Thursday 29 December 2011

An homage to Tom Thomson

A decade ago, I found myself in Canada on a Sunday morning with a few hours to spare. At that time of the day, in that season, Edmonton, Alberta, was a silent, sleepy city. The sky seemed endless and freezing; the next day, the first snows of the season would fall and cloak the place in a blanket of white. That last Sunday in October, it was a city of pealing church bells and hise rise blocks, where a lone, nonchalent moose walked slowly down the highway. Wooden porches were deocrated with carved pumpkins and muddy boots. I set off, looking to kill some time, finding the place practically deserted and most of the shops closed. One building promised warmth and comfort; the doors of the art gallery stood open and invited me inside.

I had never heard of Tom Thomson before that day. As I entered, he stuck me at once; large, post-impressionistic canvases full of loose vivid brushwork in deep, generous colours. The images of autumnal trees and snowy rivers, of the wild and beautiful wilderness of Algonquin park faced me as I crossed the hall to read about this artist whose name was new to me. Slowly, I unravelled the facts. In fact, this was no straightforward exhibition, but the imaginings of a later artist, resurrecting Thomson and filling in his "missing" years. The mystery of his life unfolded before me; his importance, isolation and unsolved death.

Thomson was born in 1877 near Ontario. His attempts to enlist in both the Boer War and Great War were refused due to an underlying medical condition and abortive attempts to work as a fire ranger and study business betrayed his true calling. He blossomed late; in 1907, he joined a firm called Grip Ltd, an artistic design firm where he would meet many of the other artists who later came to be known as the Gang of Seven. Together they travelled into the countryside, inspired by the loneliness and beauty of the Saskatchewan river and its surroundings. On long camping trips between 1914 and 1917, he produced many of the images for which he is now famous, his style rapidly maturing as he became increasingly focused on his work. In July 1917, he disappeared on a canoeing trip to Algonquin park, his body being found a week later in the lake. Even today, theories about the circumstances of his death encompass accident and murder and have spawned their own novels romanticising his life.

The truth of Thomson's death may never be known but the vivid, brilliant legacy of his work will continue to move those who see it today. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, whilst combining the plein air elements of Impressionism with the freedom of Post-Impressionism, his pictures contain a vibrancy and life comparable to Cezanne and Van Gogh; like the latter, he died mysteriously at the peak of his self-taught genuis, after a flourishing of his creativity. When I left the gallery that Sunday morning, suprised at the impact upon of this chance encounter, I knew I had to find out more about Thomson. Later, battling through the snow, I had the opportunity to scour Edmonton's bookshops for a suitable tome, which I struggled to fit into my already-stuffed  suitcase. In those pre-Amazon, early days of the internet, I knew I would not easily find such a work in England. Having been an habitue of book shops of all varieties, I had never before seen any study dedicated to Thomson. But the book and the memory came back with me. A decade later, these images continue to have a profound effect on me, as does the conviction that his oeuvre still lacks the UK following that it deserves.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Catherine of Aragon's Spanish sisters: A swathe of widows.

Is there a collective noun for widows ? Perhaps a “misfortune,” “swathe” or “veil” might be appropriate ? In late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth century Spain, the death rate of young married men in Catherine of Aragon’s  circle, might have led to the Castile-Aragon alliance being known as a “family” of widows. Of Ferdinand and Isabella’s four daughters, three lost their husbands young, as did her sister-in-law and their passionate, dramatic displays of grief made their losses almost an art form.
                                                Catherine as the wife of Henry VIII

Catherine’s first marriage was the root of all her later problems; her divorce and Henry VIII’s break from Rome and establishment of the Church of England. She was born in 1485, to the formidable military alliance made by the marriage of two of the most powerful Spanish strongholds and lived among the pomp and ceremony of their ritualistic court. Married before her sixteenth birthday to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, she crossed the channel from the hot, dry homelands of her childhood into the damp, wet English climate that was to plague her ever since. She was plump-faced and pretty, with long auburn hair and caused a sensation with her foreign fashions and habits. As the heir to the Tudor dynasty, fourteen-year-old Arthur was the image of his father; dark haired, slender and sensitive looking, groomed for the throne since an early age. Their union was celebrated in style in November 1501. Both were dressed, unusually for the time, in white and paraded on a platform erected in Westminster Abbey for all to see. The pageantry, festivities and feasting, indicated the hopes that the royal family and country invested in them, as the parents of future monarchs. Then, in the middle of winter, the pair set off for the formidable castle at Ludlow, which as Prince of Wales, was to be Arthur’s seat. The journey took until mid-January. By April, the young prince was dead, possibly of an outbreak of the dreaded sweating sickness that took hold in the area, possibly of tuberculosis.
                                                               Prince Arthur

