Sunday, June 12, 2011

Writings of the Tudor Court

A week or so ago, I finished reading some poems by Thomas Wyatt the Elder. His poetry, paired with that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Hoby's translation of Castiglione's The Courtier, and several letters and speeches by Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots, has really impressed me with a sense of the drama, danger, and precarious nature of the Tudor court . . . or even just of royal courts in general.

You get a sense of this with The Tudors, of course. People rising, people falling. The glorious power-grab of the Boleyns and their ignominious demise, in which Thomas Wyatt himself was implicated and tried, though not executed. Some of his poetry, specifically the translation of Petrarch's Rima 190, seems to speak to an infatuation, if not a relationship, with Anne Boleyn. "There is written, her fair neck round about, Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." He writes about the dangers of seeking advancement as a courtier in "Who list his wealth and ease retain:" "These bloody days have broken my  heart. My lust, my youth did then depart, and blind desire of estate. Who hastes to climb seeks to revert. Of truth, circa regna tonat [it thunders around thrones]." (Interestingly for me, he writes about women as hunted deer more than once, in beautiful lyrical words. Must explore this later.)

Surrey (I can never get used to calling people by their title, not their last name) was actually executed, at thirty, because of the danger he posed to the throne as a possible claimant. He, like his friend Wyatt about whom he wrote a poetic epitaph, also translates Petrarch and hints at the dangers of court.

The Courtier makes it all too obvious that being at court is like playing a game (GRRM's A Game of Thrones, or the Cairhienin Daes Dae'mar [Game of Houses] from RoJo both spring to mind here. In fact, with their plucked and powdered foreheads, I wouldn't be surprised if Cairhien is supposed to be analogous to Elizabethan England). Words and actions have multiple meaning and the most prized attribute of a courtier is that of "grace," which means saying and doing all the right things with an unstudied, spontaneous air as if they flowed naturally from you.

And finally, the letters and the histories of the four women emphasize the risks and rewards of grasping at royal life. While religion separated them, the unpopularity and failure of three (Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, and Mary Stuart) of them were not solely because of religious conviction. They made hasty and ultimately wrong political moves. But how were they to know ahead of time that they were wrong? Each had to alternate groveling and standing firm, and when Jane Grey gambled on standing firm when her future relied on groveling, she was executed.

QEI, the one success out of the four (success being measured, I guess, by longevity, autonomy, popularity, and historical legacy), won because she played the game of court as well as any trying to court her favor. She made herself the Queen of Hearts and supplanted the Virgin Mary. Her "cult of love," as the Norton terms it, was as much about her protection as it was her popularity. And her letters use this rhetoric heavily, terming herself married to the realm of England, a mother to her English subjects, calling her subjects loyal and faithful and thereby making them so. Love is a jewel to her, and in all images she is covered in, dripping with jewels. She was able to manipulate her image by suppressing representations she thought impolitic, and encouraging representations that make her iconic (Golding's Metamorphoses, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, etc., on which more later).

At any rate, the wheel of fortune metaphor has never been more clear in my mind than in reading about the tumultuous and dangerous nature of court.

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