Tag Archives: England

One Powerful Painting

I’m still processing the subject of my graduate institute–the enduring fascination and evolving image(s) of the Tudors, collective and individual–even though it ended on this past Friday afternoon. The week was pretty intense: a lot of history, prints, portraits and plays, films and discussions of all of the above. The students were great: many of them were high-school and middle-school teachers who are always fun to teach. I don’t think we had any problem figuring out the towering and projecting figures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the perpetual pull of the three beheaded ladies (Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”) seems a bit more complex, especially the latter. While Anne’s and Mary’s lives were longer and their impact greater, young Jane still captivates, and I think this is largely due to one powerful painting– Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)–and its impact on the Victorian era and our own.

Jane execution

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833; National Gallery, London

Lady Jane Grey, the grand-niece of Henry VIII, was proclaimed Queen following the death of Edward VI in 1553, as part of a short-lived coup initiated by her father-in-law John Dudley, The Duke of Northumberland, to avoid the succession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, who had a more legitimate claim. She ruled for only nine days (until July 19) and was executed for high treason in February of 1554. Over the centuries, Jane has transcended historical-footnote-status for several reasons: she can be seen as a Protestant martyr or an innocent (feminine) pawn, depending on the time and place. But Delaroche transformed her into more a romantic heroine, grasping for her “headrest” in the dark, clothed in some semblance of a satin wedding dress! With all the anachronistic details, Delaroche took Jane out of her own time and placed her in his, enabling future portrayals to follow suit. The painting was apparently a sensation when it was first exhibited, and inspired many sentimental depictions of Jane and her end over the nineteenth century–and after. It was donated to the National Gallery in 1902 but forgotten for much of the twentieth century after it was feared lost in the Tate Gallery Flood of 1928. After its rediscovery in the 1970s, it was restored and re-installed at the National Gallery, where it was the subject of a 2010 exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which seems specially timed to coincide with the “Tudor-mania” of the past decade. That same year, Victoria Hall produced her own portrayal of Lady Jane, or (more accurately) Delaroche’s Lady Jane.

Jane 18th c

Jane Last Moments

Jane Tower Grant

Jane 2010 Victoria Hall

Lady Jane Grey before Delaroche (anonymous etching and engraving, late 18th century, British Museum) and after: Hendrik Jackobus Scholten, The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, The Tower of London; William James Grant, The Tower (The Relics of Lady Jane Grey), 1861, Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London; Victoria Hall, After Delaroche, 2010.

 


The Princes in the Tower

As today marks the accession of Edward V in 1483, I thought I would explore visual representations of one of the most popular mysteries in English history: the princes in the tower. My students certainly love this story: everything stops when we get to this moment, and I have to let them indulge in what if history, at least for a little while. The basic facts are these: the 12-year-old prince succeeded his father Edward IV on April 9, but his uncle Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, assumed the head of a regency government. The boy king, along with his younger brother Richard, was placed in “protective custody” in the Tower of London (then more of a palace then a prison), from which they never left. The Regent Richard produced evidence of their father’s prior betrothal in June of 1483, invalidating their parents’ marriage, rendering them illegitimate and enabling his own succession; at some point in August or September they disappeared. Two years later, in the end game of the long dynastic struggle that was later romantically labeled the Wars of the Roses, Henry Tudor killed Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth and proclaimed himself King. The Tudor Dynasty commenced and along with it, the demonization of Richard III, the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, his every own nephews. This was a campaign waged most effectively by Tudor apologists Sir Thomas More in the early part of the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare later on. The skeletal remains of two bodies found in the foundation of a Tower staircase in 1674 were interred in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren in Westminster Abbey, marked with the inscription proclaiming that the the young king and his brother were stifled with pillows…by the order of their perfidious uncle Richard the Usurper.

