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One MS & three forgotten Renaissance poets


Forgotten poets? Overlooked, or even overshadowed perhaps. Possibly because they’re all women and women at the court of Henry VIII at that, meaning any record of their respective positions and those of their progeny on the politico-diplomatic chessboard of the time would have excluded all the more personal considerations save the dynastic factors of marriage(s) and births. The trio consists of three renowned beauties of their day: Lady Margaret Douglas (1515-1578), Mary Howard (Duchess of Richmond & Somerset, 1519-1557) and Mary Shelton (?-1560).

Mary Shelton, Lady Heveningham, Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Shelton, Lady Heveningham, Hans Holbein the Younger

Definite details about Mary Shelton are scarce. And sometimes ambiguous: it’s not in fact known for sure if she was one of two courtier sisters (the other being supposedly named Margaret) or a sole figure. Whether or not she was a mistress of Henry VIII is equally uncertain – although there is some evidence that she may well have been his bedmate early in 1535. This is worth noting, given her lack of definite birthdate as we may assume it must have been between 1515-1520 – bedding a girl of less than 15 years would have been frowned upon, not least because sexual maturity in those days tended to occur later than it does now (although there were exceptions, of course: Henry’s father, Henry VII, was born before his mother’s 14th birthday).

What we do know about Mary is that she was not only a first cousin of Anne Boleyn but also the principal editor of an intriguing manuscript that survives to this day. The Devonshire MS (BM Add. MS 17492).

The Devonshire MS contains a series of poems, plus the occasional reference or annotation. It was in effect a kind of travelling commonplace book containing original poetry penned by a few select members of the trio’s circle. The manuscript would have been passed from one to another member of the group, each reading the former’s contribution before making his or her own and passing it on in turn. The document may have survived as it contains works by two more celebrated Tudor poets, Henry, Earl of Surry and Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. As controversy still rages about the nature of Wyatt’s relationship with Anne Boleyn, further spice is added to what is already a potent courtly brew.

We are told by a chronicler of the time that Anne Boleyn scoffed at her cousin’s literary efforts, dismissing them as “idle poesies.” But she might have been teasing – who knows? So little is known about the true nature of those close friends, Mary Shelton, Mary Howard and Margaret Douglas that their lives are probably only accessible to the novelist. Dorothy Dunnett for one (in The Lymond Chronicles) conducted a comprehensive hatchet job on Lady Margaret Douglas.

Margaret Douglas (Lennox) tomb

Margaret Douglas (Lennox) tomb

Margaret Douglas was a neice of Henry VIII, loyal friend and co-religionist of her cousin Mary I, mother of the notorious Lord Darnley (Mary, Queen of Scots’ second husband of grisly fate) and grandmother of James VI of Scotland/I of England. Yet despite a life as racy as it was dynastic, she remains a footnote in history tagged onto her more powerful connections.

Mary Howard, later Duchess of Richmond and Somerset, the second poet in

Mary Howard (Fitzroy, Duchess of Richmond)

Mary Howard (Fitzroy, Duchess of Richmond)

our trio was either more cautious or luckier. She contrived to avoid becoming embroiled in several plots within her family which might otherwise have endangered her life. Once widowed, she refused to marry Thomas Seymour, displaying strength of mind in withstanding what must have been intense pressure. Preferring a quiet life, Mary Howard (Fitzroy) retired from court and, sadly, died at the age of 38.

Each of these women lived in a time and at a court which were a minefield for the unwary. And even for the most highly intelligent and prescient of people. Yet they were hardly lacking in courage or spirit. Margaret Douglas spent time in the Tower for her affair with Thomas Howard (Mary Howard’s brother). She was later freed; he died there in 1537. Undeterred, Margaret engaged in a further relationship with a Howard – Charles, this time (half-nephew of her late love, Thomas) – and was banished to a nunnery when it was discovered, Mary Howard electing to accompany her for the duration.

And what of Mary Shelton, the most humble in the hierarchy of the times – and the most mysterious despite her Boleyn connections? Her court connections may at first sight appeared to have yielded happiness as well as advancement in her engagement to Thomas Clere, a successful poet and courtier: each party to the prospective match was recorded as enthusiastic about the match. However, Thomas died not long before the wedding date. To a clever, sensitive and largely powerless observer, poetry might well have been a source of comfort – although Mary married twice and produced five children. Death and danger would have been as much a preoccupation as love among this young coterie: both could strike at any time, from anywhere – even ordered or administered by a close relative.

No wonder these women poets in particular were so happy to escape into a world of emotion ordered by necessary embellishment and imported literary forms – while appearing to let it all hang out emotionally, they were in fact concealing themselves behind some fairly rigid structures, dealing in what the critic William Empson in his work of the same name termed Seven Types of Ambiguity. The English language, rich and often oblique, lends itself to such shades of meaning and interpretation. As did Henry VIII’s infamous changes of mood and attitude. Care, cunning and concealment would have been very much the expressive ethos. However cryptic your utterance, obscurity must have seemed preferable to misinterpretation by the wrong person.

But oh, how these long-dead women make me long for a time machine! You too, no? One with special functions enabling us to slip into their world undetected, blending in naturally, and meet all these characters responsible for The Devonshire MS. But, of course, we’d need assurance in advance that we’d be permitted to keep our heads one way or another.

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  1. 01/09/2009 15:42

    The intrigues of the Tudor and Elizabethan courts are fascinating and, as you say, it would be interesting to know how far removed the truth is from our “understanding” of those people. What about the poems – are they any good?

  2. 02/09/2009 01:47

    A fascinating post, Minnie. I didn’t know about these women and I have always been interested in that period. Yes, I long for a time machine, too! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to talk to them?

  3. 04/09/2009 20:58

    I fascinating post I had not heard of them before. I agree a time machine would be fun to see what it was really like.

  4. Minnie permalink
    04/09/2009 20:01

    WW: I suspect many of those intrigues could be replicated almost anywhere at almost any period! But “What is truth, said Jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer” – understanding, like truth, depends on quite a few variables. If you’d like to read some of the poetry, much of the MS is visible online.

    Welshcakes: Thank you. I’d only heard of Margaret Douglas, although not of her poetry, so discovering these three (via Thomas Wyatt the elder) was too intriguing a route not to pursue further. Yes, it would be wonderful to meet some of these characters, wouldn’t it?

  5. Minnie permalink
    04/09/2009 22:51

    Cherie: thank you! This is largely undiscovered territory for me, too. Oh, that time machine … ! It’ll have to fit all of us ;-).

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