Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Tudor/Stuart follies

Above is Georg Hoefnagel's 1568 watercolor of the south frontage of Nonsuch Palace. Henry VIII named it that to assert that there was no equal to its magnificence. In order to begin building it in 1538, he destroyed the church and village that were on the site. Henry had a mania for erecting palaces, bugger the expense and the damage to the realm; this one was especially constructed to rival Francis I's Château de Chambord and the cost was well in excess of £100 million in today's money. (At right is a detail from a 1610 map by John Speed showing the palace.)
It boggles my mind that 1) Charles II later gave it to his mistress (the courtesan Barbara Palmer, whom he made Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine) and 2) that  she had it dismantled in 1682–3 and sold the building materials to pay gambling debts. No trace of the palace remains on the site today. I found out the fate of Nonsuch from Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly from Royal Britain. I was familiar with the palace's inception from reading one of the many Tudor-related books we always keep in stock, as the era remains a perennially fascinating one to historians and readers.
In perusing Behind the Palace Doors, I was taken by the pathetic story of Arabella Stuart (right), who as the great-great granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Margaret had a viable claim to the crown eventually held by James I (thanks to the machinations of Lord Cecil).  Elizabeth I used Arabella as a pawn, dangling her before European suitors and keeping the succession open as a means to keep James VI from avenging his mother's execution. Living in suffocating isolation at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire with her domineering grandmother, Arabella seems to have gone a bit cuckoo, hatching a plan to marry a Seymour that was soon squashed and later writing rambling letters and refusing to eat.
When James I succeeded, she was invited to court but lacked the financial resources to flourish there and was dismayed that her intelligence counted little with the deeply misogynistic monarch. Her ability to marry was compromised because an heir posed a threat to his line, and she needed his consent to do so. Despite being warned against it by the King and council, she secretly married William Seymour (brother of her former intended) in 1610. The bridegroom was hauled off to the Tower for life shortly thereafter, and Arabella was put into custody. King James was not amused, querying "whether it was well that a woman so closely allied to the blood royal should rule her life after her own humor" and saying she had "eaten of the forbidden tree."
Arabella (above, with William at right) asked to be heard in court, but James would have none of it and sent her into exile in the countryside. On her way there, she daringly disguised herself as a man and rode off to meet William, who had disguised himself and escaped from a rather loose confinement in the Tower. Alas, their signals crossed as they attempted to meet and take a ship to France. He escaped to Bruges, but she was captured by the fleet of ships that a furious James sent out to retrieve her. She was put under house arrest (in the "Queen's House" in the Tower of London) and died four years later, after refusing to eat or drink.
Sara Jayne Steen, who edited a book of Arabella's 100 surviving letters, notes that Imogen, the virtuous, cross-dressed heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, has sometimes been read as a reference to Arabella. A happier ending, n'est-ce pas?
Below, James I and a portrait of an unknown gentlewoman thought to be Arabella (National Portrait Gallery, London).


  1. JP,

    The Daily Glean is the Best Blog Going. Such regular remarkable creativity and welcoming appeal. I defy anyone to find one that is more endearing, entertaining and instructive - why, this is the Uber-Blog. No kidding.

    The Baron Bows to the Magisterial magnitude of your amazing gem, day in and day out.

    If I could take one web site with me to the proverbial desert island, you guessed it - This Would Be My Selection!!!

    Baron von Mugenhausen

  2. Happy to hear from you, Herr Baron!
    Thanks for this. I had not been aware of Arabella's story until your post. Wiki tells me she was buried in the same vault as Mary, Queen of Scots, another Elizabethan victim.
    Totally agree with BvM!

  3. Awww shucks. Ya'll make it worthwhile. I read the other day that J.K. Rowling would take collected works of Shakespeare, Colette, and Wodehouse with her to desert island. I wouldn't mind washing up with her there.

  4. Some places have poor ventilation, but here this was not the case. Whether you're in middle or in the very last corner, I feel perfectly comfortable, with no mysterious feeling to it.