A while ago, Vox asked me if I would have preferred the past or the future as my living quarters. I answered – as I recall quite verbosely – in favor of the past. The question made me think of delicious mouthfuls of time I wanted to taste…but never biting off more that I could chew.
Anyway, that seemed to be that.
But I couldn't help thinking: what about the minutes, the tiniest of seconds? Is there a swiftly passing frame of the past I wish I could have stayed? Something small, acting as a microcosm of something great – the droplet of water which suggests the storm? I wouldn't want to be greedy and move my life into another's timeline…but what moment of history do I wish I'd have seen – as the classic fly on the wall, the face in the crowd?
Well, I do have a few requests:
January 15,1559. London is cold and frosty, but the people line the street, their jostling feet turning the fallen snow into an unwieldy mush. They lean from the windows of their homes. Colorful banners and streamers of fabric are taut in the cold wind, brightening crooked, wooden houses – handmade and imperfect.
Everyone is waiting for the Princess. Elizabeth Tudor, 25 years old, was riding in state – reclining inside a gold and silver litter which must have been shining like a beacon in the distance, its blaze cutting through the falling snow. Elizabeth was on her way to Westminster Abbey, where she would be crowned Queen.
People who were there, writing their notes, their messages, their memoirs, commiting to memory an unforgettable sight, agree on the look and the behavior of the bronze-haired girl of that day. She waved to the cheering people and thanked them for their good wishes. Her face was wan, and her long hair lay unleased across her shoulders. She wore a dress of thick gold brocade, a wreath of jewels and pearls, and heavy ermine coronation robes.
The people loved her: their adulation was unrestrained and boisterous. She represented youth, health and fertility – in a Queen this trifecta meant protection against their greatest fear, royalty without issue. (Little did they know.) She represented liberation from her predecessor, a close-minded, sad woman who would forever have the word 'Bloody' attached to her name.
One elderly man, with a voice strong enough to be heard by Princess and chroniclers alike, called out "Remember old King Harry the Eighth!"
Her face up to then had been pleasant, but stiff. But at the man's joyful admonition, her face relaxed into a broad smile. She would remember.
The moments would be few, when she would let herself be so open, so seemingly approachable again. I would have liked to have seen that moment.
Fast forward to August 9, 1902. This time it was a King who would be crowned in The Abbey: Edward VII – large, ruddy and self-indulgent; but just as popular as the pale waif-like creature who had been crowned there nearly 500 years earlier.
He has been quoted as saying that the most memorable part of the glittering ceremony – weighed down with tradition as well as jewels – was when his wife, Alexandra, was crowned. At the moment that the diadem was placed on her lovely and subdued head, all the peeresses in atttendance lifted their own tiaras to place on their heads: repeating perhaps their own crowning glory.
Edward was entranced with the movement, ballet-like, of the hundreds of white arms "arching over their heads" as they raised then lowered their coronets, flashing with diamonds; he was in love with the sudden, sleek sound of rustling robes. The act was imbued with historical significance: each lady representing hundreds of years of landed wealth, but for that split second of grace they were beautiful as well.
The elegant symbolism must has been spellbinding. I would have liked to have been there, just for that one brief synchronized, aristocratic, performance.
Now, before the coronation, the Marchioness of Londonderry had withdrawn to the peeresses' lavatory. Stooping to adjust her train, she lost her massive tiara in the 'pan'. The only way to retrieve it without damaging its layers of jewels was by using a gynecological forceps. I doubt if such a thing would have been available 'in house' so some time must have passed before the instrument was delivered.
So…what did she do? Would she have blushed? Did she swear? Shout? Stamp her foot? How would such a stately lady have expressed her embarrassment and frustration? This type of thing really doesn't happen every day…yes, I would have liked to have been in on this, too. Well, perhaps just waiting outside the door.
This is the Marchioness at the Devonshire House Ball in 1897, dressed as the Empress of Austria. The offending tiara is the circlet forming the base of her crown. Little did she suspect that in 5 years it would have to be fished out of the toilet with an instrument typically used for plumbing…an entirely different type of plumbing.
Studying history is like beachcombing. No matter what you find – be it little or large; whole or fragmented; dull or colorful; old and faded or recently washed up…it's all real, it all played its part in a larger world.
And it should always be dusted off and taken home.
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