Monday, June 29, 2009

At Wolf Hall

Having recently finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, one of this last weekend’s small excitements was a visit to Wolf Hall, Wiltshire.

My images are two composites: aspects of the monument to Jane Seymour’s father John in the church at Great Bedwyn (moved there in 1590 by his grandson, the memorial states, from Eston Priory Church, which had by then fallen into ruins), along with a window there containing some armorial stained glass derived from the former Wolf Hall. Sir John lived to see his daughter Queen of England, but not to be a grandfather to a future King, dying a couple of months before his daughter’s pregnancy was announced. Of his sons, one became Lord Protector, and had to allow the execution of his brother Thomas, who had plotted to capture the young prince, and marry the young Elizabeth Tudor.

The other image comprises two views of the present day Wolf Hall itself, which seems perhaps to be an 18th century house with large Victorian accretions. The rear view is framed by a catalpa tree – and there is what seems to be an abandoned walled garden, as there should be in a lost domain like this. The original house of the Seymour family has vanished, though there are apparently brick lined tunnels running from the present buildings to where the old house stood. A 16th century house down the gently sloping valley side to what is now the Kennet and Avon Canal survives, and Henry VIII is supposed to have stayed there while on his first visit to Wolf Hall with Mantel’s hero, Thomas Cromwell, in 1535. Back then, the (Hampshire) River Avon rose close by the house, and flowed west into the Vale of Pewsey.

I talked with a couple of the tenants occupying parts of the Manor (and they are currently, should you want to take up what would seem likely to prove an interesting stay in a house full of associations of one kind or other, looking for a new sharer). I was told that the landlady was currently reading Wolf Hall itself, which ends precisely when Cromwell (imagined by Mantel to have his own eyes on Jane) works out that he can escape Henry’s demands on his time for a visit of some days to Jane Seymour’s family home.

Mantel’s remarkable book prompted all this literary and historical tourism, of course. There’s so much to admire in it: the intelligently hostile portrait of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII seen through the eyes of his brilliant counsellor, and I liked the way the narrative is paced, making us all wait, as they did, for the product of Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy. Then there’s the gracefully lucid writing. Mantel admits scarcely any archaisms: her point is partly that Thomas Cromwell was a modern man, interested in information and its storage, acutely aware of how money works and makes all things possible: so he cannot be distanced by what he says every time he speaks. She has, in line with this policy of making Cromwell our contemporary, partly secularized a man who was probably far more in league with the reformers than the sympathetic fellow-traveller depicted here.

In the second volume, Mantel has to repeat what she did so well in A Place of Greater Safety, show idealism and remarkable personal capacities turning to bloody oppression, to unleash the murderer latent in her measured and highly intelligent Cromwell (the inner murderer glimpsed in the novel by Cromwell in Hans Holbein’s portrait). Her hero has, in the second part, to set about destroying Anne Boleyn and her circle to save his own position. The axe and the block will feature like the guillotine did for the French revolutionaries in the earlier novel: Mantel’s characters cannot be unaware of their likely fate, how close it always is, how they can appease the terrible wraith with other people’s blood for only a limited time.

As it is, in this volume about his rise to power, Wolf Hall deploys Cromwell as a very gifted novelist’s ideal protagonist: a master of language, either in persuasion, threat, or charm, and a witty appreciator of costumes, food and style. Cromwell here is also a man preoccupied with memory - both haunted by his own memories of having been the child of a brutal father, and the adult administrator determined to possess, so as to augment his own prodigious powers of recall, a mechanical memory theatre. So always he allows Mantel to demonstrate her own prodigious gifts of imagination and language.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And the Catholic bees...

“A certaine simple woman having some stals of Bees which yielded not unto her hir desired profit, but did [sicken?] and die of the murraine, made hir moan to another Woman more simple then hir selfe: who gave her counsel to get a consecrated Host, and put it among them. According to whose advice she went to the Priest to receive the host, which after she had done, she kept it in her mouth, and being come home againe she tooke it out, and put it into one of hir Hives. Whereupon the murraine ceased, and the Honie abounded. The Woman therefore lifting up the Hive at the due time to take out the Honie, saw there (most strange to be seene) a Chappell built by the Bees, with an altar in it, the wals adorned by the marvellous skill of Architecture, with windowes conveniently set in their places: also a doore and a steeple with bells. And the Host being laid upon the altar, the Bees making a sweet noise, flew about it.

