The God of Political Chaos

A Girardian reading of Euripides… and The English Civil War


We think of Dionysus (Bacchus) of the God of wine, but – as Girard explains – he was originally something like the God of mob frenzy – or more specifically, of decisive mob action, action that resolves a problem that it itself brought about. Having come to Thebes and enlisted its women to his Bacchanal, he is opposed by the king, Pentheus. Pentheus disguises himself as a participant in the bacchanal and is torn limb from limb by the crowds.

For Girard, the myth is the retelling – in fact the mistelling – of an ancient rite, and this rite is itself the reenactment of a still more ancient crime. The details have been transfigured, with the unconscious purpose of obscuring the original, ugly truth – thus, for example, the Bacchae are women in Euripides’ telling, whereas most violence is male in origin. Pentheus’s death is a kind of sacrifice, a purge of all evil in a society – a controlled violence that forestalls a more deadly general violence – a scapegoating.

It’s awfully unfair, of course, that the victim is innocent, but this, Girard argues, is in the very nature of a sacrificial victim – a scapegoat, which Pentheus unwittingly becomes. I don’t intend to get too deep into why mobs behave as they do, or why scapegoating works the way it does; but let’s say, they just do, it just does, and this is the way that society works, then how does that play out in history?

My particular interest is in the reign of Charles I, and this provides us with fertile territory in which to see the scapegoating mechanism at work, and instances where one figure or another might be compared to Dionysus or Pentheus.

The first scapegoating was of the king’s favourite and close ally, the Duke of Buckingham. A successful social climber, a favourite and (probably) lover of the king’s father before him, Buckingham had been in charge of England’s military under Charles in the 1620s, in which – at the urging of a strongly pro-war parliament – a more aggressive foreign policy was pursued against France and Spain. Whether or not it was the Duke’s fault, the policy was a disaster, from England’s drunken defeat to the Spanish at Cadiz, to its humiliating loss to the French at the Isle de Re. Parliament tried to impeach the Duke and puritans chugged out propaganda sheets condemning and blaming him; a disgruntled soldier returning from the farcical campaigns took them to heart and stabbed the Duke to death over his breakfast in Portsmouth one morning.

The king suffered through the gleeful public response to the Duke’s death. His foreign adventurism came to an end, and his court became more decorous. He became closer to his Roman Catholic wife, and – after initial concessions to parliament – more autocratic, proroguing parliament indefinitely and embarking on a personal rule of his kingdoms.

The second was Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. A highly efficient, disciplinarian Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the Council of the North, he was made pre-eminent in the king’s council when the Scottish Bishop’s wars started and the king had to recall parliament. Once the Scots had captured Newcastle, however, he was vulnerable to his enemies in parliament, who were allied to the Scots in the quest to reform religion in Britain, and to Strafford’s Anglo-Irish enemies, they put him on trial for abuses of power – a trial which Strafford easily won. The parliament then ‘attainted’ him – that is, they passed a bill for his execution (a salutary reminder that parliament is not always the ally of law and liberty), and – with their Scots allies withholding Tyneside’s coal – pressured the king to sign it. At his execution, Strafford rued Biblically that he had put his faith in princes – and Charles, for his part, felt guilt at allowing the execution for the rest of his life.

Far from restoring order, the execution emboldened the parliamentarians so that within a couple of years they were trying to wrest power over the army from the king, the struggle that led into the English Civil war proper.

The third scapegoat was the short, imperious Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Long a bete noir of the Puritans in England – and the Presbyterian Scots, he was condemned for forcing reforms on the English church widely – if inaccurately – seen to be ‘Papist’. Locked in the Tower of London before the outbreak of the war, he was executed in its midst, as the Parliamentarians, increasingly radical, sought not only to undo his reforms but to banish episcopy altogether. Like Strafford, Laud was attainted, killed by act of parliament.

