Tag Archives: elizabeth i

The Bower

The pavilion was born in 1572.  Its walls were made of canvas.  And like sails they were held up by a platoon of 40 ships’ masts – seasoned with mists, salt and the voices of fishes.

It was Elizabeth’s pavilion.  A queen for fourteen years, she had grown tired of her palaces:  Whitehall, a pale leviathan; rosy-colored Hampton Court; St. James, which still bore her mother’s initials carved into its guilty stone; Greenwich – where her father was born and Richmond, where she would die.  These buildings were built on history, enmeshed in circumstance and ceremony.  She needed something that reflected her wit, femininity and power – the unexpected whim of England’s unequaled queen.

So when the French envoys were to visit in 1572, with marriage proposals, land and trade agreements in their pockets, Elizabeth decided to entertain them outside.   She hired 500 carpenters and artists to decorate and disguise the canvas walls.  They would create a gallery suitable for those visitors most likely to return home with stories of the handiwork that was raised with a single wave of the Virgin Queen’s arsenic scented hand.

Above tables weakened by plates of spiced meats and sugar paste sculptures of cathedrals and chessboards, boughs of birch and ivy wept from the ceiling.  Roses and honeysuckle were braided in a living fabric that pressed against the walls painted with trompe l’oeil stonework.  The air of the artificial bower bloomed, growing fragrant and green.  It mixed bravely with the sickly rancid scent that rose from the pomanders held close to the visitors’ noses.

The ceiling was painted with the curling vines of an exotic harvest:  pomegranates, melons, cucumbers, grapes, carrots – reminders of the foreign lands within England’s grasp.  Finally, rising out of the greenery, at the very top of the unlikely construction was a sweep of twilight, “spangled with gold and most richly hanged”, marked with constellations and sparks of stars marked with “lights of glass”.  Gilt ornaments and lanterns decorated the deceptive evening, their fey light varnishing the crawling garden.

Elizabeth’s pavilion, the rippling façade of brick and botany, was meant to be used only once.  But it was to remain standing for another ten years.  And in that time the vines had rotted and the flowers had become gangrenous.  Showers of dust, gilt and paint stood hypnotized in the shafts of sunlight piercing the ragged walls.

However, the scent of decay – the sweet repellent aroma from a diabolical boudoir – could somehow still beckon.  Birds hatched through the dilapidated canvas, attracted by the death throes of the suffering forest.

They were tiny envoys, bearing tokens of music, color and spirit.  Their whimsical movements, the audacity of their flight were an inspiration.  Once, within that flimsy architecture, art had dared to imitate life.  And within a decade it would be rescued by it.  A mystery play of metaphysics, aesthetics and semantics had been re-enacted within a forest that was – like a sleeping Eden – in the process of being re-born.

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What Did She See?

The life of Anne Boleyn is well-known – her lethal fame, the circumstances of her downfall; her public death:  the French sword, her bloody denouement.  Her queenly career is well-known: bearing the brunt of England’s hatred, riding to her coronation through a rain of spittle and jeers.  Her husband is well-known:  broad and muscular, red and gold, marbled with fat – a royal butcher.  Henry VIII was still young, and for a while had hopes that his dark wife would bear him a son.

And Anne did bear him a child – but a girl.  And she is well-known, too.  Pale and angular, with intellectual energies burning her into a skeleton, Elizabeth grew to be a brilliant ruler, a devastating opponent, a maddening personality.  But that would be in the future.  When she lay at Anne’s side, flushed and swaddled, she was only a disappointment.

The face of Anne Bolen is well-known:  the eyes as feral and dangerous as a jungle, the currents of black hair that flowed down her back like a thick, depthless river, the skin that her admirers called ‘olive’ and her detractors described as ‘jaundiced’.

Her career was infamous – tantalizing, tormenting and teen-aged, a spirited girl moving with ease through the predatory courts of Francis I and Henry VIII.  Without shame, and full of spirit, amongst the young men she was the stuff of legend.

Anne’s death is known to all – the first ‘beheaded’ in the old litany of Henry’s wives: ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’.  Her request for a sword, a blade with would swipe quickly through her neck.  The moment when she grasped her neck between her hands, telling her handlers that she had ‘but a little neck’.  Her hair piled in careful cords by her ladies, so as not to impede the headsman’s work.