NPG 4980(11); King Edward V by Unknown artist

A Sixteenth-century Portrait of Edward V, National Portrait Gallery, London

And that’s been the standard story ever since, despite continuous Riccardian attempts to point out that there were other perfidious candidates, and other scenarios. And there are. The recent discovery of Richard III’s remains renewed interest in his most famous crime for a bit, but really, curiosity about the princes’ fate always seems to be simmering under the surface: there have been repeated calls for the testing of the urn’s remains which royal and church officials have repeatedly resisted, and Westminster Abbey’s official position is that the mortal remains of two young children widely believed since the 17th century to be the princes in the tower, should not be disturbed.  So that’s where we are with this story, and that is indeed what the princes in the tower has become:  a story about two young children confronted and overwhelmed by evil, close to home. A Grimm tale. While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries certainly contributed to the outline and character development of this story, it was the nineteenth century that filled in all the details, especially in terms of the all-important visuals. It was actually a late eighteenth-century painting, James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower (after Shakespeare’s Richard III) that set the scene which later artists recreated in variants over the next century: young, innocent, blue-eyed angelic boys, increasingly “real”, either sleeping unaware or clutching each other in fear and apprehension, helpless in the face of encroaching evil (which is always more ominous when it is not in the picture).

(c) National Trust, Petworth House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Mordecai

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Princes in the Tower Delaroche

Princes in the Tower Ward

Princes in the Tower Millais

James Northcote, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower (from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”), 1786, National Trust, Petworth House; Joseph Mordecai, The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery; Charles Robert Leslie, The Two Princes in the Tower, 1837, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Paul Delaroche, The Princes in the Tower (Edward V and the Duke of York), mid-19th century, Tower of London; Henrietta Mary Ada Ward, The Princes in the Tower, 1861, Touchstones Rochdale; John Everett Millais, The Princes in the Tower, 1878, Royal Holloway, University of London. The work of Millais, setting the boys before the staircase where their supposed remains were later uncovered, has been a particularly influential image.


The Ides of March

Supposedly the word “ides” refers to the middle of the month, any month, but we never hear about the “Ides of July” or the “Ides of October”. We only hear of the Ides of March in reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15 in the year 44 B.C., a conspicuous date because of Shakespeare and his sources (primarily Plutarch). Beware the Ides of March says the soothsayer to Caesar, but he did not, or could not. In somewhat of the same way as we would use the phrase 9/11, the phrase was used afterwards to refer to the cataclysmic event and its impact: Caesar’s murder and the consequential (though short-lived) restoration of the Roman Republic. But Julius Caesar was also remembered as a martyr by some, and a brilliant commander and conqueror by all (I do not remember him fondly in this capacity, having struggled for so many years with Latin lessons based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars). I always find it interesting to see lavish medieval manuscripts devoted to Caesar’s life and death. There is a noticeable emphasis on his birth (giving rise to the myth that he was the product of the first “Caesarean section”) as well as to his military exploits: like Alexander the Great, he becomes an “acceptable” pre-Christian hero. A bit later, he is always found among the “three worthy pagans” or “three heroic heathens’ of Renaissance histories.

Ides of March Bl MS Royal

Ides of March Hopfer

Ides of March Negker

The medieval Ides of March, from British Library MS Royal 16 G VII, 14th Century(Les anciennes hystoires rommaines (A compilation of ancient history in two parts); and the Renaissance Caesar in Daniel Hopfer’s “Three Worthy Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar”, c. 1516, and Hans Burgkmair’s “Three Heroic Heathens”(also on the right), c. 1516, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tragedy of Julius Caesar inextricably linked the iconic man with his assassination–and the date thereof. When you read histories of England from his era, the same histories that Shakespeare would have read, you can see why he would have wanted to add a play about Caesar to his English history plays: for the Elizabethans, English history begins with the Roman invasions of 55 and 54 BC, and this would be the framework for several centuries. And during this time Britain would become an Empire, like Rome, with democratic ideals, like Rome: the life and death of Julius Caesar could serve as reference points for the emerging pax Britannica.

Shakespeare_William-Julius_Caesar-Wing-S2922-297_26-p2

Ideas of March Sharp BM-001

A 1684 edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar; William Sharp print of the death scene of the play, with an avenging Antony kneeling over Caesar’s slain body, 1785, British Museum.

Ultimately it is the mutability or adaptability of Caesar (and his death) that explains his (ever-) lasting appeal: he represents triumph and tragedy, power and corruption, reach and over-reach. There are many romantic contradictions in Caesar’s story, which is why I think the French classical painters of the nineteenth century depict him most effectively–they certainly had their Caesars! But a Caesar could appear at any time, in any place, bringing forth another Ides of March.

