Mushrooms

Michael Dobson

  • Literature and Favouritism in Early Modern England by Curtis Perry
    Cambridge, 328 pp, £50.00, February 2006, ISBN 0 521 85405 9

In an area of dairy pasture a few miles from Coventry, there is a bench formed from one half of a large clinker-built rowing boat sticking vertically out of the ground, with a sturdy wooden seat placed within the hull so that it is sheltered as if by an arbour. There is no water in sight except a definitely non-navigable stream. Anyone who sits here has no choice but to stare across the meadows, usually full of cows, towards a large pile of reddish, crumbling masonry. The inscription on the bench reads: ‘Crowds gathered here at the lakeside in July 1575 to watch spectacular firework displays arranged for Queen Elizabeth by the Earl of Leicester.’

Sic transit gloria mundi: the stream was for centuries dammed to flood these meadows, producing what was at first an ample moat and latterly a grand ornamental lake, and the ruins in their centre are all that now remains of Kenilworth Castle. This was once the most important private residence in England, and the fireworks commemorated by this bench marked the completion of the final phase of its construction. Since 1568, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had been made lord of Kenilworth in 1563, had been pouring money into the castle so it would be fit to accommodate the queen. Elizabeth visited in 1566, 1568 and 1572, but he didn’t finish his alterations until the last and most lavish display of hospitality in 1575. Among other remodellings, Leicester had enlarged the windows of the Norman keep the better to show off his substantial collections of maps and paintings (their glassless shapes in the remaining walls still look impressive, even from the bench), but, dissatisfied even with the enormous hall and galleries added by John of Gaunt in the 14th century, he then built what was in effect a whole new Tudor palace within the medieval walls. This entire section of the castle, together with a state-of-the-art garden installed at a speed which would do credit to any television makeover show, was handed over for the sole use of the queen and her entourage during their stay. Cromwell’s commissioners put Kenilworth certifiably beyond military use a scant seventy years later, and centuries of decay have softened ‘Leicester’s Buildings’ and the earlier sections of the ruins into near uniformity. But to the crowds watching from the shore in 1575, as Leicester and the queen were rowed up and down to admire one allegorical special effect after another, this particular instance of home improvement, with its three storeys of tall windows blazing with lights above the lake, must have looked like a prodigy.

How did those crowds understand the significance of the junketings to which they were distant witnesses? Was the queen being welcomed to her gilded new guest suite as an employer, a mistress, or a prisoner? It wasn’t a matter, in any event, of an established regional aristocracy receiving a royal visitor in time-honoured fashion, on behalf of their corner of the realm. Leicester was not really a Midlands grandee at all, for all his boasts of descent from the earls of Warwick, but a professional London-based courtier who had been rewarded with this estate, and with many others in different parts of the country, for services rendered to national politics. In fact he was so tied up with Elizabeth’s business during the 1560s, whether strutting around Whitehall Palace or exerting the queen’s authority elsewhere – as chancellor of the University of Oxford, ranger of Snowdon Forest, or high steward of Windsor, Bristol, Reading, Abingdon, King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Wallingford, Tewkesbury and St Albans – that he didn’t manage to visit Kenilworth once during the first three years he owned it. Despite the elaborate heraldry he had carved into the walls of the castle, he was an arriviste; though whether one regarded him as a self-serving upstart intolerably ornamented with the privileges of his betters, or as a bold new talent who might be capable of securing a Protestant succession against the popish corruption of the older nobility, depended on one’s allegiance.

In 1575, the townspeople of Kenilworth would have been interested chiefly in the nature of Leicester’s relationship to the queen. It was fifteen years since his wife, Amy (née Robsart), had died in suspicious circumstances at Cumnor Hall in Oxfordshire; whether or not Dudley had been responsible for her death, surely the idea of persuading Elizabeth to marry him must have possessed his mind since? Otherwise, why had the heirless earl not remarried? And what, for that matter, did the queen think she was doing? Did she rely on Leicester and insist on his almost perpetual presence close to her at court simply because she found him a capable and useful public servant? Or did her addiction to his company represent a sorry victory of passion over reason? Was he a suitor, a parasite, a statesman, or some uneasy combination of the three? Nobody – perhaps not even Leicester himself all of the time – could be quite certain what his role really was. But everyone knew what to call it. Diplomatic dispatches and manuscript libels, private letters from Elizabeth and memoranda from clerics, however puzzled, indignant or merely vague about the precise nature of Leicester’s job, all agree at least in conferring on him a particular job title, which Curtis Perry’s able new book sets out to unpack. They refer to him simply as ‘the favourite’.

