The 16th century was full of music, a packet of jewels that sparkled with a metallic radiance, their facets an alchemy of wonder and spliced colors. Galliards, pavans, madrigals, motets, rondeaus, bergerettes…ethereal rhythms that decorated the foggy skin of history.
The exotic, feminine names say it all. But there is one that stands outside this musical fairy ring: dompe…a dour word, it means lament, or dirge. It possibly comes from the French “tombeau” (lament), or the German “dumpf” (dull or dazed). But ultimately its source is a mystery: an etymological curiosity.
Most of these laments have been forgotten. But there is one, written in the mid 1520’s, famous enough to be included in the echelon of the very best of Renaissance minstrelsy. It is called ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’. Its tune is golden and complex – its threads twisting like the helix of a DNA. Moving with Byzantine grace, it is a filigree that curls through the air.
So – what was Lady Carey’s lament? In the shadows of the court, amidst perfume and dogs, pearls and plague…why did she grieve? She was bold, pretty and shallow. She was given to pursuing pleasure using her dark eyes and charming stupidity as her weapons. Her name was Mary. And she collected kings.
In 1514, at the age of 15, she arrived at the French court as maid of honor to Mary Tudor – the future, and very unwilling, bride of King Louis XII (Louis was nearly four times her age; he died three months after their wedding). Even though the Queen Dowager left for England shortly thereafter, Mary stayed in Paris and before 1519 became the mistress of Louis’ son, King Francis I. Her voluptuous reputation was already established; Francis himself referred to her as an ‘English Mare’ and ‘infamous above all’.
In 1519 she returned to England, as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon. In 1520 she married Sir William Carey – handsome, athletic, a distinguished art collector.
On that happy day they were proud to receive a special guest: King Henry VIII. In a year it was only she who was receiving King Henry – ever a victim to the type of girl who would flirt even on her own wedding day.
And in 1526 an anonymous, sympathetic composer wrote ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’. In her sloe-eyed, languid way, Mary accepted the intricate tune – so unsuited to the subject – as she took affection, gifts, her ill fame: unthinking and willingly.
In 1527 she became sister to a Queen. In 1528 she was a widow – ignored and in debt.
Mary married again in 1534 – to a soldier, William Stafford. Anne was furious that her sister had chosen to marry without her permission, and beneath her station. Her place on the throne was a shaky one, and she could not afford to be related to a commoner. In two years Anne would be dead.
Disowned by her family, Mary’s financial situation became so desperate that she resorted to begging the King’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf. What she told him could have been set to her own lament: “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily…he would not forsake me to be a king.”