Tag Archives: history

The King’s Noble Stomacke

Youth is an envied commodity, it seems.  Look how jealously it is held on to; how desperately it is pursued…how the grasping fingerprints still show on its soft skin.

This wasn’t always the case.  Photographs and portraits provide galleries of children and teenagers dressed as adults – diminutive and unprepared. Frog-like, they have blithely leapt over their childhood; landing instead in a marketplace built out of society’s expectations.

History has long portrayed these defeated children.  Crinolines, hoops and farthingales trying in vain to balance on undeveloped hips.  Greatcoats that are too great, after all.  Tiny silk slippers and tight polished boots.  Corsets that punish soft bones:  their crossed laces creating a pattern of misery on thin backs.  We see the faces of distant youth, impervious and set:   profiles of extinguished rebellion.

What hope was there for the mutinous child?  What prospect was there for the young adult brave enough to be witty – that volatile combination of audacity and intelligence?

In 1538 Christina of Denmark was 17 years old and already a widow – she had been wearing her smothering ‘weeds’ for two years.  The Duke of Milan had proposed marriage to her when she was only eleven – her guardian, Charles V, not only agreed to the match but also to its immediate consummation.  His sister, Mary of Hungary – a strong and moral woman – was able to delay the wedding until Christina was thirteen.

In 1533, a portrait was done of the bride-to-be, no doubt to be rushed to the groom before the paint had completely dried.  Christina is seen in a three-quarter profile, taking advantage of her curving brow, the soft landscape of her neck and mouth.  She is dressed in a gown of quiet midnight; her hair scraped from view beneath her cap – no madcap tresses, no scintillating curls to tickle the skin unbidden.  She is shown reading a book – an obvious symbol of her careful education – yet it seems that at any moment the charming, red mouth will flutter into a smile and the lids rise to reveal eyes full of childish confidences.  She has been carefully posed, yet she has the attitude of a mischievous Madonna.

A Wise Child

Five years later, another portrait of Christina was painted.  Henry VIII had been on a marriage hiatus for almost a year and needed a new wife.  His third wife, Jane Seymour had done the unexpected – given birth to a male heir – but had also done the expected, dying as a result of her three days of labor.

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Christina reveals a face of barely subdued dimples, of restrained amusement.  She is wearing black, standing in a shadowy room:  her white hands bloom against the dark like soft flowers.

The Merry Widow

In her eyes there is a demure twinkle; a cleverness that kept her informed of events happening beyond her realm. And it is with that same spark that she commented to the English ambassador:  “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”  The ambassador, Thomas Wriothesley, no doubt thinking the outspoken girl deserved a good beating, commented to the King’s minister that their master should; “fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”

Christina is an example of the extraordinary child – the spirit that would battle her way into adulthood on her own terms.  In any century, there was hope for the honest child, the strong woman.  But that hope was rare, a prickly star few could hold on to.  But for the majority, there were only vanquished dreams, and a life to be spent staring into the starry sky.


Travel With Me

Towards the end of this last, lamented year – really, it never did have a chance – I had the sudden urge to leave.  But perhaps that is the wrong word, with its sense of finality and closed doors – rather, I wanted to escape.  Leave is of the body; escape is a talent of the mind.   

I had grown weary of modern things, and the contemporary world outside.  I suddenly felt bookish and secretive, as if I wanted to hold lives in my hands, watching them their chapters unfold between two covers.  I wanted a vision that was distant. I wanted to dip my toe into centuries that weren’t mine and look into the stories beneath the ripples, and listen to them lapping on unseen shores.

Libraries to me always seemed to be in an eternal dusk, where a dark sun insinuated itself down aisles that towered with promises and ideas.  I had hoped to live in that soft atmosphere, flush with silence and understanding.  And I wish I was there now.

Modernity is everywhere, and I tire of it.  Metal-bound and fast, it has consumed too much; demanded – and received – too many years.  I need to escape, but not physically.  My imagination, on the other hand, yearns to investigate time and distance:  to touch the glow that simmers beneath strange horizons.  I can feel that tempting heat now, and I want to follow it.

There are lives so distant, so buried, that it is hard to believe that they were ever blessed with existence.  Their breath has long since evaporated, but their aged molecules still wreath about our heads like ghostly crowns.  Their bones have long since fossilized into a sediment lively with the residue of spent lives – and their footsteps have cultivated the earth, making it into a sunken garden of past journeys.