Catherine’s taste of marriage had been brief. Returning to London, she remained in poverty for the next seven years, subject to the will of Henry VII. Ill herself, she was grieved at the death of her young husband yet their life together had been short and according to her, unconsummated. Raised to be a queen, she became the pawn between Spain and England, as her father and father-in-law wrangled over the payment of her dowry and her alliance with her young brother-in-law, the new heir of England, the future Henry VIII. Through the following years, the widowed princess was denied food and money, having to sell her plate and other valuables in order to feed her household and suffering constant poor health. Catherine’s letters speak of her humiliation and penury: it was an undignified and uncertain time. Only the death of the King in April 1509 freed her. Now all depended on the intentions of a young man who only years before had repudiated all plans of their marriage. Yet marry they did. That June, at Greenwich, Catherine became the first wife of Henry VIII and two weeks later, was crowned Queen of England. It seemed like all her hopes had come true. She could not know how twenty years later, her first, short-lived marriage would come back to haunt her.
Catherine’s sisters had similar misfortunes with their first husbands. Eldest of the family, Isabella, married King Alfonso of Portugal at the age of twenty and left her Spanish home. Her reception was magnificent, with theatrical feasts and much ceremony but the celebrations were short-lived. After only seven months of marriage, the young husband was killed in a freak accident when thrown from his horse. Isabella was heart-broken. She cut off her hair and adopted all-black clothing and returned home, no longer the sister Catherine had known. Thin and weeping, she adjured all court entertainments and determined to dedicate her life to God and never marry again, so she would not suffer any other such terrible bereavement. Portugal was left with a new heir, Prince Manuel, who offered her his hand in marriage, which Isabella steadfastly refused, maintaining her dramatic mourning. Her parents were openly sympathetic but quietly persuasive and eventually, Isabella was induced to remarry for the sake of her country. Six years later, she married Manuel and became Queen of Portugal, only to die shortly after giving birth. Her younger sister Maria then went on to marry Manuel and bear him two children.
                                                      King Manuel of Portugal

At the same time as Isabella’s fated second match, her brother Juan, heir to the Aragon-Castile alliance, was getting married. His bride was the beautiful seventeen-year-old Margaret of Burgundy, arranged as a dual match between the two nations: as Margaret travelled to Spain, Catherine’s other sister Juana would replace her in the Netherlands as the bride of Margaret’s brother. Margaret landed at Santander in March 1497 and the whole family were delighted by her looks, intellect and high spirits. Juan was enchanted by her and the pair became quickly inseparable. They were married a month later and quickly consummated their match, with what quickly became a physical obsession: doctors warned the pair to slow down as there were fears for the effects on their health of such an intense and passionate union. Their fears for the nineteen-year-old were proven correct, even if their reasoning was suspect. Journeying into Portugal, the young man fell ill. His father rushed to his side to find him feverish and preparing for death. Six months after his wedding, Juan was dead, Shortly after, to compound the family’s grief, Margaret miscarried.
The final sister, Juana, scarcely fared better. Arriving in Burgundy, she was instantly attracted to her new husband, known as Philip the Fair or Philip the Handsome. The teenagers’ wedding was brought forward a week, as the groom felt unable to wait to consummate his passion. Initially happy, Juana soon learned that she was not the exclusive recipient of his attentions and her subsequent life with him was one of increasing control and denial. His tight hold over her household and routine did not allow her the autonomy her position required: she was subject to him in all aspects of her life, controlled and neglected in equal measure. He sent her women home and replaced them with those of his own choosing and tried to sow discord between her and her family. Eventually, she was living in seclusion. Denied any form of retaliation, she resorted to tantrums and tears, which increasingly earned her the reputation of instability: her obsessive love for him never faltered and although they were later to live apart, she remained a dutiful wife, placing his wishes above the needs of her and her family.
                                                                Philip and Juana

Juana conceived quickly and bore five children between 1498 and 1505. Towards the end of the marriage, Philip tried to promote her reputation for insanity and have her incarcerated yet she was saved when, unexpectedly, in September 1506, he became violently ill and died. Pregnant with her sixth child, Juana might have been relieved to be free of his strictures but her subsequent behaviour showed the depth of the passion she still retained for him. She retired for weeks, refusing to see anyone or conduct any important court business before ordering the embalmed corpse to be carried with her on a long journey back to Granada, to rest beside the body of her mother. Her refusal to leave the coffin, even when it meant she had to give birth in a village along the way, quickly reignited rumours of her insanity. It was whispered that she refused to allow any other women near his body and would open the coffin to kiss his feet: whether these odd tales were true or not, they earned her the name of “Juana the Mad.” She did not remarry, in spite of overtures made by the widowed Henry VII of England in 1506, in a bizarre proposition that would have seen her becoming her sister Catherine’s mother-in-law. She fought for the inheritance of her children and was the longest lived of all the sisters, dying in 1557.
The losses suffered by the Spanish royal family were higher than the contemporary average. The misfortunes met by their young women in the losses of their husbands are a reminder of the fragility of life even among the most privileged and the tenuous nature of dynastic inheritance. A swathe of widows was created by these untimely losses but also, a number of the potential rulers of Sixteenth century Europe were lost. Only speculation can answer the questions of how the course of history may have been different if these unfortunate young husbands had lived to maturity, not least with the advent of King Arthur in England.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Inside the Treasure Box

My father-in-law John, runs a second hand bookshop down in Folkestone, which receives a variety of donations from rare and antiquarian books, to magazines, CDs and sheet music. Occasionally, he gets brought in some unusual treasures; the personal items from house clearances that will not sell, like note books, letters and not so long ago, an extraordinary box.

This looks like a fairly modern jewellery box; not very expensive and rather worse for wear. It sits on little chipped feet and won't quite close properly because it is so full. There is a stylised flower painted across the top and has been painted black, like oriental lacquer on the back and sides. Some past spillage remains on the bottom right hand side and a sticker on the bottom declares, rather over confidently, "quality product, foreign." A ballerina once danced inside and the wind up device underneath still sends out a tinkling, unrecognisable melody.

While this may be of very little commercial value, the little wooden box contains the treasures and secrets of one woman's life, their significance now lost but their poignancy still as strong. As a historian of women's lives, I was fascinated to see the little tokens the owner had collected over the years: jewellery, tickets, stamps, cake decorations newspaper cuttings and letters, mostly from the 1970s, just the sort of thing that we all hoard away, never thinking they will mean anything to anyone but us. I couldn't help but wonder about the stories and memories attached to each and regret their loss. As an object, it was a wonderful Pandora's box of a life - briefly reopened and explored by a stranger - a remarkable period piece that could stand as a symbol for many lives. The items yielded up a few clues about their owner. There are leads I could pursue through official records but I rather prefer the many possibilities and stories they suggest, to the cold hard truths that research might reveal. I thought I would share some of the contents and hope they will be enjoyed by others too.

