Reviewed by Julie Campbell (Department of English, Eastern Illinois University)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2007)
Reading Religio-Political Visions in Caroline Court Entertainments
Considering the court entertainments associated with Henrietta Maria, queen consort to Charles I, from the wedding ballets performed for the royal couple in 1624 to the entertainments at the French court during her exile, Karen Britland employs carefully researched close readings to counter the long-standing image of Henrietta Maria as vain and frivolous. Britland especially takes issue with Alison Plowden's assertion in Henrietta Maria (2001) that the queen consort "was simply not interested in affairs of state" (quoted, p. 1). In the process, Britland demonstrates, in intriguing detail, how the allegories of the sumptuous Caroline court entertainments illustrate Henrietta Maria's and Charles's religious and political goals.
Critical considerations that inform Britland's study are as follows: she strongly asserts that Henrietta Maria had a socio-religious role at the English court mandated by her mother, Marie de Médicis, that she was to protect English Catholics and be merciful to Protestants, so that, by her example, they (including her husband) would wish to convert. In the same vein, Henrietta Maria was to embody the notion of a "peaceweaver," Britland's term for a royal female peacemaker who traveled between courts and whose role it was to use her fertility, her deportment, and her rhetoric to negotiate between national powers. Britland also comments on perceptions of the influence of the French salon on Henrietta Maria's philosophies and actions, arguing that earlier critics have oversimplified characterizations of salon values as they relate to Henrietta Maria. Moreover, she engages in fascinating depth in the scholarly debates surrounding the performances of Henrietta Maria and her ladies regarding the issue of female performers on the English stage. It should be noted that numerous scholars have made forays into the material and debates in question, including Plowden, Erica Veevers, Stephen Orgel, Roy Strong, Clare McManus, Marie-Claude Canova-Green, Melinda Gough, Diane Purkiss, and Sophie Tomlinson. Britland engages with the work of these scholars and others as she addresses these areas of inquiry.
Britland's point of entry for her study is the new queen consort's "refusal to dance with the English on her arrival in her new country," which, she argues, "must be interpreted as an act of deliberate resistance" (pp. 17-18). She notes that "the French hoped that Henrietta Maria's marriage would lead to the conversion of Charles and his nation, and, furthermore, that this conversion would draw English Catholics into an alliance with France to the detriment of Spain and Spanish Catholicism. In addition, it was hoped that the new queen consort would be in a position to prevent the English from offering assistance to French Huguenots" (p. 27). The English, on the other hand, wanted the wedding to pave the way for "an offensive and defensive league with France for the restoration of the Palatinate" (p. 28). With such diverging goals for the future of this marriage, it is no wonder that the entertainments produced on behalf of Henrietta Maria and those produced for Charles I present differing visions of power and agency for the royal couple. In each of the nine proceeding chapters, Britland traces the ways in which religio-political power struggles are reflected in court entertainments.
Regarding Les Bergeries, or Artenice, (1626), Britland suggests that Henrietta Maria's role (that of Artenice, the character who is exhorted to marry Alcidor, the foreigner, who turns out to be a fellow countryman) is a profoundly political one because it reflects Marie de Médicis and Louis XIII's hopes that Charles will convert and be discovered to be a loyal Catholic at heart, thanks to Henrietta Maria's proselytizing. Britland also notes that the role displays Henrietta Maria's own sense of mission as a woman who enters the bonds of marriage as one would take religious vows to enter a convent. While other critics have dismissed Artenice as simply a show of evidence that Henrietta Maria was influenced by what they considered the "frivolous imitation of French fashion" regarding the "affected platonism" of the French salons, Britland argues that the play is important because it reveals Henrietta Maria's "attempt to assert a cultural presence that would permit her to comment upon social and political events" during a time of conflict between both the king and queen's households, as well as between England and France (pp. 35-36). She also suggests that Artenice, with its reflection of the ideals of Madame de Rambouillet's salon and those calling for the chaste social behavior advocated by St. François de Sales, "became a manifesto that sought to redefine women's roles both at court and in the community at large" (p. 36). The reading of Artenice as a deliberate religio-political manifesto is a departure from earlier critics' assessments, yet it is one that Britland's research into the surrounding religio-political affairs supports.
