Tag Archives: france

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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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 Terrible Light

There are times when foolishness does not go unpunished.

Many centuries ago the courts of Europe were selfish and lunatic worlds.  They glowed furtively like jewels trampled into the dirt.  Crossed in silver and gold, diseased and pampered hearts amassed their culture, a purchase of eternity.  Greed - ready with its dagger of embroidered steel – hid behind curtains writhing with velvet forests and brocaded gardens.

These worlds glittered with an ugly and magnificent light.  Beauty grew unnaturally out of this darkness, like toadstools.  Tragedy and celebration merged to create a ragged coat of arms, entwined and symbolic.

In 1393 the Valois court in France was an imperfect jewel.  For all its finery, it nursed a single flaw:  its king, Charles VI, known as The Mad.  Doctors nowadays believe that he suffered from a bipolar disorder.  But what then?  Were demons cavorting behind his inofffensive face?  Was his blood different from others' – did it flow thick and turgid like a sickly river?  Was it the devil's trick to corrupt flesh that was so white and meek?

During this time, Charles' reasoning struggled like a trapped animal.  He believed that he was made of glass.  He did not recognize his children or his wife.  He was lost in a brilliant, clouded land; and yet it was his duty to rule a country.

It was in this year that his doctors recommended a program of amusements for him.  So when one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting married, a masquerade ball was given in her honor.  Ladies and gentlemen clad themselves in costumes of myth and falsehood, and the court became a sea of fishes that shimmered with absurdity.

A particular group of men were dressed as 'wild men' – a cross between man and woodland beast.  They wore "costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch…so they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot".  For safety's sake the lit torches were kept a distance away, but a stray, determined spark landed on one of the disguised satyrs.  Fire burst from their dishonest skins and panic – the chameleon of man's fear – adopted the colors of scarlet and black.  This grim incident became known as the Bal des Ardents ('Ball of the Burning Men').

 

One of these unfortunates had been following the Duchess of Berry in particular.  Now, she threw the train of her gown over him, smothering the vindictive fire.  And when she pulled back the melted tinsel and scorched jewels, she saw the blank, mad eyes of her king.  He stared at her pale, plucked face – looking like a star that had descended from the revolving galaxies and was now hovering over him.  He wondered who she was and what magic she possessed, that could douse the flames of Hell that had threatened him.  He wondered why she saved him from a life of darkness and judgement.

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