But A Plot To Train You To Your Ruin

swords03So I read ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and posted some thoughts over at EMU’s collaborative reading. There’s a great deal to say about the play, which I consider to be not just Ford’s masterpiece but one of the English Renaissance more generally. But following what I said last week about looking for historical clues in literary sources, one of the things which struck me was its depiction of sexuality.

No doubt about it, ‘Tis Pity is a racy play. From Soranzo’s penchant for virgins to the central incestuous pairing, Ford’s is a play which spares few blushes. And yet, remarkably for the age, Ford treats his transgressive couple with a good deal of tenderness. Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister but also lovers, are not merely vehicles for titilation, as they might have been in a less writer’s hands. They are given rather moving speeches of love, and share equal responsibility for their dangerous relationship: though it is Giovanni who first confesses his love, it is Annabella who first pledges her troth, as it were.

‘Tis Pity is the first English play to deal so baldly with incest (as far as I know); it’s fair-mindedness – in a play busting outwards with other examples of sexual deviancy – is thus even more surprising. Its setting, however, might hold the clue – Catholic Italy is removed from Protestant England. It is ‘other’ and distanced, and for English audiences of the time Catholic carnality was a source of some fascination: through Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom this play was first performed, it was at the very heard of the monarchy of the time (the play was first performed around the 1630s). As Richard Cust puts it in his Charles I: A Political Life, “[Charles I] was the first English monarch for well over a hundred years to enjoy anything approaching a happy and fulfilled family life and it did much to define his kingship.” [pg. 148] His virility, and his wife’s fecundity, bestowed upon England a quite unprecedented royal line, subverting the tenuous stability of a virgin queen and a homosexual king before him.

Yet this stability was the product of a Catholic womb. This, as Michael Braddick shows in God’s Fury, England’s Fire, “could become the basis of a conspiracy theory” [pg. 23]: namely that England was being converted by stealth, by dynastic usurpation. The wranglings over Catholic counsellors in the Long Parliament would follow right through to James II’s fall forty years later. I started this latest literary/historical train of thought on the back of Thomas Corns’s The Royal Image, in which Ann Baynes Coiro convincingly argued that, “Charles’s reign introduced the possibility of over-whelming dynasty, on the one hand, and of a feminized king dominated by a woman, notably a papist woman, on the other.” [pg. 28] Ford plays a woman, and a papist woman, at the heart of Giovanni’s fall from grace, whilst the rest of Parma falls apart around him.

‘Tis Pity is no political allegory – it is a profoundly literary piece, reaching out to other classics of the English Renaissance (Romeo and Juliet, Doctor Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy). And yet its deep concerns about retribution and power politics, about rebellion against both state and Church, and its concern with marriage – as Cust argues, central to Charles’s public image – and its role in reproduction, all resonate in the politics of the day. Everyone is corrupt in ‘Tis Pity, and the polity is heading for self-annihalation: “To what a height of liberity in damnation,” Vasques, the selfless but ruthless servant, opines towards the end of Act IV, “hath the devil trained our age.” [IV.iii, ll 268-269] The complex and benighted tensions of Ford’s time are all too present in his play.

History, Politics

The Terms And Losing Them


Charles I

How and why do the powerful lose control of their own public image? In part, of course, it is a matter of the relative strength of their opponents – the strength of their internal debate, and the techniques they adopt for widening its participatory audience. But it’s also clearly a failing of the figure who is losing the control. I’d argue in large part – and so, too, might Drew Westen – that it’s a failing of language, an inability for whatever reason to couch policies and proposals in a mutually understood, shared public dialect.

In his essay Duke, Prince and King (collected in his own The Royal Image), Thomas N. Corns argues that it was not the theory of the Divine Right of Kings that did for Charles I per se. Following Somerville, he presents the issue as far more complex than a tug of war between those on the one hand who believed in Divine sanction and those who didn’t. The nuances of Divine Right involved the directness of that sanction, whether it flowed through parliament or was altered by ancient custom, whether it was bestowed squarely upon Charles or was a matter negotiated by the constitutional settlement. In this atmosphere, it was not the issue which was Charles’s problem – but his ability to frame it.

All this naturally feeds into John Adamson’s thesis that 1640-42 saw a noble revolt engulf Parliament and England, a revolt essentially in defense of perceived ancient customs to which Charles was unable to pay lip service. That is, the king simply couldn’t speak in terms his people (his court) were willing to accept, much less understand or agree with. Corns quotes Burgess’s The Ancient Constitution: “Charles came across as an absolutist (whatever his intentions) because he insisted on ignoring the rules for the usage of languages of divine right and absolute prerogative … Charles’s statements sounded foreign to his subjects.” In short, he lost control of the debate, and his opponents discussed the matter instead: “Divine sanction, once problematized within a parliamentary context, and subject to debate at both a practical and a theoretical concept, inevitably emerged as a weakened concept.” It was not good enough to dictate; Charles needed more effective dialogue.

