monkey regained

Part seven of Nothing

Modern animal experts do not recommend anyone, even warrior princes or prankster poets, keeping monkeys or any other wild animals as pets and the RSPCA wants a ban. They are messy, destructive, predatory – they’ll bite a human and eat any smaller pet mammals or birds left unprotected – and they never stop chattering – rather as Lord Rochester’s seems to be doing in the picture that started this diversion on the journey into Nothing:

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Lord Rochester with monkey by Huysmans

Rochester was thirty-three when he died in 1680, burnt out by sex and alcohol, pranks and humanity. His wife, Elizabeth Malet, whom he had tried to abduct when she was the richest and most eligible heiress in the north of England, and to whom he was conspicuously unfaithful, died a year later, leaving their four young children in the care of their grandmother. All is vanity.

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Matthias Withoos, Landscape with a graveyard by night, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims. Image: WGA
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) Withoos was active in the second half of the 17th century, and in this atmospheric painting prefigures Romantic Gothicism and our own obsession with twilight.

And yet – the most poetic of brutal realists and his wife had written a book of poetry together. Their minds met on equal terms. She had a wit of her own, and answered him back. Anyone who has spied on their marriage by reading their private letters has the impression that they understood and esteemed one another.

In a long tradition of creative men who have acted on their desires and looked deeply into their souls, Rochester led a double life. He was Ernest in town, where “a sweet soft Page of [his could] do the Trick worth Forty wenches”, and Jack in the country, where he loved his wife.

As for the monkey, Rochester’s symbol of human vanity was recently reincarnated as Mally, Justin Bieber’s capuchin accessory, infamously abandoned in Germany after quarantine.

The journey into Nothing is not over…

monkey lost

Part six of Nothing

Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.

Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far –  and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.

Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

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Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.

Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.

There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.

He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule. Continue reading

One man and his dog

Part five of Nothing

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An older, grumpier, sadder Rupert, showing all the signs of disillusionment with the world of vanities.
Portrait by Lely, 1660 -70, oil on canvas. Collection: Yale Center for British Art. Image: Wikipedia

At last, Rupert was able to enjoy a peaceful retirement at Windsor Castle, mainly occupied in his scientific and artistic experiments. These were not mere hobbies of a retired man of action, or the pastimes of a dilettante royal; he had the enquiring mind of a true intellectual and practical grasp of advanced technology.

He was far more than a militarist who sought violent means to solve complex problems; he sought mathematical solutions, too.

He was an active member of the Royal Society, the oldest existing academy of science in the world, and a talented draughtsman and etcher who promoted mezzotint engraving.

He also happened to be one of the four best tennis players in England. He was an instinctively stylish dresser, he – but this was meant to be a short post, and already it is overstuffed with words, a chattering monkey’s post.

Rochester’s generation of dissolute courtiers, born during or after the Civil War, and gossipy professional bureaucrats like Samuel Pepys, thought Rupert was a crusty old joke and laughed at him behind his back. They were too scared to do so in his face. He thought they were idiots and didn’t hide it. Continue reading

…still distracted by love of a dead man…

Part four of Nothing

Rupert learned his lesson from the death of Boye, and never took a domesticated animal on campaign again, but once he moved back to England after the Restoration of the monarchy, there was always a dog waiting for him at home.

Like many of his family he genuinely loved animals – his mother, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, was said by her youngest daughter to prefer her dogs and monkeys to her children. His cousin, Charles II, was hardly ever seen without his troop of pretty, spoilt spaniels, the only breed of dogs to have been royal permission to go to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and that, along with Nell Gwynn and her oranges, is still the popular image of the king we have today.

In late middle-age, even Prince Rupert was disarmed by an actress, the glamorous, dark-haired Margaret Hughes. They met in Tunbridge Wells, where fashionable society avoided smelly, plaguey London during the summer, which was more of a hot dating spot then than now.

Lely_margret_hughesMargaret Hughes (c 1630 – 1719), one of the first, if not the first, woman to appear professionally on the English stage after the Restoration, as Desdemona in the King’s Company production of Othello in December, 1660, in a portrait by Lely, c. 1670, with fashionable accessory of adoring spaniel. She became Rupert’s mistress after 1668, and continued her acting career spasmodically, in the lucky position of being able to choose her parts.