                                                The treasures within

                             "To the dearest, sweetest husband in the world..."

    These look like decorations from an old wedding cake or bridal headgear

                                          a lock of blonde hair on the left
                           wedding cake decorations and a man's wedding ring

                                                  more decorations

some stamps postmarked 1978, one pre-decimal and another celebrating the 1977 silver jubilee

                                            at the bottom, the box's key

Monday 28 November 2011

Henry VII's half-hearted attempts to woo women.

The King wants a wife, or does he ?

                                                            The bereaved king

On a blustery night in February 1503, Queen Elizabeth of York went into labour in the Tower of London. At thirty-six, this was her eighth child so she was accustomed to the paraphernalia of the lying-in chamber: the exculsively female ritual and protocol; yards of linen, the darkness and isolation, the crowded reliquary, charms, chants and prayers. Yet this time, something went wrong. On Candlemas day she was delivered of a daughter, surrounded by her women, gripped by what her contemporaries described as sudden, severe pains. Nine days later she was dead; the infant did not long outlive her. The time lapse suggests the onset of puerperal fever, often caused by the intervention of a midwife or poor post-partum care in an era that did not understand the importance of hand-washing and had no system to separate clean water from dirty. The fever can lie dormant for days, as bacteria multiplies, even if a mother appears initially well. It is an illness that would also claim the lives of Queen Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr.
Henry VII was prostrate with grief. Having already lost his eldest son and heir, Arthur, less than a year before, he had been comforted by his wife’s insistence that they were still young enough to conceive another child. Unfortunately, that pregnancy had now cost him his wife and new born daughter; a terrible blow for a still relatively young man. However, within two months, the State Papers of Spain record that he was already entering into negotiations to find another wife. Rapid remarriage was not uncommon at the time, even when unions had been affectionate and companionate; and particularly when they had not. Parish records list burials followed only a few months later by spousal remarriage. Henry and Elizabeth’s second son’s string of wives would prove this point. A king needed a consort and a court needed a female figure head. Yet Henry was genuinely afflicted by his wife’s loss and ultimately, did not marry again. Was he callous and cold hearted, as some biographers have suggested, or were these in fact, simply facets of the game of European politics ? Was Henry investigating potential wives as a tool by which to maintain or forge foreign alliances, rather than through any amorous intention ?
As early as April 1503, news had reached Spain of a projected match between the King and his widowed daughter-in-law Catherine of Aragon. As a fifteen-year-old princess, the golden-haired infanta had arrived in the country in October 1501 and married the Tudor heir, Prince Arthur. His early death left her in a difficult situation, but more awkward still were the wranglings between the two countries over the payment of her dowry. The thought of her seventeen-year-old favourite daughter being wedded to her forty-six year old father-in-law appalled Catherine’s mother. Isabella of Castile described this as “a very evil thing- one never before seen…which offends the ears” and urged Henry to send the girl home. But did Henry really intend to marry her ? The lines of diplomatic communication were notoriously unreliable and subject to rumour and misinterpretation; the supposed match may have had more to do with Henry’s hopes to extract the protracted Spanish dowry or answer the difficult questions of provision for Catherine than actual desire or intention. Being obliged to maintain Catherine’s household and wait until the twelve-year old future Henry VIII came of an age to allow them to wed, may have seemed too protracted for the King. Marriage to Catherine would have solved his immediate problem whilst opening up further potential foreign alliances for his son.
Isabella could not be put off, however, Instead, she offered her niece the Queen of Naples as a more suitable candidate. This was Joan, the daughter of her husband, Ferdinand's sister; the girl had been married to her nephew at seventeen and widowed a few months later in 1496. By October 1504, ambassador De Puebla wrote to report that he had spoken at length to the King about the match, who had expressed great “pleasure” at the thought of it and by October was questioning him as to the lady’s beauty and personal attributes. In June, he sent ambassadors to Naples, whose detailed report back gives a good indication of the physical attributes Henry required in a new bride. In response to a series of his questions, the king learned that she was aged around twenty-seven, her “unpainted” face was “amiable, round and fat,” cheerful and demure, her skin clear and complexion fair and clean. Her teeth were fair and clean, with lips “somewhat rounded” and hair that appeared brown under her headdress. It was difficult to discern her exact height as she wore slippers and her figure was hidden under a great mantle. Her arms were round and “not very small,” hands “somewhat full and soft,” fingers fair and small, of a “meetly” length and breadth, her neck “comely and not-misshapen;” there was no discernible hair on her lips and her breasts were “great and full and trussed somewhat high.” She was recorded to be a good “feeder,” eating meat twice a day and drinking cinnamon water and hippocras wine. The descriptions were apparently pleasing, as by that July, rumours were circulating Europe of a potential marriage treaty.