It is one of the paradoxes of the English Renaissance that this golden age of English favouritism, which saw the likes of Leicester, Essex, Somerset and Buckingham enjoying periods of apparently unquestionable authority, was also the golden age of anti-favouritism. The newest and most conspicuous sphere of public discussion, the commercial stage, specialised in exposing the ambitious wiles of ingratiating courtiers, with favouritism’s various political and criminal possibilities providing the principal subject of plays as diverse as Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1592), Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, His Fall (1603-5), Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor (1626) and John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice (1632). According to Perry, this is in large part because the favourite made conveniently visible a central problem with the entire institution of personal monarchy, that of prerogative.

You might want your monarch to be guided by constitutional precedent and advised by peers, but to be of any use as a focus of effective power he or she had to wield sufficient personal prerogative to choose his or her own agents, without whom the increasingly complex and centralised business of the state could not be carried out. Equally, for the monarch to stand a chance of behaving like one responsible human being among many, it had to be possible for her or him to engage in conversations with others which at least appeared to be candid discussions among equals, and so monarchs needed to be allowed to choose their own friends. Ideally, the monarch would get honest counsel from such friends, as well as loyal and disinterested service. Both are provided, for example, by the impossibly virtuous and helpful Helicanus in Shakespeare’s Pericles (1607), a version of Kent in such an amiable rewrite of King Lear that, far from being expelled from his native land on pain of death, Helicanus can be trusted to rule justly as regent while his royal master banishes himself instead. Perry, however, manages to find enough material to fill only one chapter out of seven with contemporary depictions of virtuous favourites, and all the examples in it are imaginary. In practice the personal monarch was just as susceptible to ego-massage as anyone else, if not more so, and a single counsellor could all too easily monopolise the royal affections and the royal ear, along with access to the rest of the royal person, and the royal purse.

The fatal and perennial vulnerability of monarchy to this sort of abuse seems to have been the open secret of Tudor and Stuart public life. Every late 16th and early 17th-century writer knew in minute detail about the way favourites invariably managed to displace a prince’s real well-wishers, and by what sinful manoeuvres they clung on to their power, and how this exposed the commonwealth to tyranny and ruin; though comparatively few of them were prepared to take the next logical step, and consider what alternatives there might be to such a precarious system of government. It’s a slight problem with Perry’s book, given its generous length, that so many of the texts it examines in such persuasive detail describe the favourite in the same formulaic terms. This strain of fascinated denunciation derived partly from Tacitus’ account of Sejanus, but by the late 16th century it had been refined through a whole series of moralistic native accounts of Piers Gaveston and his like, and it was often further garnished with the names of Machiavelli and Aretino, the former indicating the favourite’s political cynicism and the latter his sensual expertise.

According to this extensive literature, favourites are creatures entirely of surfaces, attracting royal attention by their suspiciously new and fashionable clothes and by trivial accomplishments such as dancing; they are sexually unscrupulous and voracious, sleeping their way to the top and holding the monarch in erotic thrall; they are social mushrooms who usurp the proper constitutional places of Parliament and the nobility; they specialise in unauthorised privacies, and are most at home when enjoying unacknowledged intimacies in closets; they are masters both of flattery and of innuendo, and as such are often connoisseurs of that suspiciously dissimulating art, poetry; their poisoning of proper social networks is often furthered by a literal poisoning of their enemies and rivals, the fatal dose invariably administered with a smile of feigned hospitality; and, whatever tactical pretences to piety they may at times be obliged to make, they are one and all irreligious sensualists, fatally wedded to the fleeting delights of the body. With appropriate slipperiness, these stock aspects of the favourite can all look like metaphors for one another, with the unfortunate side-effect for Perry that by the time he reaches his fifth chapter, ‘Erotic Favouritism as a Language of Corruption in Early Modern Drama’, he has already made most of its main points at least once.