Dark Country

I would like to see them alive again.  I want to see their centuries blossom like forgotten countrysides becoming fertile once more under a nurturing and understanding attention.  I wish I could walk through that landscape, feeling the green contour of the grasses on my fingers.  If I could be there, I would sense the lush atmosphere of history like a velvety perfume….it would sink into my skin with all the permanence of memory.   Realities that were not my own would assume shape.   I would step into the sudden dimensions like a traveler, warmed by foreign suns, shadowed by antiquity, aglow with the magic of unknown lives. 

 And it’s there that I would escape.  Who wants to come with me?

A Cat May Look At A King

“A cat may look at a king,” said Alice. “I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where.”

“Can ye judge a man, (quoth I), by his looking?
What, a cat may look on a king, ye know!”   –  John Heywood, 1562

“A cat may look at a king.”  I’ve always felt a fey attraction towards the saying.  It has the sound of a distant conversation – an interesting one, surely, about the worthiness of certain animals – that ends with an obvious explanation:  that a cat is fit to be in the presence of royalty.  Evocative and remote, it is a gift of thoughts, one linking to the other, until it ends with the vision of a feline silhouette, gazing with disdain at a pair of velvet slippers, an ermine cloak, and a crown of many towers.  The cat stares with contempt at the golden circlet, at the jewels that cannot match the unblinking prisms, the faceted, undefined colors that recline in its eyes.

To me this saying has nothing to do with society, with the classes, with equality or the lack of it – the messy feelings of humanity do not enter into it at all.  The meaning of the saying is simple:  a cat will do any damned thing it pleases. 

A few months ago, a couple moved into the recently vacated house next to my parents’.  They brought with them two large, loud and curly dogs.  And a cat.  He is black and white, and is named Sylvester.  The first time we noticed him was when we saw him trotting behind his owners and the dogs – the family taking a walk in the late summer twilight.  

One of his owners is allergic to cats, so obviously Sylvester does not get the attention he deserves.  But all he has to do is go next door, where he is guaranteed attention from a minimum of two people (parents) and a maximum of four people (add Aubrey and Boyfriend, on weekends).  Petting must be constant; once it ceases he will stop purring and give the offending party a look of questioning disgust.

In Search Of Intelligent Life

Sylvester gives one gentle and genteel head butts, he does not scratch.  He circles the sidewalk, searching for a softness in the concrete – for the slightest indentation that will cradle his body comfortably.  On finding that spot, he will settle down with a silent sigh of approval.

Nothing Beats A Brick

But he is infatuated with my parents’ house.  When the door is open but a sliver, he will slip in like a knife.  When no one is at home, he will wait – patient and annoyed – until my parents return, hoping that they will feel sufficiently guilty. 

This irresistible house, built in the 1920’s, is full of scents:  ghosts of past generations that rise to greet an inquisitive and appreciative cat.  Sylvester curls around corners, shadows the hallways, drifts lovingly amongst tables.  Motionless as he prowls, he reviews each room, carried by quiet muscles that flow like silk and water.  A history of danger reduced into domesticity, he is still capable of finding – and conquering – his own jungles.

I Know - They Don't Feed Me Either


Home Away From Home

Sylvester stalks the property line as he once stalked the Egyptian afterlife; he sleeps in my parents’ garage as he once did on Mohammed’s coat:  confident he would remain undisturbed.  He scratches my mother’s $800 wicker chair with a ferocity that is now confined and tamed – yet which still is a piercing joy to his feline blood.  He does these things because it is his choice, because he once, long ago, dared to look a king into his eyes, and so was granted his inalienable rights.

Cat vs. Crown Stare-Down

Bookish Children

I own a lot of clothes.  I own a lot – A LOT – of jewellery.  I own a lot of shoes.  Hats.  Scarves.  Gloves.  If it can be used to adorn my poor self, then I own a lot of it.  Really, there are so many pretty things in the world – I need them all. 

But these collections are not permanent.  Evanescent compilations of uselessness, maybe, but at some point they were so desirable.  Periodically they will prey victim to an onslaught of tidying and clearing out.  This slimming down doesn’t last long, because I eventually do go shopping again (all the pretty things!)…but for a while it looks nice.  The point is that it rarely stings when I part with these items.  Many I haven’t worn in years – some I’ve lost sight of for years.  But whether they haven’t been worn enough, or have been worn out – out they go. 

But I also have a lot of books – and that is different.  I don’t tire of books.  They don’t become less attractive, less charming, less important.  If I forget I have Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians’…how delightful to suddenly come across it once more!  If I noticed that my copy of “The Annotated Alice” is falling apart, do I throw it out?  Certainly not:  books, Velveteen Rabbit-like, show the love they have earned by their shattered and torn appearance.  Some tape and a few rubber-bands and all is serene.

So.  I have a lot of books.  And I intend to keep them all.  Parting with them would be like parting with a child.  All those hopes of storied adventures…where did they go?  Therefore, I try to control my book-buying tendencies.

But last Saturday – against all better judgement – I went to a local bookstore.  I spent 1 1/2 hours there and bought the following:

“Unknown Lands – The Log Books of the Great Explorers” by Francois Bellec (No one should pass any book by with the words ‘unknown lands’ in its title.  The author’s name is pretty dashing, too.)

“The Guns of August” – by Barbara W. Tuchman (She is a sublime historian, approaching her subject with facts and humanity. This book should be delicious.)

“And Even Now” – by (the incomparable) Max Beerbohm (This is a selection of fleeting, delightful essays. The first one was a thesis speculating on the history of a broken fan he found in his portmanteau. A fan! A portmanteau!)

I Shouldn't Have

I could have purchased more:

“A Handful of Dust” – by Evelyn Waugh (the dialogue was snobbish and British and wonderful…but for some reason I held back.   At some point I will buy this one)

“The Parisian Prowler” – by Charles Baudelaire (Originally, “Le Spleen de Paris”.   There were two translations available – both quite different. So I got confused and put both books back. Damn!)

“The Handbook for Conscientious Objectors” (Published in 1968; so this was for the objector to the Vietnam war. But I would have bought this for decoration, not education. Didn’t feel right.)

So that was my rake’s progress through this shop…and my family of books will ever be on the increase.  But whether I’m visiting them for the first time, or stopping by after a long hiatus – all my bookish children are content to wait – as am I.

The Architecture of History

Every medieval city had its castle – a dense shadow with pennants bearing complex ancestries and windows shaped like black crosses.  Yet at the same time these cities distanced themselves from such symbols with cathedrals.  Reaching high enough to touch the throne of God, built on such a scale that buttresses were needed to hold up man’s holy ambition – they proclaimed a population’s declaration of worthiness and hope for salvation.

The Cathedral of Siena is a 13th century design of pinnacles and portals, of lunettes rising over pediments;  carved with Gothic mysteries and biblical fears and promises.  Granite philosophers, apostles and gargoyles observed from carved recesses the developing city below them; the peculiar route of history it would take.

Beauty and the Bible

According to legend, Siena was founded by Remus’ sons, Senius and Aschius.  When they left Rome, they rode horses that thundered through myth and across the dry plains of central Italy.  The symbolic colors of the city were taken from the flanks of their horses – one black and one white – and are seen on the marble flanks of the cathedral.

By 1263 construction on this monument to belief and legend was finished.  A countryside of domes, towers and columns had finally come together in a Gothic wish for earthly deliverance.  In 1339 further building was planned, which was to begin in 1348.  But it didn’t.  All that remains is a striped shell; there is no ceiling to be carved and gilded;  the windows were not blessed with stained glass:  there were no  miraculous births of colored light.

Siena But Not Heard

1348 was the year of the plague, the Black Death.  What began as a rumor of pestilence fouling the silk and spice routes of China, Lepanto and Egypt, became reality as trade ships came to port in Europe, bearing caches of a ferocious invader.  No one blamed the rats living in the dark corners of the ships.  No one blamed the streets streaming with filth.  They blamed the devil, sowing disease across Europe like an awful crop.  They blamed an angry God, not impressed with their cathedrals.  They blamed the sins of man.  They blamed the Jews.

Siena Cathedral was never finished.  But do the microbes continue to live – taking sanctuary in a web of breathing spaces within the marble?  Are they suspended, caught like tiny dinosaurs in amber?  Do they circulate within the architecture, worlds of bacteria that had changed man’s world – his way of living?   Is it suitable imprisonment – or is it life – or is it proof of  a terrifying history?

The Cat’s Memories

I am always looking for cats.  Seeing one is like witnessing the materialization of Egyptian worship - surrounded by incense and bare feet, carved into golden delicacies and marble scarabs.  A sleepy deity tightly groomed and insulted by collar and tag, it now scowls at me with an ancient disgust.

