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.

The mating game

Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.


The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.


Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.


There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.


For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.


There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.


 Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.