But whether this doe more argue the supernaturall knowledge and skill of the Bees, or the miraculous power of the Host, or the spirituall craftinesse of him, whose cunning is by the working of Satan with all power and signes and lying wonders, some scrupulous Skeptick may make question.” [sig C 4 v]

My source is Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchie or a treatise concerning bees, and the due ordering of them wherein the truth, found out by experience and diligent observation, discovereth the idle and fondd conceipts, which many haue written anent this subiect. By Char: Butler Magd. At Oxford 1609.

I read the 1623 edition, part of the extensive literature of apiary. Butler is an agreeably fussy author, who arranges his text with meticulous attention: “When you have once, for your satisfaction, perused this Booke, you need not afterward seeke farre for anything therein, whereof you doubt: the Index of the Chapters or Contents of the Booke; and of the Marginall notes, or Contents of the Chapters will readily direct you.” Despite these efforts, he is often quite obscure on the technical details of what he wants his bee-keeper to do, and refers to the months throughout according to the sign of the zodiac (the EEBO copy of the 1623 edition has an early author write out the zodiac opposite the normal names of the months, for easy reference). Butler seems to want to impart, and not impart.

On this story of the Catholic bees, Butler is similarly divided: rather unwilling to deny any miraculous behaviour to the social insects he so much admires, but finally scoffing at the tale as a delusion of Satan.

His book has a dedicatory poem by George Wither:

…Great God Almighty! In thy pretty Bee,

Mine Eie (as written in small letters) sees

An Abstract of that Wisdom, Power and Love,

Which is imprinted on the Heavn’s above…

(etc, one should presumably read ‘bees’ at the end of the first line quoted).

Butler briskly surveys the available bee-books: he cites as an authority Georgius Pictorius

“Whom one T.H. of London translating word for word into English, as well as he could, concealing the authors name, adventured to publish in his owne name”. This would I think be Thomas Hill’s The proffitable arte of gardening …To this annexed, two propre treatises, the one entituled The marueilous gouernment, propertie, and benefite of the bées, with the rare secrets of the honny and waxe (printed from1568 onwards).

After this, he starts off with assertions of the excellence and general political soundness of the bee:

Bees yield great profit with small cost

Bees abhorre idelnesse

Bees have a Common-wealth

Bees always loyall to their Soveraigne

Bees endure no government, but a Monarchie.

And later: “The Bees abhorre as well Polyarchie, as Anarchie, God having shewed in them unto men, and express pattern of A PERFECT MONARCHIE, THE MOST NATURALL AND ABSOLUTE FORME OF GOVERNMENT.”

Butler deals very directly with a major problem about this little creature and its almost ideal commonwealth: he asserts ‘Divers reasons proving the Drone to be the Male’, and freely announces that ‘The male-Bees are subject to the females’. He cites the silly counter-views: “The generall opinion of the Drone is, that he is made of a hony-Bee, that hath lost hir sting.”

Butler compares his bees to the Amazons, and to hawks, where he points out that the female bird is always bigger and better than the male.

His apiary is still very basic, relatively knowledgeable though he is. His hives are still primitive, with no chance to open them (though he does discuss this as a vague possibility). I was pleased to see that Butler thinks of hives that “The best that I have seene are wrought by Thomas May of Sunning, about one mile from Redding”: he was a local man to me here, and speaks of the different flavours of Hampshire honey, depending on the local flora.

He gives rather confusing directions about making ‘armour’ against getting stung, and in the end recommends washing your face and hands with beer and proceeding gently with your hives. More mystifyingly, he recommends chastity and sobriety in the bee-keeper:

“If thou wilt have the favour of thy Bees that they sting thee not, thou must avoid such things as offend them: thou must not be 1) unchaste or 2) uncleanly: for impuritie and sluttishnesse (themselves being most chaste and neat,) they utterly abhorre: thou must not come among them (3) smelling of sweat, or having a stinking breath.”