Ides of March 19th c

Ideas of March Death of Caesar Gerome 1867

Ides of March Sketch-001

Ideas of March Puck-001

Alexandre Denis Abel de Pujol, Julius Caesar Proceeding to the Senate on the Ides of March, 19th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes; Jean-Leon Gerome, Death of Caesar & sketch, 1859-67, Walters Art Museum; Puck cover from June, 1908 with a Caesar-like Theodore Roosevelt rejecting the crown of 1908 while that of 1912 hovers nearby, Library of Congress.


Where Washington’s Ancestors Slept

For George Washington’s real birthday, I’m featuring his ancestral home:  Sulgrave Manor, in Northamptonshire. The early Tudor building still stands, and marks the point of departure for our first President’s great-great grandfather for America in the seventeenth century. On the eve of the First World War (and in commemoration of the War of 1812), the British Peace Centenary Committee bought the Manor and presented it jointly to the peoples of Britain and the United States in celebration of the hundred years of peace between their two nations. The Manor was endowed by funds raised by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America a decade later, and it also maintains itself as an event and educational venue. I visited the Manor years ago, when it seemed to me to be in excellent condition, but it has recently been placed on the watch list of the most endangered heritage sites in the world by the World Monuments Fund. On the website, statements by the Sulgrave Manor Trust note that Sulgrave Manor has suffered from a lack of investment and is struggling to cope with the repairs and on-going maintenance this Tudor house and its associated buildings desperately need and reveal the intent to establish archive and exhibit space for its large collection of George Washington memorabilia.

Sulgrave Manor WMF

Sulgrave Manor Detroit LC

Sulgrave Manor PC Blomfield

Sulgrave Poster Wilkinson

Sulgrave Manor wallpaper V and A and PRO

Sulgrave Manor Entrance pc

Sulgrave Manor today and in vintage postcards by Reginald Blomfield (who designed its Arts and Crafts gardens) and the Detroit Publishing Company, c. 1910 (Library of Congress); reproduction of a Norman Wilkinson poster of the Great Dining Hall after its restoration, and wallpaper fragment which is identical to one from Sulgrave in the UK National Archives depicting Charles II and Queen Catherine–the Washingtons were LOYAL Royalists in the seventeenth century! (Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum); flags at Sulgrave’s entrance, 1930s.


The End of the Regency

The Regency Era, that age of conflict, caricature, and couture, formally ended today in 1820 with the death of George III; as the King had been unable to rule from (at least) 1811 his son, the future George IV, served as Prince Regent. In terms of cultural history, the era really extends up to the accession of Victoria in 1837, but I’m being strictly historical here as I want to write about poor George III. Few monarchs in English history have been so maligned; I’ve always felt a bit sorry for him. In part it is because of the sheer length of his reign (he is the third-longest-reigning British monarch, after Victoria and Elizabeth II, including the regency decade) but his depictions and representations are more a consequence of what happened in that long period: war with France and America, the loss of the latter, conflict with Parliament, a huge public debt, and his own insanity–which has received the retrospective diagnosis of porphyria, a hereditary disease of the nervous system. But more than all these factors, I think the increasing freedom of the British periodical press is primarily responsible for the public perception of the King, as its appropriation of the public sphere corresponds with his realm, along with the proliferation of satire and caricature. George was a perfect subject/target–chubby, gouty, and incapacitated at his worst, a rather unsophisticated “Farmer George” at his best. He is often portrayed as tyrannical and always as greedy–and these are the works of British subjects, not American or French citizens!

A Portfolio of George III Images:  even when they are not supposed to be satirical (like the last two Jubilee prints), they somehow are:

George III BM

George 2 Farmer

George 1786 Diamonds

George as Nero BM

George 1805 BM

George III 1810

George III Jubilee 1810 BM

Anonymous contemporary etching of King George III; “Farmer George & his Wife”, pub. by William Holland, 1786; Anonymous hand-colored etching of the “King of Diamonds”/George III, 1786; George III as Nero, anonymous etching, c. 1760-1780; George III as a gouty “dreamer (while his son catches his crown), pub. by William McCleary, c. 1805; Jubilee (1810) prints of George III by Robert Dighton and I.G. Parry.  All, British Museum.