                                                 Juana  the mad, aged 21 in 1500

However, by March 1506, Henry was entering into negotiations for the hand of the Archduchess Margaret of Savoy, recently widowed and very rich. It would have been a powerful union for England, although the use of a rival may also have been intended to hurry the Spaniards into an alliance. Luckily or unluckily for Henry, Margaret refused him and he returned to consider another Hapsburg union. By 1506, Catherine of Aragon’s elder sister Juana had attracted the nickname “the mad.” She was beautiful but considered deeply unstable. Her almost obsessive love for her husband Philip the Handsome was complicated by his infidelity
and coldness: her maladies were more likely attributable to depression and neuroses, as she was imprisoned and manipulated by him, suffered his continual attempts to undermine her and eventually lived apart from him. His sudden death in September 1506, of typhoid fever, put her back on the marriage market, although potential suitors may have been put off by her refusal to let him be buried and have his body removed from her presence. Additionally, she was five months pregnant with her sixth child. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations came to nothing.
Henry VII did not remarry.  Increasing ill health incapacitated him for much of the remainder of his reign and no treaties were seriously entered into. It is difficult to know at this distance, just how sincere his marital attempts were; whether they were driven by personal factors or simply another facet of the complicated game of European politics. If he was looking for comfort, he might have found a willing wife closer to home, among his own nobility. Perhaps it was the very geographical and political distance between him and these potential brides that made them attractive. Every year from 1503 until his death, he would hear remembrance masses on the anniversary of his wife’s decease and continue to pay her court musicians out of sentiment. When he died in the spring of 1509, his second son acceded as Henry VIII and promptly married Catherine of Aragon, his previous sister-in-law and proposed mother-in-law. The complications arising from that union are well known.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Fertility, Marriage and Motherhood: Women of Elizabethan Burnham

                       The Cholomondely sisters, married and delivered on the same day, c1599

Situated on the north bank of the river Crouch in south east Essex, Burnham-on-Crouch had been populated long before the Romans and Saxons settled there and was in the front line during the Danish invasion of the tenth century. By medieval times, a quay had been built to aid the farming of Waynflete oysters and the return of the fishing fleets: a survey of 1565 recorded twenty-one merchant vessels and seventeen fishing boats, a sizeable amount of regular sea traffic. Sheep were the main livestock kept on the marshes; Burnham women would have been involved in the production of the thick, rich ewe’s cheeses made in large huts known as wicks, as well as milk, butter and cream. No doubt they would also be the ones to cook the game brought home by the wildfowlers and the little fish caught at high tide in the traps called keddles, set into the black Essex mud. These women would have been the daughters, wives and mothers of yeomen, husbandmen, farmers, dairymen, wildfowlers and fishermen.
Most of those born in the parish would have been baptised, married and buried at St Mary’s Church, also known as the cathedral of the marshes. A church was first recorded on the site in 1155 although the current building dates from the fourteenth century; Tudor worshippers would still recognise the south porch door carved in linenfold panels and the square Purbeck marble font inside the church today. Wanting to conceive or safely deliver a child, Burnham women might have called on one of the local saints for protection: the missionary St Cedd, who founded the Seventh century chapel at nearby St Bradwell, the pilgrim St Helen of Colchester or St Osyth, a Seventh century abbess beheaded by the Danes. If they survived their ordeal, they would return to St Mary’s for churching and thanks giving and would ultimately be buried there.
Burnham fertility levels are fairly typical of neighbouring Essex parishes of the time. When it came to first babies, the majority of wives conceived within six months, with subsequent children arriving at intervals averaging a year to eighteen months. The widow Bridge married Richard Mannfield on April the twelfth 1559 and conceived at once, giving birth to their first son the following January. Longer gaps, usually of a year or more followed between the arrivals of her next three children, possibly delayed by breastfeeding, although the couple were clearly intimate again very soon after the arrival of their penultimate child William in July 1569, as a final daughter, Jane, was born only nine months after him in March 1570.
Following Agneta Bowman’s marriage to Richard Lund in April 1563, the couple produced their first son in March 1564, indicating a two month conception period, although the boy died a few weeks after his birth. Unless she had then taken in a nurse child, Agneta’s milk supply would have ceased, removing any contraceptive benefits and she was pregnant again six months later. The wife of John Gatton gave birth to Mary in July 1562 and must have fallen pregnant almost straight away in order to deliver twins John and Denis the following March. Her next recorded arrival was December 1563, meaning that she must have conceived again in the same way, barely days after her twins had arrived. An interval of a year elapsed before she fell pregnant with her final daughter Dorothy, born in October 1565. Such a concentrated period of childbearing must have taken its toll on her health and subsequent fertility levels.
Some did take longer to conceive. Grace Putipole was married to Thomas Sharpe in May 1561, although their first child was not christened until 1564 and Alice Harrison did not fall pregnant until more than two years after her wedding to Robert Anderson in 1578. Of course, the parish registers do not record those couples who were actively trying to conceive and failing or those pregnancies that did not go to term or resulted in still births. Long term infertility must have been an issue for some couples: the marriage register is full of unions that have no subsequent offspring, either through accident or design, although it will also include older couples and those who may have left the parish, so infertility statistics are impossible to determine.
                                                            St Mary's, Burnham