Another striking example of Britland's challenges to current scholarship regarding Caroline entertainments is her assessment of Aurelian Townshend's Tempe Restored (1632). While Artenice has been considered "a play which gives women the right to act" (p. 45), Tempe Restored has been singled out as the masque that brought professional female performers to the English stage. Britland, however, counters the latter statement. She first rebuts the idea put forth by Roy Booth and others that the French "Madame Coniack," who performed the role of Circe, was a professional singer. Since she has found no other mention of a professional French singer associated with Henrietta Maria's court, Britland posits instead that this singer was probably Elizabeth Coignet, one of Henrietta Maria's ladies-in-waiting who had been with her since 1625 and who probably performed with her in Artenice. Next, regarding "Mistress Shepherd" (also thought to be a professional singer) who performed the role of Harmony, Britland astutely considers the line-length of her part, as well as its context among a host of children performers, and suggests that this performer was actually Anne Sheppard, a dwarf who was part of the circle of Philip Herbert, fourth earl of Pembroke and the king's lord chamberlain. At the time of the masque's performance, she would have been around eleven or twelve years old, similar in age to the other children in the masque. If Britland is correct regarding the identities of these performers, then Tempe Restored does indeed cease "to look like quite such a departure from earlier Caroline productions" (p. 92). It does, however, carry on with staging religio-political messages. Although Henrietta Maria regularly performed with other Catholics or Catholic sympathizers, Britland points out that in this case the children performers represented families who held a range of political and religious identities, from those of the Villiers and Feildings (who were only nominally Protestant) to other politically moderate Protestant families. She suggests that the scope of diverse political and religious identities among the performers in Tempe Restored illustrates Henrietta Maria's overt attempts at diplomacy and, thus, political agency.
Britland applies her approach of close readings, supported by detailed examinations of the international political context, for each entertainment in her study. In addition to those mentioned, for Love's Triumph (1631), Albion's Triumph (1632), Chloridia (1631), The Shepherds' Paradise (1632/3), The Temple of Love (1635), Florimène (1635), Luminalia (1638), and Salmacida Spolia (1640), she documents the historical events and political machinations that seem to influence these entertainments and their receptions, moving inexorably toward the civil wars and, ultimately, to Henrietta Maria's banishment to France. Her assessment of Henrietta Maria's last years is a particularly valuable part of the study, since few others have analyzed this period of her life in relation to court activities and entertainments.
Britland first turns to Henrietta Maria and Charles I's civil war letters, noting that the rhetoric of her correspondence "finds its analogy in the neo-Platonic conceit of steadfast feminine constancy articulated in the queen consort's masques and pastorals, presenting her as an active agent and locating her as her husband's support and inspiration" (p. 195). Henrietta Maria's early religious and political agendas, depicted in her court entertainments, thus remain sources of rhetoric for her during this period. The visual rhetoric of Caroline court entertainments continues to emerge in other sources as well. Britland suggests that the manuscript pastoral, "The Banished Shepherdess" written by Cosmo Manuche (a captain and major of foot in the royalist army) "on the eve of Charles II's restoration," places "elements from the court literature of the 1630s in the new context of the royalist exile" (p. 202). Moreover, she writes that Henrietta Maria's 1646 entertainment, a New Year's Eve masque, "involved a burlesque dance of the figures of Time, Janus, and Christmas" that "was not just a response to the Christmas season, but also a snub to the Puritan authorities in England who had tried to abolish Christmas as a popish festival" (p. 205). Continuing to examine English connections with the French court entertainments during 1648-61, Britland notes that the dukes of York and Buckingham took part in the Ballet Royal de al Nuict in 1653, and that, the following year, York and his sister performed in Les Noces de Pelée et de Thétis. In these cases and others, Britland demonstrates that the royalist cause was firmly articulated on court stages during Henrietta Maria's time in exile, further underscoring the notion of court entertainments as vehicles for political rhetoric. She writes that despite "lack of finance and in the face of huge political obstacles, Henrietta Maria and her household nevertheless struggled to maintain a significant presence on the European stage, firstly to advance Charles I's war effort, and then to secure the English throne for his heir" (p. 214).
Drama at the Courts of Queen Henrietta Maria is an ambitious study that re-invigorates both religio-political discussions and considerations of English theater history pertaining to court entertainments during the seventeenth century. As the examples above demonstrate, it presents a rigorous reassessment of many facets of the court entertainments associated with Charles I and Henrietta Maria. In it, Britland's attention to detail and thoughtful hypotheses persuasively open the way for further re-considerations of this material, and, true to her goal, a new portrait of the queen consort emerges, one that demonstrates her agency and complicity in some of the most complex religious and political situations of her times.
. Regarding other explorations of actresses, professional and otherwise, on the English stage, see Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, eds., Women Players in England, 1500-1660 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
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Julie Campbell. Review of Britland, Karen, Drama at the Courts of Queen Henrietta Maria.
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