George Hickes had everything going for him. By 1687 he was one of England’s most noted scholars, a university dean, and chaplain to the king. He was also a Church of England divine, which meant his theological writings were highly influential and seen as authoritative. The 45-year-old had an exceptional career.
In 1688 Hickes backed the wrong horse, and lost it all. He refused to acknowledge the monarchy of James II, William of Orange, and anyone else who belonged to the Catholic faith. He was quickly stripped of his degrees and titles, and declared an outlaw to the crown. The acclaimed scholar was now a fugitive in his own country.
Although he had to live a difficult life of constant fear and hiding, Hickes also found himself free to indulge in an overriding passion he had: the literature of the Anglo-Saxons. He spent the next 15 years visiting various libraries which held ancient manuscripts, working out a grammar and translating the texts for the modern reader. In 1703 he published ‘Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus et Archaeologicus’ (A Treasury of Ancient Northern Tongues’). As can be seen by Hickes’ mouthful of a title, the ‘modern reader’ was one who could read Latin.
Hickes’ massive collection of the grammatical and literary writings of the Anglo-Saxons — now called Old English — became a watershed publication, shedding light on the language and literature of England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. What was once thought a dead language of the Dark Ages was once again accessible.
Yet it is a handful of sentences of page 192 of this work which has kept Hickes name at the forefront of Old English studies, causing scholars nothing but headaches and debates. Here he translated a fragment of Old English verse, from what was left of a loose manuscript page he found at the Lambeth Palace Library in London.
Part of the madness of this untitled fragment, which is unofficially referred to as ‘Finnesburg,’ ‘Finnsburh,’ ‘The Fight at Finnesburg,’ or even simply ‘The Fragment,’ is no one has ever been able to find the original page Hickes used. Notes given to his publisher stated he had found the page in a volume of “Semi-Saxon homilies” at the Lambeth Library. Well, what did that mean? Lambeth had only two books of Semi-Saxon (Middle English) works, neither of which contained loose pages of ‘The Finnesburg Fragment.’ A third book, ‘The History of Kentish Royal Saints,’ is more similar to the fragment in words used and style, but no one can say for sure.
Did Hickes take it with him from the Library and lose it somewhere. Did the printer have it and misplace it? The Lambeth Palace Library had rebound some of their ancient texts during this time, was it lost then? Some scholars even today believe if might not be authentic, but written by Hickes himself.
As mentioned above, the continued hunt for the original is only part of frustration. As a fragment, no one knows if its 47 lines — which begins with “…the gables are burning” are the beginning, middle, or end of an either long or short work. The names and events mentioned in it must have been familiar to the original audience, but completely unknown in Hickes time up to ours. The surviving verse is also devoid of religion, making it unique amongst every other surviving text in Old English.
An exasperating hint of the verse may or may not be seen in the most famous of all Old English literature: ‘Beowulf.’ About two-thirds of the way into this epic, a poet tells a group of warriors about ‘The Battle of Finnesburg.’ Although it has some of the same names and places, it is a different story altogether, shedding little light on the fragment.
Perhaps one day the original will appear, and hopefully answer the questions these 47 exceptional lines continue to ask.
As for Hickes, immediately after (but not related to) the publication of his ‘Treasury of Ancient Tongues,’ James II needed his help in France. He was reinstated as a Bishop.