Review: So High A Blood by Morgan Ring

So High A Blood explores in detail the life of Margaret, Countess of Lennox, a Tudor princess without whom, perhaps, there would have been no Stewart succession and no subsequent union between England and Scotland.

Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, by her second husband Archibald Douglass, the Earl of Lennox. Her life in many echoes that of her cousins, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The stain of bastardy hung over her birth, owing to the complex legal status of her parents marriage, and she was herself at times close to the English succession under both Henry VIII and Mary. She was reported to believe her own claim to throne stronger than Elizabeth’s, comments which helped earned her a spell in prison when Elizabeth came to hear of them.

It wasn’t only her alleged bastardy that stood in Margaret’s way. She remained a devout Catholic, and she was both English and Scottish, to the discomfort of all, it seems. Margaret was born in England while her mother was in temporary exile and would spend most of her life here. However, her estates were largely in Scotland – even if she wasn’t always able to assert her ownership of them, or of their revenues. As such, she was uniquely ill-positioned to manipulate events in either country to her advantage.

That did not stop her trying, however. What she couldn’t achieve for herself, she aimed to do for her children. Of the eight she gave birth to, only two survived to adulthood. One of those, Henry, Lord Darnley, was murdered aged 21, less than two years into his marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret had connived to bring the two together – which Elizabeth saw as part of a plot to overthrow her and had Margaret committed to the Tower as a result – and, you could argue, her work was ultimately vindicated: it was Darnley’s brief marriage to Mary that produced James I of England.

Morgan Ring has written an absorbing account of Margaret’s life, and has found a fresh angle from which to view the Tudor court, which is no mean feat. If at times Margaret herself seems to fade from the scene as tumultuous events at both courts take centre stage, that is perhaps only fitting for a woman who had to fight all her life for what she believed to be her due.

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

 

Heart of darkness: from the time-honoured barbarity of the Tudors in Ireland to Islamic State

The leader of a small military force – perhaps 500 strong – is determined to subdue a province, and to do so quickly. Terror is his explicit policy. Every inroad he makes into enemy territory is followed by indiscriminate slaughter and destruction. Every man, woman and child is killed. Houses, churches, crops – everything is burned and despoiled.

Each night, the heads of all those who have been killed are lain in a path to the commander’s tent so “the people . . . see the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends, lie on the ground before their faces, as they come to speak with the colonel”.

If this sounds like the barbarity that Isis has made commonplace in the news in the last couple of years, think again. It is not Isis. It is the English in Ireland in 1569 and the leader in question is Humphrey Gilbert. He was knighted for his efforts within months; the following year he became an MP.

Drawing analogies between events at different times in history is always fraught; circumstances change. But where there are echoes we do well to heed them, because what resonates with the past can inform our understanding of the present. And while there is little in English history per se to match Isis, our record in Ireland is a different matter. It is there that we succumbed most deeply to the poisonous cocktail of religious self-righteousness and nascent nationalism that so intoxicates Isis. Protestantism and Wahhabism are closer cousins than we care to think.

Five years after Gilbert, the Earl of Essex at the head of the English army in Ireland hunted down and butchered 400 women and children of the M’Donnell clan at Rathlin Island off the northern coast of Antrim. A few made it down to the caves by the sea but Essex’s men followed them and smoked them out, cutting them down on the shore as they ran choking from their hiding places.

At Smerwick on the west coast of Ireland in November 1580, a group of 600 or so Spanish soldiers surrendered a small fort to an English force under Lord Grey of Wilton. Grey sent in a number of men under the captaincy of the young Walter Raleigh. Once disarmed, the Spanish were all put to the sword; there were too many bodies in the fort for the English to count. Pregnant women were hanged. Three men were dragged off to the local blacksmith where their joints and bones were smashed with a hammer on the anvil. They too were hanged. The English used their bodies for target practice as they hung on the gallows, literally shooting them to pieces.

Elizabeth I was delighted. Her handwritten note of thanks to Grey said, “You have been chosen the instrument of God’s glory”.

As for the kind of destruction practised by Isis at Nimrud and elsewhere, the remains of Protestant iconoclasm – Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” – still litter our landscape. To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

Some buildings were destroyed more thoroughly than others. Thomas Cromwell, who personally took possession of the great Cluniac priory at Lewes, employed an Italian military engineer to raze the building to the ground.

There were over 800 religious houses before the Dissolution. The extent of the loss across the country is hard to underestimate. And there were other, more subtle, but no less catastrophic, destructions. The religious houses looked after the poor, the sick, the elderly, the infirm. There was no national health service back then, but the religious orders came close. They were the country’s principal education providers too.