Fascinating stuff in and of itself, of course, and not to be stretched over an ill-fitting present. This is all offered, therefore, without such comment.

blogging, History

Pithy History

Here’s my point: Early modern stuff matters. Books matter. The humanities matter. In a time when money is scarce and stupid ideas about universities and the humanities are flying about like nobody’s business, we should be speaking up and making the case for the value of reading and teaching and thinking.

Why Bother?

Why Bother?

Sarah at the very fab Wynken de Worde just recently posted the above in an inspiring reflection to mark the occassion of her blog’s first birthday. It’s already inspired at least one new blog which is worth following straight off the bat. We’ve been neglecting the history posts for a couple of weeks,  but Thursday was once the day for them so here’s an attempt at making an effort.

Sarah’s point that early modernists should be making their history matter is a pertinent one, and you might remember me going on about the dangers of inconclusiveness before now. It’s just as dangerous, of course, to feel the need to force relevance upon historical study: no one moment in time can be a perfect allegory for another. History doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that. But, by the same token, in my own particular area of interest it seems sad to insist that, as Blair Worden recently did, “The only lessons to be drawn from it are to do with the consequences of destructive enthusiasm.” I like Sarah’s distinction between academic writing and blogging: you can get away, perhaps, with a bit more immediacy in a blog than you might in the properly cautious fields of academe (and there’s some interesting discussion of the relationship between the two in the comments at Wynken de Worde).

To whit, I was struck today, on looking through some notes, by David Norbrook’s description of the trial and execution of Charles I: “The king had been brought down from the eminence of his mysteries of state and forced to engage with his people.” [Writing the English Republic, pg. 199] The blogger in me can’t help but see present-day parallels. Such superficial similarities with the latest headlines, of course, are not what make history important. But to ignore them entirely might not help in making the case it is. One pithy way, maybe, in which the blog can help the historian.

History, Politics

One Man Wise Enough to Gouerne All Us

Demystification in Action

Demystification in Action

Recently on Newsnight Review, Ian Hislop and Michael Portillo clashed over the British tendency towards belittling politicians (alas the clip online ends before they get there): Americans, Portillo argued, were happier to see their representatives as at the very least human beings trying to do their best, whilst the Brits, conveniently personified by Hislop, were happier to rubbish the very idea that politicians might have anything but the most venal of motivations. Portillo, like many pols before him, opined that this sort of approach corrupted the political process – that such cynicism debased the very values that hold a democratic society together.

Demystification must surely be at the heart of the the political urge, though. In his Writing The English Republic, David Norbrook puts it at the centre of what he identifies as the English republican project of the seventeenth century: traditionally, “the state could be presented in mystical, sacramental language as a unified body which it would be sacrilege to tamper with. The mixed constitution paradigm both abandoned the church, traditonally viewed as a buttress of social order,  and brought the monarch down to the level of the other contenders in the political forum.” [pg. 96]

Norbrook’s is a work of literary history, but it is as important – and perceptive – as a work of political analysis. He reassesses many key texts – Milton, Marvell – as well as encouraging renewed interest in more minor writers, like May and Waller. (Interestingly, Waller’s conversion to praising Cromwell as a sort of pseudo-king led him to “become a by-word for shameful flattery” [pg. 326] : the idea of a King Olly was popular neither with republicans nor monarchists.) In so doing, he unearths a narrative counter to the de rigeur suggestion that republicanism developed merely as a response to the regicide.

On the subect of the regicide, Norbrook can’t help but see Eikon Basilike as a kind of victory for the remystifiers: though “the propaganda of the most high-flying royalists,” it “went through sixty editions in England and […] the King became, for admirers, and for many later literary critics, an emblem of a dying order.” [pg. 192]  Norbrook would no doubt agree with James Loxley that the success of the image of the figure of the Martyr King had “restorative effects on […] the poetics which helped craft him.” [The Drawn Sword, pg. 181] So, even as republican poetry strived to find the metre for the new project, royalist poetry regained an external justifier.

Norbrook is smart enough to include newsbooks and broadsides in his review of the literature, but I’ve mostly been thinking about ‘high’ literature’s battle with political mysticism. It’s a fight of a broadly historical interest, but to contend Michael Braddick’s position that the period of the civil wars lacks much in the way of contemporary relevancy, it’s hard not to see the echoes. Note to self: see In The Loop.

Books, History

“A King and a Gentleman”


"Ou es le Comte de la Fère?"

And The Memory Of The Wicked Shall Rot?’ is now officially this blog’s most-viewed post, turning from a little-read trifle to a slow-burning curio to a hitrate behemoth, and proof of the old adage ‘if you want traffic, use keyphrases from A-Level syllabi’. Interest in the execution of Charles Stuart isn’t anything but new, of course. One of my favourite bits of Charles I nonsense is in the novel by Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After. I’m unusual perhaps in finding this the best of the Musketeers novels (whether you split them into three or five), but its slightly more melancholic tone, its emphasis on politics, and the depth of its characterisation make it very compelling. Anyway, in chapter LXX, Athos finds himself underneath the scaffold on January 30th, 1649:

All of a sudden the drums rolled discordant and gloomy; a sound of heavy and continuous footsteps was heard above his head. It seemed to him as though an extended procession tramped across the floors of Whitehall; he soon heard the very planks of the scaffold creak. He cast a glance out on the open square, and the attitude of the spectators told what a last hope, still lingering in the depths of his heart, hitherto had prevented him from surmising.

