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Edward VII Reviews Field

“The simultaneous movement of those hundreds of white arms, the rustling of robes, the flashing of the jewels made him think of a scene from a ballet.”
‘To Marry An English Lord’, Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

The prince lowered his head
As he stood inside the chapel
And wrapped around his temples
He felt the rhythmic carving of gold
With all apprehensions
Responsibilities
And weary years
Impaled on each prong like worms
Suffering with promise
And the ache of the future

When the king raised his head
There was a luminous movement
As one hundred peeresses
Raised their tiaras with round and powdered arms
In a frisson of light
And synchronized loyalty.
Flesh under a king’s review,
A soft population
Bred for discretion
And immodest seclusion

Image result for edward VII crowning

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Milky Lady

Her heart was made for freedom and scandal. It carried her far from her English home, for there were many willing takers, daring to stand up to her spirit, thinking they could face her beauty unmoved. When her career took her to Syria, she was called Shaikhah Umm al-Laban (Shaikhah Mother of Milk) for the color of her skin, poured over her bones like a white ganache. She was also called “Aurora” for she was as bright and golden as the goddess who flew across the sky, gilding the air to prepare for the arrival of her brother, the Sun.

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Lady Jane Elizabeth Digby was a young woman in the early 19th century, when ladies’ gowns rode low on their shoulders and curved gently across their backs. This was fortunate, for Lady Digby had a swan-like neck which merged with a pliant spine, its vertebrae fluttering just below the skin’s surface. Her hair was a deep honey color which dripped in corkscrew curls as was the fashion. And her eyes were pale blue, rimmed with a darker blue – they glowed like cathedral glass.

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She married the 2nd Baron Ellenborough in 1824, when she was 21, and he a decade older. But she was too romantic for marriage, and quickly embarked on an affair with her maternal cousin, Colonel George Anson. He was handsome and subtle – a dangerous challenge for a girl just sprightly enough to pick up the gauntlet through down by a charming reprobate.

But she did not care about the fluffy judgements of her peers. In 1828 her attentions turned to Prince Felix of Schwarzenburg, slim and swathed in military severity, when he was still a London attaché for the Austrian embassy.

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After two years he deserted her, leaving her pregnant with their second child. The affair left Jane to face scandal, divorce and society’s shocked, albeit fascinated twitterings, and it left the Prince with a new title: the “Prince of Cadland”. Outside of a few brief visits, she never saw England again.

In Munich Jane became the mistress of King Ludwig I, who despite his quiet shabbiness attracted such luminaries of the demimonde as the dancer/courtesan Lola Montez.

ludwig

It is not known who felt the urge to move on first – Nancy or the King. But one of the partners did and in 1833 Jane had married the Baron Karl Von Vennigen. They had two children, and her mettle was calm for five years.

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But a roving eye cannot be shuttered for long. In 1838 Jane fell in love with the Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis.

spyridon

Baron challenged Count to a duel, and though wounded Vennigen agreed to set Jane free but kept custody of the children. They remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives.

Though not legally divorced until 1842, Jane converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in 1841. Oddly, Jane showed a particular lack of patience for a lack of loyalty, and when Theotokis returned to his old habits – which were the very antithesis of fidelity – he and Jane were divorced.

Jane then turned not to her old friend Ludwig I – perhaps getting up in years – but to his son, the far more dashing King Otto of Greece.

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However the King was married to a fierce and politically formidable woman – Amalie of Oldenburg. The Queen wouldn’t have her dark and slim-waisted husband sleeping with this adventuress and Jane was forced to leave Athens.

She turned next to the hero of the Greek War of Independence, Christodoulos Chatizipetros, who had led the rebels under King Otto with flamboyant and successful distinction against the Ottoman forces.

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He rose to the rank of Major-General, but his debauched habits attracted Amalie’s disapproval. Her fury must have been intense upon learning that one of those habits included Lady Jane Digby.

Christodoulos continued to lead a guerrilla campaign, with Jane acting as queen of his rough army, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the sparse mountains. They roamed the Thessalian plains, where Odysseus once visited; where Jason and the Argonauts launched their search for the Golden Fleece, and now where a lady who did know her place could journey at will.

But Christodoulos’ weaknesses, long offensive to Queen Amalie, now became an annoyance to Jane and she walked out on him for his numerous infidelities. In the late 1840’s, Jane continued her journey East, stopping in Syria.

