The reason for the name of this manuscript, B.L. Cotton Vespasian A 25, is that the former owner, Robert Bruce Cotton (1570/1-1631), had organized his books into 14 bookcases. Over each bookcase was a bust of one of the twelve Roman emperors or Cleopatra or Faustina. Thus "Vespasian A 25" was located under the bust of Emperor Vespasian, on the top shelf (= A), book no. 25.
The manuscript contains 69 different texts with the dance of death being no. 66: »An history & daunce of deathe of all esstates & degres, writen in the cappell of wortley of wortley hall«. The curator in the catalogue from 1802 suggests that this is »Perhaps a morality or a Christmas play«.
The text from the dance of death along with most of the rest of the manuscript has been transcribed by Karl Böddeker in the article "Englische Lieder und Balladen aus dem 16 Jahrhundert, nach einer Handschrift der Cottonianischen Bibliothek des Britischen Museums" in the series Jahrbuch für Romanische und Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1876.
The manuscript is a bit younger than the others in the present section. Another one of the texts (no. 50) was authored in 1578: »Another ballet, Pearson doing (Maid in may 1578 - at Yorke)«. Böddeker reasons that since the scribe had known not only the author of this poem (Pearson) but also the year, month and city, then the poem must have been reasonably new, and the manuscript cannot be much younger than 1578.
The text of the dance of death is a so-called B-text, just like the Lansdowne 699, which means that it deviates from the Parisian Danse Macabre both as regards the participants and their sequence. Several participants are missing, for instance Death stops in the middle of the fourth line to the physician, and there is no answer.
The dance ends with Death speaking to the lawyer, but once again there is no answer. Instead the text ends with the cryptic statement, »The rest you shall fynd before the begining of this dance of death«.
The introduction is equally cryptic, »An history & daunce of deathe of all esstates & degres, writen in the cappell of wortley of wortley hall«. No other sources hint at the presence of a dance of death in a chapel in Wortley Hall.
The text is presented here in the sequence prescribed by the manuscript. To the extent that the dancers appear in the Ellesmere manuscript there are hyper-links to the relevant page.
& daunce of deathe of all esstates & degres, writen in the cappell of wortley of wortley hall.
In this miroure ech man maye fynde
That yt behoveth hym to treade his daunce;
Who shall go before, or who shall come behynde,
All holy doth depende in godes ordinaunce.
Let every one therefore take lowlye his chaunce,
For deth doth not spaire powre nor blod ryall;
Every man therefor have this in remembrance:
Of one substance god haith formed hus all.
First yt behoveth me with death this daunce to leade,
Which last in erth, hiest in my sea;
The stait full perelus who so taketh not head
To be counted in St. peters dignitie.
But for all that from death I may not flye,
But amongst others this daunce for to traisse,
For the which all honoure, who prudently can se,
Is lytle worth þat so sone dothe passe.
Death speaketh to the emperoure.
Sir emperoure, Lorde of all the ground,
Most soveraigne prince, sermounting in noblenes,
You must forsake youre gold & apperrell so rounde,
Septure, & sworde, & all youre prownes;
Behynd you ye shall leave gold, treasure, & riches,
And with other more to my daunce obey;
Against my might avaleth no hardines,
All adames children therefor shall not say nay.
I not to whom I may appeale,
When deth so sore doth me constrayne;
But spaide & pikaxe my corps to assayle,
And symple shett for all my mortall gayne.
Wherefor full sore I may complayne,
Sence erth must wrape my body & visage;
There ys no help deth to restrayne,
For lordes greate have lytle advantage.
I have good causse, truly, this ys no faile,
To be abashed and greatly to dred me,
Sence deth ys comed me mortally to assaile,
That I never here-after clothed shall be
I costly garmentes lyk to my degre,
My hat of red I leve here in distres,
By the which I have learned full well, I do se,
Howe þat all joye endeth in hevines.
Deth speaketh to the emprisse
Let se youre hande , my ladie, dame emprisse,
Have no disdayne with me to daunce;
Youe must set asyde all youre worldly riches,
Youre solen chere & strange countenaunce,
Youre freshe attyre, devises of pleasaunce,
Youre clothes of gold most in costly wrought,
Having of deth small remembraunce,
But now ye se well, all commeth to nought.
What avayleth gold, goodes, riches, or pearle,
Or what avayleth highe blode or jentilnes,
Or what availeth freshnes, or apperell,
Or what ys highe powre or straungnes?
Deth saith: chekmate! to such vaine noblenes.
All worldly power now may not me avayle,
Ransome, kinred, frenship, nor worthines,
Sence deth ys comed my corpes to assayle.
