Thursday, February 28, 2013

Theatre Thursday: Shakespeare, Marlowe and "Dueling Divas"

A portrait of a young man, generally thought to be the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

For this Theatre Thursday, I bring you links to articles from around the web concerning Elizabethan Theatre and Elizabethan figures in theatre:

Shakespeare For The "Elizabethan Impaired" Offered At The English Rose

Dueling Divas in Donizetti's 'Maria Stuarda' 

The Baptism of Marlowe (Feb 26th)


Monday, February 25, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Essex, Excommunication, and Burghley

A miniature of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, circa 1596. By Isaac Oliver. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1601, (which had been an Ash Wednesday) Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was beheaded for treason.

How did this royal favorite wind up with his head upon the block? And what were the repercussions for his friends and family? Learn the answers to these questions and more in our article on the fall of the Earl of Essex.

Also today in Elizabethan history....

A composite image of Pope Pius V and Queen Elizabeth I (The Ermine Portrait). Shared for public use on Wikimedia Commons by JW1805.

In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I, despite being a Protestant, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. As a confirmed heretic in contempt of the "one true faith", Pius V had effectively absolved Catholic Europe of sin if they were to assassinate Elizabeth.

A portrait of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, depicted in his robes for The Order of the Garter. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1571, Queen Elizabeth promoted her hardworking Secretary, William Cecil to the peerage, creating him Baron Burghley. He also earned a seat in the House of Lords.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Religious Feminism in Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn': An Exclusive Interview with the Director (Part 2)

~This is part 2 of a two-part post focusing on the first U.S. production of Howard Brenton's exciting new play 'Anne Boleyn'; yesterday's post reviews the play itself, while today's post features excerpts from an exclusive interview with Rachel Walshe, the director of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre.~

The Talkback panel at The Gamm Theatre assembled after the performance of Anne Boleyn. The Gamm's artistic director, Tony Estrella is seated second from the left; director Rachel Walshe is seated on the far right. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen

Between watching the magnificent Anne Boleyn and attending the "TalkBack", a panel-led discussion about the creation of the King James Bible, I had a lovely conversation with a woman named Barbara, who was sitting in the row in front of my mother and I. Barbara had noticed the ring on my hand-a reproduction of the famous chequers ring of Queen Elizabeth I, made for me by Rhonda of Sapphire and Sage. Though Barbara did not initially know exactly what ring it was, she was captivated by it, (it is very large and bejeweled, after all; it practically glowed in the dark!) and it gave me the opening to tell her the history of the ring itself. I let her try it on, (what use are reproduction pieces if you don't use them to teach?) and afterwards I gave her Sapphire and Sage's web address as well as my card. The fact that Barbara said that the conversation was, I quote, the "highlight of my day" brought great joy to my heart. I would like to think that the spirits of both Queen Anne and her daughter Queen Elizabeth were at work in The Gamm Theatre that afternoon!

An open and closed view of Queen Elizabeth I's locket ring, now known as the chequers ring. Discover its significance here.

After the Talkback, I introduced myself to the director of Anne Boleyn, Ms. Rachel Walshe. She had graciously agreed via email to have a discussion with me about her staging of Brenton's Anne Boleyn at The Gamm, and the discussion did not disappoint. Ms. Walshe answered all of my questions, demonstrating throughout a passion for women's issues and Anne Boleyn herself. In my opinion, the production could not have been directed by a more appropriate individual.

Anne Boleyn is the third play that Ms. Walshe has directed at The Gamm Theatre. She went to university in England, and she holds a Masters of English and Literary Theory from Oxford. The mother of two children, Ms. Walshe expressed a deep interest in directing pieces relating to women's issues.

Rhode Island seemed to me to be an unexpected place for the U.S. premiere of Anne Boleyn, which had previously been at the world-famous Globe Theatre in London. Why not New York, or Boston, or even Chicago? So I asked Ms. Walshe, why Rhode Island? And did she personally lobby to direct the piece, or was she assigned?

Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Ms. Walshe informed me that the artistic director is responsible for choosing the plays that are to be performed at a given theatre. The artistic director of The Gamm Theatre, Tony Estrella, also happened to play a magnificent James I in the production. Mr. Estrella has a relationship with the playwright of Anne Boleyn, Howard Brenton; he had previously been able to secure the rights to the U.S. premiere of another one of Brenton's plays, Paul. Based on the success of Paul in Rhode Island, The Gamm also earned the rights to premiere Anne Boleyn.

The Gamm Theatre in Rhode Island. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.