In many parishes, church treasures were hidden among the parishioners. They were being vigorously hunted out and destroyed for decades. As late as August 1578, Elizabeth I’s progress through East Anglia brought her to the house of a Catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood. His house was searched and an image of the Lady Mary discovered in a hay rick. It was “such an image . . . as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match”, reported Richard Topcliffe, later infamous as the government’s principal torturer.

Elizabeth ordered the image to be burned in sight of everyone that evening.

That Isis is depraved is beyond question. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the human talent for depravity does not belong to one people or one faith or one era. All evil is banal, repetitive in its cruelties.

The question shouldn’t be why Isis behaves this way, but what conditions enable or encourage any human to behave like that. The line from Gilbert to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – by way of Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz – is a short one, and surely too short for our moral comfort.

NOTE: This piece was first published by the New Statesman online.

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Lyly coverLast week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce and I urge anyone who is interested in the period to read it.

Born in 1554, Lyly is best remembered today for Eupheus, the Anatomy of Wit his 1578 prose fiction which seems to have taken London and the court by storm. “All our ladies were then his scholars,” it was later said, “and that beauty at court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which now there speaks not French.”

But that fashionable success has in many respects served to damn him for generation after generation of literary critics. Lyly would abandon prose and become arguably the most successful playwright of the 1580s, writing under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford for the boy companies at the Blackfriars and later at St Paul’s. His reputation though, more than most, suffers from his not being Shakespeare: in literary history Lyly is usually cast simply as a writer whose superficial popularity and wit was superseded by Shakespeare’s greater art. It reflects a dismally Darwinian approach to culture, to say the least; but it is one which Andy’s book is sure to help rectify.

I wasn’t able to make the launch – fittingly held at the Globe Theatre – but a couple of months ago Andy was kind enough to sit down with me over a coffee or two in Paddington for a wide-ranging discussion about Lyly and early modern culture.

ML: I was reading GK Hunter’s article on Lyly in the DNB before I came. I must have read it before but I was struck this morning by the thunderous snobbery of its tone. There’s a moment when Hunter talks about Lyly’s reputation towards the end of the sixteenth century and, to support his thesis that Lyly was no longer fashionable, he has to dismiss Lyly’s evident continuing popularity with the reading public by, essentially, dismissing the entire reading public itself. “Euphues continued to be reprinted (twenty editions of the two parts were printed before the end of the century), but its admirers were no longer at the top of the social scale.”

When you look at it, the way Hunter attempts to hide those twenty editions in parenthesis is sleight-of-hand of the lowest order.

AK: Lyly’s modern editors still say [that sort of thing] very frankly. Scholars of rhetoric say that sort of thing all the time. It’s being read; but it’s being read by the wrong sort of people. It is extraordinary.

ML: Why do you think they say that?

AK: Hunter says elsewhere that Lyly’s tragedy was that he descended into the market and made a fool of himself.

ML: Is it just academic snobbery?

AK: It’s a way of defending the literary canon that scholars prefer to sanction. I think the reason people say that sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth century. There’s a very clear reception process for Lyly. In 1632 Edward Blount edits six Lyly plays, the six core comedies, and writes a preface which claims how important Lyly was to the Elizabethan period.

Lyly is then essentially not read for a hundred years.
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Sir Walter Ralegh: the price of fame?

Ralegh minatureralegh 88

Further to my earlier review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elizabeth I and her people, I thought I’d just post two contrasting portraits of Ralegh. The first, on the left, is a Hilliard miniature from 1584. The second is a close-up photo I took of the 1588 portrait currently on display at the NPG. (My apologies for the slight lack of focus!)

My first thought when I saw the latter was: what a toll those four years at the heart of Elizabeth’s court had taken on him. One can read too much into these things, but if the earlier portrait seems to capture the brash confidence – arrogance, even – with which Ralegh was and is often associated, the later portrait suggests a man whose self-belief – for all the studied magnificence of his appearance – is not what it was.

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.

The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

The ChaliceUKcoverLast year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5.

Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in an online discussion with me comparing the processes of writing historical fiction and non-fiction, trying both to identify common ground and to explore the different ways in which we approach problems such as narrative and character. There is a tendency to look down on historical fiction, but at its best it is trying to tell a kind of truth – more usually an emotional truth – about life in a particular period; and at its best, again, it can do that in a way that it is very hard for straight “history” to achieve.

Mathew: Hi Nancy. Many thanks for joining me here! I’m really looking forward to talking to you! I thought we might start by talking about research.

For me, the research process is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a work of non-fiction because – particularly when you start out – you don’t have to make too many decisions and you can read as widely as you like, following both sense and intuition to find possible sources. It’s a very open process because one of the things I am trying to find is the shape of the book, and that only emerges once you have absorbed a certain amount of information and started to map out a universe – which is the parameters of your area – and a rough sense of where your narrative will begin and end.
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