The eroticised discourse of favouritism was so well established by the 1580s that it could evidently perpetuate itself regardless of the facts of particular careers. Leicester, for instance, is depicted in the much transcribed Catholic libel Leicester’s Commonwealth (1583-84) as a monster of gluttony, even though his correspondence reveals him to have been a self-disciplined and abstemious diner with an enthusiasm, years ahead of his time, for light white wines and salad. (His headquarters in Utrecht now house a passable restaurant.) This influential tract, which remained in circulation as late as the mid-17th century owing to its perceived application to the doings of subsequent favourites (as Perry’s fine second chapter, ‘Leicester and his Ghosts’, shows), also represents Leicester’s apparently sincere lifelong commitment to religious reform as an avaricious scheme aimed at confiscating episcopal property. The maverick Thomas Nashe still felt it was worth making this allegation in Piers Penniless His Supplication to the Devil in 1592, when Leicester had been safely dead for four years, and Nashe wasn’t the only non-Catholic to share the lasting animus which informs Leicester’s Commonwealth. The servitude to worldly vanities felt to have characterised Leicester, like every other favourite, is further explored in a striking anonymous manuscript composed soon after his death in 1588. Written by a Protestant, to judge from its reference to the pope as ‘the principal and first founder of purgatory’, it has been known since its rediscovery by D.C. Peck in the 1970s as ‘News from Heaven and Hell’. In this lively little treatise, regrettably passed over by Perry in a couple of sentences, Leicester is imagined posthumously en route for the portals of heaven:

his tottering buskins on his feet, he addressed himself towards the gates, wondering at the extreme beauty thereof and imagining in his mind what an unthinkable glory must needs be within that had so beautiful an entrance without, and further well perceiving now how much he had been deceived in time past in thinking no place in beauty to excel his castle of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, which he had been more careful to beautify in his life than to win this triumphant place after his death.

Predictably, however, the tract reserves its most lurid rhetoric for the matter of Leicester’s alleged sexual insatiability, another character trait derived more from cultural clichés about favouritism than from the facts of his life. In reality, Leicester’s protracted dealings with the jealous Elizabeth had rendered him less potent rather than more so, and his chequered love life was, if anything, the ruin of his career rather than its reward. Although he conducted a clandestine affair with the Dowager Lady Sheffield ten years after Amy’s death, he dared not marry her, as an abject letter to her explained in appropriately tormented syntax: ‘If I should marry I am sure never to have favour of them that I had rather yet never have wife than lose them, yet is there nothing in the world next that favour that I would not give to be in hope of leaving some children behind me, being now the last of our house.’ As a result, the only child to survive him was illegitimate, the Sir Robert Dudley who, after failing to establish lawful title to his father’s estate, would turn Catholic, flee Jacobean England and make his home in Florence. When Leicester finally married Lettice Devereux (née Knollys) in 1578 (two years after the death of her husband, which was naturally attributed to poisoning), he did so in secret, and on learning of the match despite his precautions the queen promptly called in various substantial loans, to his permanent financial embarrassment. She never fully acknowledged the marriage, and never confided so exclusively in Leicester again. Although she finally acceded to his requests to lead an English expeditionary force against the Spanish in the Low Countries, she undermined his status there by repudiating his appointment as governor general of the Netherlands in 1585, and his involvement in the Dutch wars became still more personally disastrous the following year when his nephew, protégé and heir, Sir Philip Sidney, was fatally wounded at Zutphen. Leicester was rehabilitated to organise the defensive preparations against the Armada in 1588, stage-managing Elizabeth’s public relations coup at Tilbury, but the effort killed him.

On paper, however, even if not in life, a favourite must be a tireless and uninhibited sexual athlete, and so ‘News from Heaven and Hell’ excludes Leicester from heaven principally on the grounds of lust. After St Peter has interrogated him at length about his involvement in various murders, extortions and usurpations, he is almost persuaded by a show of repentance to admit him even so. St Peter

threw open the gate and his Earlship most joyfully pressed forwards to enter in, but as he was conveying his body in and was in hope to have passed the second ward, suddenly the angel clapped to the gate and caught his merchant Brentencer[*] fast by the pate, wherewith he cried out as extremely as if his mother conscience had been in his arse. St Peter then perceiving his own error, namely that his Dudleyship’s other offences were so heinous and so many that he had forgotten to examine him of his lechery … began to examine him anew as well of his feats of arms done in his youth in his Lady Amy’s time and in his widowhood with divers ladies which shall be nameless because they are yet living and may amend, as also of his venerous acts done in his Lady Lettice’s time. Not forgotten his fowling piece in England nor the straight-bodied laundresses in the red petticoats during his abode in Flanders beyond the seas, of all the which Dudley denied not one point, hoping that St Peter because of his bald head had been a goodfellow in times past as well as he himself.

St Peter, however, is appalled, and Leicester is eventually sentenced to eternal coition in hell with a female fiend whose genitals contain a river of molten fire.