Ms. Walshe told me that she typically gravitates towards directing plays about women, and that Mr. Estrella knew this about her, in addition to her being a proud "card-carrying member of the cult of Anne Boleyn". These two qualities earned her the director's chair. As someone who researches Queen Elizabeth I and her mother, Anne Boleyn on a daily basis, I was delighted to hear that the enigmatic Anne had been put in the right hands. Ms. Walshe first came across Anne when she was studying for her masters at Oxford. The Tudors captivated her for the same reason that they captivate many, including myself: influenced by humanism, they are the first figures to preside over a court that is concerned with individual identity and self-improvement, as well as upward mobility; we can all recognize ourselves in the people of the Tudor court. Ms. Walshe said that she is "fascinated by women whose identities are so malleable that we can shape them into whatever we need them to be." We, she said,  "reinvent (Anne) to whatever we need her to be."

A miniature of Anne Boleyn, wearing her famous "B" necklace. By Hoskins. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Years later, Anne came into Ms. Walshe's life again after the birth of her first child. As Ms. Walshe humorously relayed, after giving birth you are "couch-ridden" for a few months, and this was around the same time that the Showtime series, The Tudors, first aired. Like most who study the time period, Ms. Walshe was aware of the inaccuracies, but still entertained. We both agreed that the actress who played Anne Boleyn in the series, Natalie Dormer, was phenomenal. What is dangerous about Brenton's Anne, Ms. Walshe points out, is that she puts forth the idea that a woman's sexuality can be anointed by God; Anne sees her "carnal desire as an engine of reform." Brenton has written Anne as a "thoughtful, spiritually invested woman who wants change." And when she dies, Anne's "spirituality remains intact."

Indeed, the play is unique in that it highlights Anne's role in the Henrician Reformation in England, (which has been both celebrated and downplayed by various historians) rather than solely focusing on her romantic relationship with Henry VIII. I asked Ms. Walshe why she thought this portrayal of Anne was so important.

Ms. Walshe agreed with me that this is an aspect of Anne's character that we rarely see examined; if it is mentioned at all, it is usually in passing. Anne has continued to capture the popular imagination for hundreds of years because she embodies "the two archetypes we tend to box women into". This are, as any women's history scholar knows, the 'Madonna' and the 'whore'.

I asked Ms. Walshe if she had had the opportunity to see Anne Boleyn performed at The Globe; she said that she had not, but that she had seen other plays there. I asked her how The Gamm Theatre's production was different to the staging at The Globe.

Ms. Walshe pointed out that the script, having been commissioned for The Globe, lacks the stage, lighting and set directions typical of a traditional theatrical script. The Globe, as an open-air, Elizabethan theatre, has no theatrical lighting or artificial scenery. The stories performed there are "all indicated in the language", with the characters often speaking in asides or appealing to the audience, a device that anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare performed is familiar with. 

Ms. Walshe said that the creative team was "hyper-aware" of these differences; audiences at The Globe know not to expect scenery or lighting, but American audiences do have that expectation. The Gamm's challenge here, Ms. Walshe said, was to tell this story to an audience without those expectations.

Therefore, set, lighting, and props had to be discussed and developed by the creative team exclusively for this staging.

The author on the Anne Boleyn set. Photo by L. Jensen.

Also created specifically for The Gamm Theatre's production? The costumes! Tudor clothing was incredibly elaborate, and even creating stage versions (versus completely historically accurate ones) is a challenge. I was surprised to learn that not a single outfit worn by any character in Anne Boleyn was recycled from another show. Watching the show, it appeared to me that the costume designer, David T. Howard, had made a stylistic choice to portray the Tudor and Stuart courts differently. James I and his court wore clothing in black and white and grey, a color palate I would refer to as "puritanical". Ms. Walshe told me that for James I's court, Mr. Howard had been inspired by woodblock prints from the 16th and 17th century. In contrast, Henry VIII and his court were clothed in the sumptuous reds, greens, purples and golds of Tudor England. One of Henry VIII's outfits looked especially familiar to me; Ms. Walshe confirmed that the Holbein-esque red, white and gold costume was indeed inspired by Henry VIII's most famous portrait.

A likeness of King Henry VIII, after his famous Holbein portrait, by artist George S. Stuart. The figure is part of Stuart's Gallery of Historical Figures. Photo shared for public use on Wikimedia Commons by the photographer, Peter d'Aprix

The dates for Anne Boleyn were extended through this weekend. I asked Ms. Walshe if she was surprised by the show's success, and if she knew where the play would be traveling to next. Ms. Walshe told me that, though she would have liked to have believed that positive reviews and word-of-mouth were why The Gamm's staging of Anne Boleyn was so successful, she didn't think that that was the case; most of the dates were sold out before their opening weekend. Ms. Walshe surmised that Hilary Mantel's award-winning books, as well as Philippa Gregory's successful novels, had put the Tudor's at the forefront of popular culture and contributed to Anne Boleyn's success.

