Crowning glory

It is an inevitable fact that any form of ceremonial dress will, eventually, end up looking faintly absurd. British judges and barristers blended into early eighteenth-century society but now appear somewhat incongruous sporting horsehair wigs of various lengths and carrying gloves in their “non-dominant hand” on various occasions, not to mention nosegays. The same is true for the winged gowns and brightly colored hoods of academic regalia or the pinstriped pants and tailcoat of morning dress. However, these all serve a function and a very important one at that: they are symbols and relics whose purpose enables us to go beyond externals to deeper truths. People who cannot, because of the feebleness of their imagination or some attachment to the quaint crevices of humanity, journey beyond these exterior sartorial signs are invariably devoid of faith, religious or human, and should be avoided at all costs. It is a strange thing indeed that we need to be attired in certain clothing on specific occasions, but it cannot be denied that this need is as universal as it is deeply engrained, whether it be for a wedding, graduation, investiture or formal dinner. The older the institution, the grander and more elaborate the vestimentary code, meaning that monarchies possess some stunning -and sometimes startling- apparel.

ImageI’m currently teaching a play by Jean Anouilh, Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu (Becket or the Honor of God, 1959), which was adapted, very successfully, into a movie in 1964 with Peter O’Toole playing the role of King Henry II of England and Richard Burton starring as his nemesis, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. The historical events are fascinating; Henry II when he became sovereign appointed his very close friend and companion, then a deacon, as archbishop of Canterbury, a move which served the two-fold aim of elevating his friend as well as having his ally to control the Church in his country. Instead of being his stooge and servant, Becket was seized with an unexpected change of heart and took the role seriously, so much so that he came into constant conflict with Henry, losing his friendship, support, and eventually his life when four knights took the ruler at his word in wanting rid of the “turbulent priest”, slaying the unarmed prelate in his cathedral, the fatal blow being delivered by a sword which split open the archbishop’s skull.

I spent a year living in Ramsgate and teaching at the University of Kent prior to moving to the USA and visited the spot of Becket’s martyrdom inside Canterbury Cathedral on a number of occasions (refusing to pay to enter the building on each occasion; I passionately believe that churches and toilets should be free facilities). In the hands of Jean Anouilh, the story becomes less of a narrative about religion and duty than a story imbued with colonial and racial themes. Becket is cast by the playwright -wrongly it turns out- as a Saxon and has a subservient relationship at first to the Norman king, being his “little Saxon” and even toweling the monarch dry, massaging him, and giving up his bed to him to sleep on the floor during the first act, a relationship with a homoerotic subtext; it is also possible that the two historical figures had been lovers at some point in their youth, which would certainly go some way in explaining their extraordinarily bitter feud. This theme of colonized peoples collaborating, sometimes uneasily, with their oppressors was a highly topical one in 1959. Anouilh adds to the racial element by implying that the cleric also had a Palestinian mother brought back from the Crusades, indicating that this is indeed one of the play’s central topics. At the time of his play’s publication, the Algerian question loomed large for the French, particularly for the president, Charles de Gaulle, architect of the newly devised Fifth Republic (1958) and a longtime personal enemy of Anouilh. The General suspected the writer of having collaborated with the occupying Germans during the Second World War since he remained in Paris, probably wrongly since Anouilh’s Antigone premiered in the capital several weeks before its liberation in 1944 and very vividly depicts the indomitable spirit of resistance against tyranny. Going back to his play about twelfth-century England, the opening scene shows Henry II visiting Becket’s tomb to do penance. He arrives in a red cloak and a crown, moves to the tomb with his back to the audience, then removes it to reveal that he is completely naked. This unexpected visual effect superbly illustrates the ethical emptiness of the Norman ruler’s colonialist ideology. It also reverses the power dynamic between them, since the King kneels, bereft of clothing. Except that, significantly, he retains the crown on his head. The 1964 movie version might have been filmed during the swinging sixties yet has the ruler keep on his pants and only strip himself of his shirt (above), a prudish change which guts the original setting of its potency.

ImageCrowns are perhaps the most recognizable and obvious symbols of monarchy, often used in coats of arms, flags, and as a cipher. Queen Elizabeth II, who is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, the great grandfather of Henry II and who seized the English crown in 1066, through eight separate lines, is pictured above at the State Opening of Parliament in May of this year, wearing the Imperial State Crown. This crown might only have been created for Queen Victoria in 1838 but it contains some much older parts. The blue sapphire in the cross comes from a ring made for Edward the Confessor around 1054, the Black Prince’s Ruby at the front of the band, the size of a chicken egg, was given to the English monarchy in 1367, and the crown also contains pearls from the collection of Elizabeth I. While crowns are a ceremonial headgear associated with most of the world’s remaining monarchies, only that of the UK (and the Queen’s other realms) and Tonga actually wear one.


