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The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin_Nunes,_official_color_photo_portrait
Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

james_I_1606_wikicom
King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

Pix & Notes: Beards

I got all tangled up in the beards of my red herrings while writing my last book, which was exactly as messy and confusing as it sounds. You can’t just pick beards out of a hat, you know; not if you’re writing historical fiction. If you’re a woman, you can’t experiment with your own chin and then go look in the mirror either.

Men have restrictions on how much they want to alter their features for experimental purposes too, of course. Try asking a guy with a long-established beard to shave it off so you can watch it grow back and take notes! Better to get out there and do your homework.

Prehistoric beards

These are poorly documented. Cave painters didn’t do self-portraits. The Short History of Beards stone_knivesmakes this rather disingenuous claim: “Prehistoric men grew beards for warmth, intimidation and protection. Facial hair kept prehistoric men warm and it also protected their mouths from sand, dirt, the sun and many other different elements. A beard on a man’s face creates the look of a stronger looking jaw line; this exaggeration helped them appear more intimidating.”

Hm. Perhaps. I’m curious about those “many other different elements.” Lips, perhaps? It also may have had something do with the discomfort experienced after shaving with a stone knife. Obsidian rash can be so uncomfortable.

Ancient beards

beard_Tutankhamen
You’d expect Egyptian royalty to be extreme in all matters of fashion and King Tut does not disappoint. Of course this is a false beard made of metal and tied on with ribbons, but it’s still very manly!
beard_assyrian
Assyrians were serious about their beards. They used curling irons and oils to achieve architectural effects.
beard_epicurus
Bust of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher (341–270 BC.) For a guy who advocated peace and happiness, he sure looks cranky.
beard_augustus
Roman emperor Augustus, beardless and, unrelatedly, noseless. Sophisticated Romans who were not philosophers preferred a clean chin.

A Potpourri of Beards

beard_chinese
A Chinese emperor with a mighty bristle! Might be Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Bound to be a stressful job. Those beads dangling from his hat-platform would drive me batty. Maybe that’s why he looks so cross.
beards_mohammed_kaaba_1315
Here’s an assortment of chin styles from 1315. Miniature from Rashid-al-Din Hamadani’s Jami al-Tawarikh, c. 1315, illustrating the story of Muhammad’s role in re-setting the Black Stone in 605.
beard_van-dyck
Three images of Charles I, sporting a van dyck beard, by Anthony Van Dyck, presumably wearing a matching beard whilst painting, in 1635-36.

 

Elizabethan beards

My problem was that the beard was a clue to my murderer’s identity. I wanted a notable style, therefore; something fashionable. I started out thinking about a sharply pointed beard like Sir Walter Raleigh’s in the dishy miniature shown below, but I doubeted they were stylish yet in 1589. It’s mainly a 90’s style, or so I thought, at least until the Earl of Essex returned victorious from the Battle of Cadiz with a long, square-cut beard.

I had to observe the rules about beards and other elements of fashion at Gray’s Inn. According to Wilfred Prest in his indispensable The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts (1972, Longman), gentlemen in residence were expected to shave, at least on a semi-monthly basis. “That none of the said companies, under the degree of a knight, being in commons, do wear any beard above three weeks growing, upon pain of xl s. and so double for every week after monition.”

That’s a fine of 40 shillings, which seems incredibly steep. I must have mis-read and mis-typed that note. You only had to pay 3 shillings and 3 pence for wearing “breeches of any light color nor coifs of English lawn, velvet caps, scarfs, or wings on their study gowns,” double cuffs on your shirt, or feathers or ribbons in your caps. Of course, you also had to forfeit your finery and could be expelled for a second offense.

But these rules come from the 1570s. I also have a note saying that long hair and beards became increasingly fashionable in the 1590s. Maybe the governors of Gray’s Inn just finally gave up? To be on the safe side, I gave both Francis Bacon and his sidekick, Thomas Clarady, a nice brushy rill of two-week’s growth. You wouldn’t want the constant itch of a brand new beard, nor would you want to visit the barber every day, although I’ll bet there were several barbers in Holborn who specialized in the Inns of Court regulation style, whatever it was at the time. (And now I’m thinking about a barber shop scene…. why haven’t I done that?)

bacon_1617
Bacon in 1617. He’s Lord Chancellor now; he can grow whatever he likes on his chin. And although he looks stiff and uncomfortable, I’m pretty sure that’s personality, not costume. Ruffs are not unpleasant to wear, even with a super-stylish pointed beard.
essex2
The Earl of Essex, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger ca. 1596, with his trend-setting long square beard.
raleigh_hilliard
Sir Walter Raleigh, miniature by Nicholas Hilliard ca. 1585. Hey, so those pointed beards were in style for my 1589 book! I know I looked at this portrait, but I clearly failed to note the date. That’s the kind of tangle I was in. And look — he has flowers in his hair. You have to be very secure in your masculinity to deck yourself out like this.
anonyman
Unknown Man Clasping A Hand From A Cloud, Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This guy looks a lot like Tom, but his beard is clearly more than 3 weeks’ long. Love the hat!

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