Apollo and the Muses of Parnassus - a Tudor pageant
31st May 2012
As some of us get excited about the coming weekend's celebrations and the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant on the Thames, it’s worth recalling that not too long ago (well, about 479 years ago to be precise) another great pageant was being staged on the river and about the streets of London. This was the coronation-eve procession of Anne Boleyn. Several days of festivities came ahead of the actual ceremony on 1st June. And these included a procession from the Tower to Westminster on 31st May 1533(OS).
Along the way were placed several little enactments and tableau, including: Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus, a “ryght costly” pageant. This was designed by the most celebrated court artist of the day in England, Hans Holbein. It was situated at the corner of Gracechurch Street in the City. Here is a sketch the artist produced for its design.
It is presumed to be fairly accurate representation because its details are confirmed by descriptions recorded at the time: "Therein was the Mount Parnassus, with the fountain of Helicon, which was of white marble, and four streams without pipe did rise an ell high, and met together in a little cup above the fountain, which fountain ran abundantly with Rhenish wine till night. On the mountain sat Apollo and at his feet sat Calliope. And on every side of the mountain sat four muses, playing on several sweet instruments, and all their jests, epigrams and poesies were written in golden letters, in the which every muse according to her property praised the queen."
Now the Tudors, and in particular Henry VIII, liked to think of themselves as Renaissance men. Therefore classical symbolism was to be found everywhere. Henry as a young man (and he was still quite presentable in 1533) was described even by his enemies as being a handsome specimen of manhood. And it was not considered odd to have himself represented, therefore, as the Sun God Apollo. Apollo, after all, had much that Henry sought to emulate. He was the deity of music, poetry, hunting with the bow and so on. Holbein, meanwhile, was also rather fond of cramming symbolism into his work - as for example in the dizzy symbol-fest of his painting 'The Ambassadors.'
Holbein's The Ambassadors - thought to have been commissioned by Anne Boleyn.
So we should not be surprised if there were all sorts of messages embroidered into this work. Messages that others, courtiers and ambassadors and dignitaries would have well understood. Poor Anne Boleyn meanwhile, we must hope, would indeed have been ‘The Most Happy’ for the day. Let us hope she was enjoying her moment in the sun. For sadly she was to finish up just three years later in an arrow chest buried beneath the floor of the chapel in the Tower of London. Henry was out riding at Richmond at the time of her execution. He stopped to listen as the cannon were fired from the walls of the Tower to denote her passing. And everyone would have understood the message then, as well (though it does seem to have been forgotten or ignored by historians and writers until quite recently)
So, lets all raise a glass this weekend to our present Queen, to the continuation of a long and distinguished reign. It has not been entirely without its challenges or difficulties. Plus there are always one or two sad people who will disapprove of the monarchy. But Ma'am, at least you are not married to Henry VIII. And for this blessing I'm sure we are all, republicans or monarchists alike, eternally grateful!