The Future of History

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Lover's Complaint

For reasons we don't need to go into just now, I've taken a few days out from working on the ARTHUR book.  Which just means that I've been revisiting the early parts of my first SHAKESPEARE book.

WALKING SHADOW ("Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot") is a project I've been obsessed with for more than twenty years.  It opens with a scene pretty much just like the one shown here: a sunny afternoon on Christ Church Meadow in Oxford, where Will Shakespeare lay down on the grass and watched as a 'fickle maid full pale', who was weeping and wailing down by the river's edge, was approached by a 'reverend man' who wished to know the 'grounds and motives of her woe'.

The details arre largely provided by one of Shakespeare's lesser known and least regarded poems, A Lover's Complaint.  The poem was published along with the sonnets in 1609 - that is, part of the poem was published, the second half or so apparently uncompleted or forever lost.  Which is a pity, because what the surviving fragment of the poem has to tell us is intriguing indeed.

In short, it brands Will Shakespeare as an adulterer and a traitor.

Now, if you take a look at the poem, you'll wonder what Christ Church Meadow has got to do with anything.  Shakespeare makes no mention of it in the poem.  But he does tell us exactly where the action of the poem took place - where the 'fickle maid' made her confession to the 'reverend man'.

The opening lines of A Lover's Complaint go like this:

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sist'ring vale,
My spirits t'attend this double voice accorded,
And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale ...

The hill with the 'concave womb' stood at the centre of Oxford.  Back in the misty, mythical past, a British king named Lludd was trying to figure out how to put a stop to a devastating plague.  He summoned his wise men, who told him to measure out his kingdom and find the exact centre; there, he was to dig a pit, place a cauldron filled with sweet mead inside it and cover it over with a satin sheet.

Lludd did this.  He measured the land from east to west and north to south and found that the exact centre lay at a crossroads known as Carfax, in what is now the City of Oxford.  He dug his pit there and prepared the cauldron.  Two dragons appeared in the sky - a red one, representing the Britons, and a white one, symbolising the Saxon invaders.  The dragons were wrestling and writhing (this being the cause of the dreadful plague), but when they tired they came down to land in Lludd's pit on Carfax hill.  The dragons drank the mead, fell asleep, and Lludd was able to gather them up in the satin sheet and transport them far away to Wales.

A strangely similar story belonged to the valley of the River Thames, just a mile or two away from Carfax.  King Henry II took a lover named Jane Clifford, although she was better known as the Fair Rosamund or 'Rose of the World'.  The king installed his mistress at his royal palace at Woodstock, north of Oxford, and when the affair came to an end in about 1176, Jane Clifford retired to the nunnery at Godstow, just outside Oxford, where she died and was buried.

A few years later, Hugh Bishop of Lincoln visited Godstow and was appalled to find that the nuns were still honouring the tomb of the 'harlot', Fair Rosamund, with fresh flowers and candles.  The bishop ordered the nuns to exhume her remains and rebury them outside the chapel as an example to lewd and adulterous women.  The nuns did as they were told, but as soon as the bishop had gone they dug up Jane Clifford's "sweet-smelling" bones and carried them back into the chapel in a "silken scented bag".

The heraldic crest of Jane Clifford's family featured two 'wyverns gules' or red dragons.  Like the dragons of Carfax, Jane Clifford's remains had been transported to their burial place in a satin sheet or "silken scented bag".

The opening lines of Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint therefore point to Oxford as the setting for the poem, and in particular Carfax, the hill whose 'concave womb' re-worded the sad tale of Fair Rosamund's  remains from the 'sist'ring vale' of Godstow.

But the poet had moved away from the hill of Carfax to listen to the 'double voice' of a 'sad-tuned tale'.  Just to the south of Carfax stands Christ Church College, the chapel of which is also Oxford's cathedral.  It housed a bell - "the loudest thing in Oxford" - which was known locally as Great Tom.  Previously, though, the bell had belonged to Oseney Abbey, where it was affectionately known as Mary.  At the Reformation, when Oseney Abbey was dissolved, the bell was taken to Christ Church and renamed.  It was double-voiced (the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Tom) and sad-tuned: damaged in transit, its clapper was worn out; it sounded awful.

So Shakespeare had made his way from Carfax down to Christ Church and lay down in the meadow, watching a middle-aged woman (she was actually thirty-six) weeping on the riverbank and tearing up letters and love tokens and throwing them into the river.

Her name was Jane Davenant and, at the time, she was two months pregnant with Shakespeare's child.

And pretty soon, I'll reveal the identity of the 'reverend man' who came and sat down beside her to hear her confession.


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