Tonga’s crown may be seen in the above image, of the coronation of King George Tupou V in 2008. The delightfully attired ruler died in March of 2012, succeeded by his younger brother now King Tupou VI, since George had no issue, being what used to be coyly and knowingly referred to as a confirmed bachelor. Other monarchies, such as those of Belgium and the Netherlands, use an actual crown in official ceremonies, but one which rests on a cushion like an unwanted and abandoned handbag. It is a rather sad state of affairs since the crown is pregnant with the symbolism of power and wealth, even if the former is rarely the case.

ImageI completed an article which will appear in the journal Œuvres et Critiques very shortly in a special issue devoted to the irascible and indefatigable extreme Catholic theologian Jean Boucher (1548-1646?) which I co-edited with my friend and colleague Bruce Hayes. My article, “Les images théâtrales de Jean Boucher”, deals with the eight woodcut illustrations which feature in Boucher’s polemical work, La Vie et faits notables de Henry de Valois (Paris: Didier Millot, 1589), railing against King Henri III of France and a book which would inspire a fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, to stab the ruler fatally several months later. Henri gave an audience to his assassin while on his latrine (a special informal audience given to a privileged few), a lesson about toilet etiquette if ever one were needed. One of the images in the work, above (courtesy of the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas), concerns an episode which allegedly took place at the coronation of Henri in 1575 (which Boucher attended and gave an address in his capacity as dean of the theology faculty of Reims, a position he held before becoming dean of the Sorbonne’s theology faculty). We only have Boucher’s word for the incident and it does suspiciously bear the hallmarks of fabrication. The priest relates that the king cried out that the crown hurt him and it fell twice off his head, all the while engaging in unedifying whispering asides to his gang of mignons, the pretty young men with whom Henri delighted in surrounding himself. Whether authentic or not, the image is a striking trope of a ruler unsuited, literally and figuratively, for the dignity of the crown. As I also argue in my article, it also serves as an elliptic critique of the sovereign’s same-sex tendencies, a love which enfeebles him and erodes his political and masculine power.


At the same time, the scene evokes the ubiquitous iconography of the wheel of fortune, as above, with the king’s falling crown, the implication being that Henri cannot escape the clutches of destiny. Boucher held that Henri had ceased to be king when he ordered the execution of the Guise brothers in December 1588, an act of tyranny against a Catholic prince and a cardinal which caused him to lose his office -and crown. Above all, the illustration deftly illustrates Boucher’s deadly gift for satire.


Today’s cufflinks are in the design of the Swedish royal arms, with the three crowns representing the three provinces of the nation. They are made by Sporrong, the royal jewellers and a company which was founded in 1666. The are crafted out of rich cobalt guilloched enamel and gold fill. I bought them in Helsinki a couple of years ago. I had forgotten to pack my cufflinks on a trip from Paris and called into an antique store run by an intransigent and formidable lady who spoke to me in French and was ruthless in resisting my repeated attempts at haggling. Sometimes the memory of how we acquired something can be just as enjoyable as the item itself. Another metaphor, perhaps.

Against the storm

Ever since Oedipus refused to cede priority to Laius at the intersection of three roads and ended up killing him -in self-defence when the king tries to run him over in his chariot- the younger generation has ached and longed to take over from the older one. The myth is pregnant with symbolism. Unwittingly, Oedipus has killed his own father, fulfilling a disturbing prophecy and the elements of power, sexuality, and adulthood are explored to terrible effect. Little wonder that Freud, when coming to analyse the deepest and darkest aspects of human nature had recourse to Greek archetypes that encapsulated his theories. The episode occurs at a crossroads and pride is present in both characters, imbued with a youthful stubbornness on the part of the young man, and an engrained stubbornness on the part of the elder man, in both cases a different manifestation of a patriarchal and deadly trait. Ingres’s version of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, below, executed in 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution’s merciless dismantling of the old order of things, captures the ambivalence of Oedipus. He is seductive, endowed with the timeless allure of youth, yet there is something dangerous in his self-assured posture, consolidated by the elements of destruction and death to be found on the canvas.


Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Edipo Re uses the story as an implicit commentary on his time. The movie was made in 1967 and the young traveller has an acute case of road rage. The incident takes up 9 full minutes of the film and Oedipus picks off the guards one by one, then brutally slaughters a helpless Laius (the full clip is here). It seems that the director is both entranced with the unbridled frenzy of the youthful social revolution of the 1960s and aware of the risks of it allowing to have its full expression.

