Executioner’s Song

 

 

Violets and blue my dear, roses are red

Henry loved Anne but he chopped off her head.

 

They called her a witch and a sorceress too

Her web of six fingers as proof it was true.

 

She swore her own innocence till her last breath

Yet slice of the ax brought her to bloody death.

 

Some say she still haunts us, more angry than most

All guests at the Tower, beware of Anne’s ghost!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Saint Agnes and the Virgins

 

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 “They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve, 

 Young virgins might have visions of delight, 

 And soft adorings from their loves receive 

Upon the honey’d middle of the night, 

 If ceremonies due they did aright.”    — John Keats

 

Single ladies, you might want to pay special attention to your dreams tonight. Legend has it that after midnight on the Eve of Saint Agnes Day (January 21st) young women are likely to dream of their future husband.

Of course, you will have to perform a few rituals in order to make this happen.

First, take one sprig of rosemary and one sprig of thyme.

Rosemaryandthyme1

Sprinkle them with water.  Put the rosemary in your left shoe and the thyme in your right. Place each shoe on opposite sides of your bed.

Next, make sure you go to bed without any supper. (Apparently hunger is a good state to induce psychic dreaming.) Then, take off all your clothes, get in bed and lie supine with your hands underneath your pillow.  Look up to the heavens and do not look behind you. Before falling asleep say,

“Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind

 Come ease the trouble of my mind.”

Your future husband will then appear in your dream, kiss you and join you for the dinner you so devoutly skipped hours before.

Agnes 5

This is an interesting tradition and it got me wondering: Just who was Saint Agnes and what qualifies her for this type of husband dreaming?

According to tradition, Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility. She was born in 291 AD and raised in one of the few early Catholic families, long before Constantine decided to convert the entire Roman empire to Christianity.

Agnes was a beautiful girl from a wealthy family and therefore considered a great catch for any man, since she had both good looks and money.  By the time she was twelve years old, Agnes was considered to be of marrying age. ( I know! Horrendous by our standards, but quite normal for the 3rd century.)  Many young men of noble status came calling but Agnes chose not to wed and was determined to keep her virginity.  The guys, insulted by Agnes’ devotion to sexual purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity. This of course led to her arrest.

The Prefect Sempronius (head honcho) condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. Legend has it that as she prayed, her hair grew long enough to cover her entire body. (She at least had it easier than Cersei Lannister!)

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It was also said that men attempted to rape her in the street, but all of them were immediately struck blind.

One of these men happened to be the son of Prefect Sempronius. He was struck not only blind but dead. However, he was revived after Agnes prayed for him. Even so, Agnes was still put on trial and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  She was bound, gagged and  tied down, but miraculously, the bundle of wood beneath her would not burn! The officer in charge then drew his sword and without blinking an eyelash, promptly beheaded her.

Agnes died on January 21, 304 AD, at the tender age of thirteen.

Perhaps you noticed a bit of irony here…  Why would a virgin martyr, famous for purity and chastity, be qualified to predict the future husbands of young girls? Some ideas about this were clarified by author Robert Ellsberg in his book Blessed Among All Women: Saints Prophets and Witnesses For Our Time.

Ellsberg states: “In the story of Agnes the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality.”

According to the view shared by Roman culture at the time, if Agnes would not agree to be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. (Hence the trip to the brothel.)

Ellsberg further claims: “Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. …Espoused to Christ, she was beyond the power of any man to ‘have his way with her’. ‘Virgin’ in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.”  It may be that because Agnes made a strong but painful choice, she was given the power to reveal a choice to others.

Saint Agnes’ story has inspired many artists including William Holman Hunt and  John Everett Millais.

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In the winter of 1819, poet John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems “The Eve of Saint Agnes”. The poem tells a medieval tale of a forbidden tryst between lovers Madeline and Porphyro, who, like Romeo and Juliet are both victims of their families ancient rivalry. The original text was reportedly so erotic that Keats’ editors made him tone it down before the poem could be published. Read the full text  HERE.

If you decide to do an Agnes ritual and find a future husband on your horizon,  please let me know!  Here are some further folkloric interpretations of Saint Agnes Dreams:

“If you dream of a man, that’s your future husband! 
If you dream of lots of men you are going to get married many times. 
If you don’t dream of any men it means you will live alone.
If you dream of thistles or thorny plants it means your husband will rarely shave.
If you dream of a puddle it means your husband will sweat profusely.
If you dream of poultry it means your husband’s breath will smell.
If you dream of a mouse it means your husband will be obedient.
If you dream of white clouds it means your husband will be old.
If you dream of eggs it means your husband will be young.”  — Adapted from “The Dark Dreams of the Fertile Woman’s Mind” – Sir Dalton Falsworthy 1831. 

Happy dreaming and happy Saint Agnes Day.

agnes eve

 

 

 

 

Lizzie and the Pre-Raphaelites

 

lizzie 1

Today, July 25th, marks the birthday of England’s first Victorian supermodel, Elizabeth Siddal.

Over a century before Twiggy hit swinging London, and 150 years before Tyra Banks began her search for America’s Top Model, English beauty Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal was the new face that launched a thousand ships.  She was an artist’s model for a group of cutting-edge painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

‘America’s Top Model’ — a reality show which takes beautiful urchins from mundane backgrounds off the streets and somehow transforms them into stunning supermodels – may actually have a lot in common with the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood ( PRB.)

In the mid 19th century a group of young painters decided to defy restrictions, throw caution to the wind and break the ceiling of what they thought had become very boring, regulated and prescription art in England.  They were led by the  rebel stud Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

lizzie dante

The PRB left behind stuffy universities to begin their own style. Their new art hearkened back to a more naturalistic pre-industrial time, and resembled Renaissance works popular before the painter Raphael became the accepted standard. (Hence the name Pre-Raphaelite.)

