English Literature and the British Monarchy
The monarchy is inextricable from the history of English literature.
That much is obvious. Monarchs are influential people: their taste is mimicked and their patronage sought. Their political decisions – in times when they had the power to make political decisions – changed the course of society and that, in turns, changed the literature that those societies produced.
That’s not the kind of influence that we’re going to look at in this article. Instead, we’re going to look at those times when the monarchy had a closer connection to the literature of their day – whether they loved it, hated it, wrote it or were written about.
King Alfred the Great and Pastoral Care
Why is King Alfred – who ruled Wessex, the dominant kingdom of England, from 871 to 899 – called the Great? It’s partly because of his military prowess in defending his kingdom from Viking invasion, partly because of his legal reform, partly because of his deep moral sense, inspired by strong religious feeling, and partly because of his role in promoting English literature and the English language.
What we’re terming ‘English literature’ here might not be exactly what you would think of in in those terms. Alfred promoted the translation of great religious works from Latin into English, in order that the English clergy could be better educated; the reasoning being that getting them to improve their Latin was far harder than simply translating the texts they needed to know into a language they could more easily understand. Viking raids had severely upset English educational structures, something that concerned Alfred a great deal.
It’s believed that Alfred translated several works himself. This is particularly interesting because these translations, though described as “sometimes word by word, sometimes sense by sense”, frequently deviated from their source texts in ways that illuminate Alfred’s thoughts and motivations.
Probably the most-studied part of these texts is Alfred’s preface to the first book he translated, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care. In this, he outlines his reasons for translating the text into English, his concerns about the state of education in the country, and his plans for improving it. More importantly, though, a sense of Alfred’s own character shines through. He writes of translating as he had learned “from Plegmund my archbishop, and Asser my bishop, and Grimbold my mass-priest, and John my mass-priest”, writing the translation “as I understood it, and as I could most meaningfully interpret it”. A distant historical figure suddenly comes to life, as a humble man trying hard to do his best by his God and his people.
Geoffrey Chaucer is now best remembered for The Canterbury Tales, but in his own lifetime he was just as well-known for his series of dream-visions: a style of poetry that feels familiar to modern readers of fantasy novels, in which the narrator falls asleep and has an elaborate vision that is full of metaphorical significance.
One of these is ‘The Parlement of Foules’, in which the narrator, on entering the dream, travels through a garden and to the focus of the poem: the parliament of all the birds. Here, the focus is on three male eagles competing for the hand in marriage of a female eagle. All the different species of birds try to have their say on what the female eagle should do – some arguing against the institution of marriage altogether – and shout over each other. Dame Nature intervenes to call for silence, and the female eagle asks for permission to defer her choice for another year, which is granted. The birds sing, waking up the narrator.
But what does this have to do with the monarchy? It’s that this story is usually seen as a commentary on the marriage choices of Anne of Bohemia. Who exactly the other two eagles are is uncertain. Anne of Bohemia was the daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, so there was fierce competition among the royal houses of Europe for her hand. William of Hainault, Friedrich of Meissen and Charles VI of France have all be suggested as possible candidates alongside Richard II.
The historical context is interesting as the choice is clearly up to the female eagle (provided she chooses among the three candidates presented to her, and that she has Dame Nature’s consent – but all the same, it is her choice) and the poem focuses not on the alliances and strategy that were the reasoning behind a royal marriage, but on love. It’s in fact the first indication of Valentine’s Day (when the poem is set) being connected explicitly to romantic love. The arranged match between two young monarchs (Richard II was 15 and Anne was 16 at the time of their marriage) is treated with formality and gravitas, but set in a context of love, not as a mere diplomatic transaction.
Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Whoso List to Hunt
Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ is another translation that isn’t really a translation. It’s a little like modern day film and TV adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They aren’t supposed to be a faithful reproduction of the original in every respect, but instead use a recognisable framework to express the modern writer’s thoughts and concerns, which may have no echo in the original. There are countless equivalents – for instance, the BBC’s Robin Hood (2006) used a centuries-old story to comment on the Iraq War. The kind of translation written by Wyatt is similar.
In summary, the sonnet describes how there is a hind (a female deer) that the poet has hunted, but that cannot be caught. Around her neck, she is wearing a diamond collar that reads ‘do not touch me, for I am Caesar’s, and wild to hold although I seem tame’.
It’s a beautiful poem in its own right, but where it becomes particularly interesting is that it’s generally believed that the hind in the poem refers to Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife – an idea strongly supported by the hind being ‘Caesar’s’.
Exactly what kind of a relationship Anne Boleyn and Thomas Wyatt had is unknown: they would have been acquainted from around 1522, as Wyatt was resident at court at this time. Around 1525, Henry VIII also began to fall for her. In 1536, Wyatt was arrested along with five other men on grounds of adultery with Anne. Some of these charges were clearly false, as they included her own brother. Wyatt was the only one of the six not to be executed, and he returned to royal favour not long thereafter. Though we will probably never know whether Wyatt and Anne were romantically involved, or whether his feelings were unrequited, like many of the other texts on this list, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’ brings the distant world of the Tudor court to life and reminds us that among the dry political machinations were people who lived loving and passionate lives.