Jane Digby in Syria

She was now forty-six, and her soft beauty had become resolute and mature. She would fall in love one more time, and he, though twenty years her junior, was not seeking the pretty follies of a young girl.

He was Sheikh Abdul Mijwal al-Musrab, sheikh of a sub-tribe of the Anizzah tribe of Syria.

sheikh

The two were married under Muslim law and Lady Jane Digby became Jane Elizabeth Digby el Mezrab. Jane added Arabic to the eight other languages in which she was fluent. She adopted Arab dress which buried her face beneath sheaths of fabric so long they erased her footsteps from the sand as she walked.

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Half of every year was spent in the nomadic style of the Bedouin, while for the rest of the year they lived in a palatial villa she had built in Damascus.

Their marriage was a happy one and lasted until she died in 1881, twenty-eight years later. She died of fever and dysentery – the nightmares of soldiers and other adventurers who find themselves in faraway climates. At the funeral her name was written in Arabic on a block of limestone by her widower and then carved into the rosy granite by a local mason. The sheikh then rode alone into the desert and sacrificed his finest camel to honor her departure and her memory.

But maybe he should not have grieved; perhaps he should have spared that most excellent beast. For Aurora returns to the quickening of every morning, when dawn stirs between day and night. And then one can look into the sky and watch the stars as they spiral through the Milky Way, outlining the Milky Lady’s eyes and lips; her curving, radiant profile.

“Imperfect Animal”

Her face curved with a creamy allure. Cheeks were pinched into a shocked rose, the blood rising towards a blushing palettte. There was a delicate valley beneath her full and coral-stained lips. It was dangerous, exotic country.

A galaxy of pearls sparkled throughout her hair in starry glamour. They hung from her ears and were wrapped around her neck in a tight, luminous collar. She wears a hat the color of early twilight that rides like a ship, tilting and brave with silk and feathers.

She is dressed in the style of the maja, a woman from the lower class of Spanish society whose exagerated style was equally charming and saucy. Her peasant silhouette is rich and exuberant, with ribbons cutting into her plump arms in tight bows. She plucks from her bouquet a flower the color of her lush skin; a garland she might have found during her rustic, luxuriant travels.

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Earthy yet elegant, Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, Duchess of Pastrana had the look of slow, seductive femininity. Her jungle poise was cat-like, with muscles that rolled like velvet. And her beauty was not marred, but rather accentuated, by a small, glossy square which covered one of her eyes. One eye was hooded by a heavy, languorous eyelid, but the other was covered in a silken shadow.

La_princesa_de_Éboli

Stories vary as to how the Princess became came to be afflicted with this rakish flaw. Some say that she lost her eye in a mock duel with a page when young. But others say that the patch hid a squinting or wandering eye: a defect just as damning as an eye pierced by an overzealous opponent’s foil.

This pretty girl, this well-formed and dainty aristocrat, was a marriageable pawn, and any damage had to be covered with as much wit as possible. She was married in 1553 at the age of thirteen, on the recommendation of Philip, Duke of Milan – whom would be crowned King of Spain the very next year. Her husband, Ruy Gómez de Silva, had been page to the young Philip and rarely strayed from his black-clad, tightly ruffed master. He became a diplomat, and eventually was made a Grandee of Spain.

Because of his duties in England and the Netherlands – possibly brokering Philip’s unpopular union with Mary I – the Eboli marriage was not consummated until Ruy returned to Spain in 1558. Ana would endure 15 years of childbearing, bearing 10 children from 1558 to 1573.

Ana spent most of her married life at court, living in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid: Philip’s remodeling of the doughty Muslim fortress into a sparkling Renaissance aerie. It was there that she capered like a shadow, a pretty sprite that sparkled in cloth of gold and slippers embroidered in silks the color of gardens and forests.

After her husband died in 1573, Ana deserted her bright home, retiring to a Carmelite convent under the name of Sister Ana de la Madre de Dios. But the king was determined that she return to take charge of her children and the family estates.
At about this time, in 1576, Ana’s life once more became a reflection of her manic spirit and blithe intelligence. There was political intrigue – irresistible to her restless nature. There was romantic intrigue – with Antonio Perez, the royal secretary and possibly with Philip II himself. It was her relationship with Perez which led to her eventual imprisonment.