Peg Hughes was very extravagant, and in later life had a gambling addiction; she cost Rupert a lot of money to keep in a grand house bought specially for her. She insisted on her right to continue acting, and he let her – after all, he knew what being driven by professional commitment was like, and he had more in common with a self-made woman than the pampered women of his own class. Continue reading

Pets, Familiars and Excuses

Part three of Nothing

That damned monkey has led me somewhere I swore I would not go……

NPG 4519; Prince Rupert, Count Palatine attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst

The best-known portrait of the young and dashing Prince Rupert, Count Palatinate (1619 – 16800 by Honthorst, oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1641-1642. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

For the first two years of the Civil War Rupert’s success as a cavalry leader deploying shock tactics dominated the fighting. He seemed to be invincible. The Parliamentarian propagandists instilled the idea into their supporters that his pet monkey was a disguised witch who had sex with the prince, and, along with his other familiar in the shape of a huge white dog, gave the Cavaliers victory through sorcery.

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Parliamentary propaganda depicted Prince Rupert’s poodle Boye as his familiar, an agent of black magic. The Roundhead troops who killed the beautiful animal at Marston Moor believed they were destroying the source of Royalist luck, and in particular, the power of the hated foreign general. Woodcut, illustrating a pamphlet called The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert, 1643. Image: Wikipedia

It was preposterous, hardly anybody believed in witchcraft in normal times during the 17th century, but the 1640s were not normal. It was, after all, the age of Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed Witchfinder-General, exploiting the public’s paranoid fears during a terrifyingly violent and unstable period, when everyday life and relationships had broken down.

Rupert’s personality and appearance made him easy for both sides to demonize to their advantage. He was young and arrogant, tall and handsome, talented and, most significantly, foreign, all of which made him obnoxious to a lot of people, Royalist and Parliamentarian, and inspiring to his own men.

It was well known that he had a diabolical temper: his brothers and sisters called him Rupert the Devil.

It was true that the dog, Boye, was a beloved companion, but not for sexual purposes. He was not the source of a prince’s superpowers, nor even a trained dog of war, just the most famously tragic hunting poodle in history, who was always tied up at the Royalist camp before one of Rupert’s battles.

On only one occasion, Boye escaped his leash, or, terrible to contemplate, Rupert or his servants had forgotten to tie him up, and he instinctively sprang forward with glee, as any dog would, to follow his master.

But when Rupert rode off, it wasn’t to a hunt, it was straight into battle. Boye was killed instantly by enemy fire and hacked to bits in an atrocity fomented by human ignorance and prejudice.

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Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with Christian V of Denmark’s Equipment for Riding to Hounds, 1671. The artist’s power of illusion is applied to the leisure pursuits of the powerful. With thanks yet again to: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen for the free use of this image of a painting from their collection.

The “Wrong but Wromantic” Royalist cause was lost, not because a spell was broken, but because of the superiority of Cromwellian strategy, tactics and discipline, and the political and military ineptitude of the king, who didn’t take Rupert’s pragmatic advice the following year, 1645, to start peace negotiations before his position got worse.

(The quote, for anyone neither British nor of a certain age, is from a comic work of genius published in 1930, called 1066 and All That, one of the most truthful books in the spirit of history ever written.)

Credulity and coincidence often make history and still inform election choices in modern democracies. Just because there isn’t an official Witchfinder-General today, doesn’t mean to say there aren’t a lot of them about under different titles. We’re all frightened of one thing or another, all willing to believe in something, even if we call it nothing.

Marston Moor was Rupert’s first and worst defeat as a general and a rite of passage into accountability and remorse. He had suffered before, and been held, aged nineteen, as a prisoner of war in Europe for three years, but after Marston Moor he was never quite the same. All is vanity.

A note for purists of military history and Rupertists: he always maintained that he was misled by ambiguous written instructions from Charles I to seek battle at Marston Moor, a strategically disastrous decision which lost the north of England to Parliament. The letter survives in evidence.

Rupert was a strange (and terribly attractive) mixture of arrogance and fidelity; he had the fatal flaw of many other proud and intelligent Germans of obedience to authority.

And Rupert, the professional European soldier, should never have been so reckless to take his dogs on campaign in England, certainly not without locking up, poor Boye during a battle; civil wars are always fought with savage bitterness outside the rules of engagement of other conflicts.

Maybe he had started believing his own publicity; he was only twenty-four.

A 6’4″ German prince who last breathed in 1682 – a whisker and a whisper ago – has rudely attacked my train of thought – it must be love that makes me tarry –

the journey into Nothing will be continued when I’ve found that monkey….

Who’s the monkey now?

Part two of Nothing

When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.

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Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.

He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.

Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.

Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.

Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes to meet if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.

We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.

Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.

Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.

He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.

Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.

When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –

That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?

The journey into Nothing will be continued….