In Henry VIII's youth, his romantic streak had been given expression with jousts and tournaments, at which his immense physical prowess had let him excel, but by the time Lady Margaret Douglas came to court to serve Queen Anne Boleyn, the king was in his mid-forties and there were fewer jousts. The young men of the court, rather than wooing their ladies with feats of arms, took to writing music and extravagant verse.
The conventions of the game were clearly laid down in Baldassare Castiglione’s ‘The Book of the Courtier’, an Italian work, published in the early sixteenth century, and known in the courts of Italy and France, which heavily influenced England – although an English edition was not published until 1561. Gentlemen sighed over unattainable ladies, who treated them with disdain, or flirted with them, with no intention of delivering on the promise.
Chief amongst the poets of the court were the Queen’s brother, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford; her cousin, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, (brother of Lady Margaret’s friend Mary Howard, Duchess of Richmond) and Sir Thomas Wyatt, a childhood friend of Anne and George, and once Anne’s suitor. Many of the other ladies and gentlemen, including the King himself, wrote verse too, varying in skill from the completely dreadful, to the barely adequate.
One of the fashionable styles was the ‘verse conversation’. A poem would be written down and shared amongst friends, with each adding an answer to the previous poem.A large group of verses is contained in a manuscript, now known as the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of 185 poems plus a further eleven fragments of writing or anagrams. The manuscript itself is quarto sized – that is, a single sheet folded to make four pages, and then bound. In all, the book has 114 leaves. It seems likely the book was originally owned by Mary Howard (her married initials, MF for Mary FitzRoy, are on it).
Of these verses, the vast majority have been attributed to Sir Thomas Wyatt, with other items by the Earl of Surrey, Mary Shelton, Sir Edmund Knyvett and other members of the court, and a later one, to Henry, Lord Darnley, Margaret’s son. A group have been attributed to Lord Thomas Howard and Lady Margaret Douglas.
The number of poems ascribed to Lord Thomas and to Margaret differs between scholars. As many as thirteen, and as few as three have been attributed to him, and nine and two respectively to her. She appears to have transcribed 16 of them and annotated at least 50 of the pages, with comments such as ‘and this’ or ‘learn but to sing it’. The other main transcriber appears to be Mary Shelton, whose name appears in an acrostic verse. Occasionally Margaret and Mary differ on their view of the worthiness of poems – Margaret writes on one ‘forget this’ and Mary replies ‘it is worthy.’
The difficulty, of course, is knowing which of the poems Howard and Margaret actually composed, and which they merely transcribed. There is a group that appear to relate to the period when the couple were in the Tower of London, sent there as punishment for their unsanctioned betrothal. We must assume, if they were contemporaneous with that, that they sent poems back and forth between them (the individual poems were not entered sequentially). This is not impossible, as imprisonment for nobility, although onerous as a loss of freedom, was not usually repressive in itself.
In one poem he writes:
‘There is no care for cure of mind
But to forget (which cannot be!)
I cannot sail against the wind,
Nor help the thing past remedy.’
In a later (probably) verse, the first and last stanzas of six are:
‘Thy promise was to love me best
And that thy heart with mine should rest
And not to break this, thy behest –
Thy promise was, thy promise was.
But since to change thou dost delight
And that thy faith has ta’en his flight
As thou deservest, I shall the‘quite [requite]
I promise thee, I promise thee.’
Margaret’s compositions include:
And though that I be banished him fro’
His speech, his sight and company,
Yet will I, in spite of his foe,
Him love and keep my fantasy
Do what they will, and do their worst
(for all they do is vanity)
For asunder my heart shall burst
Surer than change my fantasy. ‘
The poems attributed to Howard bespeak his own faithfulness, and his depression when he discovers that Margaret has given up all thought of him. As she said to Cromwell, she no longer had ‘any fancy thereunto.’ Whether her renunciation is genuine, is another question. The shadow of the axe is not conducive to romance.
One poem ascribed to her, suggests that, far from forgetting Lord Thomas, she grieved sincerely over his death, to the point of feeling suicidal:
‘Wherefore, sweet father, I you pray,
Bear this my death with patience
And torment not your hairs grey
But freely pardon mine offence
Sith’t [since it] proceeded of love’s fervency
And of my heart’s constancy
Lett me not [do not keep me from] from the sweet presence
Of him that I have caused to die.’
Whilst we need to be careful about inferring the actual feelings of Thomas Howard and Margaret Douglas from the poems, which reflect the conventions of courtly love, yet the Devonshire Manuscript gives a rare glimpse into the amusements and tastes of the young men and women of the 1530s.
Mary Howard would remain Margaret’s friend until her own death in 1557, despite the widening gap in religion between them.Mary Shelton married Sir Anthony Heveningham in about 1540, and, later, Sir Philip Appleyard, dying in 1571.
Brigden, Susan, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, 1st edn (London: Faber and Faber, 2012)
Footer, Donald W, and Donald W Foster, Women’s Works: 1550-1603, 1st edn (New York: Wicked Good Books, 2014)
Shulman, Nicola, Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy (London: Short Books, 2011)
Studies, Digital, Le champ numérique, Siemens, Johanne Paquette, Karin Armstrong, Cara Leitch, and others, ‘Drawing Networks in the Devonshire Manuscript (BL Add 17492): Toward Visualizing a Writing Community’s Shared Apprenticeship, Social Valuation, and Self-Validation’, Digital Studies / Le Champ Numérique, 2009
‘The Devonshire Manuscript of Courtly Verse’, by Elizabeth Heale