Wednesday, January 8, 2014

8 January 2014, Dr M A Katritzky - "The Oxburgh Hangings – The Munkey, the Ape and the Wild Man"

Conditions in Oxford on January 8th, 2014 were appalling with some of the main roads closed due to flooding and more rain expected throughout the evening. It was amazing that any one was able to attend our Branch meeting, but roughly half the membership managed to. Fortunately, our guest speaker was one of those who were able to get there and the rest of us were rewarded with a fascinating and well researched lecture.

Dr Margaret Katritzky is a research fellow for The Open University. Her research focuses on early modern English and comparative literature and drama, with particular attention to Shakespeare Studies, Book History, Literature and Medicine, and Transnational Performance Culture. She has written three monographs: Healing, performance and ceremony in the writings of three early modern physicians: Hippolytus Guarinonius and the brothers Felix and Thomas Platter (Ashgate, 2012), Women, Medicine and Theatre, 1500-1750: Literary Mountebanks and Performing Quacks (Ashgate, 2007) and The art of commedia: a study in the commedia dell’arte 1560-1620 with special reference to the visual records (Rodopi, 2006). Based on her profile and her admission that she is not an embroiderer one might wonder why Margaret was invited to give at talk to members of the Embroiderers’ Guild. But the title of her talk, "The Oxburgh Hangings: Mary Queen of Scots’ ‘Great Munkey’, Breydenbach’s Ape, and the ‘Wild Man’ of Tenerife" to give it its full title, gives more than a subtle hint that Margaret would indeed be talking to us about embroidery.

Before talking about the embroideries themselves, Margaret gave us a brief history lesson on the lives Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick and told us a little bit about the social and political atmosphere of that period.

Mary Stuart was born on 7th December 1542, the first and only child of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. One week later her father died and she became Queen of Scotland. Mary’s French mother became regent and sent her daughter to France in 1548 to live as part of the French royal family. In 1558 she married the Dauphin Francis and in July 1559 became Queen of France when Francis succeeded his father becoming King Francis II. Seventeen months later the young king died and Mary decided to return to Scotland. During her seven years in Scotland Mary struggled to placate the Protestant reformers and befriend her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. At the same time the Roman Catholics doubted her commitment to their cause. When negotiations to marry Don Carlos, son of Philip II of Spain broke down, Mary married her first cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley on 29th July 1565. The marriage with quickly Darnley soured and by the time their son James was born on 19 June 1566 Mary was estranged from her husband and his allies. A little over a year later, on 24th July 1567 she was forced to abdicate in favour of her son who became King James VI of Scotland (and later James I of England). Mary escaped imprisonment at Lochleven Castle and rallied a large force but was beaten in battle at Landside on 13 May 1568. At this point she decided to leave Scotland and beg support from her cousin.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Born c. 1521 (her exact date of birth is unknown), Elizabeth Hardwick was the daughter of John Hardwick of Derbyshire and Elizabeth Leeke. In 1534, Bess contracted the first of four marriages with 13-year-old Robert Barlow. Due to their young age and Robert’s poor health, their marriage was unconsummated when Robert died in December 1535. As his widow, Bess was entitled to one third of the revenues of the Barlow estate. On 20 August 1547, Bess married for a second time to Sir William Cavendish and became Lady Cavendish. Together they had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. As an official of the Court of Augmentations, William was able to select choice properties for himself, including ecclesiastical vestments for Bess. Sir William Cavendish died on 25 October 1557, leaving Bess a widow for a second time. In 1559 became Lady St Loe when she married for a third time. When her husband, Sir William St. Loe, died without male issue in 1564/5, he left his entire estate to Bess, making her one of the wealthiest women in England. Bess did not remarry until 1568 when she married for the fourth and last time. As wife to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess became Countess of Shrewsbury.

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury

When Mary Queen of Scots fled to England she was taken into protective custody. Queen Elizabeth I regarded her cousin as a threat and in February 1569, Mary was placed under the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury and would remain with the Earl and Bess at one of their many homes for 15 years. Throughout this period, Bess spent time as Mary’s companion, working together on embroidery and textile projects.

All noble women of that period would have been trained in needlework and needlework was regarded as a highly respectable and virtuous pastime. In France, Mary would have been trained in Europe techniques including petit point, Florentine work and lacis – a needle lace technique. Bess was not only an accomplished embroiderer but also an avid collector of needlework. She was known to have commissioned pieces and to have constantly employed at least one professional embroiderer in her household. They worked individually on personal projects but also collaborated on larger projects. They were prolific, jointly completing in excess of 230 items. Rather than race through pictures of every item, Margaret focused on a few details from two of major projects, the Penelope Hanging and the Oxburgh Hangings. Margaret’s particular interest in these embroideries is the messages that the emblems and symbolism convey, and to explore the notion that Bess of Hardwick was a 16th century feminist.