There is certainly something about the Tudors!

Ms. Walshe does not know where the next production of Anne Boleyn will be, but it is now available to any theatre in the U.S. that wants to buy the rights.

~I would like to thank the cast and the crew of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre for creating and performing a fantastic show. I also would like to thank the delightful Rachel Walshe for agreeing to be interviewed for the BeingBess blog.~

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Theatre Thursday: A Review of Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn' (Part 1)

The playbill for The Gamm Theatre's production of Anne Boleyn. Image uploaded to ExperiencePawtucket.

~This is part 1 of a two-part post focusing on the first U.S. production of Howard Brenton's exciting new play 'Anne Boleyn'; today's post reviews the play itself, while tomorrow's post will feature an exclusive interview with Rachel Walshe, the director of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre.~

On Sunday, February 17th I attended a performance of British playwright Howard Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn'. Anne Boleyn had originally been commissioned for the recreated Globe Theatre in London, where it had a very successful run, premiering in July of 2010. It starred Miranda Raison and was directed by John Dove. I followed the play through articles and reviews online, hoping that it would make its way "across the pond" to America so that I could see it. Luckily, Anne Boleyn made its U.S. debut in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which is within driving distance of where I live. My mother, ever-obliging of my Tudor interests since I was a young, (seemingly strange) child, joined me. I wrote to the Gamm Theatre in advance, requesting an interview with the director, Rachel Walshe, for my blog. I was delighted when Ms. Walshe wrote back, granting me an interview after the show.

The historic Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I was delighted to discover that The Gamm Theatre looked like a brownstone castle; how appropriate for a production of Anne Boleyn! Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen, 2013.

Anne Boleyn has been having a moment...for hundreds of years! She has been the subject of countless books, and has been portrayed in film and television, theatre and literature, and has inspired dramatic music and art; she has even been reincarnated in doll and action figure form! But Brenton's two-act play is unique amongst them all in that it highlights Anne Boleyn's role in religious reform in England, rather than solely focusing on her romantic relationship with Henry VIII. The play, like any piece of art, takes certain historic liberties, the most glaringly obvious being that it suggests that Anne Boleyn had a personal relationship with William Tyndale, whom she met periodically in the forest to discuss religion. Untrue as this may be, it serves as a plot device to illustrate Anne Boleyn's interest in reformist ideas, which we know that she, her father and her brother all had. And, despite Anne being referred to as a Protestant in the play, we know that she would not have thought of herself as such, being that the term was not yet in use, and that she died within the Catholic faith.

Despite these minor issues, and a few other questionable references that we have no evidence to support (like Thomas More torturing Protestants in his house with a portable rack), Brenton's script as well as The Gamm Theatre's staging of it was phenomenal. It was both thought-provoking as well as entertaining, a difficult balance to achieve with a historical piece. 

The play opens with Anne Boleyn, enigmatically portrayed by Madeleine Lambert, boldly addressing the audience, holding a bag and asking us if we want to see what is inside. The bag holds both her head and her personal copy of William Tyndale's translation of the Bible. Shortly thereafter we travel to the court of James I, who has recently succeeded to the throne of England. Robert Cecil (acted by Sam Babbitt with the dry wit characteristic of the Cecil's) looks on as his new sovereign, played by Tony Estrella, rummages through the possessions of Queen Elizabeth I: her 2,000 dresses, in particular, fascinate the notoriously frumpy James! In the Gamm Theatre's staging, the dresses of Queen Elizabeth were suspended from the ceiling of the tiny Black-box theatre. 

Me, wearing my replica chequers ring and my great-grandmother's church gloves, on The Gamm Theatre set for Anne Boleyn after the show. Photo by L. Jensen 2013.

A curious chest is brought forth that, when opened, reveals the coronation gown of "the concubine", our heroine Anne Boleyn. Therefore, Brenton is implying that Queen Elizabeth secretly kept some of her mother's personal possessions (and the evidence suggests that, if she had access to them, she probably did). King James becomes excited like a little school boy, and continues examining the box; in doing so, he uncovers a secret compartment that reveals Anne's personal copy of William Tyndale's Bible, with her notes scrawled in the margins. I found this to be an accurate touch, as Anne and Henry VIII exchanged notes in the margins of books that they would pass back and forth to one another. James voices aloud his wish to know Anne's story; we are then transported back into the court of King Henry VIII, where we see Anne's story unfold.

