Blog, Wolf Hall

Capability Brown

My deepest fear is to show up in some sort of medium — newsreel footage or a photograph in an article — bending over in the most unattractive way imaginable, like what’s happening to this poor sod digging up an old Tudor castle.

(Relatedly, any site that purposefully publishes photos of people, not at their best, in order to make fun of them, are dumb jerks and I will say that in church.)

“A Saxon grubenhaus was a dwelling built in a sunken pit, usually supported by two large posts, and the remains of one have been found on the site.”
Pope Benedict / Emperor Palpatine

In Ampthill Great Park, in Bedfordshire — both places I’ve never been and which don’t sound at all like they could possibly exist outside of a wardrobe or a comfortable hole in the ground — archaeologists believe they’ve found the site of a Tudor castle, one where Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was sent to be less of a nuisance while Henry and Anne discovered love for the first time, sort of like how they needed to figure out what to do with Pope Benedict XVI after he retired, and Pope Francis assumed the…throne? I’m not Catholic — but use context clues if I don’t have it entirely right.

The BBC article is short on information directly related to Henry, Katherine, Anne, or anyone else whose name you may know/backside you’ve seen on an episode of the very terrible The Tudors, but it does give us a chance, real quick, to discuss the goings on with Katherine at this time.

In the novel Wolf Hall, there’s a poignant moment where Cromwell goes to visit Katherine, in her exile, likely in this very Tudor castle they’re excavating. Her daughter, Mary, stands behind her, suffering from menstrual cramps, but aware enough that as a Princess of the Blood she cannot show any discomfort in front of someone of lower status than she is. Cromwell offers her the smallest of kindnesses — a stool, on which to sit — and we get the sense both of relief and of irritation: he shouldn’t have helped her, but she is grateful he has.

Mary Tudor (later, Bloody Mary) and her mother, Katherine of Aragon

Katherine is in this castle, away from Henry and the rest of his Tudor court, because she can’t be sent back to Spain. It would be a public relations nightmare for Henry’s reign, and a queen, sent back home, would be a powerful weapon against the offending kingdom. (Especially, and specifically, Henry’s kingdom, which often found itself unable to afford wars of any kind.) It also is very tough carrying on with, and ultimately marrying, the new love of one’s life when your current wife is still knocking around the castle, maybe eating your yogurts even after you clearly put your initials — HRH — on each Chobani. Katherine can’t be killed — she’s beyond blameless. She can’t be “tidied up” (i.e., “fell down the stairs,” “married Michael Peterson”). Divorce is proving incredibly difficult. So, she’s best hidden away, in a castle no one can reach, like a fairy tale bride, complete with servants.

It’s a curious experience, to know what life was like for Katherine and Mary in that small drafty castle, as much as anyone can know someone else’s terrible life, and then to read, with the excitement palpable, an account of a bunch of Saturday Afternoon Diggers. “I could see myself doing more in the future,” volunteer and archaeology undergraduate Kate Thomas told the BBC. “It has been a lot of fun.”

And then one pictures poor Mary, sick with cramp, burnished by duty.

On Capability Brown

He’s mentioned quickly in the BBC article, and I had never heard of him: “The park, now owned by Ampthill Town Council, was laid out by the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown between 1770 and 1775.”

Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown, by Nathaniel Dance, (later Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Bt) (died 1811)

It’s one of those wonderful Puritan names — almost. Turns out, he was born Lancelot Brown, which is also a not-too-shabby name. He comes from humble beginnings — his father was a land agent, his mother a chambermaid. Cromwell would have found him useful and interesting, had he been able to live up into the 18th century.

Capability Brown’s nemesis, Uvedale.

Capability Brown had a nemesis, a man with the l u x u r i o u s name of Uvedale Price, who once wrote Brown’s design aesthetic as “so many puddings turned out of one common mould.” This is deeply offensive to me because, as a lover of puddings, none have ever been common, but each a unique love affair I have with each spoonful. (Someone else, probably trying to get in with the Too Cool for School Uvedale, said of Brown’s landscapes, “[He encourages] his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes.” And to that guy — Russell Page, as it were, who began his own career in landscape after Brown — I say, “Sir, I’ve watched more YouTube videos of aquarium aquascaping and I will be the judge of what is facile and shapeless. Like probably your dad.

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