The Penelope Hanging is from the Vices and Virtues series of embroideries. Originally there were five hangings (only four remain) each depicting noble women from history and mythology, flanked by personifications of the Virtues. Margaret questioned why these particular women - Penelope, Lucretia, Artimisia, Zenobia and Cleopatra – were depicted rather than their more famous husbands or counterparts and conjectured whether it was due to their association with textiles.

The Penelope Hanging
© The National Trust Textile Conservation Studio

Penelope is the faithful wife of Odysseus (Ulysses). While her husband is away fighting the Trojan War, Penelope puts off would be suitors and waits faithfully for his return. To delay choosing from the suitors, Penelope says that she will make her choice when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her elderly father-in-law. Each night she unravels some of that day’s weaving so prolongs the task.

Lucretia’s link with textile comes from a variation of the tale of her rape and consequent suicide. Sextus, son of the last King of Rome and Lucius (Lucretia’s husband) are away on military campaign. During a drinking party, a debate about the virtues of wives arises. They decide to settle the debate by riding to Lucius’ home to see what Lucretia was doing. There they find her weaving with her maids. Later, while a guest in their home, Sextus offers Lucretia an ultimatum, succumb to his sexual advances or he will kill her and a slave then accuse them of having an adulterous affair. The next day Lucretia goes to her father, discloses the rape and calls for vengeance before stabbing herself in the heart.

Artemisia was Queen of Caria and a commander in the Persian navy. She supported Xerxes during the Greco-Persian wars. King Xerxes thought that his men had fought like cowards at the battle of Artemisium because he was not there to watch them. He decided to watch the battle of Salamis to ensure that they acted bravely. He was so impressed by the actions of Artemisia, his only female commander, that he declared "My men have become women and my women men". After the battle he presented Artemisia with a fine suit of Greek armour and presented the captain of her ship with a distaff and spindle.

Zenobia was a Queen of the Palmyrene Empire who led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire. Zenobia and her army conquered many countries and built an empire that took in the vital trade routes, including the silk route.

The link between Cleopatra and textiles is the most tentative. The only candidate that Margaret knows of is the famous story of how Cleopatra was smuggled past guards rolled inside a carpet in order to meet and seduce Julius Caesar.

The large hangings (9ft by 11ft) were commission by Bess of Hardwick and are made from rich materials. Some were specially purchased for the project and other recycled, possibly from the afore mentioned vestments. The figures are made separately and appliqued onto the yellow and black striped silk velvet ground. In the hanging Penelope hanging, Penelope is flanked by Perseverance and Patience. (Author’s note: The Penelope hanging has recently been cleaned and conserved by the National Trust Conservation Unit; see here for a blog and short video about the process.)

The Penelope Hanging (details)
© The National Trust Textile Conservation Unit

The final three embroideries that Margaret spoke about in more detail come from a collection of embroideries known as the Oxburgh hangings and all depict an "ape" or "monkey". Some were stitched by Mary Queen of Scots and bear her monogram (the letters MA superimposed on the Greek letter Phi) or by Bess of Hardwick which bear the initials ES. Others are thought to have been stitched by the professional embroiderers on staff. The existing hangings consist of a wall hanging, two bed curtains and a valance but these are probably not the original hangings. It is thought that they were removed from the original ground sewn together in a new arrangement in the late 17thC. Some of the original panels are missing. Most of the motifs are based on illustrations in well-known books of emblems and creatures, both real and fanciful such as the Historiae Animalium by Conrad Gesner. However, the motifs are not all slavish copies of the original wood-cuts; some are slightly altered or elaborated upon. Mary used embroidery as a form of expression and communication and the emblems are thought to convey a message that would have been evident to her contemporaries even though much of the meaning is lost on us.

"A Great Munkey" is based on a well-known woodcut which is based on much earlier illustration in Breydenbach. The maned humanoid creature appears on a page with other animals. While they are clearly labelled with recognizable (latin?) names, the "Great Munkey" is captioned "not certain of the name". Pedro Gonzalez, "the Wildman of Tenerife", lived and was educated at the court of Henry II of France and was well known to Mary. Pedro’s face was covered in long dark blonde fur which earned him the reputation of being half man, half monkey.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pedro Gonzalez, "the Wildmand of Tenerife"

"An Ape" is based on an illustration found in a volume by Conrad Gesner. The stitched version has been altered from the original. It is shown seated on a table and holding a disc, possibly a mirror, in its hand.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To date, no similar illustration of "An Ape of Turkey" has been identified. It is thought to be a political jibe by Mary on her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Phew! That was a long report! I usually try to give an overview of the talk rather than regurgitate it in full but on this occasion so many members were unable to attend the Branch meeting I have gone into much greater detail. As I said earlier, this was a well-researched lecture which included many citations which I was not always able to note down. My apologies to Dr Katritzky for any errors, major omissions or misrepresentations of her work and many thanks to her for coming to talk to us in such adverse conditions.

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