Throughout the play, the audience travels back and forth between the sumptuous, scandalous court of King Henry VIII, and the stark, sober court of James I, who is tying to appease the religious parties in England: the Anglicans, the Puritans, the Presbytrians, and the Catholics, while also retaining his position as the Head of the Church of England. And what is the best way to achieve this? By creating a new Bible, of course, which will support the Divine Right of Kings, but also incorporate phrasing and doctrine from the different religious sects. The result is to be, of course, the King James Bible (first published in 1611). This part of the play is masterfully written. Act Two, Scene One in particular stands out, where James brings forth Dean Lancelot Andrewes, Doctor John Reynolds and Henry Barrow to discuss the points of religion where they differ: baptism and original sin, the structure of the Church, atlar rails, and the "big, black and monstrous, elephant-size" word in the room, 'Presbyterianism'.  In Act Two, Scene Six, James asks Dean Andrewes and Doctor Reynolds how they would translate 3 Greek words for the new edition of the Bible, 'Ecclesia', 'Presbyteros', and 'Agape'. Naturally, the two scholars come up with entirely different answers, illuminating the issues of translation and making it all the more remarkable that the different committees assigned to create the authorized version of the Bible were able to put together a cohesive document.

Brenton's confident and sensuous Anne will seem familiar to those who study and admire her, but it is truly a revelation to see her portrayed as a convicted champion of reform on stage. As the official description of Brenton's play claims, "Anne was a religious conspirator, in love with Henry VIII but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day." Anne sees her relationship with King Henry VIII as God's will; Henry VIII is supposed to divorce his Catholic "cow" of a wife, marry Anne, and usher in a new, Protestant England. Like the real Anne, Brenton's version is prone to outbursts, and alienates those around her who had supported her in the past, notably Cromwell. In a startling omission, Thomas Cranmer is not included as a character in the play; since Anne Boleyn centers around Anne's role in religion in England, it seemed strange to me that Anne Boleyn's personal chaplain and friend was nowhere to be found.

Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII Shooting Deer in Windsor Forest, by William Powell Frith, 1903. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Most historians are in agreement that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII first sexually consummated their relationship during their visit to Calais, France, and Brenton follows this consensus. The intermission begins exactly when they are about to get into bed together, though the script gives no official stage direction as to how to announce the intermission. The Gamm Theatre came up with a rather amusing way; they had Henry and Anne engage in a steamy embrace, having Anne briefly break away and turn her head to  the audience, saying, "And we will now break for a 15 minute interval" followed by a mischievous wink!

In the Second Act, Anne's story resumes after her coronation and the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth; a feverish Anne is concerned over the gender of her child, and is seen sitting on the ground, clutching her coronation robes like they are an infant. Henry approaches her, and Anne asks him, "Have you come to take it away?" Henry responds, "Take away what, my love?" Anne says matter-of-factly, "My dress". "Why should I do that?" Henry asks her. Anne responds, "Because I was made Queen in it. And now they won't let me be Queen any more." Anne is obviously foreshadowing her own fate. Brenton's Henry is extremely kind (perhaps too kind in this moment) and understanding. Henry, played by Steven Kidd, declares, "We are still young", a version of the famous quote where Henry declares that he and Anne are both young, and sons will soon follow.

In the end of the play, it is Cromwell who is the architect of Anne Boleyn's fall, not Henry VIII. According to Brenton's version, Queen Anne had discovered that Cromwell had been illegally lining his pockets, and those of his relatives with money and property from the dissolution of the monasteries. Because she was going to reveal this information to Henry, Cromwell had to act fast in order to destroy her first. Of course, the fall of Anne Boleyn is a far more complex matter, but in a two act play, the audience must be given a simple explanation in order to expedite us to the execution. 

Jane Rochford, played by Casey Seymour-Kim, has a prominent role throughout the play as Anne's friend (as she was in real life, for a time) and is in the room when Anne is arrested; she hurriedly explains to Anne that she testified against her to save her own life. This plot-twist is believable because Brenton has written Jane as a woman who is mistreated and threatened with violence by various men throughout the play; this gives us a reason to believe that she could be so easily swayed by the threat of rope torture at the hands of Cromwell. 

When Anne is arrested, she demands to see Henry, and is carried off stage screaming her husband's name. Seeing the once-proud Anne reduced to a state of terror in theatre and cinema always brings tears to my eyes, and this production was no exception. 

Anne Boleyn is Condemned to Death, a 19th century painting by Pierre Nolasque Bergeret. Picture from Inor19 on Flickr.

