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The manuscript from which the following pieces are edited (MS. Harl. No. 2253), is well known to the amateurs of early English poetry. Its date is fixed by the hand-writing and by the contents to the beginning of the reign of Edward II. It contains political songs relating to different events in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. The two latest are those on the Traillebastons (A.D. 1305) and the death of Edward I (A.D 1307). It is probable that the manuscript was written in, or very soon after, the latter year. Several of the political songs in this manuscript belong, as I have just stated, to the reign of Henry III: it is impossible to fix any exact date from internal evidence to the following miscellaneous lyric pieces, but it is most probable that they were all of them current during the reign of Edward I, and had been collected by the writer of the manuscript.
It is fortunate that we have means of ascertaining with tolerable accuracy the place, as well as the date, at which this manuscript was written. In my “ Political Songs” (p. 383), I have shown that the song on the Traillebastons must have been composed in some of the western counties of England (under which head I include Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire, particularly specified in the document there quoted). Among the other poetry, the local allusions are of little force, as they only show where the songs were originally composed, and there is nothing about these which should make them more popular in one part of the kingdom than in another: yet in one of them there is an allusion to the river Wye (p. 26 of the present volume), which renders it probable that that song was written in Herefordshire. There are, however, three pieces in the volume which have a peculiarly local character (and they are the only local pieces in it, except the song on the Traillebastons and that in which the Wye is mentioned): at fol. 53, ro, we have a Latin life of St. Ethelbert; at fol. 132, ro, we find the Latin legend of St. Edfrid, who founded the abbey of Leominster, Incipit legenda de Sancto Etfrido presbitero de Leonminstria ; and at fol. 140, vo, we have another Mercian legend in Latin, De Martyrio Sancti Wistani. These three legends could hardly have been collected together by any one who was not residing in, and interested in the monastic establishments of, Herefordshire; and the only question that remains appears to be whether the writer resided at Hereford or at Leominster. Everyone knows that St. Ethelbert was buried at Hereford, and that he was the patron saint of that city, and therefore of the diocese ; his legend therefore was interesting in every part of the county. On the contrary, that of Edfrid was peculiar to Leominster, and is far more uncommon in manuscripts. It is more probable that the legend of Ethelbert would be written at Leominster, than that that of Edfrid would be written at Hereford or elsewhere. It must be remembered also that Leominster and its immediate vicinity was the head residence of the Mercian monarchs in the times of their highest power and glory, and was peculiarly connected with the Mercian religious legends. From these considerations, I feel inclined to conclude, that the Harleian manuscript from which these pieces of lyric poetry are printed, was written by some secular clerk connected with the priory of Leominster. Perhaps he was himself a poet, and was the author of the song containing the allusion to the river Wye. It is not improbable that the Earl of Oxford obtained the manuscript in Herefordshire.