A Conspicuous Courtesan

Narrowing in on the subjects of Tudors and trials of my last post, I am presently working on a scholarly paper about the famous/infamous Jane Shore (née Elizabeth Lambert), a favorite mistress of King Edward IV (r. 1461-83), who, after his death, was accused of conspiratorial witchcraft in collusion with Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and the powerful courtier Lord William Hastings by King Richard III. Hastings lost his head, the Queen emerged unscathed under the protection of the ascendant Tudors, and Jane was compelled to undertake a barely-clothed (“save her kyrtle”) public walk of penance through the streets of London for harlotry–not witchcraft. Perhaps you can perceive my challenge: Jane Shore’s life reads like a novel or a play, and consequently she has received far more attention from novelists and playwrights than historians. Jane’s walk of shame, in particular, has been the focus of dramatic and visual representations from at least the eighteenth century onwards.

Conspicuous Courtesan Penny

NPG D19938; Called Jane Shore by Edward Scriven, published by  Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, after  Walter Stephens Lethbridge

Jane Shore Doing Penance through the Streets of London between Two Monks null by British School 19th century 1800-1899

Conspicuous Courtesan 2

Conspicuous Courtesan Plaidy

Penitential Jane: Edward Penny, Jane Shore Led in Penance to Saint Pauls, c. 1775-76, Birmingham Museums Trust;  British School, Edward Scriven stipple engraving after Walter Stephens Lethbridge, published by Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1821, National Portrait Gallery London; Jane Shore Doing Penance on the Streets of London between Two Monks, 19th century, Tate Museum; Victorian penny novel and the first (of many to come) cover of Jean Plaidy’s The King’s Mistress/Goldsmith’s Wife, 1952.

You can see where this is going…the Jean Plaidy cover is quite something!  After Nicholas Rowe’s “she-tragedy” The Tragedy of Jane Shore appeared in 1714 Jane was resurrected as a dramatic character, but she had played that role before. As a new dynasty, the Tudors had a vested interest in emphasizing the tyranny of Richard’s brief reign, thereby rationalizing and legitimizing their own. Consequently Richard’s victims, whether the completely innocent “princes in the tower” or the not-so-innocent Jane, were presented as overwhelmingly sympathetic figures. In his History of King Richard III, even the priggish Thomas More (who was acquainted with Jane in her old age–yes, she survived the walk of shame) characterizes her as soft, pleasant, witty, merry, and above all, tender-hearted, using her power over Edward to help others rather than herself: she never abused to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief; where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon. More’s characterization proved consequential, and she persists (always as “Shore’s wife” even though her marriage to goldsmith William Shore was annulled in 1476 on the grounds of his impotence!) as the subject of ballads, plays and poems in the sixteenth century and after, by more Thomases (Churchyard, Deloney, Heywood) and their peers. Even Shakespeare references “Mistress Shore” in his Richard III, though he does not put her on the stage.

The visual depictions of Jane continue as well, and my favorites are portraits rather than those of her penitential walk. For his Shakespeare illustrated by an Assemblage of Portraits and Views appropriated to the whole suite of our Author’s Historical Dramas (1789-93), the artist and publisher Sylvester Harding produced two contrasting portraits of Jane–as harlot and lady–clearly taking his inspiration for the former from the earlier portraits of another conspicuous courtesan:  Diane de Poitiers, mistress of the French king Henri II. A morphing of mistresses!

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 51 (Jane Shore)

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 52 (Jane Shore)

Sylvester Harding, Portraits of Jane Shore, after 1790, Folger Shakespeare Library.


My Favorite Georgians

The public presentation of history is often driven by anniversaries, and Britain is just beginning a long Georgian moment driven by the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian dynasty’s accession in 1714 and commencing (after the birth of little Prince George this summer) with the British Library’s new exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. Viewing it from afar (online), I like the exhibition’s emphasis on Georgians rather than the more boring King Georges, and its inclusion of some of the more interesting aspects of the era: the development of “celebrity culture”, the “commercialization of leisure”, the emergence of the novel, and intensifying consumerism in many realms of life. But from my own distant Anglo-American perspective, I’m noticing a distinct lack of a colonial presence. Before the Revolution, we should certainly consider the people who inhabited British America as Georgians, so I’m featuring a few of my favorite American Georgian gentlemen here. Although I don’t have quite the same connection to them that I do for some of the people of the earlier era in which I specialize, there is something compelling about both their images (personas) and their stories, if only because several of them walked on the same streets that I do.