Under orders of Philip II Perez kept watch over the wayward royal half-brother, Don Juan of Austria. He employed Juan de Escobedo – a politician with a taste for deception – as his spy. It is also possible that during this time, around 1578, Antonio and Ana became entangled in secret negotiations with Protestant rebels in Flanders and the anarchic arguments over the Portuguese succession. Escobedo would have known about their conspiracies, and when he fell in with the mettlesome half-brother, Escobedo became a dangerous inconvenience.

Perez seized reports and documents, doctored them until they became indictments, leaving the king with no choice but to recommend the death of Escobedo. He left no further instructions. Perez recruited swordsmen for the assassination, turning away from the subsequent, fatal act.

A death in secrecy; the general murkiness of Perez’ motives; gossip and suspicion led to the arrest of Antonio Perez and the Princess in 1579. Perez escaped prison numerous times; ending his days in England, trying to make a rogue’s living by selling state secrets to Elizabeth I.

Ana spent the rest of her life under house arrest in her place in Pastrana, until her death in 1592. Legend has it that she was allowed to stay in the Palacio Ducal for an hour each day, where she could gaze, with eloquence and resentment, from its single window onto the town square which came to be known as La Plaza de la Hora (“the square of the hour”).

Like all women of dangerous talents, Ana de Mendoza was described with hostility as well as admiration. Antonio Perez referred to her as a “Cyclops”, but Don Juan – possibly out of disgust, possibly out of regret at such a wild perfection spoiled, called her an “imperfect animal”.

The Wanderer

It was found off the coast of Panama, nacreous and irresistible, glowing with a soft, pale temptation.  It was shaped like a tear, weeping into the ocean, the birthplace of currents, the blueprint of tides.

Gems, like women, will make men sentimental.  They give their treasures nicknames – small proofs of private and affectionate ownership.  At this time, Spain was mistress to the New World, showing her love in unwanted Catholicism and demanding payment in land, in people, in valuables.  By the time this grieving pearl had become part of the Spanish Crown Jewels, it had already acquired the name 'La Peregrina' – 'The Pilgrim', 'The Wanderer'.

In 1554, Philip, future king of Spain, was betrothed to a sad queen.  England's Mary I - thin-lipped, jaws tightly muscled, graceless and  intolerant - had never met Philip.  But she stroked the painted cheek of his portrait and waited with a doomed devotion for her Spanish lover across the Atlantic.

Philip arrived in England with chests of presents for Mary and the ladies-in-waiting who followed her silently on hidden footsteps.  There were bolts of satin – in coiled, simmering colors – yards of silver and gold tissue; black and white lace; linen veils; and gems from the empty veins of the New World.  Amongst these royal baubles was La Peregrina, wrapped in velvet perhaps, to protect its sublime light; the moon that slept within its layers.

Mary loved the pilgrim that had traveled to far to reach her.  She ordered her jewelers to create a setting worthy of her egg-sized pearl.  They brought to her a brooch of diamonds, surrounded by a filigree that swarmed like a golden vine.  And La Peregrina dangled like a planet beneath that glittering sky.

She wore it always.  It lay across her flattened breast, against the wooden corset.  Beneath it Mary's heart beat, an undesired spark kept alive in its lonely chamber.  But La Peregrina was round and nubile – a ripe fruit blooming from a barren tree.

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The King’s Coat

"King Jamie hath made a vow,
Keepe it well if he may:
That he will be at lovely London
Upon Saint James his day"

Flodden Field is a grim, soaked name:  soaked in rain, soaked in blood.  The name is dark with lowering clouds, heavy against a gangrenous sky of gray and green.  It is without warmth, save for the life forces absorbed into the parasitic ground as the great men lay dying.  It is a name without horizon; a killing field symbolizing Scotland's shame and despair.

In 1513, King Henry VIII was in France.  He rode arched Friesian horses into his small battles,  feeling their muscular spirits through his hands and legs.  He wore suits of armor tattooed with gems so audacious that they made the sun look away in a fit of pique.  His tents were thick with tapestries; animals, a frozen heraldic population, stared from within their embroidered forests.  Local girls ran out with wild, scented garlands in their hands to take a look at the young and beautiful English king.

He left his wife at home.

Queen Katherine was made regent in the king's absence.  Symbolically, the cold and knight-errant island was hers.  But although she was mild and devout, a pale nun in cold velvet, there were fires lurking inside her.  Isabella of Castile was her mother:  leader of the Spanish Inquisition, a warrior against the Jews and Muslims; fearless, intolerant, brilliant.  It was her blood that warmed her daughter's pallid faith.

