Thursday, May 18, 2017

Theatre Thursday: A Review of 'King Elizabeth'


Advertisement for the Gamm Theatre's production of 'King Elizabeth'. © Gamm Theatre
This week, I went to see a play at the Gamm Theatre, centered on the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. The play was called King Elizabeth, a new version of Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart, which was adapted and directed by Tony Estrella. Previously, I had seen Howard Brenton's fantastic Anne Boleyn play at the theatre, and had had the privilege of interviewing the director of the play for this blog. I already knew the theatre did good work and had an interest in representing powerful Tudor women on their stage. The show did not disappoint.

Many of the most familiar faces of the Elizabethan court were present in the cast of characters, and each character was brought to life by a gifted actor or actress. The show did make some interesting choices when casting their roles, like having Master Davison, the man Elizabeth entrusted with the signed death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots, portrayed by a woman. As the characters in King Elizabeth all wore modern clothes, this gender reversal did not seem inappropriate, although it would have been inaccurate to have a woman serve as a personal secretary in the sixteenth century.

As a historian, I relished all of the historical details included in the script, and was delighted to find that real quotes said by Queen Elizabeth I were included in the dialogue, as were the contents of real letters written by Mary, Queen of Scots. These details gave the show credibility, and added to the emotionally compelling scenes. 

History tells us that Queen Elizabeth I never met her cousin, Mary Stuart, face-to-face, although they did write many letters to one another throughout their lifetimes. But King Elizabeth, like so many other movies and shows examining the rivalry of these two great queens, shows us what might have passed between them, if they ever had the opportunity to meet in secret. The confrontational scene in King Elizabeth takes place when Mary, Queen of Scots is given access to the grounds outside of her jailer Amyas Paulet's home, just as Elizabeth I's hunting party is passing through. Here, the two queens face one another in the woods. Where Queen Elizabeth is level-headed and unforgiving, Mary is defiant and hysterical. Their differing personalities make for an electrifying clash on stage.

A picture of the stage. © BeingBess/A.Jensen

Overall, I enjoyed the play. But there were some things that bothered me, because they were either inaccurate or confusing. 

The modern costuming used in the play didn't add any special significance to the story adaptation. The men were dressed in either modern military wear or formal wear, while Elizabeth I wore power suits. If the ensemble was trying to send a message to the audience through their modern clothing, it was unclear to me what that message might have been. Oddly, Elizabeth finally did don a period dress when she addressed the troops at Tilbury at the end, but the play failed to explain why the Spanish Armada was invading England and who Elizabeth I was addressing in her speech. If you didn't know your Elizabethan history, you might have left the theatre feeling confused by this scene.

Although the Babington Plot is mentioned at the beginning of the play, it is never explained how Mary Stuart was involved with the conspirators, sending them damning letters snuck out of her place of imprisonment in wine barrels. Because it is not explained how complicit she was in authorizing the plans, it appears to an audience that may not know enough background, that Mary is innocent and unjustly imprisoned. Instead of having the portrayals of the two queens more balanced in this adaptation, as was apparently the goal with the re-write, Mary Stuart is portrayed once again as a tragic victim, as she was in Schiller's version of the play.

Finally, the most jarring inaccuracy that stuck out is that the theatre used a picture of Queen Mary I to represent Mary, Queen of Scots on the stage. This was the first thing I noticed when I walked into the little black-box theatre, and the last thing I saw on my way out, and it really bothered me!

If you have an opportunity to see King Elizabeth, I hope that you do. It covers a fascinating period in history, and there is nothing quite like being able to be a fly on the wall, watching the show-down between these two queenly cousins, Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bess to Impress: A Rare Portrait of Elizabeth I, From a Private Collection


Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1560. Oil on panel, by an Unknown Artist. Yale Center for British Art. On loan from Neville and John Bryan. Photo by A.Jensen.
On my most recent trip to the Yale Center for British Art, I was pleased to discover that they had rotated some new Elizabethan portraits into the galleries. Of the new pieces on display, the portrait that captivated me the most was a small, unassuming oil on panel portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that I hadn't been previously aware it existed. I read that it was on loan to the museum from a private collection, which explained its anonymity. This also made me wonder how many other long-lost portraits of Queen Elizabeth I there are in people's personal homes.

When this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was made, it was still early in her reign, and Elizabeth's counselors expected her to marry a foreign prince. However, her attachment to her friend, Robert Dudley, prevented her from taking any marriage proposal seriously at this time.

In the portrait, Elizabeth I is shown before a Canopy of State, with a courtyard in the background. The small stature of the portrait suggests that it may have been made for the home of someone close to Queen Elizabeth I. This is a possibility, as there have been many other portraits discovered of Elizabeth I that were made for personal use. It is easy to see the difference between the opulent, majestic State portraits of the queen, intended for display at court, versus the more understated ones, intended for private devotion in the homes of Elizabeth I's courtiers.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1560. Oil on panel, by an Unknown Artist. Yale Center for British Art. On loan from Neville and John Bryan. Photo by A.Jensen.

A label on the reverse of the portrait shows that Elizabeth I had long been mistaken for another sitter, until the portrait came into the hands of the present owners. It is surprising to me that the sitter could have been thought to be anyone else, as her facial features so distinctly identify her as Elizabeth.

It's always exciting to discover something new that you never knew existed before; I was so happy to have seen this portrait in person, that I just knew I had to share it with all of you! It was encased in glass, so it was challenging to get a picture without a glare, but I hope the pictures I did manage to get captured the appeal of the portrait.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Discovery of Richard III: A Talk with Dr. Buckley

 
Portrait of King Richard III. From an artist from the British School. © The Royal Collection. Public domain.


Last night, I attended the Archaeological Institute of America's lecture series, featuring Dr. Richard Buckley. He presented "The King Under the Carpark: Greyfriars, Leicester and the Search for Richard III". It was a real privilege to listen to one of the people who had worked on the excavation that revealed Richard III's body in 2012. I'd like to share what I learned with you, my readers. After all, the demise of Richard III is intrinsically linked to the rise of the Tudor dynasty. Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, claiming the throne of England for himself and his descendants. The finding of Richard III's remains is certainly one of the most significant historical discoveries in recent memory.

Leicester's greatest son had long been the infamous Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to King Henry VIII. But now, Leicester is famous for a very different reason: Richard III, the last Plantagenet king. Dr. Richard Buckley was contacted by Philippa Langley, who not only had a hunch as to wear the long-lost Yorkist king was buried, but also had the support (and donations) of the Richard III Society and some members of the Leicester city council, to conduct a dig in the hopes of finding Richard. It was known that Richard III had been buried at Greyfriars in Leicester following his defeat on the battlefield. Greyfriars would later become one of the religious houses dissolved by Henry VIII. It was rumored in town by the locals that Richard III's body had been removed by an angry mob and thrown over Bow Bridge. This was such a strong belief in the area that the Victorians erected a plaque near the bridge saying that it had indeed happened. 

The Greyfriars area in Leicester was largely unexplored. Most of Greyfriars is now covered by 18th and 19th century buildings. Only a small portion would be accessible to archaeologists. This meant that finding Richard III would be a long-shot. But Langley's enthusiasm made up for the skepticism of others on the team. In order to find Richard, the archaeologists would have to first find the Franciscan friary building, then identify specific buildings, locate the friary church, locate the east end of the church, specifically the choir, and then, if possible, locate the remains of Richard III.

On the 19th-20th of August, 1485 Richard III had entered Leicester, in preparation for his showdown with Henry Tudor. Richard and his men traveled from Leicester to Bosworth, where Richard allegedly saw an opening in the field where Henry was, and he rode out to fight him. Richard III was allegedly killed by the Welshman Rhys ap Thomas, and then his body was strapped to a horse and brought back to the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Leicester. The reason Henry Tudor did this is because he needed people to really see and believe that Richard III was dead. Since Richard had been staying in town before the battle, people there would have known what he looked like and could confirm that he was dead. Declaring a claimant to the throne dead was especially important, if you consider how Henry VII was plagued by pretenders to the throne for the entirety of his reign.

A stained glass of Richard III and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) at the Battle of Bosworth Field. St. James Church, Sutton Cheney. Photo shared for public use by John Taylor.


From the 23rd-24th, Richard III's body was put on display at the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was especially insulting, considering that Richard III was a Yorkist king, but his body was lying in a Lancastrian church. On the 25th, the defeated king was buried without pomp at Greyfriars. The Franciscans had a history of taking in the remains of disgraced or executed noblemen, so burying the body of the fallen king was in their wheelhouse. Ten years later, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, would pay for a tomb for Richard III.

In modern day, most of the Greyfriars site was covered by a social services carpark and modern buildings. The available area for excavation was only between 10-17%. Quite a bit of luck had to be factored in if the archaeological team was going to find Richard III. First, ground penetrating radar was used, which revealed underground cables and pipes, which would be useful to know about for when the team was digging. Three trenches were dug, and various artifacts were found. But at first, no king. 

The team, slightly discouraged, was meeting one particular day when Dr. Buckley was informed that the archaeologists were digging up a body with a curvature of the spine and head trauma. Could this be Richard? Richard was said to have uneven shoulders in many contemporary sources, and was later portrayed as a hunchback by Shakespeare. The discovery sounded promising. 

The body, tentatively thought of as Richard III before it could be officially confirmed, was buried in the choir, not the high altar, as would be expected for a King of England. The grave was roughly dug, with irregular sides. The burial was clearly a hurried job, as the grave was not big enough to fit a coffin, and was too short for the body inside it; the upper half of what was thought to be Richard III was propped up in the grave. The curvature of the spine was very prominent. Based on the placement of his hands, it was surmised that they may have been tied together at the time of his burial, but there was no way of proving that. The feet were missing, not from any sinister activity, but because they had probably been dug up and destroyed during later horticultural activity that happened in the area. The body had been laid to rest with no coffin and no shroud, quite undignified for a monarch.

There was nothing in the grave that would help to date the body, so radiocarbon dating was used. It was determined that there was a 95.4% probability that the body was from between 1450-1540 AD, allowing for it to be Richard III. The bones were brought to a local hospital, where a digital record of them was created, and then they were brought to the University of Leicester for further study. The remains were found to be of a male, between 30-34 years of age. His height was 5ft 8in. He was of a slight build, matching contemporary accounts of Richard III. The body had idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis, but there was no evidence of a withered arm or leg.

The skull of the body had endured extensive trauma, both before and after death. There were wounds from a staff weapon, probably a halberd, and there was a penetrating wound, probably from a roundel dagger, that has caused flaps of bone to collapse inside the skull. There were more wounds at the right base of the skull, and one of the wounds had left marks inside the skull. There was also a small penetrating wound on the right cheek, and a slash on the chin bone. All this trauma suggests that Richard III was without his helmet at the time of these injuries. 

In addition to the head injuries, there was a nick on the 10th rib. It was suggested that this was possibly an insult injury, inflicted after Richard's death, perhaps when his body was strapped the horse to be brought back to Leicester. There was also a nick on the pelvis, which could have been caused in battle (as only maille covered that area in a suit of armor), but was most likely another insult injury.

Because Richard III left no direct living descendants, Mitochondrial DNA from the descendants of Richard's sisters was used to confirm the body's identity once and for all. Mitochondrial DNA is from the female line, and can only be passed on by daughters. The genealogy of Richard's sister Anne of York was well mapped, having been traced in 2005 by John Ashdown-Hill, and was later verified in 2013 by Kevin Schurer. Two living descendants of Anne of York, and thus relations of Richard, were found and contacted. The first was Michael Ibsen, a Canadian cabinet maker living in London. The second was Wendy Duldig, a New Zealander. Neither Michael or Wendy had any idea that they were related to royalty! Also, neither have children, so they are the last of their line. 

There was an attempt to map the male line of the Somerset family, who willingly cooperated with tests. However, things got uncomfortable when the DNA revealed several instances of false paternity in the family tree, one historical, and one more recent.

The reconstruction done of Richard III's face was almost identical to his portraits. However, later research has shown that he was blue-eyed, and probably had blonde hair as a child, darkening to russet brown as an adult.

The Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the reburial of Richard III at Leicester Cathedral. Several members of the British royal family were present, and Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig were involved in the ceremony*.

*If I remember correctly from watching the funeral coverage, Ibsen made the coffin the king was reburied in, and Duldig made his shroud, touching tributes from Richard III's relatives.

To learn more about Richard III, you can visit: www.le.ac.uk/RichardIII