Sacrificial victims in the civil war are not hard to find – and they are often, as in the Bacchae, figures like Pentheus, of power and influence. The cavaliers, with their devil-may-care hedonism, may more closely accord with our traditional idea of the Bacchanal, but if we define Dionysus, as Girard insists, as the impulse to decisive mob action, then it is the Roundheads who are the Bacchae. The stout and rigid Cromwell may strike an unlikely Bacchus, but the tumults of the 1640s gave rise to a plethora of cults, sects and movements, of various religious and political flavours, that threatened to overhaul the society of England in ways that the original parliamentary rebels could not have conceived and did not particularly want. As head of the New Model Army, only Cromwell had the power and authority to bring the chaos to an end.

By 1649, three years after the king’s capitulation at Newark, and a subsequent civil war, Cromwell had reached the conclusion that war and its attendant chaos could not be concluded without the death of the king. This was quite rational to some extent – the king’s duplicity with his captors, and his playing of factions, had helped prolong resistance to the Roundhead settlement, but the killing of the king was supra-legal and determined: Cromwell purged parliament of any dissenters, staged a show-trial of the king and did not inform his nominal allies in Scotland (who were horrified). The monarch he called ‘the man of blood’ was executed on a cold January morning in 1649. History does not replay myth – or never exactly, because myth is a distillation of history, and of all human actions. Still, the figures and tropes of myth occur, in one way or another, in every age. Next post, I will look at our own.


Thrones Flashbacks

How come the people in Game of Thrones call kings ‘Your Grace’, and we say ‘Your Majesty’? Who were the Andals? Is Daenerys a neocon? Where did Martin get the idea for Dragon Fire? 

Also, what’s with dragons, generally?

A couple of years ago, inspired by George R.R. Martin’s books and the TV series, I wrote a few articles on Game of Thrones and some of the interesting historical echoes in the programme. They refer to storylines mostly over and done with now, but may still be of interest…

Another article Thrones’ fans may enjoy is this on dragons, which I wrote for the (now sadly defunct) literary magazine, The Wagon Magazine:


By Karl Bryullov – Karl Bryullov, Public Domain,


To Breed or Not to Breed?

This is the last of my would-be-articles for the Wagon Magazine, sadly discontinued late last year on the death of its proprietor, Krishna Prasad. The article has become more topical since its writing, as it is on a question that has recently been asked by America’s youngest, trendiest congresswoman: should we have children?

Earlier this year I heard of a South African academic, one David Benatar, who advances the cause of anti-natalism, that is the idea that life is, all things considered, not worth the bother; that is that we would be better off if we hadn’t been born, and our children would be better off not being born either. I’ve heard this idea before, one place or another, although rarely put so bluntly, but what really caught my attention was the title of his book on the subject, ‘Better never to have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.’ The first half of this title is very similar to an Ancient Greek poem of the Archaic era that goes:

For man the best thing is never to be born,

Never to look upon the sun’s hot rays

Next best, to speed at once through Hades’ gates

And lie beneath a piled up heap of earth.

Not a great deal is known about the writer, Theognis, so we can’t be sure how representative of his views on procreation this poem is. Most likely it expresses a dark mood, rather than a settled conviction. But Benatar’s invocation, deliberate or otherwise, of Theognis, and the South African’s own strange beliefs had me thinking about other poets who have pondered whether or not to bring new life onto earth.

Philip Larkin ends his most famous – and infamous – poem, ‘This Be the Verse’ with some to the point advice about family life for young people:

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Larkin, a curmudgeonly man of letters, librarian at the University of Hull, and one of the great poets of post-war England, was famous, as poets go, but ‘This Be the Verse’ is a poem more famous than its author and more famous by far, perhaps undeservingly so, than longer, more thoughtful poems of Larkin’s. With its casual expletive in the first stanza, and its scathing dismissal of the institutions of marriage, and of procreation, it obviously appealed to a country that thought it was throwing off the weight of centuries of oppressive tradition, and embracing a way of life liberated from ancient, outdated strictures and customs.