Literary attacks on royal favourites, even such baroque and vitriolic ones as this, have traditionally been seen as safety valves allowing subjects to criticise the regime without criticising either the monarch or the monarchy. Perry, as he is at pains to point out at regular intervals, does not subscribe to this view. He is not fooled for a minute by the evasive deference which Leicester’s Commonwealth professes towards Elizabeth: it is very hard to convict a man of adultery, conspiracy, murder, fraud, religious hypocrisy and tyranny without implying a pretty damning judgment not just of the woman who, politically at least, has been in bed with him for the last 25 years, but also of the mode of government which has foisted this dangerous liaison on the state. Despite the occasional pious disclaimers prudently inserted by such satirists, ‘the discourse of favour,’ according to Perry, ‘helped to nurture and sustain a tradition of radical inquiry into the nature of monarchy, providing a conceptual vocabulary with which to think beyond the orthodoxies of official political discourse.’

Perry makes this point most successfully by reference to the contemporary theatre, which was freer from the constraints of direct patronage than other modes of expression: here the claim that opponents of favouritism were merely trying to defend the best interests of their royal bosses and the institution they embodied by rescuing them from a few corrupting influences was regularly exposed as untenable. Marlowe’s Edward II, for example, shows how the Young Mortimer – who in the name of the ancient constitution rids Edward’s court of Piers Gaveston and then of his pampered successors, the Spencers – inevitably goes on to rid it of the king too. (Once made protector, however, Mortimer abuses the same prerogatives earlier flaunted by Edward: ‘I seal, I cancel, I do what I will … Mine enemies will I plague, my friends advance.’) In Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595), Bolingbroke returns early from banishment while his cousin Richard is in Ireland, and says that he has come only to claim his dead father’s estate and to purge the court of Richard’s favourites, Bushy, Green and Bagot, whom he describes as ‘The caterpillars of the commonwealth,/Which I have sworn to weed and pluck away’. Once he has summarily executed Bushy and Green, however, it is clear that his only option, if he wishes to survive, is to go the whole way and depose Richard, the legitimate king.

Neither play, however, asks to be read simply as a sermon to the effect that kings will be kings and there’s nothing much that their subjects can do about it. Shakespeare continued to try to imagine a monarchy without favouritism, though he had to adopt some thoroughly ruthless and implausible dramatic means in order to stage it. His sequels to Richard II culminate by portraying a king rendered tolerable precisely by his self-removal from the personal loyalties and affections which compromised the reign of Richard. Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, celebrates his coronation day by abruptly banishing his substitute father, Falstaff (whose projected future role as royal favourite has been pointedly modelled in miniature towards the end of Henry IV Part 2 by the domestic ascendancy of Justice Shallow’s out-of-hand steward, Davey); and he subsequently prepares for the invasion of France – an occasion to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’ – by having his bedfellow Scroop (whom he has hitherto ‘cloyed with gracious favours’) executed for treason. Taking advice just from representative clergymen and peers rather than from his intimates, he governs as though the national interest has entirely supplanted any personal obligation, giving out ‘a largess universal, like the sun’. The last action we see this nominally admirable if alienatingly remote figure transact, appropriately enough, is the negotiation of a loveless dynastic marriage.

As Perry remarks, this ‘idea of monarchy uncorrupted by the personal makes more sense as an ideological fantasy than as a practical or proscriptive idea of government’. Shakespeare had grown up during the Leicester years (as an 11-year-old schoolboy, as many of his biographers have pointed out, he might have been among the crowds watching from the lakeside during the Kenilworth festivities), and after spending the first half of his career keeping one wary eye on the fortunes of Leicester’s stepson and successor, the Earl of Essex, he would live just long enough to hear reports that Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, was being supplanted as James I’s latest most beloved delegate on earth by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. For a playwright working under such regimes, picturing ideal monarchs might be a far safer option than depicting the ways in which the affairs of state were really being conducted. This is certainly suggested by the experience of Ben Jonson. After tackling the ur-story of courtly favouritism head on in Sejanus, His Fall, he was summoned before the Privy Council for questioning. In the wake of this interrogation Jonson would print Sejanus only with such a reassuring-looking apparatus of antiquarian notes that the play acquired a quite undeserved reputation for bookish dullness.