Most shockingly, in our current anxiety about the world population of bees, Butler was a man of his time when it comes to harvesting the honey, “The Vindemiation or taking of Combes” (the OED first records the word from him): “The most usuall, and generally most usefull manner of taking the Combes, is by killing the Bees.”

The whole swarm is killed – he recommends a fumigation with brimstone. He knows about trying to eject the resident swarm, and about ‘castration’, or cutting into a hive to remove just some of the honey, but he firmly opts for total destruction of the colony. This was normal until the 18th and 19th centuries:

My illustrations are a photograph I took of a swarm of bees invading one of the medieval ‘put-log’ holes in the tower of East Hendred Church, and one of Butler’s odder pages, a song in praise of bees. Butler has listened attentively to the various hums emerging from his hives, and believes that “In the Bees song are the grounds of musicke”. In the first edition of his book he merely scores the various buzzes and hums, the 1623 edition expands into a song set out like other song books of the period, for four singers sitting round the same sheet.

EEBO’s subject search does not seem to throw up another bee book I found, Samuel Purchas’s A theatre of politicall flying-insects wherein especially the nature, the vvorth, the vvork, the wonder, and the manner of right-ordering of the bee, is discovered and described.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Eaten by a Protestant Lion?

I used to have my own copy of Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie, a book mainly about the king’s lions, which were for hundreds of years housed in ‘The Lion Tower’. Kept in very close confinement, and (apparently) fed on sheep, the lions were much visited as one of the sights of London: Hahn certainly tells the story of how the young John Wesley went and played his flute to them, and departed satisfied that their reaction to his music-making proved that these animals had souls.

But the lions were of course dangerous animals: the very brief news sheet, A True relation of Mary Jenkinson, who was killed by one of the lyons in the Tower on Munday the 8th of February, 1685/6 (1686) came my way:

“Mary Jenkinson, a Norfolk Maid, extracted of Honest Parents, living with the Person who keeps the Lyons in the Tower, about the fourth Instant going into the Den to show them to some Acquaintance of hers, one of the Lyons (being the Greatest there) putting out his Paw, she was so venturous as to stroak him as she used to do, but he suddenly catched her by the middle of the Arm with his Claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the Bone before he could be unloosed notwithstanding that they thrust several lighted Torches at him, but at last they got her away, whereupon Chirugeons were immediately sent for, who after some time thought it necessary for the preservation of her Life, to cut off her Arm, but she Died not many Hours after.”

Leaving minors to look after lions was apparently how things tended to be done back then. In The Great robbery in the west … to which is added, Sad news from Gloucester-shire, being a relation how a lion at Winchcomb devoured its keeper (1678) we have a small traveling animal show’s lax practices leading to death:

“About the beginning of this instant August, there came to the Borough of Winchcomb an Itinerant Family, consisting of a Man and his Wife, a Boy about a dozen years old, a Lion, and an Ape; which two last Creatures they daily exposed to the view of such as had the curiosity to spend their pence. But whilst they remained there, the Boy whose office it was to tend them, going one day to feed them, passed by the Lion, and went and gave the Ape his commons first; which so far affronted the Royal Animal, that in a rage he seized on the Youth with his paws, who schreek’d out in a lamentable manner; but before anyone could come in to his rescue, the Lion got his head into his mouth, and bit and crusht him to death; and also had suckt all the blood out of his body. Not had the Ape, for all their old familiarity, sped much better, if he had not got up by the wall out of his reach. The Coroner having view’d the Lads Corpse, there was an order for the Lion to be kill’d; which was accordingly executed with great solemnity, being shot to death in the presence of many hundreds of people.”

Lions were immensely political animals, very closely associated with the monarch. Grimalkin, or, The Rebel-cat a novel representing the unwearied attempts of the beasts of his faction against sovereignty and succession since the death of the lyons in the tower (1681) is a political allegory about the Duke of Monmouth, in the vein of Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel (published in the same year). It starts with the much noted death, in rapid sequence, of three of the four royal beasts: “You cannot but have heard of the late Havock and Depopulations which Death hath made in the Tower among the Lyons. No less than Three of the Royal Line being Dead at once: and what is observed by some, to the great Grief and Astonishment of all, that the Deceased Lyons (of happy memory) were Protestant Lyons, and their Successor, who onely now survives, a Popish Lyon.”