Worldly honoure, great treasure, & riches,
Haith me deceyved sothly in dede;
My joyes passed be all counted as trushes,
What availeth in muche honoure to be possessed?
Highe clyming vp, a fayll hath for his mede,
Great estates sone waistes out of number.
Who mounteth hiest, dicendeth most in drede,
Such burdens doth the man naturally comber.
Death speaketh to the king
Right noble king, most worthie of renowne,
Come fourth anone for all youre worthines;
That hath so much riches in possession,
With all youre rentes obedient to your highe nobles.
You must of nature to this daunce you dresse,
And fynallye youre crowne & scepter lett.
Who most aboundance haith here in riches,
Shall beare with hym but a symple shett.
I have not lerned here-afore to daunce,
No traice of thie treasure I am not solavage,
Whereby I se full truly in substaunce,
What pride ys worthe forsse or high parage.
Deth all fordoeth, this ys his vsage,
Grete & smale, that in this world soioyrne,
Who ys most meke, haith most avantage,
For we shall all to erthe & ashes torne.
Alas, I wote not in what parte for to flye,
For drede of deth I stand in great distres;
Against his power no restitucion I can se,
But who might knowe his constraynt & dures.
He would take hede of other maysteres,
Aud say against pride & promp also,
My parke, & palaice, & also riches,
Sence yt behoveth, yt must be do.
Deth speketh to the prince.
Right mighti prence, be ye right well sertaine,
This daunce ys to you not eschewable;
For more mightie then ever was charlesmaine,
Or worthy arthure, in prowes full notable,
With all the knightes of the rounde table —
What might there plate, þer armor, or ther maile,
There strong corage, there sheld defensable,
When deth ys comed his corpes to assaile?
My purposse & myn intencyon
Ys to gydd castels & mightie forstes,
Rebellours to bringe into subiection,
To seke worship, fame, & great riches.
Yet I se well, worldly prowis
Death can abaite where of I can make preve
To hym all our sorrowe & eke swetnes,
For against deth ys found no preservatyve.
Of thes thinges I am nothing faine,
Which dethe to me so sodenly doth bring;
It maketh my faice & countenaunce all to dayn,
That for miscomforte me lyst not for to sing.
Thy worde controyes me in writing,
Which all estattes can sodenly disright;
& all with-holdeth alas at one parting,
And all shall passe save only oure merytt.
Deth speaketh to the erl or baron
Erle or barron, which þat without regions
Have farre labored for worship & renowne,
For yett youre trompettes, & youre soundes melodie,
This ys no dreme nor yet dissimulacione.
Whilon your custome & intencyone
Was in state worship to glade,
But oft yt hapneth in conclucion
That one man break, another man maide.
Erle or baron.
Full ofte I have bene auctorised
To highe empreses & thinges of great fame;
Of great estattes my thankes ys ey devised,
Cherished with princes & lordes high of name.
Never on me was put no disdayne
In ryall courtes, which were notable;
But deth all power maketh leayn;
For vnder heaven nothing ys abydable.
Abbott or prior.
Of thie manners I have no great envy,
That I shall leave all worldly governaunce;
But yet I shall as a closter dye,
This death to me somewhat ys lesse grevaunce.
My lybertie ys nere my greate aboundaunce,
What may they then avayle in any manner wayes?
Yet aske mercy with devout repentaunce,
Thoughe to offer death, to latt men them avyes.
Death speakth to lady abbis
And you, my gentill lady, dame abbasse,
With your mantill of price, large & wyde,
Youre vayle, your wympyll, & ringes of gold,
With beddes softe, ye must them laye on syde:
And to this daunce I wyll be youre gyde,
Whyle that you have your selffe provyde,
For after death no man haith no goode.
Aye that death for me haith so ordeyned,
That in no wysse I may hym eschewe,
Vnto this daunce of right I am constreyned,
That here with other I must this traice vew.
This pilgrimage to every man ys dewe,
An earnest mater, a matter of no jappe.
Who that ever ys redye, shall never mysrewe,
The hower abiding that god haith hym shapp.
Death speaketh to lorde Justice
Thycke hand of youres, my lord Justicce,
That have so long ruled in lawe;
Well may men hold you wairre and wysse;
Lo! this darte now be to yow I drawe.
Scape shall ye not, would you it ever so sayne,
Deathes dome to have, as you have gyven in soth.
Wherefore men skan of an olde good sawe:
Well ys them alway that well doeth.
Ever alas in myne intent
Before me matters were so evyll tryed;
Now shall I vtterly be shamed and shent;
For many causes that I ofttymes deserved.
Save mercy only now were I marred;
Blessed therefore ys every christian wight,
As by holy scrypture may be avered,
That in all tyme doth lawe & kepes yt right.