The murmurs of the crowd entirely ceased. All eyes were fixed on the window of Whitehall; half-opened mouths and suspended breaths indicated the expectation of some terrible spectacle. The tramp of steps, which, from his position under the floor of the king’s room, Athos had heard above his head, was reproduced on the scaffold, which bent under the weight so that the planks almost touched the head of the unfortunate gentleman. It was evidently two files of soldiers taking position. At the same instant a well-known and noble voice said above his head, “Colonel, I want to speak to the people.”


“Oh!” said Athos to himself, “is it indeed possible that I hear what I hear, and see what I see? Has God abandoned his representative on the earth so far as to let him die so miserably? And I have not seen him! I have not said ‘Adieu!’ to him.”


There was a momentary silence, then in a full, sonorous voice which was heard not only on the scaffold, but also in the open square above it, the king said, “Remember!

He had scarcely uttered the word before a terrible blow shook the scaffold; the dust was shaken from the drapery, and blinded the unfortunate gentleman beneath. Then suddenly, as if mechanically, Athos raised his head; a warm drop fell on his forehead. He drew back with a shudder, and at the same instant the drops became a black cascade, which gushed on the floor.

Dumas was an historical novelist who played fast and loose with the periods he chose to play in, but a lot of the usual froth about the regicide is here: the emphasis on Charles’s nobility and stoicism in the face of death, the hush of the aghast crowd, the revulsion at the spilling of royal blood; that last minute awareness of the awfulness of murdering a monarch ruling by divine sanction. In the next chapter, Aramis intones, “the king dies, but royalty does not.” Dumas picked his side clearly throughout the Musketeers cycle – the fading of the aristocracy is its central tragedy. It is perhaps in part that attraction to the romanticism of fallen nobility which keeps the level of interest in the regicide so consistently strong.

That and OCR.


Eikon Basilike

Charles I, as depicted in the <i>Eikon Basilike</i>

Charles Stuart, King and Martyr

We’re curious. The last week has seen a spike of interest in the subject of Charles I’s execution. Searches galore have sent browsers the way of what in fact amounts to a post about Michael Braddick, and they’re being made some time after the actual anniversary. Oh, the vagaries of the internet-searching public!

You crazy royalist kids might appreciate this impassioned elegy from a poem entitled ‘On The Epiphany’, written for ‘For The King’s Musick’ by William Cartwright and discussed by James Loxley in his book on royalist poetry (eyes right, class):

But as those Wise enrich’d his Stable, You
Great Sovereign, have enrich’d his Temple, too,
The Inn by You hath not the Church beguild’;
The Manger to the Altar’s Reconcil’d;
Since then their Wisdom is by Yours out-gone,
Instead of Three Kings, Fame shall speak of One.

Those cavaliers, eh?

Books, History

And The Memory Of The Wicked Shall Rot?



As Mercurius Politicus notes with a nice selection of images, today is the 360th anniversary of Charles I’s execution. As that post points out, the narrative of how and why the regicide happened shifts emphasis with almost every generation, and whether, if in London today, you’ll be paying homage outside Charing Cross or the Houses of Parliament largely depends on what you bring of yourself to the concept of beheading a king. This of course is the principle reason that the Civil War remains one of England’s most fascinating decades, an area of historical study which churns out volume after volume with an almost mechanistic regularity.

Not entirely coincidentally, this month I read one of the latest, Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire. In his review of the book in The Guardian, Keith Thomas criticised it for the weakness of its conclusion. This seems to me a mite unfair – Braddick’s work is certainly not a startling reinterpretation a la John Adamson’s magnificent The Noble Revolt, but to judge its potency of argument merely by its final paragraph is a little niggardly. God’s Fury, England’s Fire actually does a rather good job – through a refreshing concentration on contemporary publishing – of giving the reader a sense of the debates of the period, particularly on the Parliamentarian side. What Braddick tidily emphasises is that one of the reasons we still find it so hard to attribute cause, design and effect to almost any actor or action during the period is that so too did the men and women who lived through it. The Parliamentary cause in particular spent almost the whole time just trying to figure out what it was up to.

Braddick’s specialism is the formation of the early modern state, and therefore his chapters on governance and administrative structures are top notch. His narrative perhaps lacks bite, and particularly the years of active war read a tad thinly, but in this anniversary year it’s useful to remind oneself that, 1066 And All That aside, any blanket definitions, let alone Good and Bad, were hard to come by in the mid-sixteenth century (a point further highlighted by another bit of reading this month, Kevin Sharpe’s 1987 analysis of Personal Rule masques, Criticism and Compliment). Fundamental to our history, those years will probably always be punctuated with a question mark – perhaps especially that most vexing of January 30ths.

EDIT: Brilliantly, I originally mistyped the ‘6’ in 360 as a ‘5’. Great commemoration of a significant anniversary there, Hartland. Decidedly less slapdash, Mercurius Politicus has also since updated with a mini carnival on the regicide. Magic!