My Georgian Gentlemen: Benjamin Pickman, the dashing Loyalist Salemite and husband of the faithful Mary of my last post. What better Georgian than a Loyalist? Even though he left his family and country, his letters testify to the earnestness of his decision and the pain he endured from the separation. Here John Singleton Copley pictures him as a young man, well before this rift, and I think he looks both dashing and earnest. Jonathan Jackson, a contemporary of Pickman’s from Newburyport, painted in his resplendent blue robe by Copley. Jackson looks a little more “Georgian” here but he was no Loyalist: he converted his merchant ships to privateering vessels during the Revolution and later served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. His first wife, Sarah Barnard Jackson, was the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, whose silhouette is below. As a true Georgian, Barnard helped avert what might have become the first clash of the American Revolution in early 1775–an incident called “Leslie’s Retreat”–when he negotiated British Colonel Alexander Leslie’s retreat from Salem.

Georgians Pickman

Georgians Jonathan Jackson

Georgians Thomas Barnard

John Singleton Copley, Benjamin Pickman, c. 1758-61, Yale University Art Gallery; John Singleton Copley, Jonathan Jackson, late 1760s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Painted Silhouette of the Reverend Thomas Barnard of Salem, late 18th/early 19th century, Skinner’s Auctions.

Obviously I have a preference for Copley, who, like his colleague and compatriot Nathaniel West, represents the Anglo-American/Atlantic world in which the acclaimed artist lived and worked. Both were “American” artists who became “English” artists: they were true Georgians above all. Both left their “country” for good before the American Revolution, along with Henry Pelham, Copley’s stepbrother and the subject of one of his most famous compositions, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765). My favorite illustration of this Anglo-American artistic world is a painting of West’s London studio by his protégé Matthew Pratt: entitled The American School, it hints at the future division.

Georgians Pelham Squirrel

Georgians American School MET

John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Matthew Pratt, The American School, 1765, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It looks like Georgians Revealed depicts British Georgians as a fun-loving, pleasure-seeking people: there are lots of illustrations of drinking, dancing and dressing:  by comparison, American Georgians look rather earnest and restrained. It’s hard to compete with the vibrant print culture that emerged in Britain from the 1780s on, however, just when Americans ceased being Georgians.

Georgians

Georgians New England Psalms Revere

Carousing Georgians in Britain and Psalm-singing Georgians in America: Midnight. Tom and Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic, illustration by Issac and George Cruikshank in Pierce Egan, Life in London, 1823, British Library; Paul Revere, “the Music Party”, engraving for the frontspiece of William Billings, The New England Psalm-Book, Boston, 1770. Library of Congress.


Edmund the Martyr

Since I tangled with John Foxe the other day I’ve been dipping into some martyrologies–not the best bedtime reading I can assure you! I’m quite taken with the story of Edmund the Martyr (841?-869), and by sheer coincidence, his feast day is tomorrow. I think both English Catholics and Protestants would both recognize Edmund as a martyr at the time of the Reformation (though the latter would never validate his sainthood), and I am surprised that such a vivid writer as Foxe does not go into the gory details of the saint’s death. Edmund was King of one of the smaller early medieval English kingdoms, East Anglia, when the Danish Vikings invaded his territory and and slayed him. The basic events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were supplemented by the more detailed account of Abbo of Fleury in his Life of Saint Edmund (986): so that he might be compelled to renounce Christ, Edmund was imprisoned and tortured by the Danes (led by the oddly-named Ivar the Boneless), first whipped and tied to a tree and shot with arrows ‘until he bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle’, but his faith remained steadfast. He was then beheaded (not sure whether or not he was alive at this point) and his head thrown into bramble thickets deep in the forest (on November 20). When his men searched for Edmund’s head later, they found it guarded by a wolf who called ‘hic, hic, hic (here, here, here)’, and so it was recovered. If the violence of one’s death is a testament to the conviction of one’s faith, certainly Edmund was a very pious man, and he was apparently recognized as such not long after his death, with a series of remarkable memorial coins. Given the nature of his martyrdom, you can imagine (actually you don’t have to) the other visual images associated with Edmund’s sainthood, from the eleventh century to the present.