When it became known in Scotland that the king of England was away to France, James IV – linguist, scientist, builder, adulterer – raised his head from his mistress' breast to listen. 

The 'Auld Alliance' with France, nearly 250 years old, had to be honored.  England was ripe for invasion.  So, despite his queen's protestations and precognitive dreams, a massive army – with an arrogance as heavy as the armor on their backs – was assembled.

Queen Margaret begged him not to go to war with her brother.

"Then bespake good Queene Margaret,
The teares fell from her eye:
'Leave off these warres, most noble King,
Keep your fidelitie.'"

Flodden Field is located in Northumberland, the darkest and saddest of English counties.  The two armies met there in October 1513, behind a mourning veil of rain that beaded on the blades of swords like bold crystals.  Katherine wisely named the Earl of Surrey – 70 years old, memories of past battles stitched into his skin – as the commander of her army.  James, yearning for a chivalry which never existed, led his own army.  Overcome by foolish courage, he galloped beneath the royal standard of Scotland, a blood-red lion that roared in dismay.

The result was a famous English victory, at the cost of 1,500 men.  But the flat, blank field was suddenly mountainous with 10,000 Scottish corpses, and somewhere amongst them lay James IV, punished for his futile dreams.

His torn and bloody coat was sent to Katherine, who proudly had it delivered to her husband.  No one knows what Henry thought as he ran the shattered cloth through his fingers.  It is doubtful that he felt any guilt for his widowed sister, mourning far away from home.

"That day made many a fatherlesse child,
And many a widow poore,
And many a Scottish gay lady
Sate weeping in her bower."

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The First One

She was born in Madrid, amongst hushed duennas and modest women.  Her parents expelled the Jews from Spain.  Her mother was the patroness of Christopher Columbus.  Her father was the 'cunning fox' so admired by Machiavelli.  Her sister was mad, refusing to abandon the rotten, cholera-ridden body of her dead husband.  She grew up against the scarlet agonies of the Inquisition.  She came to England when she was barely sixteen, the bride-to-be for a King.

The next year, in 1502, she lost her husband to the 'sweate'.  She watched him, soothed him, pressed a damp handkerchief to his temples to absorb the thick, stinking sweat.  She prayed.

This portrait was painted at about this time.  A widowed cherub, with gaze lowered and focused on worries she was too young to name.  Thoughtful, she eyed an unfair fate that mocked her and gamboled at her feet.

Her weeds are black and plum; her chains are simple weaves, and scallops – emblems of the pilgrims of St. James – bite the square shoreline of her bodice.

For seven years, she waited.  She wandered the palace, ignored by her distant parents, a shadow to her father-in-law.  He and his advisors were too busy grooming the golden lion who was growing into adulthood in their midst.  They had plans for him; they imagined a marriage with a princess whose veins would tangle Europe like vines, drenching countries in their royal sap.  A sad princess, already used, was not good enough. 

In 1509, it was time for another son to be crowned.  And this Spanish princess – despite, or possibly because of, palace politics – was the chosen bride.  On June 11, Katherine of Aragon was wedded to Henry VIII.  Witnesses noted her thick hair, a river of melted bronze shot with gold, pouring down her back.  Her plump oval face, pink and white, agreed happily with the English vision of healthy womanhood:  innocent, yet of good child-bearing stock.

She was the first, and she had him at his best.  He was fit, virile, slim, athletic.  He still had his shy ways:  his childhood was a sheltered one and he trod carefully on the words of his tutors as if each syllable was an eggshell.  He was optimistic and careless.  He was a handsome boy.  And she was in love.

But he grew up.  Power drove her heel into his neck and taught him the ways of cruelty, impatience and greed.  She stood in the way of…so many things.  But she would not move:  her core of resolve was an alloy of steel buried in the meek earth.  Quietly, she kept Anne Boleyn listening at the keyhole.  She was the silent figurehead around whom the people rallied: against the king, his new religion and his filthy mistress.  The Vatican was in awe – she was exotic, she was fearsome:  she was honest.

But honesty does not breed kings.  Her babies died, one after the other, except for one daughter.  And this child, in time, would suffer too.

And when Katherine lay dying, she was alone once more, even denied communication with her daughter.  Did she think of her years as a young widow, a living ghost in dusty velvet?  Maybe all she remembered was her final letter to her husband – the words hanging before her eyes like curtains – that ended with a vow of shattering devotion:

"Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things."

