We are used to queens, princesses, duchesses and first ladies being scrutinized for their sartorial splendor (or lack thereof), but this is really nothing new: public women, deemed so by their proximity to power or in some cases their own power, have always been subject to the fashion police. Queen Elizabeth’s projected image seldom escaped the notice of her contemporaries, and so too did that of her successor’s wife, Anne of Denmark, who was born on this day in 1574. When I first started studying English history I formed a perception of the Queen Consort of James I as sort of an English version of Marie Antoinette, concerned more with her dresses, jewels, and court life than her subjects. This was the historical view, formed by generations of historians who no doubt (at first) disliked Anne’s conversion to Catholicism, and easily perceived her clear delight in the staging of elaborate masques at court during a time of intensifying scornful Puritanism. And then there are her portraits, projecting an image of a lady that was not particularly beautiful, but certainly very well-dressed, all the way up until her death in 1619.
After she became Queen of England in 1603, Anne was able to dip into the Great Wardrobe of her husband’s predecessor as well as the caskets of royal jewels, but she also fashioned her own style by acquiring lots of new things: consequently you see an evolution from the “stiffer” Elizabethan style to a more elegant Jacobean appearance, so well illustrated by this last hunting portrait. But this transition came at great cost, noted by contemporaries and historians alike: in her article “Text and Textiles: Self-Presentation among the Elite in Renaissance England”, Jane Stevenson observes that “Against Elizabeth’s Great Wardrobe expenses of £9,535 in the last four years of her reign, we may set expenses of £36,377 annually for the first five years of James’s reign (a figure which does not include Queen Anne’s bills, though it does include clothes for [their sons] Henry and Charles). Towards the end of her life, Anne of Denmark had a wardrobe grant of £8,000 a year; additional, presumably, to what she chose to spend out of her general income, which was considerable.” James actually spent more than his wife on clothes, though she might have spent more on jewels: there is ample indication that she saw herself as a patron of the arts and collector, so this might have been rationalized as a national contribution rather than a personal extravagance. After all, upon his succession to the English throne, her husband proclaimed the crown jewels to be “individually and inseparably for ever annexed to the kingdome of this realme”. Whether for queen or realm, one great source–in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum– that gives us an insight into Jacobean style is the “Book of Jewels” of Dutch jeweler Arnold Lulls, a catalog of styles he presented to Anne, who clearly loved her brooches.
Queen Anne and her brooches, including one similar to the sacred “IHS” Christogram pictured in the Lulls book.
Looking forward to the year ahead, as we all tend to do at this time, I notice that not only is this the “year of the snake” and the year of the (Pantone) color emerald green, but also a year in which there will be two great comets visible in the northern hemisphere. I’m working on an academic project on changing perceptions of wonder in the early modern era, and few things were as wonderful as a truly “Great Comet” blazing a very visible trail through the sky, so this is one of those times where past and present, scholarship and blog intersect, which is very exciting. It’s a rare year that one comet is visible to the naked eye, so the possibility of two is extraordinary. Comet PANSTARRS will be the first comet of 2013, appearing only in the southern hemisphere for the first two months of the year, but by the middle of March it should be visible in the north. The recently-discovered Comet ISON, so bright that it might even be visible at daylight if it doesn’t break apart or flame out, will make its appearance towards the end of the year.
Both before and after the sixteenth century, comets were portents of a potentially cataclysmic event or great change: plague, earthquake, the fall of a regime, all of course the wrath of God bearing down on sinful people. Omens were always ominous. In political terms, comets were “the terror of kings”, and one of the first images of a comet, likely Halley’s comet, is in the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Norman Conquest from the Norman point of view. Isti mirant stella: they gaze in wonder at the star, blazing over King Harold II’s head, foretelling his defeat and death.
Halley’s Comet did not return until 1456 (when it was associated with the conquests of the Ottoman Turks in eastern Europe), but there were bright “hairy” stars recorded by European chroniclers in 1264 (predicting the death of Pope Urban IV) and 1402 (again–the advances of the Turks). The first image below, from a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript, shows a man looking upon a particularly bright (and hairy) comet with wonder, a mixture of fear, awe, and curiosity, and I think that balance tips towards the latter in the early modern era. As evidence, look at the amazing second image below, of what I often describe in class as a “comet party” viewing (and drawing) the Great Comet of 1577: these people are not quaking in fear; to the contrary, they look rather celebratory.
British Library MS Royal 6 E VI, c. 1360-75, England; Woodcut by Jiri Daschitzsky, Von einem Schrecklichen und Wunderbahrlichen Cometen so sich den Dienstag nach Martini M. D. Lxxvij. Jahrs am Himmel erzeiget hat (Prague: Petrus Codicillus a Tulechova, 1577).
The changing perception of comets isn’t quite as straightforward as these two images indicate; in fact, early modern descriptions and representations of comets are a mixed bag, some very “scientific”, others very allegorical. Below, two sixteenth-century men of science depict comets of their time in very different ways: while Peter Apian attempts to chart the course of the comet of 1532, physician Ambroise Paré presents blazing stars as fearful “swords of the heavens”, like the “mortal darts” of John Milton’s Paradise Lost a century later: Incensed with indignation, Satan stood Unterrified, and like a comet burned, That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes pestilence and war.
The comets of Peter Apian (1532) and Amboise Paré (1579), Wellcome Library, London.
The comets of the seventeenth century provoked fear and trepidation, but they also provided empirical celestial evidence of a more predictable universe. The Great Comet of 1680 (to which ISON might be connected) was viewed through the telescope and utilized by Newton to verify the accumulated theories and hypothetical laws of the previous century and therefore “complete” the Scientific Revolution, and the Comet of 1682 became “Halley’s Comet” after his colleague Edmund Halley utilized historical and scientific analysis to connect it to comets of the past and the future. I don’t really see much of this rational spirit on display over here in the New World, where Increase Mather called the Comet of 1680 a “terrible sight indeed” and the colonial government of Massachusetts proclaimed a general fast in order to cease “that awful, portentous, blazing star, usually foreboding some calamity to the beholders thereof.”
Engraving of the Comet of 1619 after Adriaen van de Venne, British Museum; The Great Comet over Rotterdam, December 26, 1680 by Lieve Verschuier, Historisch Museum, Amersterdam (note the crowd below with their measuring devices).
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after Halley was proven posthumously correct with the return of “his” comet in 1758, comets were perceived with a more modern sense of wonder on the part of both the scientific community and the general public. The blazing comet of 1811 inspired all sorts of cultural expressions, and was tied to a positive outcome (for once): a conspicuously good year for wine production. And even better than wine (or at least on a par), the return of Halley’s comet in 1835 inspired a completely new category of jewelry: comet pins.
Thomas Rowlandson’s caricature of comet-viewing in 1811, British Museum; French paste comet brooch, c. 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.