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The painter is unknown, but it is probable that the tiny subject is the Dauphine Louise-Louise, oldest daughter of Francis I.  In a time heavy with symbolism, little sense can be made of the work.  It is a portrait of a young girl, a child not yet grown out of her childish fat; the laces of her bodice strained across her chest.  The ribbon of her kerchief disappears beneath her chin – laces and ribbons trying to force a child into a woman’s shape.

Possibly this is a posthumous work, for the little girl died at the age of two, convulsing uncontrollably in front of her dismayed parents and doctors.  This would explain the background of funereal black, so unlike other children’s portraits from the 16th century:  no furniture, no books, no toys.  No memento mori symbols of a brief and risky life unfettered by hygiene; no baskets of fruit presenting the child as the fruit of a sacred union; no cat to symbolize lust or dog to imply loyalty.  There is nothing to soothe a little girl’s loneliness.

The only other object in the painting is in the girl’s hands.  It is a dead sparrow.  Death has loosened its muscles:  the beak gapes open, the neck extended, the wings limp.  This might be a thought for the vanity of life – all must die, including small birds – but the girl’s expression is not accepting, or knowledgeable, or serene as would be expected.  Instead, she is startled:  her blue eyes seem to pale with amazement.  The diminutive corners of her mouth twist downward.  Whomever this painter was, he or she has made a subtle and intuitive study of a child on the verge of tears.

She will cry out of grief and confusion.  She will cry because she does not understand why her beloved pet is so quiet and acquiescent, why its throat does not flutter with sound.  Its eyes are dull; the opaque lids have turned them away from her, far from her girlish affection.

The girl holds the sparrow in the gentle bowl of her hands, her fingers searching for the quick heartbeat, the thin, complex pulse of her little pet.  She holds the creature as gently as a hunting dog – retrieving its prey with its soft mouth; careful not to press with tooth or tongue the still surface of its broken prize.  Both are careful not to harm it, though it be dead.

Louise of France. Oldest daughter of Frances I and Claude of France. Died aged two, of convulsions. Engaged to Infante Charles of Castile from birth to death.


My Lady Carey

The 16th century was full of music, a packet of jewels that sparkled with a metallic radiance, their facets an alchemy of wonder and spliced colors.  Galliards, pavans, madrigals, motets, rondeaus, bergerettes…ethereal rhythms that decorated the foggy skin of history.

The exotic, feminine names say it all.  But there is one that stands outside this musical fairy ring:  dompe…a dour word, it means lament, or dirge.  It possibly comes from the French “tombeau” (lament), or the German “dumpf” (dull or dazed).  But ultimately its source is a mystery:  an etymological curiosity.  

Most of these laments have been forgotten.  But there is one, written in the mid 1520’s, famous enough to be included in the echelon of the very best of Renaissance minstrelsy.  It is called ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  Its tune is golden and complex – its threads twisting like the helix of a DNA.   Moving with Byzantine grace, it is a filigree that curls through the air.

So – what was Lady Carey’s lament?  In the shadows of the court, amidst perfume and dogs, pearls and plague…why did she grieve? She was bold, pretty and shallow.  She was given to pursuing pleasure using her dark eyes and charming stupidity as her weapons.  Her name was Mary.  And she collected kings.

In 1514, at the age of 15, she arrived at the French court as maid of honor to Mary Tudor – the future, and very unwilling, bride of King Louis XII (Louis was nearly four times her age; he died three months after their wedding).  Even though the Queen Dowager left for England shortly thereafter, Mary stayed in Paris and before 1519 became the mistress of Louis’ son, King Francis I.  Her voluptuous reputation was already established; Francis himself referred to her as an ‘English Mare’ and ‘infamous above all’.

My Lady

In 1519 she returned to England, as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon.  In 1520 she married Sir William Carey – handsome, athletic, a distinguished art collector. 


On that happy day they were proud to receive a special guest:  King Henry VIII.  In a year it was only she who was receiving King Henry – ever a victim to the type of girl who would flirt even on her own wedding day.