I wonder how Larkin would feel about that. He was in many ways a small ‘c’ conservative, not altogether at home in a more sexually liberated and less religious land, and with a great deal of nostalgia – love, even – for an England he worried was disappearing. It is true that he took his own advice, never marrying and leaving no children, but that may not have been a chosen lifestyle so much as one thrust on him by circumstances or – who knows – by the limitations of his own character. The poem, sharp and witty, expresses not his final verdict on life, or even a final verdict on his own life, but, again, a mood – it should be read alongside Larkin’’s other poems, striking a bitterly comic note, among others more reflective, nostalgic and ambiguous. To write a whole collection of poems like that would have made Larkin, nothing more than a talented self-parody, something like a twentieth century Lord Rochester.

Rochester, that is John Wilmot, a debauched, cynical wit in the court of Charles II of England touched on the same subject, declaring,

Let the porter and the groom,

Things designed for dirty slaves,

Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb,

To get supplies for age and graves.

Poets in the 16th and 17th century, starting perhaps with Sidney, were fond of addressing poems to women with Greek names, entirely imaginary paragons of feminine perfection. Wilmot considers such a woman, ‘Aurelia’, and roundly rejects her, in the crudest of terms. Women, even those of her stature, are for the lower classes. Heterosexuality? How passé! All that comes of it, he suggests, is more people to get old and die.

Rochester mentions children almost in passing – his real distaste is for women and courtship, but a poet of a generation earlier, the Cavalier John Suckling, no slouch when it came to the ladies, made a similar argument specifically against the begetting of children:

The world is of a vast extent, we see,

And must be peopled; children there must be;

So must bread too, but since they are enough

Born to the drudgery, what need we plough?

It is not that there are too many people in the world, as some of our misanthropic moderns like to suggest – no one much thought so in the seventeenth century; Suckling accepts that we do actually need to breed to populate the world, only averring that it can be left to others – again, the lower classes – to do the dirty work. Just as we needn’t sow wheat ourselves, neither must we breed– plough, in the seventeenth-century idiom.

Suckling died in the early stages of the English Civil War, though not in England. A hopeless romantic and inveterate Royalist, he was involved in a plot to rescue King Charles’ I’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford from the clutches of Parliament, and, failing, fled abroad in ignominy. He died without known issue, leaving instead a decent body of poetry and his own semi-comic legend. Perhaps he believed what the poets of the Renaissance liked so often to say: that immortality, or the closest thing going, could be had by leaving traces of you and your beloved in your poetry. William Shakespeare said the same thing in a number of different ways. Here, for example, are the last six lines of sonnet 15:

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay

Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,

Where wasteful time debateth with Decay,

To change your day of youth to sullied night;

And all in war with time for love of you,

As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

Shakespeare promises he can remake this young man in poetry, even as time ages him, and yet addressing the same young man in the next sonnet he asks:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way

Make war upon this bloody tyrant, time,

And fortify yourself in your decay

With means more blessèd than my barren rhyme?

The language is unequivocal: there is a ‘mightier’, ‘more blessed’ way to ensure your own immortality.

Now stand you on the top of happy hours,

And many maiden gardens, yet unset,

With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,

Much liker than your painted counterfeit.

Which is to say that the mightier, more blessed way to live on is the way that humans have always sought to: by propagating yourself, and by continuing your family line. And that stands in a very elegant rebuke to Suckling, Rochester, Larkin and Theognis, although it should be mentioned that Shakespeare actually had no choice but to come to his pro-natalist conclusion: most likely he was paid to do so.

Sonnets 1-17 are thought to be addressed to Henry Wriothesley the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young patron of Shakespeare, and possibly the addressee of some of Shakespeare’s later, more romantic, sonnets. The man paying for the poems may have been no less than Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s right-hand man and the most powerful man in England, who hoped to marry the young earl to his grand-daughter. The poems did not have the desired effect, for the earl refused the marriage and instead accepted an eye-watering fine. Perhaps he wanted nothing to do with marriage and children, or, like Suckling and Rochester, thought he had better things to do with his time. But the earl did, after all, leave issue – although with a different spouse, and his line, and their unpronounceable surname, lived on. Perhaps the earl, in later years, had picked up Shakespeare’s sonnets and found them more persuasive.