The rates of maternal mortality in Elizabethan Burnham were slightly higher than the estimated national averages of around 2.35 percent.[1] In unfortunate cases, it coincided with the slightly higher risk of infant mortality, often with first births. Alice Battle married Mark Wethers at St Mary’s on the thirteenth of September 1562. Neither were listed as having previous spouses so this was probably a first marriage, likely to have been contracted between two young people in their mid-twenties, according to usual ages of their class and time. Within four months Alice had conceived and would have begun to feel confident that she was pregnant by the following spring. The couple would have made preparations for their first child and Alice may have been apprehensive; no doubt she called on her female relatives and friends when her time came close in October 1563. At some time during her labour, things either began to go wrong or she delivered a child and was taken ill afterwards and died. Puerperal fever was common in an age that failed to connect the spread of disease with basis hygiene like hand washing; fevers could rapidly set in or else take days to incubate. Sadly, many mothers may have been infected by germs spread on the midwife’s hands, making the holders of that office the bearers of both life and death. Alice was buried on October the twenty-seventh, just over a year after her marriage; the couple’s son William followed her to the grave on November the fourth. Mark does not appear to have married again in Burnham.
It was a similar story for Annes Bott, who married Thomas Hill on May the twenty-second 1560.  Annes conceived about eighteen months later; the couple must have had their suspicions confirmed around the time of her quickening in February 1562. Five months later she went into labour but neither mother nor child, a boy named John, survived, both being buried at St Mary’s on the same day, the twenty-first of July 1562. Just over three months later, Thomas Hill remarried to Elizabeth Hamon but does not appear to have fathered any more children.
Husbands often found new wives with what appears like indecent haste to the twenty-first century eye, although it seems to have been quite a common practise at the time, following the examples of the Tudor court: Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk remarried three weeks after being widowed and the rapid turnover of Henry VIII’s wives was the subject of national gossip. But marriage was a necessary outlet. For Elizabethan men and women, relationships and casual sexual encounters could lead to charges of fornication, fines and public humiliation. Especially in the latter end of the period, increasing litigiousness gave rise to an explosion of immorality cases in the local Assize courts. Marriage was a safeguard against sin in the eyes of the church, a comfort and support as well as demarcating social standing and advancement. When John Ellis lost his wife Johan and baby son John in June 1562, it only took him until the beginning of October before leading Innocent Kemp to the altar at St Mary’s: she went on to bear him two more children.
The early 1560s saw particularly high rates of infant and maternal mortality in the town: Thomas Fowle lost his wife Annes and son John in April 1561, outliving them by twenty-three years; Thomas Drywood lost his wife Margaret and son in 1563; Thomas Hithe’s wife Johan and son died in the winter of 1560 and Henry Awman’s daughter Margaret was buried on June the thirteenth 1560, followed by his wife Johan two weeks later. By the 1580s, the rate of deaths was still high. Grace Whit died giving birth to her son John, who also died in January 1588 and Josanne Harvie was buried in September 1586, along with her daughter Susan. Agnes King died after having given birth to a daughter in June 1585, who followed her to the grave in early July. Women were not just at risk when having their first child. Elizabeth Medows gave birth to William in 1561, but died soon after the arrival of John in 1563.
In spite of the local proverb: “make haste when you are purchasing a field but when you are to marry a wife be slow,” enough men and women of Burnham married in haste to ensure the growth of the town. Case studies from St Mary’s parish register of baptisms, marriages and burials indicate a community where death was constantly present and unpredictable. Remarriage in the face of this helplessness was one way of reaffirming life. The rate of remarriage was high, with many men taking three or more wives, often only months after bereavement and fathering a string of children over a span of twenty or thirty years. This suggests marriage was less companionate and lasting than today; the romantic notion of a life-long union was rare and many matches were contracted between widows and widowers. Between 1559 and 1568, one in four weddings involved a widow; by the end of the Tudor period it was one in six. Women were less likely to remarry after having children although a large proportion of them did not survive long enough to do so. A significant number died giving birth to their first child but this did not lessen the danger risked with every subsequent delivery. The same sad story recurs through the parish registers.

Heartless as it may seem today, the death of a spouse created an opportunity, subject to timing. The speed of courtship and the ability and readiness of both parties to forge unions suggests marriages were licences for sexual activity, comfort and advancement in a transient world. With many marriages frequently lasting mere months, the concept of “until death do us part” must have been more immediate and relevant. Mathew Hone married the widow Johan Peeke on the thirteenth of October 1564 but when she died the following February, he married Johan Palmer in May, who had in turn been widowed that January. When Alles Munson died only weeks after marrying John Tailor, the six months he waited before remarrying in July to Annes Kenet was long in comparison with his next match; after his new wife died on the twenty first of April 1573, he waited only four months before leading Mary Mabbes to the altar at St Mary’s. It was common for women to die after a string of fairly close pregnancies and leave young children; Margaret Hunt had at least six children living when she died in 1560, the youngest being a girl of six while Alice Redwort, left exactly the same situation when she died in the same year. Widowers must have been looking for a potential stepmother as much as a wife.
Widowhood gave woman a degree of status and freedom in Tudor society; as spouses they and all their worldly goods were the property of a husband but in the event of his death, they could inherit possessions, homes, businesses and wealth, making them an attractive prospect for a new husband. On average, they waited longer than the Burnham men before seeking to become a man’s property again. With many marriages so brief, a Tudor widows did not fit the modern stereotype of women past their prime; many were still young and had not yet born a child; multiple marriages and the decease of spouses allowed some to acquire wealth through fortune and shrewd moves in the marriage market. Others had step children to consider when making a rematch.
One surviving will of the period shows in detail how a widow and surviving children were catered for. Kateryn Hanley became the sixth wife of seafaring man William Nicoll in May 1572, who had fathered his first children before 1559, when the parish records began. Perhaps the marriage or illness prompted him to write his will in November that year, giving a detailed insight into the division of the domestic treasures of his household: clearly his new [i]wife only had a claim of months whilst his children received the largest portion of his goods. To his son Thomas he left a feather bed, with bolster, pair of blankets and a covering of black and white, a brass pot and pewter dishes, platters, saucers and candlesticks. To his daughter Annes, he willed a flock bed that was his before his marriage; carefully ensuring it was not taken by his new wife; along with blankets, bolster, a covering, sheets and bedstead. She also received a number of kettles, pewter dishes, the best skillet with the legs, candle sticks, a salt cellar and linen of Holland cloth. Nicoll requested that his cousin sell his boat and use the money to discharge his debts before paying his daughter a fixed sum before concluding that the remainder “if there be any spare” go to his wife. Nicoll died in July 1573 and Kateryn went on to marry a William Everett the following February.
Elizabethan Burnham’s patterns of fertility, marriage and motherhood can throw up many surprises for a modern reader but serves as a reminder of the fragile and opportunistic nature of life in an era riddled with uncertainties, not least of mortality and medicine.