These images are familiar.  But they are still things that are read, stationary visions framed by words in a book.  There is nothing that makes the miraculous leap from page to heart.  There is nothing that will place Anne Boleyn within the warmth, the closeness of your mind.

Sometimes it is a small thing that will bring a distant tragedy, to brilliant, thrilling life.

Witnesses to Anne’s beheading say that before she knelt before the block, she repeatedly looked behind her.  A simple act – but something that can be shared; it is something we all do, not a thing only relegated to a doomed queen.

What did she see?  What did she hear?  Did she hear her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, in the crowds?  Did she see him – the glint of his chain of office?  Did she think she heard a messenger – perhaps with the king’s reprieve?  Did she hear the soft weeping of her ladies?

And suddenly, at the end of her life, Anne Boleyn suddenly comes alive.  And we are suddenly near her, pressed against the scaffold, holding handkerchiefs aloft, reading to catch the blood of a tragic, misjudged queen.


Entertainment QotD: Boleyn For Dollars

Which book would you love to see adapted into a film?

I'll get to that – because there is something else that is getting screen time:  history.  History is hot.  History is money.  And one family in particular is attracting the attention of filmmakers who know as much about their subject as I know about roof thatching.  In their eyes, the Tudors are tight-bodiced, heaving, pouting, smooth-faced and spotless.

I can start with the soon-to-be-relased The Other Boleyn Girl.  Now, it's a little unfair to tease it for any inaccuracies, as its origins are in Philippa Gregory's book of historical fiction.  It's speculative reality.  Also the relations between Anne and Mary Boleyn are not my strong points.  I do, however, know that Anne was black-haired and olive-skinned, slim and sharp.  I just don't think that a dewy Natalie Portman is the girl for the job.  And why the devil someone couldn't run to the nearest drugstore and buy a henna rinse for Eric Bana (Henry VIII's hair was auburn – a small point maybe, but still a physical trait closely associated with the man) is beyond me.

And then there was Showtime's gangsta epic, The Tudors, starring 'Henry 8'.  I've written about this in more detail, some time ago.  But suffice it to say that the sight of a whisper-thin, brooding Henry, in a blouson shirt and tight, shiny pants simply withers my soul.  People, I am not interested in your new, swinging version of history.  History has happened.  It is an established fact.  That's why we call it history.  Don't f*ck with it.

Moving on.  First, let me say that I positively revere Helen Mirren.  She's tough, talented, dignified and beautiful.  I just can't understand why she portrayed Elizabeth I as a hormone-addled schoolgirl.

When she and Leicester (Jeremy Irons) were strolling together towards her assembled army at Tilbury, where she would give her famous speech, she said something like, "You know, Bobby, my Edible Earl, I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King!"  He pauses…he has a look in his eyes…yes:  it…just…might…work…

Cut to the next scene, she's speaking to her men and using that very line.  I believe that is when I set my hair on fire and went outside to howl at the moon.

I can't say much about Elizabeth:  The Golden Age.  I haven't seen it, and you know Aubrey likes to be fair.

And on a side, non-Tudor note:  Ms. Coppola:  if the only way you can portray a teenager's angst – as she is flung from the safety of her home to a foreign court, to marry a foreign king – is to throw in a pair of Keds amongst her satin slippers, you, madam, deserve to be slapped.  History has its own irony – it doesn't need yours.

OK.  That's better.  As for books to film:  this weekend I read in Vanity Fair that a screen version of 'Brideshead Revisited' is in the offing.  I will be watching developments very carefully.  I've read the book close to ten times.  I've seen the PBS series nearly as often.  Both are thrillingly wonderful.  Suffice to say, I know the story well.

I didn't find any of the acting choices offensive.  Julie Flyte looked a little lost, but perhaps she'd just had an ice cream and was exhibiting the symptoms of a brain freeze.  I am pleased to say that Emma Thompson will play Lady Marchmain – however in her photo, she looked a little too cold, too intimidating.  Weren't her destructive qualities seen only through th eyes of the most dysfunctional members of her family – her husband and her younger son?  Still, she was weariang a lovely olive and black cloak, so that made it better.

I know that I can be too judgemental when it comes to  historical re-enactments and portrayals.  I can be very steely-eyed when it comes to a new interpretation of something I care deeply about.  But I'm not saying people shouldn't try.

They had just better be careful.

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