Theognis’ poem is from Hesiod / Theognis, Transl Dorothea Wender, Penguin, London, 1973

‘This Be the Verse’ from Collected Poems, Philip Larkin, Faber and Faber, London 1988

The other poems are in the public domain

Suffering and Woe

Jozef Israëls. A Jewish Wedding (not in Bombay)

Note: This was one of my last columns intended for The Wagon Magazine of Chennai, before the editor’s sad departure late last year. 

I was recently asked to do a reading at a wedding – the ‘reading’ being a relatively new, but already fairly well-established concept in English weddings. In England’s old Christian marriages, the ‘readings’, if there were any, were from the Bible, and reinforced the wedding liturgy, which focused on the sacred importance of marriage, the finality of its vows and the rather intimidating idea that two people were now irrevocably one flesh. The official text of the wedding, like the ceremony itself, had centuries’ of usage behind it, and the weddings presided over by men who had practised them all their working lives. We moderns with our readings, by contrast, are basically making it up as we go along. The results are bound to be mixed.

I have seen many forgettable readings at weddings over the years, and a few that were memorable for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the best was a reading of the poem ‘She Walks in Beauty’ By Lord Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

That is about three parts enchantment and one part flattery – a nice mood to strike on a wedding day, and a clever move to make to start off a marriage. It was read by the mother of the groom – and presumably on behalf of the groom – and was the right poem for that occasion. Not for mine, however: the wedding in question was my younger sister’s.

Not wanting to befuddle the wedding guests, I thought it best to read something in a reasonably modern idiom. And yet I couldn’t help noticing that a lot of the poems about weddings from the 20th century evoke disenchantment. The most famous wedding poem of the last century sees Philip Larkin, on a train through the English Midlands in the late 1950s noticing party after party of wedding guests, brides and grooms among them, on the streets of the towns he passes through, and there is little about them that ‘walks in beauty’.

mothers loud and fat;   

An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   

The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   

The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest

In Larkin’s profane post-war England, any sense of the enchantment of matrimony has departed, and the ‘parodies of fashion’ that the girls use to brighten up the day do little to recapture it. Nissim Ezekiel strikes a somewhat less scornful note in his ‘A Jewish Wedding in Bombay’ – as well he should, as he is describing his own wedding. There are scenes of joy there – notably the bride’s brothers stealing his shoe for a laugh. But again, we see little in the way of transcendental beauty – the religious element of the wedding is described as prosaically as the theft of a shoe:

I remember a chanting procession or two, some rituals,
lots of skull-caps, felt hats, decorated shawls
and grape juice from a common glass for bride and

The Jews of Bombay seem to be as pragmatic in their way as the nominally Christian Englishmen of the East Midlands. The title of Larkin’s poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ refers to the English name of the feast of the Pentecost, for it is this Sunday, seven Sundays after Easter, that the weddings take place, and in doing so he is drawing a contrast between the fading religious traditions of England’s past and the profane, secular atmosphere of the present: the only explicit reference to religion in the poem is in this rather strange line describing the brides heading to the south coast for their honeymoons:

While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   

At a religious wounding

‘Religious wounding’ is Larkin’s way of describing the consummation of the marriage – in those days most girls would have at least pretended to be virgins before their wedding night. The action is religious because it is religion that has made the girls wait for it, or because they expect something transcendental. It is wounding because, well, it might hurt. Ezekiel’s wife describes the most likely aftermath, however: ‘Is that all / there is to it? She had wondered.’

For 20th century glumness about marriage nobody quite beats Robert Lowell’s To Speak of Woe that is in Marriage’ which describes a point in a marriage at which:

My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,

and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes

Though later the narrating wife says she spends each night ‘gored by the climacteric of his want.’ Gored by the climacteric of his want? It’s not as bad as all that, is it? There’s much more going on in that poem than I have cared to, um, delve into, but plainly 20th-century poetry, though written in an accessible idiom, is not the place to find a nice reading for one’s sister’s wedding.