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Dress’d Up For Love

"O Jesu – Coz – why this fantastic dress?
 I fear some Frenzy does your Head possess;
 That thus you sweep along a Turkish tail,
 And let that Robe o'er Modesty prevail…
 Why in this naughty vestment are you seen?
 Dress'd up for Love, with such an Air and Mien,
 As if you wou'd commence Sultana Queen."

I love this portrait on so many levels.  It is all blue and white, like Delft china – or a cloudy nighttime sky.  The colors are so delicate that they're in danger of blending together and then vanishing altogether within a monochromatic cloud.  They face each other, come close, but then swirl away, like flirtatious dancers.

I love her expression, so wry and thoughtful.  What is going on in her head, behind her young and weary eyes?  This rose and white figure pensively resting on starry cushions is Mary Gunning, the Countess of Coventry – known throughout England as one of the 'Gunning Beauties'.  Something stands before her gaze here:  she confronts it, analyzes it…before lanquidly accepting it.

She is about 21 in this paiinting – is she already wondering how long her beauty will last; how long will men's glasses be raised to toast her?  Is she wondering about the throbbing in her face about the sores hidden beneath the layers of lead-based makeup?  Does she see the ghost of her great-great-great-grandmother Grace O'Malley, a famous pirate of Ireland…does she wish she could have ridden the galloping waves with her?  Does she see her Irish childhood?  Or her London fame?

I love her costume.  The style was known as 'Turkish':  a la turque.  In the second half of the 18th century it took Europe by sirocco storm.  Caftans, sultanes, Circassian robes were worn, chased with oriental embroidery and decorated with furs, tassels and fringe.  Ornate belts would catch the wayward robes in a tight clasp and luxuriously baggy trousers gave the lady a masculine, confident air.  There were no gardens, stuffed birds orminiature ships invading feminine coiffures:  they were replaced by dainty silk turbans, colored ribbons, jewels and feathers.  Roccoco stiffness was replaced by the sinuous exoticism of the Far East.  Fashionable society was suddenly a whimsical seraglio.

At the height of their powers, Mary Gunning and her sisters were the 'goddesses' of the court of porphyria-addled George III.  They were 'the handsomest women alive':  Horace Walpole wrote of their 'surpassing loveliness'.  People not ashamed to worship a beautiful face followed them, mobbed them, crowded the theaters and great houses, gazed into windows glowing gold with melting candle-light just to glimpse their tapestry robes and their white skin.

When this portrait was painted, Mary had 6 years to live.  The use of lead-based paint was a deadly art necessary to create a pale and seamless complexion.  Society's queens must appear chaste and untouched, yet the makeup penetrated their skin and destroyed their blood.  Perhaps what Mary contemplates here are the wages of beauty, what one must surrender for admiration and the price of a merry life.

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Castle Keep-sake

Years ago I thought it would be a winsome idea to spend my summer vacation studying English history, with a nod to England's trio of frisky hinterlands, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Now, I'll admit that I bit off quite a chunk of history, 400 years worth:  a plate of ghosts, scandal, execution, war, cruelty and creation.  Some facts I've lost.  But some have stayed.  I remember reading a contemporary historian's account of the siege of Kenilworth.  He was there.  He saw the gilded banners, the blood-streaked horses; he heard the bleeding men cry; he smelt the bloody earth.  He wrote how he saw boulders, propelled by the trebuchets, the 'Turkish Engines' of each army, colliding in mid-air.  Did they crash into powder, or did the shards of stone propel to the  ground, like medieval shrapnel?

Kenilworth castle was born with the Saxon kings as a fortress of timber, but it grew a body of rock after the Norman Conquest.  Shortly after 1066 it was built into a massive sprawl of stone, with clutches of towers and a varied skyline of keeps, bastions, arches – all held within the stony embrace of a curtain wall.  The largest ruin in England once cut into the soft hillside of Warwickshire like a granite axe.

Kenilworth was a licensed tournament ground, engaged in arranged wars barely contained within the walls of the courtyard, threatening to burst onto the grounds beyond and tumble into the lake, the 'Great Mere' which made an island of this complex of boldness and insolence.  Not until the 16th century would the tournament become a controlled confrontation between two knights wearing armor of embroidered steel, with their ladies' handkerchiefs tucked inside their metal gloves.

