The illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages were some of the most precious remnants of that complicated time. With spines and covers bristling with jewels and costly metals, they were the cherished toys of the aristocracy.
When opened, the pages crackled; jeweled hands smoothed the sheets of vellum and parchment and fingers – barely visible beneath golden rings and lace cuffs – traced over the stolid, Gothic script. Stars of gold leaf were scattered across skies of ultramarine: the most valuable of colors, made from crushed lapis lazuli obtained from Afghanistan. Flamboyant initial letters introduced stories of religion: of blood, wars, kings, whores and hermits – of unspeakable violence and sublime peace.
Surrounding these narratives like a garland were living margins, populated with a bestiary of creatures, balanced on filigrees of pen strokes, peering from forests of color and wonder. They rustled in the leaves as each page was turned. Many of these border-animals were taken from reality – products of the new explorations and explanations: the bright reasoning that came as the renaissance warmed the minds of the thinkers of the 14th century.
Some, clearly were not.
Drolleries – mad products of an artist’s fancy – appeared side-by-side with their more earthly relations. They combined dragons with elephants, chickens with dogs, men with snails – or turned the natural world upside down, with tournaments that included sword-bearing hares, with cats reading to mice…anything that might appeal to the imagination of a bored scribe.
Some writers resorted to words to express their very worldly sentiments: “New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.” “As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.” “Oh, my hand.”
These manuscripts remained popular until the 16th century; they were still in use, but had lost some of the incandescence of their predecessors. The combination of reality, rarity and eccentricity was gone. But still, there would be the occasional scribe who would plant a thought in the bower that surrounded the block of dour text.
In the early Tudor court of the 1530’s, Anne Boleyn was the new Queen. Pregnant at her coronation, she was due to give birth, to disappoint her husband with a daughter. During these times, it was Henry VIII’s habit to ignore his expectant wives, and instead to eye their ladies-in-waiting, who shone with a new delectability when compared to their temporarily ponderous mistresses.
Within Anne’s copse of ladies was a cousin of hers: one who quickly gained a reputation for sprightliness and spirit, for youth, audacity…and dimples. Her name was Mary (or Madge – one of the indicators of Tudor calligraphy was the similarity between ‘g’ and ‘y’. Most historians consider both names to refer to the same lady) Shelton – here was another “fresh young damsel, that could trip and go.” – as a poet had once written of Anne herself.
Mary became the King’s mistress (there was even a rumor in 1538 that she might be the next Queen), their relationship lasted about six months: not an overlong stay in the bedchamber, but long enough to infuriate the Queen.
In addition to being light and frivolous, Mary was highly literate and had many like-minded friends at court. She found an outlet for her irrepressible creativity, writing scraps of poetry in the margins of her prayer books. Like the beasts of the manuscripts from centuries ago, they loitered in the borderlands, telling stories of their authors more memorable than the original text.
Anne scolded her errant maid for her ‘idyll poesies’. But Mary had another project in hand.
The Devonshire Manuscript, was a collection of verse of the 1530’s and 1540’s, compiled primarily by Mary, Mary Howard, and Lady Margaret Douglas. Included were original compositions, transcriptions and fragments – the majority composed by Sir Thomas Wyatt. But the ladies contributed as well. Mary wrote a sad little poem that ends hopefully:
“bot wan I hawe got that I hawe mest/I shal regoys among the rest”
(“but when I have got that I have missed/I shall rejoice among the rest”)
“my ywtheffol days ar past (my youthful days are past)
my plesant erese ar gon (my pleasant years are gone)
my lyffe yt dothe bot wast (my life it doth but waste)
my grawe and I hame wan” (my grave and I are one)
A poem by Thomas Wyatt, “Suffryng in sorow in hope to attain”, has an unsentimental codicil in Mary’s hand:
“ondesyard sarwes (undesired service)
reqwer no hyar” (requires no hire)
In the margin of the previous page – very faintly – can be seen Margaret Douglas’ comment, “fforget thys,” to which Mary had countered: “yt ys worthy”. The borders were still lively country.
All these writings indicate that here was a lady of education, creativity and even ambition: to graduate from ‘idyll poesies’ to writings that became part of what has since been called “the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and of the literary activities of 16th-century women.”[
Playful Mary was one of the brightest lights of Henry VIII’s court. There were many such lights – and when they went out, nothing remained – save for a courtier’s infatuated memory of a pretty face or a white neck. But Mary knew enough not to keep her words and emotions hidden. Either crouched behind formidable devotions or holding their own in a manuscript her thoughts became a part of history and of a warmth that will be felt forever.