04 February 2022
A Dutch Poet on ‘Tortured Majesties’: Reactions to the Executions of Mary Stuart and Charles Stuart.
Our current exhibition ‘Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens’, gives a thrilling and moving insight into the relationship between two women who were relatives as well as queens, through letters, books, paintings and objects. Many of the letters on display reveal their feelings towards each other and the political shenanigans around them and, it must be said, by them. There are letters written in code, with the key alongside and in one instance a screen that shows you how to decipher these codes. Fascinating stuff.
The exhibition ends with a moving display of the last letter Mary wrote, in French, in which she laments her fate. She would die on the scaffold the following day: 8 February 1587.
Ten months later, in the city of Cologne, a baby boy was born who would become the greatest Dutch playwright and poet of the Dutch Golden Age: Joost van den Vondel. (The Vondelpark in Amsterdam is named after him).
Portrait of Joost van den Vondel by Philip de Koninck, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Public Domain
Joost was born into a family of Mennonites, or Anabaptists. At one point the city expelled all those belonging to these religious movements, including the Vondels. They eventually settled in Amsterdam where Vondel lived and worked for the rest of his long life. He converted to Catholicism and became a staunch defender of that faith. He satirised Protestantism, and was especially harsh on his old faith, Anabaptism, as we shall see.
Vondel was a prolific playwright and poet, who didn’t mince his words when it came to commenting on political events in the Dutch Republic and abroad, although he did not always do so openly.
Take for instance an anonymous play, published in Cologne in 1646, entitled: Maria Stuart: of Gemartelde Majesteit (‘Mary Stuart: or Tortured Majesty’). It is suspected that the imprint is false and that the work was actually published in Amsterdam, but we can’t be sure. However, the disguise is pretty transparent. The style and the tone of the text make it pretty clear who the author is. Vondel may well have thought it prudent not to put his name on it, considering events in England at the time. The Dutch government was not exactly against the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War, but they did not support it wholeheartedly either. Why would Vondel write a play about Mary Stuart who died after 19 years of imprisonment by the English, if not to make a point about her grandson Charles I who had just been defeated in the First English Civil War? That to me sounds like too much of a coincidence.
Title page of Maria Stuart, of Gemartelde Majesteit. (Cologne, 1646), 11755.e.60.(13.)
Other editions were published in 1661, one of which we also hold (1478.aa.13.(7.))
The subtitle ‘tortured majesty’ gives you a clue whose side the author is on. In summary, Vondel praises Mary to high heaven and excoriates Elizabeth for her treachery and cruelty. He sees the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary as a religious issue, rather than a political one, so as a catholic he is firmly on Mary’s side. To hammer the point home he adds a number of poems to the play. In the first poem he lets Mary herself speak about her plight. (I must say I prefer her real own words, mentioned above). Vondel then introduces ‘an eyewitness’, none other than the historian of Elizabeth’s reign, William Camden, a protestant (!). If Vondel tried to use a protestant historian to present an ‘unbiased’ viewpoint he failed, because Camden, writing in the reign of Mary’s son James I, appears to lament Mary’s fate just as strongly as the catholic Vondel does in his play. Maybe he tried to make it look as if everyone, catholic and protestant were appalled by the execution of Mary.
Vondel concludes with a ‘Complaint about the Rebels in Great Britain’. In this last poem he tears into the Puritans, blaming them alone for causing the Civil War, and for beheading the Earl of Strafford.
The play was more or less boycotted by theatres at the time, because of its catholic stance, but it was revived in a performance by Theatre group Kwast in 2015. This group specialises in Dutch 17th-Century plays which they rehearse in one day and perform in the evening; text in hand.
In the year 1649 another ‘anonymous’ work appeared about the execution of Charles I, with the same subtitle as ‘Maria Stuart’ and initials instead of an author: I.v.V. ‘Bloedsmet’ (‘Bloodsmear’) for author. Well, who could that possibly be, I wonder?
Title page of Karel Stvarts, of gemartelde Maiesteyt: in Whithal den 10 van Sprokkel, des Jaers 1649 (S.l. , 1649). 11556.dd.27.
The title translates as: ‘Charles Stuart, Tortured Majesty, in Whitehall the 10th of February, in the year 1649’. (‘Sprokkel’ means ‘gathering of firewood’, which was the commonly-used name for February.) It uses the old Gregorian calendar which converts in the Julian calendar to the 30th of January. The imprint reads: ‘Printed in the Murder-Year of the King of England, 1649’.
In the poem Vondel introduces Henrietta Maria, Charles’ wife. She dreams that straight after the execution Charles’ head springs back onto his shoulders and he rises up again, like a phoenix, to slay his enemies (the Parliamentary General Thomas Fairfax is mentioned). And then she wakes up to reality.
In the second poem Vondel is all despair. Charles’ ghost cones to him in a dream and asks how it was possible that London dared to ‘prune his thistle’. Was Strafford’s death not enough to quell the bloodlust of the King’s enemies? But then he composes himself and says that the blow of the axe sounded like thunder and rocked France, Denmark, Spain and Holland, who will all surely come to the rescue. They will stock London Bridge full of heads and thus the land will be cleared from the ‘pestilence’. Then the Son (i.e. Charles II) will return for his bloody revenge.
The work concludes with a scathing attack on the regicides. Vondel lashes out at the Puritans: He asks indignantly: ‘Is this the pure religion? Is this ‘independence’? No!, this is a Rubicon!’ Again he attacks the Anabaptists by comparing the regicide Major General Thomas Harrison to Jan van Leyden, one of the leaders of the Anabaptists who briefly established an Anabaptist theocracy in the city of Munster in 1536. He calls ‘Master Peters’ (Hugh Peters, a Puritan preacher) the ‘Ape of Knipperdolling’ (i.e. Bernhard Knipperdolling, a partner of Jan van Leyden).
Last page of Karel Stuarts, of Gemartelde Majesteyt.
Vondel penned a third ‘anonymous’ pamphlet against the regicide: Testament om Fairfax vtersten Crom Will recht te maecken. In it he aims his arrows at Cromwell and Fairfax as leaders in the rebellion, with a pun on Cromwell’s name. ‘Crom Will’ means ‘crooked will’, so then the title becomes: ‘Fairfax’s Testament to make right a Last Crooked Will.’ It was signed: ‘The Devil Take the Rogues’.
Testament om Fairfax vtersten Crom Will recht te maecken. ([The Hague?, 1649?]) 8122.ee.3
Vondel was well informed about events in Britain. He must have read the many newspapers and pamphlets on these events, published in the Netherlands, some written in Dutch, some translated from English, many kept in our collections.
But that’s for another time.
Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections