Tag Archives: queens

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.



Queens of the Night

The ladies who preen in the darkness, who let the evening sift through their fingers like gilded sand are of a singular beauty. They hide in the sky, their eyes reflecting the graceful planets, and watch the constellations pirouette beneath them.

All art mirrors this distant femininity.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, written in the late 12th century, is an intoxicating voyage of words that gleam like the claws of a cat.  Its quatrains are full of earthly visions – the sky’s soft breath scintillating the tall grasses…the sultan’s palace shining through a dawn that burns like melted jewels. They roam throughout the profane country, and reach towards the sacred skies.

“Earth could not answer: nor the seas that mourn/In flowering Purple, of their Lord forlorn;/Nor heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal’d/And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn”

Edmund Dulac illustrated The Rubaiyat in 1909.  His vision of Night was of a queen that sleeps like a marble effigy, her skin polished and cold.  Her weariness is so intense, yet tender, that she can float throughout countless galaxies without dislodging a single, spinning planet.

Stars rest on her gown like butterflies, and glow in the heavens that sing the gentle monarch to sleep.  Night’s hem tangles in clouds and extends over horizons where it is turned bronze and gold by the sun, smoldering beneath the horizon.  Before her twilight disappears in the heat, the queen impatiently draws up the errant fabric and wraps it around her delicate, decorated feet.

Sleeping Stars

Centuries earlier, another Queen of the Night had appeared.  She wore a robe of stars that pierced her flesh, and a malevolent crown that towered like a black cathedral.  She was bound in swaths of twilight torn from the sky, with a train of subservient constellations trailing after her. She did not only rule the heavens, but cursed them as well, her angry gestures splitting the clouds into lightening, as a master jeweler would cleave a diamond.

Mozart’s creation was vindictive and ruthless, her voice disrupting the twelve signs that glittered about her in astrological contentment.    Her ferocity is expressed in a stairway of octaves, in the key of D:

“Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the creative world was poised on the cusp of modern art while still wrapped in the tendrils of Art Nouveau.  During this graceful and confused time, Leon Bakst designed a costume for the Queen of the Night.  His illustration was dainty and white, pierced with lightning rods like an ethereal St. Sebastian.  Panniers of stars balanced at her hips and fountains of light burst from her shoulders like wings.   The scent of pale flowers – those that blossomed only at night – touched her face and stroked her tinted hair.

Decoration From The Sky

This design was to be worn by another Queen of the Night.

The Marchesa Luisa Casati writhed throughout the twilight, harvesting symbols of the occult and astrology from their shadowy fields.  Her fingernails were painted with incense.  She wore pearl necklaces around her child-like waist and snakes – arching obediently – around her neck.  As with all nocturnal animals, her eyes were enormous, and like jungles they glittered with mystery and a frightening, verdant life.

During the day Luisa rested in chambers dressed in black, purring velvet.  She lay on marble floors that ran with streams of black oxide.  During the night, however, she was Queen.  And in 1922, she wore Bakst’s gown.

Mozart’s Marchesa

To those who saw her, she was exotic and lunar, wearing silver tissue and diamante as thin as the sky’s dark and sparkling skin.  Magic prowled in her feline eyes, waiting for the first lurid shimmer of dawn, when they would close once more.

For millennia night has revolved on its axis of hours, on its allotment of time as ruler of the sky.  Its beauties lie within the maelstrom of galaxies spinning like whirlpools; in the darkness that is pierced with a tapestry of planets.  But another beauty also sleeps there.  Should she wake, the stars will tumble from their clouds.   And should she step onto the earth, she would do so as delicately as a mermaid taking her first steps on land.

But before her time is up, she will have returned to her galaxies and tapestries.  And before dawn has denounced her rule, she will be asleep once again in her starry veil of tears.

“Our Lady Cannot Govern”

Although born to proud and devious parents, none of her portraits beheld a lady of any haughtiness – there was no richness, none of the sumptuary honor which only a royal child could wear.  Instead, her eyes were shadowed with religion and the various arts of an heiress.  Her face was as round, as meek, and as pale as a saucer of milk.  And in time that milk would sour:  for history – with all the cruelty of the schoolyard – would always know her as "Juana La Loca."