Still, Lowell, with his heady climacteric, got me on the right track. The title of the poem is from The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, probably the most famous commentary on marriage in English Literature:

Experience, thogh noon auctoritie

Were in this world, is right inogh for me

To speke of wo that is in marriage.

For lordinges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,

Thonked be God that is eterne on live,

Housbondes at chirche-dore I have had five

A very literal ‘translation’ into modern English goes: ‘Even if there were no authority [on the topic of marriage] in the world, my experience is quite enough for me to speak of the woe that is in marriage, for Gentlemen, since I was twelve years of age, thanks be to God who lives eternally, I have had five husbands at the church door.’ This run of bad luck (for her husbands, not her) has allowed the wife to amass a wealth of cynical wisdom that quite scandalizes her audience. Again, not quite the best material for the wedding of one’s sister (whom I hope does not marry five husbands), but a nod in the right direction – that is, to ditch the attempt to enchant altogether and give some brotherly – and brother-in-lawerly – advice.

The very right advice was to be found again in Chaucer, this time in a modern translation and – because I didn’t have all the time in the world to prepare for it – in an anthology of poems fit for weddings. The section is from the Franklin’s Tale – a franklin is a landowner, somewhere in the lower-middle ranges of England’s Mediaeval class system – and his advice, as practical as can be, betrays awareness of all the difficulties of marriage that Larkin, Ezekiel and Lowell allude to, and gives a solution – indeed, the only possible solution:

Looke who that is moost pacient in love,

He is at advantage al above.

Pacience is an heigh vertu, certain,

For it venquisseth, as thise clerkes seyn,

Things that rigour sholde nevere atteine,

For every word men may nat chide or pleine;

Lerneth to suffer, or else, so moot I gon,

Ye shul lerne it wherso ye wole or non.

Which I would render: ‘See how he most patient in love is at an advantage above all others. Patience is a high virtue, to be sure, for it vanquishes, as the experts say, things rigour never will. Men cannot every time chide or complain. So learn to suffer, or as I live, ye will learn it whether you want to or not.’ Or, as in the anthology’s translation, in a line I quite enjoyed reading at the wedding:

So, learn to suffer, or I swear you’ve got

To learn the hard way, if you like it or not.



‘She Walks in Beauty’ by Lord Byron is in the public domain.

So are the works of Chaucer, though the versions used are from the Penguin Version, Ed. Jill Mann, London, 2005 and the last couplet from the Franklin’s Tale was from Penguin’s Poems for Weddings, Ed. Laura Barber, Penguin, London, 2014 (translator uncredited)

Excerpts from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, in Collected Poems, Philip Larkin, Faber and Faber, London 1988

‘A Jewish Wedding in Bombay’ can be found in Collected Poems, Nissim Ezekiel, OUP India, 2005

‘To Speak of Woe that is in Marriage’ in Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976


Picture credit: By Jozef Israëls – From Jewish Art, edited by Grace Cohen Grossman, ISBN 0-88363-695-6, page 146. Scanned with an HP ScanJet 6200C at 400DPI. Downsampled to half-resolution in The Gimp to get rid of moire effect, and saved as JPEG at quality 95., Public Domain,


Wrapped up, O Lord, in man’s degeneration

The tomb of Fulke Greville


Wrapped up, O Lord, in man’s degeneration,

The glories of thy truth, thy joys eternal,

Reflect upon my soul dark desolation,

And ugly prospects o’er the spirits infernal.

Lord I have sinned and mine iniquity

Deserves this hell; yet, Lord, deliver me.


Thy power and mercy never comprehended

Rest lively imagined in my conscience wounded;

Mercy to grace, and power to fear extended,

Both infinite; and I in both confounded.

Lord, I have sinned and mine iniquity

Deserves this hell, yet, Lord, deliver me.


If from this depth of sin, this hellish grave,

And fatal absence from my Saviour’s glory

I could implore His mercy, who can save.

And for my sins, not pains of sin, be sorry –

Lord, from this horror of iniquity

And hellish grave, Thou wouldst deliver me.


