From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

The King with the Pearl Earring

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Today pearls are among the most common of precious "jewels." But before the development of cultured pearls and farming in the early 20th c., all pearls were natural pearls. These rare treasures could be discovered only by accident and at considerable peril. Natural pearls had great mystique and luminous beauty as well as value, which made them favorites of queens – and kings.

One of the most famous pearls of the 17th c. belonged toKing Charles I of England (1600-1649) – the father of the King Charles who appears in my novels. While the origins of this single pearl earring are unknown, Charles is first shown wearing it in a miniature, left, as the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales. The pearl soon became what fashion-folk today call a "statement piece", and one that he was seldom without.

Charles's large teardrop-shaped pearl – an especially rare and desired shape –was made into a single dangling earring with a tiny gold crown as the cap, topped with an orb and cross that was most fitting for a future king. Since Queen Elizabeth's reign, fashionable English gentlemen had worn single earrings as a sign of courtly swagger and bravado, qualitiesthat the young prince was woefully lacking: Charles was slight and short (only 5'3"), he limped from childhood rickets, he stammered, and he suffered from acute shyness. Perhaps the sizable jewel gave him the confidence that nature had not.

Whatever the reason, Charles wore the pearl for the rest of his life, and it appears in nearly every portrait of him, including one of him dressed casually for hunting, right. He developed into a style-conscious king who patronized the arts, and the single earring suited him in that capacity, too, as the romantic, cavalier king.

Unfortunately, while Charles was a very good patron to artists, architects, and composers, he proved to be a wretched king to his people, stubbornly unable to reconcile his subjects' desires and expectations with his own. After barely surviving two civil wars, he was captured by the Parliamentary forces led by General Oliver Cromwell and found guilty of high treason. He was executed on 30 January 1649, beheaded with a single stroke of the ax on a scaffold before Whitehall Palace. He was still wearing the pearl earring as he placed his neck on the executioner's block.

Later historians seem to have been determined to give the execution a lurid, gory hysteria that no contemporary witness reported, and describe a (fictitious) howling mob surging forward to tear the precious jewel from the bloody, severed royal head.

Well, no. Even with regicide, this was still Puritan England, not Jacobin France.

Instead Charles's earring was respectfully removed when his head was sewn back to his body in preparation for burial. The earring was then sent as a final memento to his oldest daughter,Mary, Princess Royal (1631-1660), as Charles had requested. After Mary's death, the earring eventually found its way to one of the late king's most loyal supporters, William Cavendish,1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1592-1672), who had also been entrusted with the education of Charles's son, the future King Charles II. Today the earring, bottom left, remains in the collection of the duke's home, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, now owned by the Dukes of Portland.

Top left: Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I) by Issac Oliver; the Berger Collection,

Denver Art Museum.

Top right: detail, Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt by Anthony van Dyck; the Louvre

Lower left: detail, Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, by Anthony van Dyck; Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

Bottom right: Earring of Charles I, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire

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From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Who Was That Masked Lady?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Lately there's been much discussion in the media of the singer Lady Gaga's fascination with masks, most recently on a London red carpet. But while using a mask to go fashionably incognito might seem like news to the gossip columnists, we know otherwise. There were plenty of ladies hitting the London social scene wearing masks 350 years ago.

Made from black velvet or satin, masks, or vizards, were popular in the 1660s both to protect the complexion from the sun or the cold, and to hide one's identity in public. They were especially popular while attending the playhouse, where, in theory, a lady could enjoy a risque play or even engage in an amorous assignation, but still preserve her reputation. Soon, however, the masks themselves became the mark of prostitutes prowling the pit for customers, and the word "vizard" became a derogatory slang word used to describe such women. By 1704, the masks had so many illicit connotations that Queen Anne banned them.

There were two kinds of ladies's masks: one that covered only half the face, and another that hid all of it. One described by writer Randle Holme in 1688 "covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the Nose, and a slit for the Mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time, being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside against the mouth." How exactly a lady was supposed to talk, let alone be charmingly witty, while clenching a bead between her teeth is just one more art lost to time.

I suspect that the half-masks were more popular for ladies who wished to speak as well as be mysterious. I also suspect that, for the sake of gallantry, gentlemen were willing to suspend disbelief where a masked lady was concerned; how secret can you be with only half your face covered? Still, masks must have made for fine flirtatious fun, as this excerpt from Samuel Pepys's diary from 1668 records. Attending a play, Mr. Pepys had the good fortune to sit nearSir Charles Sedley, a gentleman poet famous for his wit. (We last saw Sir Charles here as aman behaving badly, and he is also a prominent character in my next novel, The Countess & the King, wherein he will continue to behave rather badly.) As was usual for Sir Charles, he soon found a way to amuse himself despite the indifferent play:

One of the ladies [sitting near Sir Charles] would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him, but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant 'rencontre' I never heard.

Above: Detail from Winter, by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)
Many thanks to fellow-author Catherine Delors for suggesting this blog!

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