[1]  Schofield, Roger. “Did The Mothers Really Die? Three Centuries of Maternal Mortality” published in “The World We Have Lost.” Cambridge, 1991

Monday 14 November 2011

The Birth of Impressionism: private visions and public ridicule

 Monet's "Impression, Sunrise," 1874, which inadvertently gave the group its name. 

  It began in Paris, in the 1860s. A group of young artists sat drinking late into the night at the Café Guerbois, voicing their discontent over the repeated rejection of their work. France’s national Salon was governed by a conservative jury who favoured traditional subject matter, large-scale allegorical works and formal, figurative style. But these new artists dared to be different. Their brush strokes were infused with energy and movement, freely daubing and juxtaposing unexpected colours. Collectively, their work had a quick, “sketchy” or “unfinished” feel, contrary to the highly polished and finished establishment masterpieces. Instead of holing up, inside studios, they took their canvases outside and faced the challenges posed by shifting light and the vagaries of the weather. The Salon’s hegemony had produced repetitive, realistic images of acceptable themes, now disregarded by a rising generation who dared to find beauty in domestic interiors, street scenes and everyday life; hardly what the establishment considered “high art.” Among their number were names that now evoke those heady, pre-Franco-Prussian War days; Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Occasionally Paul Cezanne would look in.

 Paradoxically, the roots of Impressionist novelty lay in the past, where these young artists drew inspiration from the works of Dutch and English landscapists; Ruysdael and Hobbema, Constable[1] and Turner, blending the vibrancy of colour and brushworks used by Delacroix and the landscape traditions built up by the more recent Barbizon school of artists working around the Fontainebleau forest and along the Normandy coast, capturing wide vistas and domestic settings in energetic, vibrant brushstrokes and colours. Closer to home, the brazen, challenging eye-contact of nude prostitutes in Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe” had disconcerted and outraged the public when hung in the first Salon de Refusés[2] of 1863, as had “Olympia” two years later, establishing an extremity of reaction central to and almost indispensable for, the birth of modern art.

                                   Manet's "Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe." 1863

 In April 1874, this embryonic group officially emerged at the month-long exhibition critic Jules Laforgue called “the shock of the new…the most advanced eye in human civilisation.”[3] Based in the Boulevard des Capucines, at an old studio owned by the photographer Félix Nadar,[4] Degas was the show’s main organiser, assisted by Monet and Pissarro, responsible for the hanging of 163 works, including the placing of an “exquisitely delicate” work by Berthe Morisot[5] that shocked her former tutor into commenting that the whole exhibition looked like the product of a “cross-eyed mind.”[6] It was to prove a prophetic response. Around 3,500 people visited but disappointingly few pictures sold;[7] more people came for the experience, after reading the sensationalist reactions of the press. From London, the “Times” claimed the work was “anarchic” and “Le Figaro” labelled the artists “intransigents:” the journal “Charivari” swiftly published Louis Leroy’s now infamous sketch, satirising Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” as the lynch pin of a laughable collection, under the heading “Exhibition of the Impressionists.” Until this point, the group had been referring to themselves as the “Société anonyme des artistes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc” or the “Société anonyme” for short, but Leroy’s derisive term captured the public imagination, despite the group’s initial displeasure and the name “Impressionists” spread.

                               Pissarro "Entree du Village du Voisins," 1872

 Not all the responses were negative; the majority of reviews were fairly balanced and a good number favourable,[8] even praising the artists for breaking with the “shambles”[9] the Salon had become; Leroy’s article appeared on the same day as Philippe Burty’s identification and praise of the works’ key characteristics and the artists’ success in challenging conventional ideas, published in “La Républiqe Français.” Four days later, respected critic Jules Castagnary’s article in “Le Siècle” laid the blame for their stand at the doors of the too-exclusive, reactionary Paris Salon and recognised the “common fixing of impressions” which signified for these artists, that a work was complete, further enforcing the new name. Public response was often crude, even carnivalesque: common contemporary jokes likened Impressionist methods to the firing of paint randomly at a canvas, an image that was to recur at many significant later stages of  avant-garde art.

 One strength of the Impressionists, was that they did not simply replace one set of rules with another; their rejection of narrow tradition enabled a diverse range of styles to flourish, allowing for Morisot and Degas, Monet and Cezanne to co-exist. Celebrating these marked differences in style, the Impressionists established a new, subjective art which did not simply replicate what was becoming possible with the development of photography. Now the camera could capture an objective image, it allowed the artist greater scope in seeking out a more personal vision, achievable through revolutionary uses of the palette, the application of paint and importance of the individual artist’s vision. Suddenly, the artist, not the critic, had the final say; these loosely daubed canvases were finished “art” because the creators said so, regardless of any formal rules or traditions. Practitioners could begin to redefine taste, rather than display specific talents within limits, creating as many definitions as there were artists. In this, the Impressionists took an important step for subjectivity and autonomy in modern art.