What lurked beneath that white modesty?  What monsters in her DNA traveled down a weakened ancestry, down broken and diseased stairs?  Did sickness and incest weave through her lineage, a worm eating at a threadbare tapestry?

But maybe the myriad condemnations of birth weren't to blame – and names could be given to the people who drove Juana, the trained Iberian Infanta, to despair.

In 1496, when she was 16, Juana married Philip, the Duke of Burgundy.  Her flaxen, Flemish husband was called "The Handsome" – and although only a teenager like his bride, there was already a cruel seduction in his lush mouth and swollen eyes.

Juana had to accept the courtly abuses inflicted upon a woman born into royalty:  infidelity, political resentment…a jealous husband.  Soon stories of her depression and neuroses – dark, invisible wings beating in her ears – began to circulate.  It was even said that she was  imprisoned by hyer husband – annoyed and embarrassed by such a petty annoyance as a wife in torment.

By 1506 Philip was dead.  But Juana would live for almost 50 years more.  Affairs of state coiled about her like snakes – a Medusa's head of government and greed.  When her mother, Isabella I of Castile, died, Juana became Queen, but found herself battling with both her husband and her father for control of that arid and medieval province.  Her father, Ferdinand II, convinced the Castilian Cortes to admit that Juana's "illness…is such that the said Queen Dona Juana our Lady cannot govern."

But she remained defiant – her thoughts cloudy and dim, a vague storm.  Juana would not sign the Cortes' demands, and for her courage was confined to the Santa Clara convent by her father.  All of her servants were dismissed.  She was alone, save for one person – she still kept her faithless husband's corpse with her.  It was 1509.

In 1516 her father was dead.  The following year, Castile went to Juana's son Charles I.  Officially it was his mother's, but a kingdom can't be given to a woman who is unable to change her own clothes.

Juana, raised on the rules of religion, the grace of languages and the gentility of her birthright, now found it difficult to eat, sleep or bathe.  She tasted poison in her food, felt it in her subconscious – her body was awash with it.  She even believed that the convent nuns wanted to kill her.  Charles confided in them, "It seems to me that the best and most suitable thing for you to do is to make sure that no person speaks with Her Majesty, for no good could come from it."

Juana died in 1555, at the age of 75.  She was still in her holy prison.  She had been betrayed by her father, her husband, her son…her heredity.  No good had come from it. 

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Asleep And Awake

I don't talk about my dreams very often; to do so would be like taking pictures of your children and showing them to a dubious audience.  So allow me to take out my wallet:

The night before last I dreamt I was in a small house – square, poor, undecorated.  It was located in the desert.  There were others with me and we were waiting for a tidal wave to sweep us from the dusty floor.  The thought of the great hand of the ocean rising above us in the middle of such a dry place didn't strike me as odd.

I peered outside.  There was no wave.  But there was the sky.  It was a sleepy blue, the type of melted watercolor that Parrish used as a backdrop for his maidens and Dulac used as a carpet for his queens to trod upon. 


It was as if liquid turquoise and lapis lazuli had poured down the face of the daytime sky, cooling it beneath its delicate, exquisite gradations.

Then I saw the wave:  a pale curl of water on the brow of the horizon.  So I closed the door and continued to wait.  In time the water slowing begain to pour into the house.  And then I woke up.  For some time I remembered that terrible wait and the semi-precious sky.

Much later, during my walk home from work, I thought of my dream again.  Now if I leave at 6PM, or even a little earlier, I stand a chance of seeing the light being subdued by the powerful twilight.  The memory of that confrontation lives on in colors that are rich and exotic.  The battlefield above me was strewn with banners of ruby, bronze, chilly cobalt, nectarine and ice.

I saw those colors in the sky.  I saw a string of brown clouds running like dirty children being called home.  And I had seen that sky before – during the night, with my eyes closed, the harvest of blue growing beyond nerves, bone and blood.  Asleep and awake I was held in its dusky embrace, awash in the blue glacier rain.

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Might I Have A Moment Of Your Time?

A while ago, Vox asked me if I would have preferred the past or the future as my living quarters.  I answered – as I recall quite verbosely – in favor of the past.  The question made me think of delicious mouthfuls of time I wanted to taste…but never biting off more that I could chew.