I remember Fulke Greville from John Stubb‘s Reprobates as the figure who spanned two –almost three poetic eras, from the days of his friend Philip Sidney in Elizabethan times, through the Jacobean age, in which he was a great patron of younger poets, and into the early years of Charles’ reign – in which he was unceremoniously stabbed to death by a disgruntled manservant. With his Norman name and elite credentials – he was a serious personage in Elizabeth’s reign and was granted Warwick Castle in James’ reign – he comes across as something of a grandee, and his poetry is suitably Petrarchan to boot – well-crafted, classical and lofty, and very influenced by Sidney, especially his earlier poems.

Towards the end of his career, however, Greville turned away from Classical themes and wrote some very decent religious poetry.

It is fascinating in poems of this era how very concrete and immanent God, heaven and hell are in the consciousness of the poets. Compare any poem by, say T.S. Eliot or R.S. Thomas, two well-known Christian poets of the 20th century, to Greville’s, and you would be struck by the immediacy of the presence of God to the poet, by the poet’s awareness of his own sin,  and by his fear of hell. In 20th century poetry, God – if He features at all – is a whisper, a fleeting glint of light, something hoped for but not seen.

The poem is a confession of sins, albeit unspecified sins, and a call for forgiveness. Greville’s ancestors could have confessed their sins to their priests and been granted absolution. Catholics in his own era, indeed in any era, could have done the same thing. But Greville, like most Englishmen of his day (certainly most prominent Englishmen), was a Protestant, with no recourse to the age-old sacrament of confession. The poem is a product of the Reformation as much as of the English poetic Renaissance.

A cynic could say this was 16th/17th-century virtue-signalling, that he is exhibiting his own humility and wretchedness before God to demonstrate his own piety. I tend to think we in modern West downplay the sincerity and seriousness of religious thought and feeling, either from the past, or from elsewhere in the world, so I take Greville at his word. If you do, too, it is also interesting to see such an expression from a public figure: could you imagine a modern-day public figure – or anyone – retiring from his daily work and going home to examine his conscience so rigorously? Could it be that the people of the 16th and 17th centuries had a more highly developed conscience than we? At least they had a clearer vision of man’s fallenness, his capacity for sin and self-deception, or, as Greville puts it, his ‘degeneration’.


Image: Eliza Rolle at Wikipedia


Thomas Carew: Eurosceptic

Jacques Callot’s ‘Looting and Burning of a Village’ – a scene inspired by the Thirty Years’ War

In the recent, long-running (that is, interminable), kerfuffle around Britain’s push-me/pull-me style attempt to leave and also to stay in the European Union, most of the debate has centred around whether it is to our advantage or not to be in the union. The Remainers, whom we used to call Pro-Europeans, think it generally is to our advantage, whereas the Leavers, formerly Eurosceptics, think it mostly isn’t.

But there is another debate, which has somewhat faded into the background, which is whether there should be a single overarching European polity in the first place. And since there is nothing new under the sun, that is a debate that has been around in one form or another since before we even defined the boundaries of what later became known as Europe.

Here is one poet’s take on the issue, written in response to the Thirty Years War (though when he wrote it, it was just past a decade and a half in):

Let us to supreme providence commit
The fate of monarchs, which first thought it fit
To rend the Empire from the Austrian grasp,
And next from Sweden’s, even when he did clasp
Within his dying arms the Sovereignty
Of all those provinces, that men might see
The Divine wisdom would not leave that land
Subject to any one king’s sole command.

From ‘In answer of an Elegiacal Letter upon the death of the King of Sweden from Aurelian Townsend, inviting me to write on that subject’, Thomas Carew, circa 1632

The Empire in question is the Holy Roman Empire, which had been run for generations by the Hapsburgs from their seat in Vienna but had come under threat by a Protestant revolt or two in the late 1610s. The Catholic Hapsburgs reasserted their dominance through the early 1620s, after which Danish then, rather more successfully, Swedish incursions turned the tide of the war the Protestants’ way – until the death of the talismanic leader, Gustavus Adolphus. The Swedish king’s death was the subject of much excitable commentary throughout Protestant Europe, and the poem this comes from is written in reply to a friend of Carew’s, who urged him to write about the great Protestant hero.