Edmund Morgan MS 1

Edmund Morgan 2

Edmund Morgan MS 3

The torture and beheading of Edmund, and the recovery of his head from the guardian wolf, Morgan Library MS M.736, Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund, Bury St. Edmunds (where Edmund’s relics were entombed), England, ca. 1130

The beautiful Morgan manuscript dates from an era in which Edmund was recognized as a patron Saint of a recently-unified England, along with the soon-to-be martyred Thomas à Becket. One can’t help but compare Edmund to another popular Saint, Sebastian, who was tortured and killed in much the same way a millennium earlier: Sebastian has much the same “hedgehog” appearance in his depictions, and was universally venerated during the time of the Black Death because of its metaphorical association with arrows of poison/plague. The late medieval poet John Lydgate, who spent the last years of his life at the monastery at Bury St Edmunds, the martyr’s namesake town, inspired this next group of images, produced for a presentation copy of his life of Edmund which was gifted to King Henry VI in the 1430s.

Harley 2278 f.61

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 2

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 3

Harley 2278 f.66 (min)

Edmunds Restoration BL Lydgate 4

British Library MS Harley 2278, 1430s: Edmund is subjected to torture and beheading, the recovery of his head and reunification of his body.

A few other objects that speak to Edmund’s veneration through the ages: a medieval pilgrim badge, which could represent either Sebastian or Edward, a French Revolutionary print (something about heads?), and a twenty-first century sculpture: designed by Emmanuel O’Brien, constructed by Nigel Kaines of Designs on Metal, and installed in Bury St Edmunds  in 2011.

Edmund Pilgrim Badge BM

Edmund BM

Edmund Bury Statue 2011

Pilgrim badge and print by François Anne David, 1784, both British Museum; Emmanuel O’Brien metal sculpture at Bury, installed in 2011.


Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

The British Library- G 12101 t/p

frontpage_woodcut_full

Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


The Witchfinder on Film

Between weekend errands, I organized a little Vincent Price mini-marathon for myself, culminating in a truly horrible (in more ways than one) movie called The Conqueror Worm (1968), which was produced and released in Britain under the more appropriate title Witchfinder General. The film is very loosely based on Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch-finder General” who was responsible for the condemnation and execution of more than 100 people for witchcraft in 1645-46, during one of the more chaotic phases of the English Civil War. Hopkins’ reign of terror in Essex represents the peak of the witchcraft hysteria in England, which was rather less hysterical than many hot spots on the European continent. I suppose that the American title, which alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, was chosen to take advantage of the popularity of Vincent Price’s Poe films like The Fall of the House of Usher, but the film has nothing at all to do with Poe.

witchfinder_general 1968

witchfinder-general-movie-poster-1968

I have a distant childhood memory of seeing bits and pieces of this film on television, certainly without my parents’ knowledge, as it is intensely and gratuitously violent: Price’s Hopkins (about 30 years older than the actual Hopkins) is lecherous and his fellow “witch-pricker” John Stearne is absolutely sadistic. These men might have possessed these qualities and tendencies, and they did torture their victims, but it’s no matter: the film is all about sensation, not context, and certainly not history. And in that typical 1960s manner, everyone is running around with swinging sixties hair. There are too many historical inaccuracies to list here; perhaps the most egregious is Hopkins’ ability to just string up his victims, with no presentation of evidence or trial. Even in this chaotic era, lawlessness did not reign. When Hopkins engages in “due process”, it’s the notorious, and seldom-implemented, “swimming test” for witchcraft. The posters above represent the general anachronistic and sensationalistic nature of the film quite well, while also conveying the spirit of the “burning times” when in fact all English witches were condemned to death by hanging. Better to refrain from the film altogether and view Hopkins through Malcolm Gaskill’s substantive-yet-accessible Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy.

Witch Finder General 1647
???????????

witchfinders
Frontspiece to Matthew Hopkins’ “Discovery of Witches”, published by Richard Royston, 1647, British Museum; Illustration from C.R. Weld’s History of the Royal Society, 1848; Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders. A Seventeenth-century Tragedy (2007).


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