ImageThis struggle, youth rebelling against its elders, has punctuated history in every place, every culture, at every time. Societies have had their own statutes and taboos in attempts to contain it but it is never far beneath the surface in even the most oppressive, or repressed, environments. The most potent literary portrait of this phenomenon is in Shakespeare’s brilliant yet difficult King Lear. The play deals with many power struggles and women have parity with men in their desire to seize control from their elders. It is not a coincidence that the work was begun in 1603, the year of Elizabeth I’s death and during which James VI of Scots, son of the monarch the tyrannical Elizabeth had had executed, came down to London to take the English throne. James was in his 30s and provided quite a contrast with Elizabeth who died in her seventieth year. The aged Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, with the largest portion going to the child who loves him the most. The two flatterers gain a half-share each. The other daughter, Cordelia, genuinely loves her father but cannot find the words to express her affection. Lear is infuriated and disinherits her. It soon transpires that the two heiresses despise him and consider him to be a liability as well as a fool. When the monarch finally realizes his gullibility, the product of his vanity, he rushes out in a storm and rants furiously and impotently against the tempestuous conditions. It is one of the most striking and affecting moments in any drama of any age, represented above by William Dyce (c. 1851).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

The former ruler is on the threshold of despair. He has lost everything, including his judgement and is beginning to lose his mind. And yet, Shakespeare does two marvellous things at this juncture. Firstly, Lear might be without hope, hopeless in the true sense of the term, but he has one remaining weapon that does, despite everything, empower him: his tongue:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. (III.2)

 The other significant feature of this scene is that Lear is not alone during this iconic moment of irascible realization. There is a fool present to paraphrase the most tragic words that we can ever hear: “I told you so”. Yet the company and interjections of the fool during this powerful scene add an unexpected ingredient: they moderate Lear’s fury and in so doing, they serve to humanize this headstrong, silly person.

Recently, in fact during the course of the past few months, Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Albert II of the Belgians have all abdicated, citing the infirmity of age as the reason. Media commentary has, on the whole, been positive, hailing the chance of different, younger people to have their turn. There is, I think, something quite dangerous about this implicit form of ageism. It relies on the belief that younger people have more energy and dynamism and therefore can prove to be more effective leaders. As I’ve dealt with in a different post, The destroyer of worlds, it was the young John F. Kennedy who very nearly precipitated a global nuclear war in October 1962. It was an elderly, peace-loving Italian, Pope John XXIII, who played a major part in averting the wicked possibility. We can learn from older, wiser people. Unfortunately, we now live in the midst of a cult of youth which goes hand in hand with a disdain for knowledge of the past. And those who do not know the past will inevitably repeat its errors. Our elders might be slower, less fit, and more physically frail and vulnerable than younger men and women, but we are making a capital mistake in not tapping the wisdom of our previous generations. Winston Churchill was 71 years old at the end of the Second World War. Set this aside, and we commit metaphoric patricide, leaving us orphaned and exiled in the realm of our pride.


Churchill was Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, a fact of which she reminded Tony Blair in 1997 during the audience in which she appointed him prime minister after a landslide general election victory. It was an important fact to remind the young premier of; his time would come and go. Every week, the Queen has an audience with her prime minister. They are alone and no record is made of the occasion. One former prime minister spoke of this hour as the most precious of his week since he could tell her anything at all and know that it would never be repeated to another human soul. The same ex-premier, James Callaghan, added that this was an invaluable asset, particularly when sometimes one’s very own colleagues could not be trusted. The birth of the child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is imminent and there has been some speculation about the Queen’s continued role as sovereign, given the fact that there will be three heirs apparent in line to the Crown, an unprecedented occurrence in British history. The Guardian, which claims to be a newspaper, has been running a series of articles urging Elizabeth II to abdicate. In all of these, the journalists miss the point. It is precisely her age and wisdom which make her an attractive asset as head of state and abdication would be nothing other than a shameful enslavement to the spirit of the age and the outrageous and ageist youth cult of contemporary society. I think the photographic portrait of the Queen taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 eloquently shows why Her Majesty should not bend to pressure. Her pose, with the mediocre and menacing conditions outside is both regal and human, at once assured and exposed, and, above all, reassuring. Throughout the storms that we endure, we desperately need the anchorage of constants, whether it be in our leaders, our values, art, or liturgy. Fortunately, the Queen believes that hers is a job for life and she is not going anywhere just yet.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are hand-wrought, etched copper cufflinks made by Gret Barkin in the mid-1950s. She specialized in copper and almost all of her work involves this fetching metal, operating out of the delightfully named Hope, Pennsylvania. I have three pairs of Barkin cufflinks, this one consisting of two superimposed, etched disks with the top disk curving upwards, shown better in the second image below.

ImageHer ouput is spectacular, in particular her women’s jewellery. I like the fact that she had simple yet enduring designs with an attention to small details. Gret was active right up to her death in 2007 at the age of 99 years old, injecting a lifetime’s expertise and craft into her work, a well-needed anti-ageist beacon for these troubled times.