Carew instead sang the praises of the peaceful isle of Britain, largely uninvolved in the slaughter on the continent. In the passage I have quoted he suggests that God has made it so neither the Catholic Austrians nor the Protestant Swedes would be able to impose their will on the whole continent. That is a suggestion that would have propelled the hotter Puritans in Stuart England to fury. But it is very prescient, and not just about the Thirty Years’ War: whether because of geography, the variety of cultures, Divine intent – or all three, no power since has been able to impose itself on the whole of Europe, or never for more than a few years; no power, that is, until the European Union and its diffuse system of shared – or blurred – sovereignty.

Carew was a Eurosceptic in an age when that was the wisest thing to be. James I had done his best to stay out of the war, while his son Charles I, after some disastrous interventions in Europe early in his reign learned of the wisdom to keep out of Europe. Carew’s poem is written as Britain starts to enjoy ten peaceful years safely outside of Europe’s vicious wars – a period of peace cut short by the eruption of Britain’s own civil wars in the 1640s.

(Picture: – Scan of a postcard edited by Musée Lorrain, Public Domain,

Decease, Release

Queen Mary’s Tower, Carlisle Castle

A walk in Carlisle has me thinking of Mary Stuart… and Robert Southwell

Between Christmas and New Year, I took a drive through the Tyne Gap to Carlisle Castle with my son. It is a castle full of interest, if not beauty. The guidebook freely admits that it isn’t the most handsome or most dramatic castle in Britain, not the kind to evoke the chivalry of the Middle Ages, or the splendour of the Tudor and Stewart periods. Flat and broad, squatting on a hill just to the west of the city centre, the castle might best be described as functional.

Actually, it really was functional – as a barracks for the Border Regiment right the way to 1959 – 19th and 20th century buildings lie inside the older parts of the castle, all in that orangey-red brick so much used in this part of the country (also common over the border in Dumfriesshire, and also, I’ve noticed, down in Shropshire – you’d have to ask a geologist why).

For me, the function of the castle that held the most interest was the one it held very briefly in 1568 as the prison of Mary Queen of Scots. After a tumultuous six years (?) in Scotland, Mary Stuart had escaped imprisonment in her own country and crossed the Solway to try her luck in England, where her rival – and cousin – Queen Elizabeth reigned. If she imagined that Elizabeth would help her, she had miscalculated badly. She may have imagined that the Catholics of England and other discontents would attempt to put her on the throne, and about that she was quite right, but they were not quite up to the job.

She probably didn’t imagine that her stay under Warden Scrope’s watchful eye in the border city would mark the beginning of many miserable years confinement in the English state, that the same state would execute her, nor that she would never even meet the English queen – who signed her death warrant.

The space that once held the queen in Carlisle Castle was, I saw, surprisingly small – it was probably quite miserable. I imagine she lived in much greater comfort – though no greater freedom in the country houses in the Midlands where she was moved. The North of England was judged too dangerous to hold a potential challenger to Elizabeth’s throne – too near what sympathetic supporters she still had in Scotland, and especially too near the rebellious Northern lords who yearned for a return to the old religion that Mary had so fervently cleaved to. Away from the coasts, away from Scotland,  away from the north, and away from the English queen – that was the English government’s plan for Mary.

Among Catholic Englishmen, Mary inspired great devotion in her life, and even greater devotion after her death. One of those devoted to her was the Jesuit priest and poet Robert Southwell. Southwell is not well known outside the ranks of 16th century poetry aficionados and students of English Catholic martyrs, but in his time he was a highly regarded poet. Ben Jonson was said to have once described Southwell’s The Burning Babe as his favourite poem, and there are numerous allusions to Southwell in the work of Shakespeare – some think he may have been a kind of spiritual mentor to the younger poet. Unlike Jonson and Shakespeare, the first a sometime Catholic, the latter a rumoured Jesuit and church-papist (that is, a Catholic who attended Anglican services), Southwell was a Catholic Christian first, and a poet second, and his poetry is intense in its religious focus. His poem on the death of Mary Queen of Scots, full of Jesuitical wordplay and ironic reversals, sees him declare Mary a victor in her death:

Decease, release.