                                      Berthe Morisot "In a Park" 1874

 Despite mixed responses, there were to be eight more Impressionist exhibitions. The last in 1886, marked the rise of a new generation of artists, who were to benefit from the freedom achieved by their early Impressionists forerunners. Manet had died in 1883; Monet, Cezanne and Renoir declined to participate, so alongside Degas and Pissarro in 1886, hung images by young artists Seurat[10] and Signac that were to influence Van Gogh and Gauguin, prompting symbolist critic Félix Fénéon to coin a Neo-Impressiontistic, or Divisionist movement, later incorporated under the Post-Impressionist[11] umbrella. The ageing Pissarro was even drawn to emulate Seurat’s Divisionist or Pointillist technique, which had won the younger artist much attention and acclaim with works such as “The Bathers” 1883-4, “Le Bec du Hoc” 1885, “Lighthouse at Honfleur” 1886 and his circus images of the 1890s which assimilated the Impressionist’s aims and techniques, while moving beyond them. The legacy of Impressionism was a freedom of expression but perhaps more importantly, a freedom of exhibition, that sparked the powerful dialogue between modern art and the general public.

[1] Constable’s “Hay Wain” was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1824, where it was first seen by Delacroix. Critics Delecluze and Nodier and artist Theodore Gericault had seen similar works at the Royal Academy and recognised French landscape to be “heavy, insensitive and false” in comparison.
[2] “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was shown at the 1863 Salon de Refuses; “Olympia” in 1865. The Salon de Refuses had been set up in 1863 to showcase rejected material of the main Salon.
[3] Quoted in “The Impressionists.” Katz and Dars. Abbeydale Press. 1991.
[4] Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, whose photographic work featured bright, radiant light and blurred, asymmetrical images.
[5] Protegee, model and possible lover of Manet, she later married his brother.
[6] Quoted in “Cezanne” Dorling Kindersley, 1999.
[7] Degas and Berthe Morisot sold nothing, while Renoir was successful only by slashing his prices.
[8] In “Impressionism: Origins, Practise, Reception” Thames and Hudson, 2000, Belinda Thomson provides a “rough tally” of 52 reviews; 9 neutral, 20 favourable, 18 mixed and 5 hostile.
[9] Ibid.
[10] It was Seurat’s huge “Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte” that stole the show in 1886.
[11] A term equally randomly generated by Roger Fry and Desmond McCarthy in 1910.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Lost Tudor: Elizabeth of York