Sergaunt of lawe speaketh
Of right & reason by natures lawe
I can not absent, nor make no defence;
For be no slight nor statute me to withdrawe,
For all my wytt and my great prudence
Escap away from this dredfull sentence,
All thinges in erth may no man preserve
Against his might to mak resystaunce,
God quittes all men as they deserve.
What may this be þat in this world no man
Here to abyde may have no suertye?
Strength, riches, nor what so that he can
Of worldly wisdome, all ys but vanitie.
In great estaite, nor in lowe povertie,
Ys nothing founde that may hym from deth defend.
For which I se to hye & lowe degre:
Well ys he þat howre þat can his lyfe amend,
For all my craft, conning or scyence,
I can not fynde no probacion.
Nor in the sterres fetch out ne defence
By domyffe, sence, or calculacyon.
Certis finally in conclucyon
Is to delyver our connyng every deyl,
There ys no more by sentence of reason,
Who lyves a right lyffe, must nedes dye well.
Death speaketh to Dame Bewtie.
Come furth, mistress, of yeres yong & grene,
Which holdeth youre selly bewtie mest soveraigne;
As faire as somtyme was penelope or quene elyn,
And yet on this daunce they went both twaine.
Thoughe denyes danger long haith you taine,
Vnto this daunce you must your foting dresse;
There is no bewtie but I do yt steine
From mortall flesh to heavenly blesse.
O horable deathe, that spaires no estaite,
To old and yonge thou art indiferent;
To my bewty thou hast sayd: chekmate!
To hasty ys thie mortale judgment,
For in my youth all was myne intent,
To my service many a man hath lured,
But she ys a foule shortly in sentment,
That in her faire bewtie ys to much alured
Death speaketh to the knight or squire
Knight or squire, right freshe in your araye,
Thou canst of daunces all the new guysse;
Thoughe þou baire armes & well horsed yester day,
With speare and sheld at your devysse;
And loke vpon you many a strong interprysse.
Stand with hus, yt wyll no other be,
There ys no succoure in this maner of wysse,
For no man may from deth stroke fle.
Knight or squire
Seth death holdeth me in hys laicce,
Yet shall I speke on word er I passe
A dew all mirth, a dew all solaice,
A dew my ladie whilon so freshe of faice;
A dew bewtye that lasteth a smale spaice,
Of deathes chaunge every day ys pryme.
Thinke on poore soules er deth you agasse,
For all shall roote no man wot what time.
Death speaketh to þe Lord majore.
Cum forth, Sir maior, which have governaunce,
We purpose now to rule this cyte.
Thoughe youre poure were noble in substaunce,
Yet to flye my danger you have no libertie.
Off staite ys none worldly dignitie,
That may escap out of my daungers;
To fynde rescew example you may se,
Wither by riches nor for any youre officers.
What helpes the staite that I in stoode,
To rule cyties, or commons to governe;
Plentie of riches, or ewers so good,
Or old winninges that come to me so yarne.
Death all defaceth, who so lyst to learne,
Me to arest he commeth so fast,
The man shuld therefore afore deserne
Prudently to thinke, deth comes at last.
Deth speaketh to the canon.
Lat se your hand, Ser cannon reguler,
While I am shorn into religion,
As humble subject & obedienter,
That lyke to lyve, lyke youre profession.
But there againe may be no consolacion
Against saintes soden and cruell,
Except only for a shorte conclusion:
Who lyveth in vertu must nedes dye well.
Why shuld I grudge or disobey
The thing to whych of every right
I was borne & ordayned to dye,
As in this world ys every wight?
Which to remember, my hart is not light,
Praying þat lord þat streyned was vpon a roode
To deale with mercy throughe his eternall might,
And save the soules which he bought with his blood.
My devin curres, my rich personage,
Alas! Full lytle they may me now comforte.
Death vpon me haith gittin his avantage.
All my riches nowit canne me disporte!
Almes of graice might me againe resorte
Vnto the world with many prebende,
Vhe which all clarkes truly can reporte;
To dye well eche man shuld intend.
It helps not to stryve against nature,
Namely when death beginnith to assayle;
Wherefor I counsall every creature,
To be redy against this fell battall.
Vertu ys surer then other plaite or mayle,
Nothing may help more at such a nede;
Then to be proved by diligent acquitaille,
With hand of almes to love god & drede.
Ever to the world I was dead ago full longe
By natur, order, and processione,
To every men, be he never so stronge,
Dredes to dye by naturall mocyone,
After his fleshly enclynacyone;
Pleasse yt the lord my soule to borow
From frendes might and from damnacyon.
Borne are to day that shall not die to morow.
The rest you shall fynd before the begining of this dance of death.