Their affair lasted five years, a hidden event full of whispered logistics and secret arrangements.  The two children born to her might have been her husband’s, they might have been future princes.  By 1526 she had lost the king’s affections to a darker, sharper girl:  her sister, Anne Boleyn.  Mary’s lazy charms had only created a man yearning for a quick wit.

And in 1526 an anonymous, sympathetic composer wrote ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  In her sloe-eyed, languid way, Mary accepted the intricate tune – so unsuited to the subject – as she took affection, gifts, her ill fame:  unthinking and willingly.

In 1527 she  became  sister to a Queen.  In 1528 she was a widow – ignored and in debt.

Mary married again in 1534 – to a soldier, William Stafford.  Anne was furious that her sister had chosen to marry without her permission, and beneath her station.  Her place on the throne was a shaky one, and she could not afford to be related to a commoner.  In two years Anne would be dead.

Disowned by her family, Mary’s financial situation became so desperate that she resorted to begging the King’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf.  What she told him could have been set to her own lament:  “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom.  And I believe verily…he would not forsake me to be a king.”

A Lost Spirit

She had a storybook prettiness which aroused a storybook sentimentality in a dissipated king – who had fathered three illegitimate children when still a teenager.  Her skin had a pearl's shine, the type of aristocratic pallor so admired by observers of beauty in the 16th century.  Her mouth promised a smile, like a bird that was about to alight on a tree.  Her hair was a rich henna, but the color was natural:  this child was already a flower, and had no need for another flower's stain.

Her body was frail, with slight, sloping shoulders.  She was weak; yet she glowed with the feverish health possessed by many whose lungs were ravaged by disease.  Yet though her bones cried out for flesh, her face was an oval, soft and full.  Perhaps nature took pity and chose for her a birthplace known for its soft air and green-scented breezes.  She was a gentle princess; her name was Madeleine de Valois and she was born in Paris.

The 1530's were the time of the great Renaissance kings – Henry VIII and Francis I, Madeleine's louche father, were two schoolboys competing on Europe's playground – whether the game was politics, building, war or a courtly parade on a Cloth of Gold.  But it wasn't long before a third king insinuated himself between them, hoping to drive a wedge between the two powers.  James V came from Scotland, a land swathed in fog, bordered with sharp, romantic coastlines – and he wanted to take the little princess, not yet 17, from her chateaus in the perfumed Loire Valley to this cold home.

The king of France was reluctant to let her go – his daughter needed warmth, mild winters, and clear skies to ease her tortured breathing:  how many silk handkerchiefs had she ruined with spots of blood after the bouts of savage coughing shuddered through her tiny frame?  She needed the velvet blankets and pretty baubles that would rise the spirits of a sickly girl.  A marriage to Scotland only promised cruel seasons and a woman's duty that would freeze the life out of her.  Francis, to his credit, stayed James' hand in marriage and spared the child.

But a king must marry.  James changed his attentions to Marie, the Duke of Guise's daughter – but as he courted her, he saw Madeleine once more and the sight of her winsome paleness turned him away from Marie's buxom health.  There is something about the sight of beauty about to expire that can kindle a feeling a love in the most unlikely of hearts.  James was consumed by the the delicate consumptive – he asked her father's permission once more.  The dowry was discussed.  Contracts were drawn up.  And her death warrant was signed when she knelt beside him in Notre Dame Cathedral on January 1, 1537.

She left for her new home in May.  Two months later she was dead – her torn lungs overwhelmed by the cold, by the clouds heavy with rain and running low over the country like gray wolves.  Did her lonely spirit find its way back to France, or did it become confounded by unfamiliar currents and become lost admidst the stars and planets over the North Sea?

As for James, he remarried the next year – to Marie de Guise.  In the fulness of time, she was a widow and and by then would be under consideration by Henry VIII to be his fourth wife.  He was a big man, he was heard to say, "I need a big wife."  Fortunately, history has made a note of her response:  "I may be big in stature, but I have a little neck." 

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