What makes Sejanus and some of its Caroline imitators so much more radical than many earlier plays about bad favourites, as Perry’s culminating chapter argues, is that it represents the favourite not as a parasitic manipulator of his patron but as the patron’s instrument and scapegoat. In this play – whose central relationship prefigures in blacker mode the simultaneous mutual dependency and mutual antagonism of Volpone and Mosca or Face and Subtle in Jonson’s subsequent comedies – the favourite is the dupe of a Machiavellian ruler. The calculating ex-rent boy Sejanus may be wonderfully bad, but the emperor Tiberius, who sponsors his villainies while presiding over unseen orgies of sex and violence on Capri, and who at last ambiguously disowns his surrogate and leaves him to the anger of the mob, is worse. The members of the Senate, meanwhile, ratifying Tiberius’ decrees and appointments after only a token show of debate, are reduced to so many ‘good-dull-noble lookers on’, ‘only called to keep the marble warm’, and a nostalgic intelligentsia are either entrapped into show-trials for treason or cowed into an embittered quietism. It’s a shame that Perry’s book went to press before Gregory Doran’s revelatory RSC revival, performed at the Swan in Stratford last year, demonstrated what a shocking and resonant piece of drama Sejanus can still be.

Perry acknowledges in passing that leaders of Western democracies still grant and receive personal favours, and hence that there is still such a thing as a ‘politics of access’; as well he might, writing so soon after President Clinton gave Americans occasion to learn exactly what any Renaissance court favourite would have found out first about the architecture of the White House – namely, where to find its only secluded corridor not overlooked by an exterior window. But the present-day discussion with which Perry is chiefly engaged is about academic historiography and academic literary criticism. Throughout this book he is prosecuting a twenty-year-old feud with the New Historicists over the relations between literature and political change, informed by a continuing irritation that the likes of Stephen Greenblatt should ever have argued that all the apparent manifestations of subversion in Renaissance culture in the end promoted only the interests of an invincible hegemony. Perry wants his book to make the case that the hostile portrayals of favouritism from the 1580s until the 1630s, rather than providing an illusion of dissent within an untroubled status quo, actually constituted a precondition for the English Revolution. This argument isn’t always well served by its slightly repetitive and chronologically puzzling structure, nor by an unconvincing epilogue – appended despite Perry’s own remarks about the New Historicists’ over-reliance on ingenious rereadings of canonical texts – about the role of favouritism in Paradise Lost. But his argument is usually well made, and his concluding rhetorical question well taken: ‘Given the fact of civil war, how can one say that the subversive perspectives made available within the discourse of favouritism were – ultimately – contained?’

Perry only once concedes that gossip about favourites had a shelf life and a political purchase that extended beyond the civil wars, mentioning the renewed interest in the topic during the constitutional crises of the late Restoration – the most recent literary text he cites is Nathaniel Crouch’s The Unfortunate Court Favourites of England (1695). This is a pity, and not only because the rich cultural life which English Renaissance favourites have enjoyed since goes unexplored: two of the most influential and popular books of the 19th century, Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (1821) and Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1845), deal with this subject. Perry gives the misleading impression that the role of the favourite simply vanished with the Stuart dynasty, when in fact it was consolidated and institutionalised, albeit euphemised as well. Since the administration of Sir Robert Walpole in the early 18th century, the resented upstart at the centre of government, who invidiously secures his position by distributing all available patronage on the monarch’s behalf, has simply been renamed, and is now known as ‘the prime minister’. Enjoying progressively less intimacy with the monarch, this figure has exercised progressively more of the monarch’s alarmingly wide personal prerogatives. Thus Queen Elizabeth II can exert far less of a restraining influence on her official favourite’s fondness for making wars in her name than her 16th-century namesake could. Depressingly, the aspects of Renaissance political culture which to Perry look like the manifestations of a distant ancien régime – the undisclosed agreements reached in cabinet behind Parliament’s back, the dubious impromptu loans, the suspected sale of titles, the unwritten private arrangements about the succession, the government by carefully managed rumour – now look more than ever like business as usual at the Palace of Whitehall. Blair may have delegated the mandatory sexual misdemeanours to his immediate subordinates in a manner which Leicester couldn’t achieve, but otherwise the professional arts of the favourite scarcely seem to have changed. Though the English Revolution succeeded in ensuring that the townspeople of Kenilworth would have nothing to gaze at across the fields except some cows and some ruins, they, like the rest of us, are still living in Leicester’s commonwealth.

[*] This enigmatic phallic euphemism – which may conceivably allude, via Brent geese, to prostitutes – is unrecorded elsewhere.