Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The great mistress of yon princely shrine

I am not overjoyed to discover that the latest version of Firefox and Blogger do not seem to get on: I have swapped templates, but none of them make post-titles visible except when you click through to the individual post rather than the blog as a whole; settings to alter type-colours are all defunct. All seems to be well for Internet Explorer, though.

Anyway, on my way to give a talk at the Merchant Taylors’ School this last week, I got lucky and coincided at Hatfield Church with a local historical society, who had one of the churchwardens opening up what would otherwise have been a locked building.

The church features in Simon Jenkins’ indispensable guide to the thousand best churches for its array of family monuments: largely from the Newdigate family, but at the right of the altar is this flamboyant tomb of Milton’s ‘rural queen’, Alice Spencer, Countess of Derby.

This lady’s long, and socially eminent life (1559-1637) had so many literary connections that you could shape an M.A. course or a doctorate about her. Her first husband was Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, patron of Nashe and of the Lord Strange’s Men: there’s your Shakespeare connection. Through her second husband, Lord Chancellor Egerton, and her middle and youngest daughters, Frances Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (1583–1636) and Lady Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (bap. 1587, d. 1633), there were links to John Donne.

But her strongest connections were of course with Milton: she was the focus of compliment in ‘Arcades’ (‘kiss her sacred vesture’s hem’, the masquers are enjoined), and her second daughter, Frances, as Countess of Bridgewater, presided in 1634 over the first performance of ‘Comus’, watching three of her children in the main roles.

But ‘Comus’ brings us to the thought of Anne, the eldest daughter (1580–1647). The tomb of her mother mentions that Anne first married the splendidly named Grey Bridges, Earl of Chandos, and so was Anne Bridges, Lady Chandos, but after his death in 1621 she then in 1624 she made what the ODNB tends to understate as “a disastrous marriage” with Mervin Touchet, second Earl of Castlehaven (1593–1631).

We all know why the tomb does not advertise this second marriage: from the very start of the marriage Lord Castlehaven set about her sexual corruption, and then that of her daughter by her first marriage, the thirteen year old Elizabeth (1614/15–1679), who was married to Castlehaven’s son James in 1628. Castlehaven’s insane hostility to his own heir saw him contrive to have Elizabeth debauched by his servants, so that his son’s heir might be fathered by another man (and so be ‘the spurious seed of a varlet’).
(Anne, Frances and Elizabeth, left to right, beneath their mother's bier)

Louis A. Knafla sums up Alice Spencer’s life rather mildly as that of “an independent woman who dedicated her life to bringing up her children and grandchildren, often in tragic circumstances, the countess pursued the cultural life with zest, striving to attain the highest standards of an Elizabethan woman in an age of declining moral values.” On the other hand, writing the ODNB life of Egerton, J. H. Baker writes that his marriage to “the beautiful and wealthy dowager countess of Derby must have seemed a good match …However, she was haughty, profligate, greedy, and ill-tempered, and added greatly to her husband's burdens for the last seventeen years of his life. ‘I thank God I never desired long life’, wrote Egerton in 1610, ‘nor ever had less cause to desire it than since this, my last marriage, for before I was never acquainted with such tempests and storms.’ ”

Leaving aside this disagreement about the Countess’s personality and spending habits, in Hatfield Church, you look at the (yes, rather lavish) final resting place of a very cultured woman whose daughter and grand-daughter were subjected to appalling sexual abuse. I wondered what could be read in the monument, if anything.

The first obvious thing is that Alice is alone. Of her unhappy second marriage there is a mention on a back wall, possible added later by one of the locally swarming Newdigates, for it emphasises Egerton’s connection to that family. But she had long survived him, and there is no side-by-side fiction of their union. In ‘Arcades’, she is more or less represented as a still-surviving version of Queen Elizabeth (‘Mark what radiant state she spreads, / In circle round her shining throne’), and her image here takes the 75 year old female aristocrat back to her prime. I think that her costuming is also ‘historical’: that farthingale cart wheel is very 16th century. Her hair is worn undressed, copious in length and waves (Milton would have approved). I understand this as the style allowed to the unmarried woman, to the virgin. Queen Elizabeth apparently would appear with her hair down, even in her later years, as an intermittent reminder of her very special status. On the side of the tomb, Elizabeth, Frances, and, poignantly perhaps only to our eyes, Anne, share their mother’s style, each in their arched alcove with streaming hair.

None of this explains the real mystery about the monument: that the baldachin, with its splendid tied-back drapery, looks to have been designed as a canopy for a kneeling effigy. But the Countess lies at full length, her feet projecting out towards the altar, with the arcaded catafalque beneath. I could not see any evidence of two parties to the design having failed to communicate: it rather seems just to have been a design compromise prompted by the proximity of the altar.

The unresolved problem with the design imparts a kind of tension to the structure as a whole, a grand design not quite achieved, the medieval colliding with the baroque. The main source of tension, though, is that regular feature of these composite monuments: the presence of lots of stone that is just that, stone, used architecturally, and stone which has been carved to represent soft and yielding things: skin, hair, cushions, drapery, clothes, ermine. The yielding, represented by the (or as) unyielding. The elderly woman, and her married daughters, either those dynastically triumphant or blighted by a man’s corruption, all as virgins. A devout prone posture which lingers on in a design which really invites the Countess to raise herself at least part way up. The catafalque, with its black drapes and canopy, is like a state bed, with the Countess’s feet jutting towards the altar. I know I am over-reading this, but mutely, it looks as though the lower body seeks its blessing.

The guide does not specify when the monument was so exuberantly re-painted and gilded.

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