Some Tudors are more popular than others. In TV series, films and novels, there are Tudors and then, there are Tudors. Without doubt, Henry VIII, his wives and daughter Elizabeth top the polls. The thwarted passions of their lives eclipse the shorter reigns and less popular policies of unluckier siblings Mary I and Edward VI. In spite of a rash of recent Marian rewritings, with authors navigating through her standing as the bloody scourge of mid-century Protestant martyrs, she and her sickly brother still fail to compete. Perhaps their lives do not combine those requisite elements of romance and scandal; perhaps their suffering makes for uncomfortable reading. The reputations of their cousins have been fairly inconsistent, too. Lady Jane Grey’s nine-day-rule has attracted a degree of Victorian romanticism and recently, Katherine and Mary Grey, the short-lived Queen’s sisters have come in for more attention. With the publication of Thomas Penn’s 2011 award winning “The Winter King” the unfashionable Henry VII has finally been allowed to step into the spotlight.
Yet one Tudor remains enigmatic. Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, seems to elude serious treatment. Historical novels have tried to capture something of her life and surviving portraits allow us direct access to her legendary golden beauty, although aesthetic ideals change across the centuries. In spite of this, her story and emotions are far more distant than many of her contemporaries. She has been sidelined in many modern works, as an appendage or marginal figure, a foil in the brighter firmament of her associates; a supporting cast member in the story of her husband or mother-in-law. Notable full length non-fiction treatments have been undertaken by Nancy Lenz Harvey in 1973 and more recently, Arlene Okerlund; otherwise she the white Queen is shadowy. Even Penn’s consort is disappointingly one-dimensional. Historical accounts emphasise her status; she is a construct of her regality, lineage, submissiveness and fecundity, a distant ideal. She rarely attains any "muscular" characterisation outside of fiction, partly because the surviving documentation allows barely a glimpse into her true feelings. At no point, is it easy to engage directly with her, as one can when reading the stories of Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon or indeed any of the six wives. Even the fortunate-unfortunate Anne of Cleves seems more real, more solid sometimes. Perhaps this is simply because Elizabeth has been portrayed less, lived less long or fell victim to the good intentions of later chroniclers and suffered from her deification by the poets and writers of her son’s and grandchildren’s reigns. By then, she could do no wrong.
Elizabeth’s early life swung between extremes of privilege and privation. She was born in 1466, two years after her parent's unpopular and clandestine marriage.  As the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville, her childhood was spent either in the celebration of kingship or the battle for its recovery. She was frequently in sanctuary, hiding from the Yorkist dynasty’s enemies, while members of her family were slaughtered on the battlefield and murdered in cold blood. Her younger brothers disappeared during the reign of her uncle Richard III in 1483, remembered in history as the Princes in the Tower, while her mother’s large family were also decimated by Richard and his associates, making for a chilling and difficult inheritance. On the death of Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, in March 1485, it was even rumoured that he had ordered her murder so that he might strengthen his claim through marriage to Elizabeth. Historians and novelists have argued since then, about Elizabeth's feelings for her uncle. Was she in love with him? It seems incredible to modern sensibilities that she could feel that way after such a history, for a close blood relation, yet this is an anachronistic reaction that does not take into account the pragmatism required to survive such turbulent times.  Did her behaviour at Christmas 1484 imply competition with her aunt and sexual desire for her uncle ? A seventeenth century author, George Buck, certainly thought so and cited a letter supposedly authored by Elizabeth, imagining Anne's death, as proof. However, a number of problems with this letter's authentication and interpretation make it a controverisal piece of evidence. The jury is still out on Elizabeth's true feelings about her uncle. Following his wife's death, Richard issued a flat denial that he had intended to marry his niece, after a panel of bishops and his closest advisors had warned him against it. There is no evidence that he actually intended the match or that Elizabeth herself was keen.
However, this rumour may have helped prompt Henry Tudor to re-invade England. Having sworn to marry her at Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483, Tudor had already attempted to invade and been defeated by inclement weather conditions and the poor organisation of the English rebels. Defeating Richard at Bosworth Field in August 1485, it was he who claimed Elizabeth as his bride in what was to become a long and fruitful union. Golden-haired and beautiful, Elizabeth was almost a decade younger than her husband. In the seventeen years of their marriage she produced seven, possibly eight, children, of whom only half survived until maturity. Those four; two boys and two girls; were the progenitors of all future Tudor policy and history. Arthur (1486-1502) untied the country with Spain in his short-lived marriage, which would later underpin his brother Henry's "Great Matter" and shape England’s religious future. Margaret (1489-1541) became Queen of Scotland and was the grandmother of both Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Lord Darnley, the parents of the future James I and subsequent Stuart line. The history of Henry (1491-1547) hardly needs repeating, while his younger sister Mary Rose (1496-1533) was Queen of France before becoming grandmother to the Grey sisters. As such, Elizabeth can been truly seen as the mother of the Tudor dynasty; the quirks and turns of its fate had their origins in her womb!
One year of Elizabeth’s life is particularly well documented. The surviving privy purse accounts for 1502-1503 give the strongest surviving indication of her habits and pleasures; through these, something of the real woman finally emerges. She had a love of finery; barges were often sent between the royal palaces to fetch specific gowns she wished to wear, made from purple, blue or russet velvet or cloth-of-gold; it cost 6d just to retrieve these for her use. This was the same wage earned daily by her grooms of the chamber, responsible for shipping her jewels about London, wherever she happened to be. Her interest in literature, drama, architecture and gardening are also evident. She was generous with alms, giving regularly to “poor women,” nuns and local shrines, offering bequests on Saints’ days and to a number of deserving or needy individuals. She recompensed people for their gifts; 13s 4d for Rhenish wine and 10s for a wild boar to be enjoyed at her table. Much of her income was spent on her family circle, supporting the sisters who had been at her side during difficult times and their families. Loyalty was rewarded; even at the end of her life, she remembered a woman who had been nurse to her doomed brother and gave her a gift of cloth, as well as sending alms to a man who had been her father’s servant. She personified the Queenly attributes of charity, piety and approachability, representing the softer side of rule, offsetting the distant and authoritarian masculine role. If medieval and Tudor Kings and Queens were complimentary halves of a complete entity, Henry and Elizabeth were nothing less than successful.
Apparently quiet, long-suffering and dutiful, Elizabeth’s history has often been overshadowed by that of her husband and his mother. Yet she never lost the affection of the English people, in whose eyes she was the legitimate heir of Edward IV and the focus of popular sympathy following the disappearance of the Princes in 1483. Nowhere is this clearer than in reactions to her death, which are reminiscent of another "Queen of Hearts," Princess Diana, in 1997. When Elizabeth lost her life in childbirth, on her thirty-seventh birthday, it prompted an outpouring of national grief and a frenzy of the iconography that cast her as the ideal she is remembered as today. Church bells wailed out across the nation. Colour and light was carefully deployed to intensify the queen’s purity and saintly sacrifice. Dramatic white banners were laid across the corners of her coffin, signifying the manner of her demise, while the main body of it was draped with black velvet surmounted by a cross of white cloth-of-gold. Two sets of thirty-seven virgins in white linen and Tudor wreaths of white and green lined her route to Westminster, carrying lighted candles and the torchbearers wore white woollen hooded gowns. More than a thousand lights burned on the hearse and the vaults and cross of the cathedral were draped in black and lit by 273 large tapers. The coffin was spectacularly topped by a wax effigy of the queen, dressed in robes of estate, her hair loose under a rich crown, a sceptre in her hand and fingers adorned with fine rings. Before burial, the effigy with its crown and rich robes was removed and stored in secrecy at the shrine of Edward the Confessor; so this life-like, regal image of the queen was absorbed into a collection of holy relics and icons, acquiring something of their status. Part of the effigy still exists in the museum at Westminster Abbey, its face, neck and chest painted white, its features regular and serene, unsmiling but beneficent. Every year after this, until his death in 1509, her widower Henry VII honoured the anniversary of her death and the poets of Tudor England continued to do obeisance long after his demise.
                                        Elizabeth's funeral effigy, dressed in modern robe and wig

Elizabeth is very much a “lost" or "forgotten" Tudor. Itr is possible to glimpse her at various key life stages but usually as the foil to her husband or her children. Her identity as something of the fifteenth-century “trophy wife” reminds us of her importance in strengthening Henry’s claim to the throne, although Henry was keen to assert his own Lancastrian claim and his right as a conqueror. Even when it came to marriage, his wife's emotions amid times of war and peace continue to elude us.  Scenes such as their unity in grief on the death of Arthur, as well as the interests they shared and united front in times of trouble, such as in 1487, suggest a successful union. As the mother of the dynasty, she must retain a central part in the Tudor story in spite of centuries of distance. The woman who paid her fool additional money whilst he was ill, who recompensed her servant when his house burned down and who bought her page’s wedding clothes, was a generous survivor whose experiences we can now, sadly, only see from the outside.