Dum morior, orior.                   (Dying, I Rise)


The pounded spice both taste and scent doth please,

In fading smoke the force doth incense show;

The perished kernel springeth with increase,

The lopped tree doth best and soonest grow.


God’s spice I was, and pounding was my due,

In fading breath my incense savoured best ;

Death was the mean my kernel to renew,

By lopping shott I up to heavenly rest.


Some things more perfect are in their decay,

Like spark that going out gives clearest light ;

Such was my hap, whose doleful dying day

Began my joy and termed Fortune’s spite.                      (termed – ended)


Alive a Queen, now dead I am a saint;

Once Mary called, my name now Martyr is;

From earthly reign debarred by restraint,

In lieu whereof I reign in heavenly bliss.


My life my grief, my death hath wrought my joy.

My friends my foil, my foes my weal procured;

My speedy death hath shortened long annoy.

And loss of life an endless life assured.


My scaffold was the bed where ease I found,

The block a pillow of eternal rest;

My headman cast me in a blissful swound,

His axe cut off my cares from cumbered breast.


Rue not my death, rejoice at my repose ;

It was no death to me, but to my woe ;

The bud was opened to let out the rose,

The cheynes unloosed to let the captive goe.


A prince by birth, a prisoner by mishap,

 From crown to cross, from throne to thrall I fell ;

My right my ruth, my titles wrought my trap.

My weal my woe, my worldly heaven my hell.


By death from prisoner to a prince enhanced,

From cross to crown, from thrall to throne again;

My ruth my right, my trap my stile advanced

From woe to weal, from hell to heavenly reign.


Rober Southwell S.J. Circa 1587


The English had initially held Mary on the pretext that she had been involved in the murder of her husband, but she was put on trial for a more serious crime committed during her captivity. The setup and execution of Mary Stuart was a carefully planned operation from Elizabeth’s court. Mary was drawn into a plot – entirely controlled by Elizabethan spies – purportedly planning to make Mary Queen of England. Though usually careful in her words, Mary gave just enough evidence of incitement for her to be arrested, and even then the English spies added in some forged extra evidence for good measure. After her show trial at Fotheringhay Castle, she was sentenced to death – but it took a long time for Elizabeth to sign the warrant, which she finally did under the persuasions of her councillors. Perhaps there was some sisterly (or cousinly) sentiment involved in her wariness, but mostly she worried about what spin doctors these days call the optics, and she was right to be. In the courts of Europe, the execution was a scandal.

The saintly Mary that Southwell paints stands in stark contrast to the devil-may-care, passionate individualist torn between love and duty of more recent depictions, both in popular culture and in literary works such as Stephan Zweig’s Mary Stuart (well worth a read – like anything by Zweig). Southwell puts aside, or simply ignores an awful lot about Mary to be able to call her a saint: she was certainly guilty of adultery, and very plausibly conspired in the murder of her husband. But on the other hand, ‘martyr’ is a fair enough description, and this is an aspect of her life that is often neglected in more modern tellings.

Most martyrs anyway are flawed, difficult characters – and their cults both embody and inspire discontent with the authorities of the day. In describing the executed queen as ‘pounded spice’, Southwell is effectively saying not just that her death has made her greater than she was, morally and spiritually, but also that she is of greater use to the cause – the one true church that she and Southwell (and – full disclosure – I) believe in. To moderns who tend not to believe in an afterlife, and who – often wisely, sometimes foolishly – tend to look askance at the idea of dying for a cause, it is chilly, perhaps propagandistic. But it is certainly, in both aspects, sincerely meant. And it was more poignant than Southwell knew, for in 1595, seven years after Mary, he too was executed for treason –the mere fact of being a Catholic priest in England constituted treason – another victim of Elizabeth’s war against her own Catholic subjects, and more ‘pounded spice’ for the Catholic cause.