Henry VIII begins his relationship with Jane Seymour toward the end of the play, and Cromwell warns Jane not to discuss matters of religion or state with Henry, instead advising her to "Let him lie on your bosoms, not your opinions."  At the end of the play, Anne addresses the audience as she did at the beginning; she calls the audience "demons", for she cannot tell what they believe. 

ANNE: Dear demons of the future, what I can't tell...what I can't tell is what you believe. You're so strange to me, as i must be strange to you. But...but...beware of love. No, don't! We must all die, so die greatly, for a better world, for love.

Brenton's Anne never regrets her love of King Henry VIII or of reform. The real Anne probably didn't, either. 

I bought a copy of the extraordinary Anne Boleyn script after the show. I was pleased to see that the official "Shakespeare's Globe" seal was right on the cover! The direction and the acting of The Gamm Theatre production were as impressive as the script. And, it should be mentioned that the dialect coach did a stupendous job in helping the actors master distinct accents from different parts of England, as well as teaching an understandable Scottish brogue to Tony Estrella, who played James I. Estrella is also the artistic director of The Gamm. As I would find out later from the director, a previous performance had included a "row of Brits" who believed that the actress who played Anne Boleyn was actually English. This, it should go without saying, is high praise!

Following the play was the third in a series of "TalkBacks", a panel-led discussion relating to the history of Brenton's play. This particular session was about the creation of the King James Bible, and featured an engaging and knowledgeable scholar in Reformation studies, Jeannine Olson. Professor Olson could rattle off the dates and the history of the Reformation and the creation of different Bibles at rapid speed. My mother turned to me and said, "I think that I am seeing you in the future." 

Thank you, Mom, I certainly hope so!

The "TalkBack" panel, which followed the February 17th production of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre. Second from the left is artistic director and actor Tony Estrella, followed by Professor Olson and director Rachel Walshe. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen 2013.
Dear readers, have you seen a production of Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn? If so, what were you opinions? 

Visit BeingBess tomorrow for part two of our post focusing on Anne Boleyn, featuring an exclusive interview with the director, Ms. Rachel Walshe.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Elizabethan Quote of the Day: Concerning the Earl of Cumberland

A portrait of George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, wearing the Queen's glove on his hat, and proudly displaying his lance and tournament armor. By Nicholas Hilliard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
"...This noble gentleman (George Clifford) by her majesties express commandment is yerely (without respect unto his age) personally present at these military exercises, there to see, survey, and as one most careful and skillful to direct them."

-from Honor Military and Civill, by William Segar.

George Clifford, the 3rd Earl of Cumberland, was one of the commanders of the fleet that drove off the Spanish Armada. He also served as Queen Elizabeth I's tournament champion for a time. When Queen Elizabeth I gave him her glove, the Earl of Cumberland wore it on his person forever-after, displaying it on the front of his hat.

A portrait of a portrait of George Clifford, the 3rd Earl of Cumberland, circa 1590, wearing Queen Elizabeth I's favor, a glove, on his hat. After Nicholas Hilliard. Image public domain through Creative Commons licensing, NPG, London.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Our Valentine to Our Readers...

A pair of miniatures of Queen Elizabeth I and her favorite and friend, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Painted by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1575. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this Valentine's Day, I wish to express my extreme gratitude to all of my loyal BeingBess blog readers, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Google+ pals, LinkedIn connections, and Pinterest pinners. I appreciate your support of my BeingBess work, and I value your insight on historical figures and controversies. I delight in this online, international community of people who share my passion for researching and discussing the 16th century.

Sending you love & light wherever you are!



Here is my Valentine to you all, Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, which is my personal favorite!

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Death of Blanche Parry

A photo of a now-lost portrait of Blanche Parry. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1590, Blanche Parry died. Along with Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, Blanche, or Mistress Parry, was one of Queen Elizabeth I's most loyal servants and a life-long friend. Blanche was both Keeper of Her Majesty's Jewels and Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, positions that required both discretion and meticulous organization.

A portrait in the collection of Lord Hastings, purported to be of Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, Blanche's colleague and friend. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Blanche was born in either 1507 or 1508 to a Welsh father, Harry Myles, and an English mother, Alice Milbourne. Blanche anglicized her given Welsh surname before traveling with her aunt, Lady Troy, to serve in the English court of Henry VIII. Lady Troy was entrusted to serve as Lady Mistress to two of Henry VIII's children, Elizabeth and Edward. Aged about 25, Blanche worked alongside her aunt in the royal nursery, and would later write in her own epitaph that she was the future Queen Elizabeth I's cradle-rocker. When the Princess Mary was in residence, Lady Troy supervised her as well (Richardson). Few personalities from the Tudor period could claim the distinction of having personally interacted with the last three Tudor monarchs.

Henry VIII and his three children (and his fool, Will Sommers!) by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Blanche remained in Princess Elizabeth's household, and along with Katherine Champernowne-Ashley, shared in the many perils of Elizabeth Tudor's young and adolescent life. Blanche may have accompanied Elizabeth to the Tower of London when she was imprisoned by her sister, Mary Tudor, on suspicion of giving support to the Wyatt Rebellion, though we do not know for sure. We do know that she was with Elizabeth after she was released from prison and confined to Woodstock, and then Hatfield. She was also with Elizabeth when she received the news that Mary had died and had declared her her successor.

The Old Palace at Hatfield. Picture acquired through That Boleyn Girl's Flickr.

When, against seemingly insurmountable odds, Elizabeth succeeded to the throne of England, she did not forget those who had not forsaken her. Blanche was one of the first people to receive an appointment in Elizabeth I's household; as Keeper of Her Majesty's Jewels, Blanche maintained the Queen's priceless baubles, as well as her other most personal belongings, like books, letters and papers, linens and furs.

When Katherine Ashley died in 1565, Blanche took over her duties as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. As the woman in charge of Queen Elizabeth I's inner-sanctum, Blanche was sought out by those who wished to petition the queen or seek her advice or favor, and even to help push parliamentary bills. As one who effectively controlled access to the Queen, Blanche Parry was acknowledged at court as a powerful woman to have on your side (Borman, 346). Blanche was trusted by Queen Elizabeth to use her discretion in determining what letters, gifts of money, and requests were worthy of being brought forth to her. Another aspect of her duties that demonstrates the enormous trust that Queen Elizabeth had in Blanche was that she allowed her to write some minor correspondences on her behalf, when necessary (Richardson, 75-78). 

Queen Elizabeth I receives ambassadors, possibly by female court painter Levina Teerlinc. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

According Parry's definitive biographer, R.E. Richardson, Parry also cared for the Queen's "musk cat"-most likely a ferret. Anyone familiar with ferrets will agree that this is an apt description, as weasels are very similar in their behavior to felines, and they do indeed smell!  In addition to caring for the Queen's menagerie, which also included a monkey, dogs, and guinea pigs, both Queen Elizabeth and Blanche enjoyed the company of horses, and they often rode and hunted together.

Blanche, who remained unmarried like her mistress, became independently wealthy through the rewards she earned for her tireless service to the Queen. Elizabeth I granted her wardships, as well as estates in Herefordshire, Yorkshire, and Wales. As head of her own estates, Blanche also assisted in a legal battle in 1584 concerning Llangorse Lake, something most 16th century women, even unmarried ones, did not do (Richardson).

Long before her death, between 1576-77, Blanche wrote her first will, which was supervised by her cousin, the incomparable William Cecil, Lord Burghley. She also commissioned her own monument in Bacton Church, Herefordshire; Blanche and her sisters had worshiped at St. Faith's, Bacton as children (Richardson). This monument is important for two reasons: one, that it is symbol of a woman who knew her own self worth, and in the absence of her own family, arranged for her own memorial; and two, because it includes the first depiction of Queen Elizabeth I as the semi-mythical Gloriana. The tomb is glorious, uniting both the loyal servant and friend with her appreciative mistress and Queen for eternity. The inscription on the monument includes the phrase, "with maiden Queen a maid did end my life".

Blanche Parry kneeling beside Queen Elizabeth I, in the guise of Gloriana, in her memorial at St.Faith's, Bacton Church in Herefordshire. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

A full view of Blanche Parry's monument in Bacton Church. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons and shared for public use by photographer Derek Voller.

Blanche began to lose her eyesight in age, and though this certainly affected her work performance to some degree, a grateful Queen Elizabeth retained Blanche in her positions.

When Blanche Parry passed on February 12th in 1590 at the age of 82, she had served Elizabeth Tudor for an extraordinary 56 years. She was not to be laid to rest in St. Faith's in Bacton as she had intended. Instead, Queen Elizabeth paid for her funeral expenses in full, laying her to rest in St. Margaret's, Westminster. Her monument in Bacton remains a tourist attraction, as does her donation of a beautiful altar-cloth made from an old court dress, which may have been a gift to her from Queen Elizabeth I. It is of interest that the pattern on the cloth is very similar to the material of the bodice and sleeves worn by Queen Elizabeth I in her Rainbow Portrait (Richardson) though this is not to suggest that they are one and the same.

The altar-cloth, possibly made from a dress of Queen Elizabeth I and donated by Blanche Parry, at St. Faith's, Bacton Church. Picture shared for public use by Derek Voller under Creative Commons licensing.

Blanche Parry knew Queen Elizabeth I longer that most, a total of 56 out of her 70 years! What I would give to have been in her shoes...

A side view of Blanche Parry's tomb in St. Margaret's Church, Westminster. Photo by Terry and R.E. Richardson and shared for public use through R.E. Richardson's site, Mistress Blanche, Queen Elizabeth I’s Confidante.


Borman, Tracy. Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes who Shaped the Virgin Queen. New York: Bantam Books,
     2009. Print. 

Richardson, Ruth Elizabeth. Mistress Blanche, Queen Elizabeth I's Confidante. Logaston Press, 2007.

Richardson, Ruth Elizabeth. Blanche Parry & Queen Elizabeth I Calendar. Bacton Parish, 2012. (

Monday, February 11, 2013

Elizabethan Fact of the Day: The Earl of Leicester's Clothing

A portrait of the Earl of Leicester by an unknown artist, circa 1575-80. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Among his many other possessions, two cloaks and seven doublets belonging to the Earl of Leicester were appraised upon his death by the executors of his estate in 1588. These items of clothing were valued at a total of 545 pounds!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Elizabethan Quote of the Day: Elizabeth's Physician Shares Sensitive Information

"If the King marries her, I guarantee ten children; and no one in the world knows her constitution better than I do."

Queen Elizabeth I's physician made this bold claim to the French ambassador in 1566, when the French King Charles IX was considering marrying the Tudor queen. 

A portrait of King Charles IX of France, circa 1572 in the Palace of Versailles. By or after Francois Clouet. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The marriage, had it gone through, would have certainly been a disaster; Charles IX, along with his mother Catherine de Medicis, would eventually permit the massacre of the French Protestant's, known as Huguenots, which began with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572. When he died without legitimate issue, Charles IX was succeeded by his brother, who became King Henri III.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre by Francois Dubois, circa 1572-84. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth understood that her body was not her own; it belonged to the state and to her people. In fact, she allowed herself to be routinely examined well into her 40's to prove that she was still able to bear children. Yet imagine what Elizabeth would say if she knew that her physician's words concerning her fertility were being read hundreds of years later!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Elizabethan Quote of the Day: Elizabeth Speaks on Marriage and Children

"And therefore I say again, I will marry as soon as I can conveniently, if God take not him away with whom I mind to marry, or myself, or else some other great let happen. I can say no more, except the party were present. And I hope to have children, otherwise I would never marry." 

(Quote taken from Elizabeth I and her Parliaments 1559-1581, by J.E. Neale).

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I from 1570. By Hans Eworth. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth I said this in a speech delivered in 1566 to a delegation made up of both houses of Parliament. The members of Parliament were pressing the Queen to declare her intentions concerning the proposed marriage between herself and the Archduke Charles of Austria. 

A portrait of Archduke Charles (and his dog!) from 1569. Unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Of course, Queen Elizabeth I never married Archduke Charles, or anyone else for that matter. Though Elizabeth did not marry for a variety of reasons, evidence from her life suggests that she may have wanted children of her own; she was always kind to the children she would meet while on progress, she helped support her godsons at university and found husbands or court positions for the younger women (some of them god-daughters) charged to her care, and she held genuine affection for the children of her cousins, Katherine Carey-Knollys and Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon.

A portrait of Eleanor Verney, Mrs. William Palmer circa 1590. Eleanor Verney-Palmer was a god-daughter of Queen Elizabeth I. Attributed to William Segar. Parham Park. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Archduke Charles later sought the hand of Elizabeth's cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, but eventually wed Maria Anna of Bavaria, with whom he had twelve children.

A portrait of Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria from 1577. By Cornelis Vermeyen. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Friday, February 8, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

'Mary, Queen of Scots being led to execution', by Laslett John Pott, 1871. Image courtesy of Marilee Cody.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1587, Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. After being implicated in the Babington Plot the previous year, Mary Stuart was tried and found guilty of treason. Mary and her co-conspirators had planned to have Queen Elizabeth I killed, and with the help of a Spanish army and disgruntled English Catholics, place Mary on the throne. (You can read more about the Babington plot, the trial, and the conviction, as well as Elizabeth's reaction, here.)

A Babington Plot letter. Image from Barb Alexander's (the TudorTutor) Pinterest page.

On February 7th, Mary Stuart had learned of her fate via Sir Amyas Paulet, who informed her that she would be executed almost immediately on the following day. A pious Catholic to the end, Mary spent her last night on earth in prayer. When Mary Stuart mounted the scaffold that had been erected within the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, she forgave her executioner for taking her life, as was customary. It was recorded that she uttered to him, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end to all my troubles." (quoted in Guy, 7)

In a last act of defiance, Mary Stuart's servants removed her overdress, revealing her undergarments, all in crimson red, the color of a Catholic martyr. After being blindfolded by one of her attendants, Mary knelt before the block and placed her head in the groove intended for her neck. With outstretched arms, she recited in Latin the phrase, "Into thy hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit."

Despite Mary's willing involvement in the Babington Plot, one cannot help but be outraged by her grisly end; it took not one, but three strokes of the executioner's axe to remove the Scottish Queen's head from her body. To make matters worse, when Mary's severed head had been held aloft and the executioner cried, "Behold the head of a traitor, God save the Queen!", another horrid scene occurred; Mary's hair was revealed to be merely a wig, when her head tumbled to the floor, revealing her natural grey hair, and leaving the curled wig in the executioners grasp. One of Mary's little terriers, who had been hiding under her voluminous skirts revealed himself, but would not leave his deceased owners body. Mary's loyal pet, who one could argue was more loyal to her than any of her own friends and relations, had to be forcibly removed. 

A 1613-14 depiction by an unknown Dutch artist of the execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Though there are articles of clothing in existence that different institutions claim were worn by Mary, Queen of Scots at her death (a certain chemise comes to mind) these claims are likely dubious. There were strict orders to destroy all of the material goods associated with Mary's execution, including the scaffold and the block, to prevent them from being fashioned into relics by Catholic adherents. A 1613/14 depiction of the execution shows the Queen of Scot's clothing being burnt in the background.

This Chemise shown at Coughton Court is purported to have been worn by Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution; this is almost certainly false, but the myth still prevails. Image from Erika Christine via Wendy Price on Pinterest.

When Queen Elizabeth learned that it had taken not one, but three strokes of the axe to remove Mary's head from her body, she flew into an uncontrollable rage, followed by a deep depression. 

A copy of Mary Stuart's death mask, on display at Falklands Palace. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Despite Mary Stuart's last will and testament, she was not buried in France, the land where she had been carefree and happy in her youth. Her body was embalmed and placed in a lead coffin to await burial, which did not come until July of that year. Mary was first buried at Peterborough Cathedral, and later interred in Westminster Abbey by her son James VI, who became James I of England. 

The marble tomb effigy of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey. Mary's tomb provocatively lies in a chamber directly across from the final resting place of her great rival, Queen Elizabeth I. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons, shared for public use by Kim Traynor.

In a case of historical irony, the Scottish Stuarts succeeded to the throne of England, despite Henry VIII banning the Scottish Tudor line from the English succession. The marriage arranged by Henry VII between his eldest daughter Margaret Tudor and James IV gave birth to a dynasty that the Virgin Queen would select to succeed the illustrious Tudors upon her death. The Tudors had reigned successfully for almost 100 years, after decades of dynastic struggle and strife in England during the series of conflicts posthumously known as the 'Wars of the Roses'.

The family tree of James VI/James I of Scotland and England. Image acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Guy, John. My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. Print.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Elizabethan Fact of the Day: The 39 Articles of Faith

The frontispiece for the 1569 Bishop's Bible, drawn by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In February of 1563, the "39 Articles of Faith", the doctrinal foundation of the present-day Anglican Church, were finally agreed upon.

To learn more about religious policy in England under Queen Elizabeth I, please see our article here.

Elizabeth I's Bishop's Bible. Folger Shakespeare Library. Image public domain.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Elizabeth I signs Mary Stuart's Death Warrant

The Babington Plot letter from Anthony Babington. Image from Barb Alexander's Pinterest page.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1587, after much deliberation, Queen Elizabeth I signed the warrant for her cousin, Mary Stuart's execution. Mary, the former Queen of Scots had been found guilty of treason back in October of the previous year. To learn more about Mary Stuart's involvement in the elaborate Babington Plot, which led to her still-controversial conviction of treason, please visit out article here.

Also, please share your questions and comments below. Do you think Mary, Queen of Scots was guilty of plotting against Queen Elizabeth's life? Do you question the validity of the treason charge? Was Walsingham's method of obtaining proof of Mary Stuart's guilt ingenious or entrapment? I would love to hear your opinions, since this is still a historical event that Tudor-philes are passionate about.