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Paris, 23 August 1572. The young poet Philip Sidney peers in horror through the window of the English Ambassador Francis Walsingham’s residence to see the streets flowing with blood and piled high with mutilated corpses. He is witnessing what would prove to be an epoch-shaping event, the 16th century equivalent of our own traumatizing 9/11. This St Bartholomew’s Day massacre would claim the lives of tens of thousands and send a shock wave throughout the whole of Europe, an horrific testament to the ever-hazardous combination of power hungry politicians and religious extremism.
When Sidney returned to England he began working on his pastoral epic Arcadia from which John Dowland plucked the refrain for his lute song O sweet woods. The verses most probably written by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, mention Wanstead, one of his country houses, where he had entertained certain “fairest nymphs”, his Queen, Elizabeth I and her maids in waiting. Can she excuse, also attributed to Essex continues the theme of unrequited love, no doubt alluding to his relationship with Elizabeth. But not all were so adoring of the Queen—within or beyond England’s shores and either side of the religious fence many doubted the very right of a “mere woman” to rule a nation.
To counteract these denunciations of her sovereignty, Elizabeth and her supporters employed a plethora of powerful female archetypes in the poems, symbolic portraits, elaborate jousting tournaments and public festivities. She would be praised among others as Pandora, Diana, Gloriana, Astraea, Cynthia or Belphoebe. Perhaps her most enduring image is her portrayal as the Arthurian Faerie Queene, first used during celebrations at the rather felicitously named Woodstock in 1575 and later immortalized in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem.
The Elves daunce, from The Maydes Metamorphosis, a play performed before the Queen by the choirboy theatre company of the St Paul’s Cathedral, originally concluded with the words “for our brave Queene a”. In 1614, when one of it’s performers, Thomas Ravenscroft, first published the song, Elizabeth has passed away and these words were replaced, probably in an attempt to not antagonize her successor King James I. However, men such as the poet Michael Drayton were already discontented with the new Jacobean regime. Soon a nostalgia for the Faerie Queene’s reign ignited and one cannot help feeling her presence in the “fantastick Mayde” Drayton invokes in his poem Nymphidia (1627).
The ribald Yonder comes a courteous Knight also belongs to the repertoire of St Paul’s choristers, perhaps from a now lost play or was used as one of the musical interludes between acts that were a speciality of these companies. The open-air performances at The Globe by rivaling adult companies would have lacked such sonic finery. By the time Shakespeare had penned The Tempest, his company had access to alternative indoor venues, allowing a more elaborate musical content in the style of Full fathome five & Where the bee sucks.
Pantheas Lament is the tragic climax of a romance from the ancient Athenian Xenophon’s Cyropaedia that Spenser in his preface to The Faerie Queene exalts as to be “preferred before Plato”. Panthea was the wife of the King Abradat, who had fought alongside the Assyrians against Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire. Cyrus took Panthea captive while her husband was absent and due to the honourable treatment she received, Abradat eventually changed his allegiance to that of his former enemy. When he died during the conquest of Lydia in 547 BC, Panthea could not bare her loss and so took her own life. Richard Farrant’s setting no doubt belonged to a play based upon this romance, where Panthea would have been portrayed by a young choirboy in drag. This would also have been the case with the less chaste role of Franceschina, a prostitute, who sings The darke is my delight in the opening act of The Dutch Courtesan by John Marston.
The scandalous events of the broadside ballad The sorrowful complaint of Susan Higges begin in the small Buckinghamshire village of Princes Risborough. Miss Higges used her enticing female servants to trap local youths into compromising situations with her “girles” and then blackmailed them, although her main source of income seems to have been procured as a highway [wo]man. Her downfall took place near the town of Great Missenden, when during the murder of a woman she had robbed, three drops of indelible blood stained her face. In panic she confessed to her servants, who in turn betrayed her to the authorities. Brought to Little Brickhill, she awaited trial by the so called assize courts or “sisses”, which would travel throughout the country to pass judgement on serious crimes. The sentence was death by hanging. There is sadly no surviving historical proof of Susan Higges life aside from this Ballad. The extant records of the assize courts that were regularly held in Little Brickhill until 1638 show no sign of her execution. The hacks who often wrote such sensationalist ballads were as carefree and inventive with the facts as today’s tabloid press.
The Middle Ages had considered melancholy as the most base and despicable of the four possible humours that could shape a persons character. This view was to change dramatically in the Renaissance, when it had become a most desirable asset: “By melancholy some men are made as it were divine, foretelling things to come, and some men are made poets […]. So great also they say the power of melancholy is, that by its force, celestial spirits also are sometimes drawn into mens bodies.” (Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, 1532). In I saw my Lady weepe John Dowland revels in this melancholic humour, proclaiming its supremacy to mirth, yet he is also heedful of its inherent danger. Dowland as the epitome of Elizabethan melancholia could never abide by his own council to “strive not to be excellent in woe” as Flow my tears was just a page turn away in his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600). It would become the anthem of worldly disenchantment throughout Europe and can be savoured here in its instrumental incarnation as Lachrimae Pavane between the verses of I saw my Lady weepe.
Four hundred years later we are still “talking of the Fayries”. It seems no mere coincidence that on our magical silver screens the “pretty light fantastick Mayde” Cate Blanchett should be chosen to portray both Elizabeth I and Tolkien’s Elven Queen Galadriel. Some would slander it all as vacuous escapism, but who can blame humanity both now and then and deny them the path to their own Golden Age.
Mark Wheeler, Essen, Autumn 2010
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