The other day I saw such a cat, sitting at a window that was dim and greasy enough to hold a city's fingerprint, its dirty and unbecoming DNA.  The frame was beaten with the fist of gusty weather – splintered by seasonal, prying fingers.  Curled like an icon, it lay on a poor, inefficient throne:  a threadbare couch that was the color of sickness -  bilious and jaundiced.

The morning was confused that day, with a sky that was noncommittal and unfocused.  But in a moment of clarity, light pounced at my discovery's throat, and quickly the tag glowed new and polished, like a stolen doubloon.  And amongst the ghosts that tangled in the atmosphere, brigands on their ships appeared to regain their treasure.  But when they saw the neck from where it so audaciously hung, they paused…then disappeared as the waterly light slipped away.

So, having stared down one enemy, the cat faced me, another inferior heat source.  Bored with its dreams, I was no improvement.  Its eyes were an amber judgement of discontent.

Perhaps it is a memory that all cats hold inside them that causes this frustration.  It was a memory of distant fiefdoms and foreign names whispered in devout incantations.  It was the knowledge that its ancestors were cradled by gods like exalted children; hunters destined to live forever inside pharoahs' tombs.  And the knowledge that it now lived on common ground, watching spirits through dirty windows, crouched on a sickly bed, shamed by the "To Rent" sign on the front lawn.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

A Long Time Ago, There Was A Time

There was a time when castles were painted white:  pale warnings set in the world's wildest places.  Their floors were carpets of rushes whose starry flowers blossomed in vain against the sour smell of garbage and unwashed bodies.  There was a time when forks were considered effete and kings ate with their hands.  There was a time when ladies plucked their hairlines and men dyed their beards purple.  There was a time when a tournament was a graceless clash of up to 3,000 knights fitted into massive saddles draped with heraldic tapestries.  There was a time when a life could end with a simple sword thrust or the complications from a pin prick:  a time of violence and filth.  Blood and disease flourished in the gutters.

There was a time when people lived in shacks – airless and dark.  There was a time when light's invisible molecules pierced cathedral windows that arched into heaven and were spliced into fierce primaries:  blue, red and yellow.  The columns of color blessed the shadowy naves and transepts, the architectural crucifix.  There was a time of rags and of mud.  But it was a time of gold:  it dripped into embroideries, it was hammered into walls that writhed with alchemic life.  A knight's helmet could sprout antlers, grow branches, or cradle a falcon:  all golden symbols of his brutal ancestry.  There was a time when fear held men by the throat.

Yet it was also a time for books – spared from society's barbarism.  Before the firt printing presses began to smear and creak, manuscripts were illustrated by hand – 'illuminated'.  Decoration and calligraphy merged to birth tiny worlds of zoology and humanity that swirled like painted galaxies on skies of vellum and parchment.  A living filigree of crimson dragons, twisted vines, flowers, birds, ships, animals that drooled and glowered, twittering insects:  a hallucinogenic pattern that wove between letters and reclined within margins:  buzzing and rustling.

Within a single letter, a ship will balance on a triad of moss-colored waves while below, the gray shadows of dolphins and whales balanced between air and water.  Or, beneath a canopy dotted with fleur-de-lis, a king sits at a banquet, choosing from the plattes held up by his cowering servants.  Beasts and monsters were curled and cramped inside their etymological cages. 

Sometimes the letters sprouted leaves, serpent's heads that barked and spat, or faces with dark, Byzantine eyes.  Once the pen completed its essential outline of the initial, it lept from the artisan's fist, erupting into a madness of pointillism and populations.  Colors that were crushed out of berries, insects and herbs spilled into angles and curves that twisted into endless highways across the map of a single page.

There was a time when Art held a handkerchief to her nose to walk amongst the fog of humanity and stand at its shoulder.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

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."

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Making A Fe-Line To The Past

The world is full of ideal pairings.  Lord Peter Wimsey and Mervyn Bunter.  Nick and Nora Charles.  Sunsets and silhouettes.  Sage and Gold.  Pearls and onyx.  Moon And Sixpence.  Cheese and more cheese.  I had imagined that I could think of them all.

However, years, ago, I was in a bookstore in London – and if anything good is going to occur to you, the odds are that it will happen in a bookstore.  And if you are in a bookstore in London, well, those odds are overwhelming.  Something was bound to happen.