Elizabeth I and Richard II
Richard II, one of Shakespeare’s history plays, tells the story of the overthrow of the same Plantagenet monarch who was wooing Anne of Bohemia in ‘The Parlement of Fowles’. In it, Richard is a generally sympathetic character whose poor political choices nonetheless lead directly to his deposition and by extension, to the Wars of the Roses. It was written late in Elizabeth I’s reign, around 1595, and there are considerable parallels between the two monarchs: both were childless, dependent on powerful advisors, and facing a growing rebellion.
The story then goes that the Earl of Essex, plotting Elizabeth I’s overthrow, arranged for Richard II to be performed for her, complete with the controversial scene in which Richard II abdicates, which was usually left out in performance. Elizabeth understood the message, and later exclaimed, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” The next day, the plan for the rebellion was put into place, but it failed almost immediately. The Earl of Essex was executed before the month was out.
The choice of the Earl of Essex to present the Queen with a theatrical preview of his own plot sounds like the plan of a cinema supervillain, so it’s unsurprising that the veracity of the story has been questioned. All the same, it’s so compelling that it’s unsurprising that it’s usually repeated as fact, with its brilliant cast of characters: the ageing Queen, the scheming nobleman, and the catspaw actors, caught between the two. At the same time, there’s something touching about the idea of the troubled Elizabeth seeing an echo of herself in Shakespeare’s vivid characterisation of Richard – especially because the benefit of history allows us to know that, unlike Richard, she survived.
Victoria and ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’
‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ is a poem of 133 cantos written over the course of 17 years and completed in 1849 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in memory of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam. It’s a vast, wide-ranging, moving work and is usually remembered for its quotable lines such as “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all” and “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.
It was also a particular favourite of Queen Victoria. She had married her cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840, a man whom she described on first meeting him as “extremely handsome… the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful.” The couple were extremely happy together, and had nine children who all survived to adulthood – something that was highly unusual at the time. Yet in 1859 Albert fell ill, and his condition worsened for the next two years until he died in 1861. Victoria was distraught, withdrew almost entirely from public life for around a decade, and wore mourning for the rest of her life.
A tour of London offers ample evidence of Queen Victoria’s dedication to her late husband, from the Albert Memorial, to the Royal Albert Hall, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s unsurprising, then, that she should have been so touched by a poem on the subject of love and loss. She wrote in 1862 that she was “much soothed & pleased with Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam.’ Only those who have suffered, as I do, can understand these beautiful poems.” More than 20 years later, she still held the poem in the same high esteem, writing that she “saw the great Poet Tennyson, who remained nearly an hour, & most interesting it was… I told him what a comfort ‘In Memoriam’ had always been to me, which seemed to please him… When I took leave of him, I thanked him for his kindness, & said how much I appreciated it, for I had gone through much”.
Elizabeth II and The Uncommon Reader
In two days’ time, on the 9th September, Elizabeth II will have had a longer reign than any other English or British monarch in history. At the same time, she has steadfastly refused any real political involvement; possibly the closest she has ever come to a political comment has been on the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, when she said “I hope people will think very carefully about the future”, a comment so anodyne that it underlines quite how remarkably neutral she has managed to remain throughout her long time as Queen. Her reign has represented stability and continuity, and it is remarkable to think that casual references made in novels now to the Queen are referring to the same person, and in much the same way, as the same sort of reference in novels 50 or 60 years ago.
So it makes sense that when literature mentions the monarchy, it’s either in a remote, distant way (think about the Queen’s role in Roald Dahl’s The BFG) or showing the Queen as a real person with real opinions that don’t seem convincing – whether deliberately or not. Literature that shows the Queen’s opinions and emotions has the air of a reconstruction showing the emotions and opinions, say, of ancient Romans, only with less evidence to go on. This sense of fictionality was probably best demonstrated in the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony, where a brief film was played that showed the Queen meeting Daniel Craig as James Bond. The two are shown getting into a helicopter, and then a real helicopter appeared over the Olympic stadium, and stunt people dressed as the two characters jumped out. So the real Queen met a fictional character in a fictional scene that then merged into reality – a combination that made perfect, instinctive sense.
Alan Bennett’s novella, The Uncommon Reader, plays on this public perception with light wit. It tells the story of the Queen, at an advanced age, coming across a mobile library and developing an obsession with literature. The sheer improbability of this is part of the fun of the book. After all, we don’t know much more about Queen Elizabeth II’s reading habits than we do about King Alfred’s. When monarchy intersects with literature, it can show us the inner lives of monarchs, or illuminate how much they are hidden from us.