to change the way he and his favorites use the land; to correct the way the land is used is to go some way towards correcting the problems of Richard’s reign. If the attention these texts give to land, animals, and plants spills over the strict rhetorical limits of allegory, it is evidence of how significant the nonhuman material is to the politics and the poetry of Ricardian England.

Allen Fulgum, University of British Columbia, Vancouver 

Allen Fulghum is an MA student in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia. His thesis looks at kingship and queer desire in political poetry about Edward II and Richard II of England.


[1]  “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe,” lines 1, 4-5, 7-11, in Medieval English Political Writings, ed. James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, 1996). .

[2]William Shakespeare, Richard II, ed. Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin (Oxford, 2011), 2.3.165-6; 3.4.50-51, 64.

[3]“Richard the Redeless,” lines 2.152-3, in Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger, ed. James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, 2000).

[4]James M. Dean, “Literature of Richard II’s Reign and the Peasants’ Revolt: Introduction,” in Medieval English Political Writings, ed. James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, 1996), http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/dean-medieval-english-political-writings-literature-of-richard-iis-reign-and-the-peasants-revolt-introduction; James M. Dean, “Richard the Redeless: Introduction,” in Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger, ed. James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, 2000), http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/dean-richard-the-redeless-and-mum-and-the-sothsegger-richard-the-redeless-introduction.

[5] Lynn Staley, Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II (University Park, 2005), 265-6; Ann Astell, Political Allegory in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, 1999), 128.

[6] See, for instance, Lynne Bruckner, “Teaching Shakespeare in the Ecotone,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (London, 2013), 223-237; Valerie Johnson, “Politicizing the Landscape: Ricardian Literary Languages of Power” (PhD diss., University of Rochester, 2012); Vin Nardizzi, Wooden Os: Shakespeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees (Toronto, 2013); Heidi Scott, “Ecological Microcosms Envisioned in Shakespeare’s Richard II,” The Explicator 67:4 (2009): 267-271. For a discussion of Shakespeare’s garden scene that, while not explicitly ecocritical, compellingly argues for a metonymic relationship between the garden and the sexuality of Richard and his courtiers, see Madhavi Menon, “Performance Anxiety: Metonymy, Richard II, The Roaring Girl,” in Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama, ed. Madhavi Menon (Toronto, 2014), 35-67, esp. 42-54.

[7] Rebecca Laroche and Jennifer Munroe, “On a Bank of Rue; Or, Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II,” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 42-50, esp. 42-43, 49.

[8] Laroche and Munroe, “On a Bank of Rue,” 45.

[9] Shakespeare, Richard II, 3.4.50-52.

[10] “Richard the Redeless,” 2.162-3.

[11] Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia, 2012), 86-88.

[12] Crane, Animal Encounters, 72.

[13] Crane, Animal Encounters, 88.

[14] Crane, Animal Encounters, 87.

[15] Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis, 2009), 26.

[16] Shukin, Animal Capital, esp. 20-28.

[17] “There Is a Busch That Is Forgrowe,” 67-72.

[18] “Richard the Redeless,” 2.10-17.

[19] George A. Bubenik, “Neuroendocrine Regulation of the Antler Cycle,” in Horns, Pronghorns, and Antlers: Evolution, Morphology, Physiology, and Social Significance, eds. George A. Bubenik and Anthony B. Bubenik (New York, 1990), 265-297.

[20] “Richard the Redeless,” 3.55.

[21] Jer. 17:11 (Vulgate).

[22] “Richard the Redeless,” 3.38-50.

[23] “Richard the Redeless,” 2.157-8.

[24] “Richard the Redeless,” 2.159.

[25] “Richard the Redeless,” 2.35-43.

[26] “Richard the Redeless,” 4.1-13.

[27] “Richard the Redeless,” 4.20-22.

[28] Shakespeare, Richard II, 3.1.22-23.

[29] “Richard the Redeless,” 4.6-7. Nounages are fees the king collects from a noble who has been elevated to his titles and estates before coming of age. “March and Mounbray” refer to Roger Mortimer, Earl of March and Thomas Mowbray, Baron Mowbray.

[30] Shakespeare, Richard II, 3.4.38-39.