Lions in the tower were associated with the beliefs of the monarch they had been given to – obviously, for the purposes of the pamphlet, the surviving lion is being arbitrarily associated with James, Duke of York. The Protestant Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s son by Lucy Walter, is represented as “the Perkin-Lion, or Leopard, who is the Natural Son of a Lyon and a Pard” – a pretender lion, product of a misalliance. Topsell’s History of the Four Footed Beasts (1658) is strangely preoccupied with species interbreeding by lionesses, and tells how the male lion can always smell if the lioness has been committing ‘adultery’ with a leopard.

Monmouth, five years after his death by beheading in the Tower, is still remembered in An Address to the Lyon in the tower (1689):

Thine only Friend on Earth (the Hangman) stays

With Halter (ready Nooz’d) to end thy Days;

And give some respite (to thy Guilty Breast)

(From Ghosts) that Haunt Thee since thou wert I’th’West.

There must have been a decision about this time to kill the remaining animal (after the deaths of the other three at the beginning of the same decade).

So political were lions, that Peter Heylyn, in his Observations on the historie of The reign of King Charles published by H.L. Esq., for illustration of the story, and rectifying some mistakes and errors in the course thereof (1656) deplores the propensity of King James I (deplorable for other reasons) in amusing himself by having the Tower lions baited. James’s main preoccupation in life was using one set of animals to kill another (there was even a keeper of the royal cormorants, for heaven’s sake). James of course could not resist tormenting the lions, though the historian thinks that in doing so he gave a bad example to men who would (politically) bait their monarch:

“Our Chroniclers tell us of King James, that at his first coming to the Crown of England, he used to go often to the Tower to see the Lyon (the reputed King of Beasts) baited sometimes by Dogs, and sometimes by Horses; which I could never reade without some regret, the baiting of the King of Beasts seeming to me an ill presage of those many baitings which he (a King of Men) sound afterwards at the hands of his Subjects.”

The reference is to Stowe’s Chronicle, 1605, which in its reduced form The abridgement of the English Chronicle (1618) refers to both arrangements for breeding the animals in the Tower, and baiting them with mastiffs: “about this time the King caused a convenient place to be made on the backe part of the Lyons Denne, for the Lyons to bréed in, which tooke good effect: reade my large Booke, concerning the Tryall and Conclusions with the Lyons, touching their Instinct of Nature, in not fearing the Cocke, nor greedy deuouring the Lambe, as also the vndaunted Courage of the English Masties, against the fiercest Lyon in the Tower.

As late as Daniel Defoe, once himself a rebel with Monmouth, the lions were still seen linked to royalty: “Upon the Queen's first Indisposition, the great and eldest Lion in the Tower, who had been about twenty Years there, commonly call’d King Charles the Second’s Lion, sickned with her, and died the Wednesday Night after Christmas-Day, about Midnight, 48 Hours before her Majesty; which affords us so much the more matter of Curiosity, as that the like happened at the Death of King Charles the Second, when another of those Royal Beasts much in the like manner made the same Exit with that Prince.” The Life of that incomparable princess, Mary, our late sovereign lady, 1695.

Image: a composite of the lion as illustrated in Topsell, and the woodcut in Claude Perrault, Memoirs for a natural history of animals (1688 ).

Friday, June 05, 2009

Mistress Beast has her husband murdered, 1582

Mistress Beast did exist, and we will come to her in a moment. This post might have been titled ‘The Worcestershire Murders’, as my source is a well printed and rather well written pamphlet, A briefe discourse of two most cruell and bloudie murthers, committed bothe in Worcestershire, and bothe happening vnhappily in the yeare 1583.

Another possible title for this post might have been ‘Murder most foolish’, for both killings were carried out with reckless disregard for consequences. In the case of Thomas Smith, resentment at a rival mercer’s popularity seems to have blinded the perpetrator to all consideration of what would happen next, while Mistress Beast and her lover seem to have occupied a fantasy realm of amatory conceits where reality scarcely impinged.