Three hundred years earlier, in 1266, they had a chance to play for real.  The barons of England were unkept, ignorant, crude and violent.  Yet by some accident of heredity they were also dangerously powerful, owners of vast acreages of land far greener than would ever be seen again.  And yet they felt aggrieved.

The policies of King Henry III – his Crusades, his campaigns against enemies across the border and across the sea – were putting a dent in their purses and their inescapable egos.  And now they demanded payback.  Named rebels by royal edict, the barons took refuge within Kenilworth's brick halls.  They watched through arrow slits, bristling with arms and hurt pride.  Perhaps the cold walls cooled the pretensions of one or two.  And then they might have realized that they were trapped.

The siege began on May 24.  Siege engines with names like mangonels, onagers, trebuchets, 'machinis et tormentis jaculatoris' and 'turres ligneas' were used by both sides, hurling projectiles that found their mark, or – like those boulders I read about so long ago – met harmlessly overhead, spending their force and velocity on each other.

Wooden siege towers, hinged with metal, swathed in animal skins, were monstrous – containing arches and trebuchets, pushed slowly on creaking wheels, casting shadows across the besieged, they must have appeared like the devil's creation, bursting through the earth to cry havoc on them.

Some rebels were able to escape by swimming across The Great Mere.  Many were captured – the leaders were given a rebel's execution, and pieces of their bodies were displayed across the country. 

The siege of Kenilworth was the longest in English history, lasting nearly a year.  But it was not won by courage, or strengh, or military acumen.  The castle keep and courtyard was choked with filth and death.  Disease will always be the hand that closes the gate on war. 

Kenilworth is now an impressive ruin.  Tall and shattered, its thick walls are split open, revealing layers of brick which from a distance look as delicate as layers of pastry.  It receives many visitors each year, and one day I hope to be one of them.  And I'll try to ignore the parking lot by the drawbridge. 

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Let Belle’s Freedom Ring

I was browsing through Realm Magazine not long ago – I enjoy reading it, especially now:  it thrills to all things English, and there's nothing like reading about a cool place during these murderous hot months.

Anyway, on one of its pages I saw this painting.  It was most unexpected.  Clearly from the 18th century, it portrayed two girls, one coy and dark, the other demure and white – yet both were portrayed on equal terms, as if they were friends, or sisters.  What could it mean?

So, as I clearly had nothing else pressing to do – nothing more, apparently, than reading about a place I won't be visiting for many years – I thought I would learn something.  Nothing to forward a career, nothing to save money, nothing to clean my apartment – just knowledge, spurred by interest and curiosity.

Here's the story:

In the early 1760's Admiral John Lindsay had risen high in the British Royal Navy.  His connections were good - his uncle was the Earl of Mansfield:  a powerful and feared judge and member of the House of Lords.

But he also had one thing that did not quite fit into the equation:  an illegitimate daughter.  No one is quite sure of her lineage, but it is said that Lindsay's men captured a Spanish ship, where he found a beautiful black slave.  The ship was his – and so were all its chattels:  so he took her as his mistress.  After the child's birth, she was never heard of again.

Lindsay could not raise a child.  Unwanted, a mulatto, he no doubt believed that her presence would only embarrass him.  Even though she grew up to be as beautiful as her mother.

She was named Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Eventually she was sent to live with the Earl of Mansfield's family at Kenwood House – flat, porticoed, dignified, fragrant with an orangery close by and the woods of Hampstead Heath in the distance.

When she arrived she already had a cousin ready made:  Lady Elizabeth Lindsay, who was about her age.  She became her playmate, and grew up to be her companion - but never her maid. 

Dido was treated with a respect she would not receive in many 18th century homes.  Her adopted father taught her to read and write; her room gleamed with mahogany furniture and her bed was hung with lustrous glazed chintz.

But although she was loved by this extraordinary family, her gratitude must have been tempered with the pangs of resentment:  her allowance was less than a third of Elizabeth's.  She never ate with her relations, especially when they had company; but she would join the ladies for after dinner coffee – an exotic guest for what was then still considered an exotic treat.

