Recently I was doing some background reading into England’s Tudor Dynasty in anticipation of the upcoming exhibit at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England.” There has been much recent analysis of the performative aspect of identity as American society becomes more diverse, and eventually, if we can be optimistic in these dire times, more tolerant of diversity. In this light I found the history of Renaissance England has lessons for us that we would do well to study.
Unknown Artist, “Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon,” 1572
Nicholas Hilliard, “Sir Anthony Milmay, Knight of Apethorpe, Northamptonshire,” ca. 1590-3
Power itself can be performative, as authoritarians of all stripes have known forever: it’s dressing for success, with every accouterment in place, and every part of the ritual faithfully re-enacted. The stakes in medieval Europe were high; your neck and head could be forfeit in case of failure. Thankfully the English monarchy is today little more than the fossil remains of the now long defunct feudal system. The large media audience for the recent coronation of Charles III demonstrates that even aw-shucks, down-home, supposedly anti-monarchical Americans relish the trappings of wealth, power, and tradition, even if we’re not as fond of jug-eared introvert Charles as we were of his mother. Unlike her, he ascended to the throne at an advanced age with a queen who is not the beautiful, rebellious, and doomed People’s Princess we watched him marry 42 years ago.
The Tudor Dynasty, which for us epitomizes the English Renaissance, began in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, with the defeat and death of the last of the York kings, crookback Richard III, so well portrayed on film by Laurence Olivier and Benedict Cumberbatch: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Recent research to some degree absolves Shakespeare’s power-lusting monster of his deformation, physical and spiritual. The discovery of Richard’s bones beneath as ordinary a site as a parking lot also appeals to our better angels. Henry Tudor, victor at Bosworth Field, which ended the Wars of the Roses (1455-87), became Henry VII, and the House of Tudor subsequently ruled into the 17th century. The Wars of the Roses was a bloody family dispute between descendants of the House of Plantagenet, which held the English through from 1154 until Bosworth Field. These wars derived their name from the respective competing House of Lancaster, symbolized by the white rose; and the House of York, symbolized by the red rose.
Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, “Henry VIII,” ca. 1540.
Greenwich Workshop, “Field Armor, Probably Made for King Henry VIII,” 1527
Shakespeare’s Henry-centric trilogy of history plays detail the fratricidal conflict, a gangster tale with great language that ended with the ascension of Henry VII — who was not in fact of the York line, but of the lowborn Tudors, one of whom, Owen Tudor, had become the secret husband of the young widow of Henry V, Catherine Valois, mother of Henry VI. Henry VI’s son, the future Henry VII, legitimized himself and became de facto head of the York side by marrying Elizabeth of York. Their children included the polyamorous, appetitive Henry VIII (1491-1547), whose progeny included three monarchs: the short-lived Edward VI (1537-53), Mary I (1516-1558), who attempted and failed to return England to Catholic hegemony, and finally his glorious successor, the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Her 45-year reign would be the country’s longest until surpassed first by Victoria I (1837-1901, 63 years), and then by that of the likely all-time champion, the recently deceased Elizabeth II, who reigned from 1952 to 2022 without ordering a single beheading. All argue persuasively for the longevity and stability of female monarchs.
Nicholas Hillard, “George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland,” ca. 1590
Greenwich Workshop, “Field Armor for George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland,” 1586
This genealogical prelude, as tedious as that of the scheming prelates in Henry V, reveals that the ways of God and his ordained regents (and presidents) are indeed mysterious and tortuous. But perhaps this backgrounding can be helpful to the lifestyle-curious Anglophiles who will doubtless hasten to marvel at the royal fineries — paintings, prints, tapestries, goblets, ceremonial vestments — to be displayed at the Legion. The decorative arts flourished under the Tudors, adorning a regime of questionable legitimacy with the trappings of tradition, privilege, power and divine sanction. The embroidered jerkins, dainty tights and bulbous codpieces of men's fashion during the Tudor years appear flamboyant, even ridiculous, to our modern eye. The mincing portraits of Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon and Sir Anthony Mildmay personify the extremism of the era’s haute couture. The martial aspect of male power is represented as well. Compare the popinjay getup of the formal portraits of Henry VIII and George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, vehicles of status display for courtly politics, with the expensive and superbly decorated exoskeletons worn by the terrifying mounted Terminator robots of the pre-industrial era. Shock and awe, epitomized.
I include, for contrast and comic relief, some of the recently released NFTs (i.e., non-fungible token Jpegs, or …. memes) used to finance former president Trump’s war on his many enemies. The laughable obviousness of depicting Trump as a man’s man cosplaying The Village People is readily apparent to eyes unclouded by MAGA-tinted lenses. Let us not forget Trump’s photo op pretending to drive a semi-truck like a maniac, or the triumphant shots of George W. Bush’s 2002 Mission Accomplished Top Gun flight suit, with its padded codpiece, aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, anchored in San Diego Bay. The growing internecine warfare between do-or-die MAGA holdouts and the traditional business Republicans who went along with Trump’s evil regime until events dictated should provide good, scary entertainment. Even the sartorial aspects, to judge by the fashion show at the Capitol of January 6, 2021, will be Tudor-extravagant. If we do not learn from history plays, we are condemned to repeat them.
Non-fungible token Trump digital trading cards released in 2022 and 2023