On New Year’s Eve in Evesham, 1582, Thomas Smith invited a successful rival in trade, Robert Greenoll, over to his house to share a pint of wine and some apples roasted in the fire. Greenoll, a bachelor, popular both socially and as a tradesman, suspected nothing about Smith, who, if not so successful as a mercer, had a well off family behind him, and was married to a gentlewoman.

But Smith had listened to “the persuasion of the evill spirite with him”, and had already, down in his cellar, dug a grave “about sixe or seven inches deepe” (this has to mean that the body placed in it would be that far below the surface).

Evesham, on this New Year’s Eve, was in a state of rather uptight festivity. There’s to be a play performed (its nature regrettably unspecified in the pamphlet), but the town had made special seasonal provisions against disorder: “In Evesham, all the time of Christmas, there is watch and ward kept, that no misorder or il rule be committed”:

It grew toward night, when as a play was cryed about the Towne, whereto both old and young did hastely repaire: and this Smith having a boye that served him in his Shop, fearing lest the boye should perceive anie thinge, gave hym money, and bade him goe see the Play: and bring him a whole report of the matter.”

Smith’s Boy fetched the wine and apples, then ‘ran merrily to see the Play’, leaving the two men alone: ‘at last, Greenoll stouping to turne an apple in the fire’, Smith struck him over the head with an iron pestle he had left to hand. Here, the anonymous author half emerges into the narrative, for he has himself heard from Smith about how awfully protracted the killing was: “Smith hearing him to give such a woful groan (as himselfe said to me, when I came to him in prison) began to enter into some sorrowfulness for the deede”. But judging his victim to be beyond help, he struck him three or four times more: but poor Greenoll was still trembling on the floor. Now Smith produced a knife, and stabbed him in the neck ‘but as Smith himselfe said, he did not cut the wezand, but pierced the skin somewhat’, then tried to stab him in the heart. First time, he hit the shoulder blade, then finally killed Greenoll with a second blow at the heart.

Smith then set about the plan which he thought would clear him of the deed, dragging the body down to the cellar, and placing it in the shallow grave, which he smoothed over with a plasterer’s trowel, then shook ‘shellinges’ from the bales of linen flax he kept down there all over the floor, finally placing ‘drifats and chests’ over the fresh and shallow grave. Smith then meticulously washed the house clear of bloodstains, and dried where he had cleaned.

[A ‘dryfat’ is ‘A large vessel (cask, barrel, tub, case, box, etc.) used to hold dry things (as opposed to liquids’, those ‘shellings’ are the pods which would have held the seeds of the flax, i.e., linseed OED.]

At this point, Smith started to behave like a man who now wanted to be caught for his crime he had just committed. He has already told the local night-watchman, ‘See and see not’, and on this slender security he took Greenoll’s keys and robbed his shop: the stolen goods he placed in his own house.

On the next morning, Greenoll’s shop was found to have been robbed, and inquiry was made as to ‘who was abroade that nighte that might be suspected, because of the Playe that was in the Towne’ (one notices again this extreme caution about having a play performed in the community!). The watchman says Thomas Smith was 'abroad somewhat late', and that Smith had sent him that inexplicable watch word, ‘see and see not’.

Smith was fetched in, to be asked where Greenoll was, because there was already “A shrewd presumption against him to be somewhat faultie in the matter”. The authorities say that they will search Smith’s house. Smith says his house cannot be searched, as his wife is away in King’s Norton with the keys “but (quoth he) if you will search my Sellar you maye and so tooke the keyes from his girdle and threw them unto them”.

The insane bravado of this suggestion led to the unravelling of Smith’s crime. The search party at first found nothing. Curiously, there seems to be no inclination to break into the house itself, despite the implausibility of Smith’s claim about being left locked out (apart from the cellarage). But as they are about to give up, one of them sees “A little piece of earth, as it were new broken out of the grounde, lying under the nethermost staire”. They decide they must investigate more closely to find where this fresh soil might have come from, move the chests and dryfats, beneath them, they found the ground to be soft, where digging, “Presently they found Greenoll buryed, not past six or seven inches deepe”.

By the earnest entreaty of his friends, Smith was not hanged in chains, but hanged to death, and afterwards simply buried. The pamphleteer observes that we must shun “Repining at our neighbours prosperity”, and says of Smith’s crime amidst this anxiously Christian community, full of alarm at allowing a play to be performed, that “the verie conceite whereof is able to astonish the heart of a Jew, or a Mahomitans recreant”.

To come to Mistress Beast at last, Greenoll's death was not the only murder in the vicinity of Worcester: in the same year, at Cothridge, west of the city, an honest husbandman named Thomas Beast had in his house a handsome serving man called Christopher Thomson. In time, Mistress Beast decided that she preferred Christopher to her husband, and, as the pamphlet disapprovingly puts it, “often times they would carnally acquaint them selves together”. With “the Neighbours not suspecting, but credibly perceiving, the common and unhonest behaviour of this wicked woman and her lusty yonker”, Thomas Beast eventually was apprised of what was going on under his nose. He told the servant to leave, but his wife intervened, and somehow persuaded her husband to keep the man on. The affair then continued until Mistress Beast decided that ‘her sweet dallying friend’ must kill her husband, “whereto a great while he would not consent”.

Here’s the full extent of her reported thinking about getting Thomson off from the charge of murder: ‘with mony and friends I will warrant thee to save thy life, and then thou and I will live merrily together”. The narrator, who seems to be local enough to know something about these people, interjects in horror: “Oh most horrible and wicked Womon, a woman, nay a devil: stop your eares you chaste and grave matrons, whome Gods feare, dutie, true love to your husbandes, and verture of your selves hath so beautified as nothing can be more odious unto you, then such a graceless strumpet should be found, so much to dishonour your notable sexe.”

Finally, fired by her implausible persuasion that he could get away with the crime, the credulous and love-smitten Christopher solemnly promised over a cup of posset that he would carry out the murder. As the murder weapon, he first took a long pike - hardly the least conspicuous of weapons to be wandering around with - but his mistress gave him instead a woodman’s tool, a “Forrest Bil, which she her self had made very sharp”.

Thus equipped, Thomson went and found his master ploughing in a field, started a quarrel, and killed him with a single blow. Thomson fled the scene of the crime, but was soon caught, and was taken to Worcester Castle, where in a brief recognition of the depth of trouble he was in, he exclaimed against his mistress, ‘how she was cause that he committed the deed.”

Mistress Beast was also arrested, but somehow contrived to bombard her lover in his cell with gifts of “Mony, handkerchers, nosegays, and such like amorous and loving tokens”.

Perhaps both of them, faced with inevitable and dreadful punishment for their crime, took refuge in a strange amatory fantasy world: “he besotted in his naughtie affection … made a triumphe, as it were, in carrying a locke of her haire about him, & would sit kissing and delighting in any token she sent him: beside, one day he desired the jaylor, that if he were a man, or one that regarded the extreme afflictions of those, whom the tyranny of love possessed, that he wold doo so much for him, to rip foorth the hart of him, & cleaving the same in sunder, he should there behold the lively Image of his sweet mistresse (as the cheefest Jewell he had) hee desired him to make a present of that precious token.”

This kind of talk to a jailor, in an age when executioners would chop out the hearts of some malefactors, brings to mind the grotesque literalism of John Fletcher’s Memnon, in the play, The Mad Lover, who decides to send his beloved Callis his heart, and commissions a surgeon to do the necessary operation.

The authorities might have been tempted, but they didn’t take Christopher Thomson at his word. He was simply taken out of jail and hanged where he did the murder, then his body was drawn on a hurdle round Worcester, and finally hanged in chains at Cothridge.

Mistress Beast was drawn on a hurdle to a field just outside Evesham, and burned at the stake.

1582, Worcestershire: who would have thought conceits about having the image of your beloved in your heart would be so important to a servant and his mistress? Sidney is perhaps writing Astrophel and Stella, but love poetry seems to be already received by the audience who are, as it were, waiting for his works. Against this, in the Smith-Greenoll case, the reservations of the Evesham civic authorities about festivity and plays: dangerous stuff, imaginative writing or performance.

My image is part of a woodcut in Thomas Cooper, The cry and reuenge of blood, 1620 - the familiar trio of victim, murderer, and instigating devil.