Anyway, that seemed to be that.

But I couldn't help thinking:  what about the minutes, the tiniest of seconds?  Is there a swiftly passing frame of the past I wish I could have stayed?  Something small, acting as a microcosm of something great – the droplet of water which suggests the storm?  I wouldn't want to be greedy and move my life into another's timeline…but what moment of history do I wish I'd have seen – as the classic fly on the wall, the face in the crowd?

Well, I do have a few requests:

January 15,1559.  London is cold and frosty, but the people line the street, their jostling feet turning the fallen snow into an unwieldy mush.  They lean from the windows of their homes.  Colorful banners and streamers of fabric are taut in the cold wind, brightening crooked, wooden houses – handmade and imperfect.

Everyone is waiting for the Princess.  Elizabeth Tudor, 25 years old, was riding in state – reclining inside a gold and silver litter which must have been shining like a beacon in the distance, its blaze cutting through the falling snow.  Elizabeth was on her way to Westminster Abbey, where she would be crowned Queen.

People who were there, writing their notes, their messages, their memoirs, commiting to memory an unforgettable sight, agree on the look and the behavior of the bronze-haired girl of that day.  She waved to the cheering people and thanked them for their good wishes.  Her face was wan, and her long hair lay unleased across her shoulders.  She wore a dress of thick gold brocade, a wreath of jewels and pearls, and heavy ermine coronation robes.

The people loved her:  their adulation was unrestrained and boisterous.  She represented youth, health and fertility – in a Queen this trifecta meant protection against their greatest fear, royalty without issue.  (Little did they know.)  She represented liberation from her predecessor, a close-minded, sad woman who would forever have the word 'Bloody' attached to her name.

One elderly man, with a voice strong enough to be heard by Princess and chroniclers alike, called out "Remember old King Harry the Eighth!"

Her face up to then had been pleasant, but stiff.  But at the man's joyful admonition, her face relaxed into a broad smile.  She would remember. 

The moments would be few, when she would let herself be so open, so seemingly approachable again. I would have liked to have seen that moment.

Fast forward to August 9, 1902.  This time it was a King who would be crowned in The Abbey:  Edward VII – large, ruddy and self-indulgent; but just as popular as the pale waif-like creature who had been crowned there nearly 500 years earlier.

He has been quoted as saying that the most memorable part of the glittering ceremony – weighed down with tradition as well as jewels – was when his wife, Alexandra, was crowned.  At the moment that the diadem was placed on her lovely and subdued head, all the peeresses in atttendance lifted their own tiaras to place on their heads:  repeating perhaps their own crowning glory.

Edward was entranced with the movement, ballet-like, of the hundreds of white arms "arching over their heads" as they raised then lowered their coronets, flashing with diamonds; he was in love with the sudden, sleek sound of rustling robes.  The act was imbued with historical significance:  each lady representing hundreds of years of landed wealth, but for that split second of grace they were beautiful as well.

The elegant symbolism must has been spellbinding.  I would have liked to have been there, just for that one brief synchronized, aristocratic, performance.

Now, before the coronation, the Marchioness of Londonderry had withdrawn to the peeresses' lavatory.  Stooping to adjust her train, she lost her massive tiara in the 'pan'.  The only way to retrieve it without damaging its layers of jewels was by using a gynecological forceps.  I doubt if such a thing would have been available 'in house' so some time must have passed before the instrument was delivered.

So…what did she do?  Would she have blushed?  Did she swear?  Shout?  Stamp her foot?  How would such a stately lady have expressed her embarrassment and frustration?  This type of thing really doesn't happen every day…yes, I would have liked to have been in on this, too.  Well, perhaps just waiting outside the door.

This is the Marchioness at the Devonshire House Ball in 1897, dressed as the Empress of Austria.  The offending tiara is the circlet forming the base of her crown.  Little did she suspect that in 5 years it would have to be fished out of the toilet with an instrument typically used for plumbing…an entirely different type of plumbing.

Studying history is like beachcombing.  No matter what you find – be it little or large; whole or fragmented; dull or colorful; old and faded or recently washed up…it's all real, it all played its part in a larger world.

And it should always be dusted off and taken home.

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