In 1779, a somewhat disgruntled guest commented:

"A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after…walked with the company in teh gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other…He (Lord Mansfield) calls her Dido, which I supose is all the name she has.  He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her…" 

That same year Johann Zoffany, a painter whose atmospheric portraits were popular with the mannered classes, painted the provocative and exquisite picture which caught my eye:

                                                                         

The two nieces are placed close to each other: Dido is not pushed into the background; she is not a decoration, she is not a playful savage without thoughts or a personality of her own.  Elizabeth is pale, patrician, holding an open book (perhaps the sole indicator of her status) but she has a slight, gentle smile which is affectionate and maybe just a little patient – just the way an older sister should look.  Her arm is extended – not to point, or to indicate possession or a command:  it rests tenderly on Dido's elbow.

Both girls are dressed in silks and pearls – but Dido is also pointing towards herself:  her finger rests on her cheek, whether to draw the viewer's attention to her provoking smile, her dimples, her skin color…no one can say.

Some years earlier, in 1772, Dido's guardian was involved in a remarkable judgement.  A case was brought before Lord Mansfield, by a Negro slave against his Scottish master.  Mansfield's family arrangements were weel-known, and there was uncharitable speculation.

"No doubt he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family."

And indeed the judgment was in favor of the slave.  The verdict was profound, confirming the illegality of slavery in Britain, and eventually leading to the emancipation of some 14,000 slaves.  Realizing the importance of what he had done, Mansfield remarked, "Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall."

Now, it is doubtful that a nine-year old could influence a judge About His Business, but the love he felt for a child who deserved better treatment than the laws of England allowed very well might have.

Could Dido Elizabeth Belle have really influenced one of the most important judgements in British legal history?  Look at the portrait – perhaps the answer can only be found in her mocking eyes.

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Hearts Of Stone

"I know of a place where we can go where we please; and live like gypsies."

This quote was taken from the mini-series "The Buccaneers".  It's only partially remembered and possibly entirely made up, like the novel this series was based on (Edith Wharton died before the novel was even half completed). 

However. These words were uttered in a placating whisper by the governess Miss Testvalley to her impatient and impetuous charge, Nan St. George.

And where did they go?  To a castle.

I remember the following scene:  Nan running across bridges – her white skirts escaping behind her – dashing up towers, gasping over turrets, loving every brick of every shattered wall, every savaged battlement, every crumbling crenellation.  Her arms were outstretched, as if she wanted to embrace every inch of architecture, every ghost of every past inhabitant.

But you can't.  Atlas can straddle worlds, but can you envelop lives…history?

I know the way Nan felt.  I've known those emotions – dazed by the sheer beauty of ravaged walls, of dark and still silhouettes.  I love castles.  I study them. I learn them.  I climb them. I know them.  I feel for them – during the 'slighting' of all defensive fortresses after the English civil war, when Cromwell ordered that they be shot and dented and made useless for any escaped Royalist…their solid and statuesque beauty was pocked with cannot shot.

But I love their ruins too – they aren't ugly; nor are they eyesores.  I find their shattered outlines fascinating and graceful.  I've seen their stray turrets, their isolated, incomplete walls set in the green hillsides like jewels.  I can draw them by heart.  Because they're already there.

Now, it's Aubrey's rule that she must walk to the very top of every castle she visits.  I've nearly slipped and broke my neck on the rounded stairs of Caernarfon Castle, trying to execute this edict.  I've got lost in Dover Castle (such sublime confusion!).  I climbed the 180 steps to Tintagel Castle, wheezing in the sea air and Arthurian legend.

I've gazed through arrow slits, imagining my aim.  I've peeked through acres of battlements, nearly swept over them by the winds crouching and waiting at the tower's very tops.

I've visited Beaumaris Castle, one of Edward I's handful of perfect fortresses (Caerphilly, Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon) built on the English border to keep a stony eye on a temperamental Welsh population.

I've climbed the stairs of the keep of Rochester Castle – the tallest in Britain (125 feet).  I've always enjoyed its baleful 'windows', which stare at me like massive blinded eyes.

I've come close to history:  I roamed the inner courtyard of Framlingham Castle.  In 1553 Mary Tudor gathered her loyal troops there – Edward VI had just died, and she needed to escape London, which had been taken over by the traitors who had forced the Lady Jane Grey to marry Guildford Dudley.  Pathethic Jane had been proclaimed Queen, against her will, against statute and every law of royal inheritance.  I was walking where the future Bloody Mary had paced:  deep-voiced, determined, bitter, equally pathetic.

I've been overwhelmed by the past, by former lives pressing close as I walked through centuries-old hallways.  How can the vanished become so real?  I've been moved by cold walls and crumbling brick.  How can a deserted pile of stone inspire a heart?  

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