Wel, what happened was that I came upon THE ideal pairing.  So sublime, so perfect, that just thinking of it makes me imagine a world where the sun is perpetually setting, where the rays are always lengthy and golden, where the landscape is noble and the air is purring. 

Castle Cats
Richard Surman

Castles.  Cats.  One rules the horizon, the other rules the home.

So what attracts a compact body of fur to a vast expanse of stone?

Well, surely it is the people who are in residence, their generous hearts laying down the drawbridge for pink-padded paws to cross.  The kitchens ae warm, the chairs are plush and thickly upholstered, huge stone fireplaces flare in a medieval blaze:  what cat wouldn't feel worthy, and right, in surroundings like these?  And as castles are usually embraced by towns, and as towns are inevitably warmed by public houses – well, a cat might feel inclined to roam a little, too.  A look of yearing in green or amber eyes, a plaintive meow:  and a waitress or pubman might relent and part with a wedge of kidney pie, a slice of roast beef, a sausage or two.  Perhaps for the evening the cat will curl in a corner and sleep, cozy in its homely nest – its ears full of the clinking of glasses, the scent of earthy, simple cooking swirling about its nostrils.

But in the morning the cats will return to their towering, granite homes.  Why?  Breakfast, surely.  But could there be a more subtle influence at work?

The premise of the book is delightful:  20 chapters – a few pages each – of castles and their whiskered tenants.  Each entry is full of photos:  dark and evocative (Smudge crouches, herald-like, on the rocks of St. Michael's Mount), bright and comfortable (Ginger meows in the sun at Bunratty Castle).  With castles on one hand, and cats on the other, this book is one strong and marvelous handclasp.

Through the pages cats are trotting down steps that are smooth and rounded with centuries of human steps, shod in colored fabric, leather or chain mail.  What draws those felines there?  Do they hear those steps?  Are they following their paths?  Do they sense assignations – war – barefoot servants too?

Cats peer through battlements.  Their eyes glow in the broken spaces.  Do they feel the anxiety of a soldier, long dead, looking beyond these stone teeth, across the borders, to see approaching armies:  the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh? 

Or when they fit themselves neatly inside an arrow slit:  can they hear the winding of the crossbow?  Can they feel the arrow bite through the air?  Can they see the banners below, with their signs and symbols – held high, or grasped in the hands of corpses, shredding in the wind?

Some cats prefer the gardens, the whitewashed statuary – they sleep at the bases of balustrades, or by the feet of vases, carved with swags of concrete foilage.  Maybe they dream of the gatherings that were once held there…dresses no longer of sweeping medieval cloth, but rigid with whalebone and petticoats, decorated with Elizabethan stiffness or Rococo madness.  Perhaps their ears twitch as they listen in on distant conversations:  about executions, Armadas and revolutions.  Or they hear the thunder of hooves as horses and riders disappear into the forest for an idyll of bloody and most unfair sport.

This book shows cats of any and all description peering around corners, hiding behind gates, snug behind crenellations, walking down flagged paths…all attracted to these historical surroundings for the open-door policies of nearby kitchens, yes, but I would like to think that they also come to these castles for the sounds, voices and visions of long ago, for the inescapable life that still surrounds these places.

And that is why I'm drawn to these places, too. 

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

QotD: Take Me Away – It’s All In Your Mind

Where do you go to get away from it all? 
Submitted by Hops.  

Get away from it all?  Everything?  Well, that would involve complete oblivion – sleep, or maybe something darker.

Now, if today's question is edging towards escapism – a state of mind wholly desireable, totally unrealistic and one proven to be unhealthy (like any vacation, departure is a pleasure, but the return trip is a grim pain, with more rocky landings then I care to recount) – well, if I can't be here:

And if I can't see this:

I would most certainly escape into history.

History is a comfort.  You are reading and learning about people that died away centuries ago.  And yet, in the hearts of the readers and the minds of the teachers, they live on.

History is sights, smells, textures and events that you can only imagine.  And there's the escape:  your mind.  History's facts are caught fast in your imagination, like flies in amber.

Peering through the eyes of people shimmering through history's fabric, shouldering their feelings, placing your feet in the mud of their battlefields, in the dust of their unpaved roads…you're experiencing something that is a chronological impossibility.  And there's the rub.  And that's the escape.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend