Up until the 18th century mourning was a luxury enjoyed (sic) mainly by royalty and those with sufficient aristocratic pedigrees. When Sir Henry Unton, a mere Ambassador, MP and civil servant extraordinaire, died of bubonic plague while in the queen’s service in 1596 he was accorded a baron’s funeral for services rendered, a full two stations higher than his own of Knight. His widow assures that this momentous honor will not be forgotten by her neighbors, had a brilliant and surreal panel painted depicting his birth, life, achievments, but mainly his oh-so-glorious death which takes up a good three-quarters of the panel. His death, including maladie, doctoring, dying, sailing back to England in a black sailed mourning ship, the above mentioned mile long funeral procession and packed church, ends with his tomb, upon which he rests rather cheerfully, looking as if he were resting in a field of daisies, the Widow Unton looming over him like a spider. All of this layed out rather counter-intuitively from right (birth) to left (entombment).
Sir Henry Unton Resource: Nifty teaching tool that examines each little part of the painting. Please complete the workbook at the end of each section and submit.
Detail: Sir Henry Unton Black sailed mourning ship funeral mourners
While my main focus here is French mourning, I mention Sir Henry because the painting is so very cool. Well, that and the further you go back in time, the more difficult it is to dig up the evidence on google. French and English customs have long been in a neck and neck horse race. One is never far behind the other, and so too goes the mourning customs. That there is my excuse for rambling on about the very awesome Life and Death of Sir Henry Unton (which I didn’t actually find on google, but saw rather in person during a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London).
So here I depart from England.
It is the summer of 1535, just weeks after the execution of Sir Thomas More. A small rowing boat makes its way along the Thames from Chelsea to London Bridge. The oarsman’s passengers are a 29-year-old gentlewoman, Margaret Roper, and her maid, who carries a basket. A horrific sight meets their eyes as they approach the bridge: a dozen or more skulls on poles protruding from the parapet, which have been boiled and tarred to prevent them being fed upon by circling gulls. As new heads arrive, the old ones are moved along the row until they reach the end of the line, when they are thrown into the river.
At the door of the north tower of the bridge, the maid negotiates with the bridge-master, handing over the contents of her purse. In return she receives one of the skulls, carefully wrapping it in a linen cloth and placing it in a basket. This is all that remains of Thomas More. One day the skull will join Margaret Roper herself, when she is interred in the family tomb at Chelsea, a burial symbolic of the special attachment between father and daughter.
This is the gripping opening scene of John Guy’s study of the relationship of Margaret Roper and her father, Thomas More.
Jane Grey is perhaps the most universally sympathetic of our ladies. Being born the grandaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary, she was destined to be used as a political puppet for most of her short life. Henry had died in 1547, leaving the young Edward VI as king in his minority. The Lord Protector, Duke of Northumberland, planning for the certainty of the young king’s early demise, married one of his sons, Guilford, to the seventeen year old Lady Jane. He then convinced Edward that it would be politic to re-write Henry’s will of succession in favor of the junior branch on the Tudor Tree, ending with Jane Grey, in order to preserve the “new” religion. Thus both Mary (catholic) and Elizabeth (wishy-washy) were barred from the throne as being at one time or another named as bastards during the reign of their father.
When Edward died of consumption in 1554 the Lord Protector forced his will on the council in a masterful coup d’Ètat, sent troops into the country to capture both Mary and Elizabeth, and dragged the young couple back from their honeymoon to proclaim Jane queen. Unfortunately both princesses had been forwarned and both eluded capture. The council soon defected and proclaimed Mary queen. Thus leaving Jane, after nine days, merely another pretender to the throne. The rightful heir rode into London after a short skirmish, throwing all those involved into the Tower to await trial.
A strumpet in the finest tradition, Catherine Howard was a rather silly, vivacious girl of nineteen when her uncle the Duke of Norfolk tossed her into Henry’s lap. Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn before her, Catherine was apparently guilty of the “crimes” attributed to her, having galavanted about with some lad named Culpepper both before and after her marriage to Henry, for which she was tried and beheaded. The youngest and prettiest of Henry’s brides, she was wedded at a buxom 19 to a fat, doting, cantankerous Henry. We can hardly blame her for seeking comfort and refuge elsewhere. What we can blame her for is for being daft enough to get caught.
On Sunday evening, 12 February 1542, she was told that she was to die the following day. She merely asked for the block to be brought to the apartment, so that she might rehearse the scene, so as not to falter or appear nervous at the crucial moment on the following day.
Anne Boleyn had the misfortune of being both bewitching (though not beautiful) and conspicuously intelligent, with a complex personality which brings to mind a sort of proto Scarlett O’Hara. For six years she dangled her prize in front of Henry, never fully surrendering until the crown was in clear view. In 1532 she gave Henry what he so dearly wished, and quickly became pregnant with the future Elizabeth I. In a secret ceremony, with only a couple witneses, Henry married her. Reason being, is that he was still married to his first wife, Katherine of Aragorn, his marriage to whom the Pope refused to annul (for political reasons, the Pope was being held political hostage at the time by Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). But nevermind that, said Henry, and promptly cut all ties to Rome.
After the birth of Elizabeth Anne miscarried two male children, and while was not the sole reason for his ultimate displeasure (Anne was not making friends at court), had she had a male heir it is highly doubtful he would have casted her off. In 1536 charges of adultery were trumped up against her, involving several of Henry’s closest friends and even the Lord Rochford, Anne’s own brother. In a court of her peers, she had no chance. After three years as queen, Anne was to die.
The sixteenth century women were entering the sphere of politics like never before. Queens would inherit, and consorts would rule. But hand in hand with the privilege of politics, are also the dangers. And in monarchial governments, where personal loyalties and frail egos steer the course of political intrigue, dissent and distrust can cost you your life.
Tudor England (1483 – 1603) saw two queens inherit the throne for the first time in four hundred years, and a parade of influential consorts slip in and out of Henry Tudor’s bed. Unfortunately, the only way to get out of bed with Henry, was through your grave, all too often not by natural causes.
From the feisty Anne Boleyn, who ensared Henry’s affection, and thus was the catalyst for the English Reformation, the rambunctiously silly Catherine Howard, the bookish & timid Jane Grey, to the final rose in our crown, the bright, witty, passionately compulsive, and ultimately fatal, Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, All marched to the scaffold with dignity, as custom and religion demanded (well, perhaps except for Catherine Howard), in the end thanking and praising their Sovereign and executioner for the privilege of dying.
Anne Boleyn was the first English queen to die under the axe, and Mary Stuart (though Queen of Scotland) was the last.
Fun Link: TudorHistory.org! Happy clicking. Bright and fun to read, wonderful pictures and good selection of portraits with lots of juicy tidbits. Awesome time-killer!