To our post-modern eyes, the PRB paintings might look very staid and classic, but in their own time they were quite shocking. One innovative thing the PRB did was to find their models among common people in the streets. These women were often shop girls or prostitutes. The Brotherhood would transform them into magnificent goddesses.

Elizabeth Siddal was one such model. She was born on July 25, 1829 to working class London parents. In her late teens she took a job in a hat shop in Cranbourne Alley.  In 1849 Lizzie was ‘discovered’ by PRB artist Walter Deverall, who was working on a painting to depict Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’.

Deverall needed a model to portray the cross-dressing Viola — in her boy role as Cesario.  Elizabeth apparently had the androgynous beauty that was needed for the role.

Lizzie

Lizzie was described as: “a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck, greenish-blue eyes, brilliant complexion and a lavish wealth of coppery golden hair.”

As luck would have it, Deverall’s model for the role of Feste the Fool was fellow painter and notorious bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Here is the entire panel, Gabriel as the court jester and Lizzie on the far left.

lizzie 12th night

When Rossetti and Elizabeth met, sparks flew. Thus began their tumultuous love affair. They became engaged and defied convention by living  together for almost ten years. They finally married in 1860.

Elizabeth became Gabriel’s chief muse. Reportedly, he painted over a thousand portraits of her.  He likened her to Beatrice Portinari, the muse of 13th century writer Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy.)  Dante was also Gabriel’s namesake and he seemed to have recreated their courtly love affair, starring himself as Dante and Lizzie as Beatrice.

lizzie beatrice

As torrid as their relationship was, Gabriel’s antics and constant affairs with other models apparently made for a not so smooth ride.  Plus, Elizabeth suffered from ill health and eventually became addicted to laudanum.

Nonetheless, they were a fascinating couple!  The PRB were the revolutionaries of Victorian London and their beautiful models were the ‘it girls’ of the day.  Elizabeth was a poet in her own right, and although her poems were never published in her lifetime, I think they are pretty good.

Here is an excerpt, called Dead Love:

Oh never weep for love that’s dead
Since love is seldom true
But changes his fashion from blue to red,
From brightest red to blue,
And love was born to an early death
And is so seldom true.

Perhaps it is a rather revealing version of her relationship with rogue Gabriel…

Elizabeth posed for numerous paintings and eventually began studying art herself, under Gabriel’s tutelage. She produced many sketches and watercolors. Art critic John Ruskin became her patron, and paid her the modest sum of £150 per year for her work. (That is about £12,000 in today’s money. Still, it was a big deal for a woman to have her own income!)

Elizabeth posed for many character portraits, but perhaps her most famous one was Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Here she stars as Shakespeare’s tragic character from Hamlet who committed suicide by throwing herself in a river.

The image is so lifelike, you almost expect to touch her hands or smell the fragrance of her flowers.

lizzie ophelia

In real life, Elizabeth also committed suicide.

She became pregnant in 1861, but the baby, a girl, was stillborn.  Elizabeth, who also had a long history of depression, then suffered from post-partum and entered a dangerous darkness.  She died of a laudanum overdose on February 11, 1862.

Although coroners deemed her death an accident, reportedly, Lizzie left a suicide note. Gabriel later destroyed it, as he knew killing oneself in Victorian England was both illegal and immoral, and would have brought scandal upon her family.

Here is an excerpt of one of Lizzie’s eerily prophetic poems, called Early Death:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.

Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.

Now here’s where the story takes a really weird twist!

Gabriel, overcome with grief at his wife’s death, buried in her coffin a book of poems he had written to her.

Seven years later, in 1869, Gabriel became obsessed with the idea of publishing those poems.  He, along with his agent Charles Howell, applied for an order to have Elizabeth’s coffin exhumed.

Gabriel, a heavy drinker, may have really gone off the rails at this point.  Supposedly he was going blind and was no longer able to paint, and therefore looking to write and publish more poetry.

The exhuming of Lizzie’s grave was done (creepily!)  in the dead of night, so as not to draw attention.  Gabriel was not present, but Charles Howell claimed that Elizabeth, lying in the opened coffin, was still well preserved with her beauty in tact!

Also her long red hair had continued to grow, and therefore, Elizabeth’s corpse retained much of her stunning charm!

lizzie grave

(This is how vampire legends got started.  Remember, it was Victorian Times, ripe with Gothic ghost stories of the dormant  undead, and other wild imaginings.)

To be fair, laudanum is known to be a great preservative, and Lizzie had plenty of it in her body.  Also, she was no stranger to alcohol and other formaldehyde-type drugs.  She was a “devoted swallower” of Fowler’s Solution, a so-called complexion improver made from diluted arsenic.

Could all these drugs have made for a well preserved Lizzie?  There is a folkloric belief that hair and nails can continue to grow after death.

I cannot help but notice another similarity to Shakespeare’s Ophelia.  Hamlet — who was Ophelia’s lover — jumped into her grave at her burial, unable to let her go.

lizzie ophelia grave

Is truth stranger than fiction?

Whatever one makes of their personal lives, the PRB no doubt left their mark in the art world.  They produced some of the most stunning, radiant and thought-provoking works ever created.

Happy Birthday Lizzie!

The TV series Desperate Romantics was a fictional account of the PRB.  If you want to know more about them (or just be fabulously entertained by Aidan Turner as Gabriel and Amy Manson as Lizzie!)  tune into this episode. Running time is about one hour. Hope you like it! 🙂