A Summer 2003 NEH Institute.
Directed by David Cressy
and Lori Anne Ferrell.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).
Palatium Regis propè Londinium, vulgo White-hall

• The Masque

Full-text of Thomas Carew and Inigo Jones's Coelum Brittanicum, 1633.

    The Masque

Masques were ephemeral combinations of dancing, music, costumes, spoken text, and scenery, at all of which the audience looked not only for entertainment, but also to detect political currents: the main dancers in the masque were not paid professionals, but rather the elite of society. Unfortunately for scholars, very often only the written text of a masque has survived, and, since Ben Jonson penned many of these texts, they have become the primary objects of literary scholarly investigation. But in the eyes of the audience, the words may have ranked a distant sixth behind the scenery, costumes, music, the identity of the participants, and, most importantly, the abilities of those participants as performers. When we read the text of a masque and try to recreate the experience of a seventeenth-century audience, it is like trying to reconstruct a performance of 42nd Street or The Lion King based solely on the script.

In some sense, the masque was an elaborate dance, and it is helpful to think about its components. As Leeds Barroll describes the masque in Anna of Denmark, all masques had a central motif, called a device, which determined the costumes, scenery, and even the types of dances. Devices could be provided by distant lands or places of mythology. In the first part of the masque, the device was introduced through a small playlet performed by professionals (the masquers themselves, being aristocrats, would not perform the socially demeaning task of acting). The masquers would then present themselves to the king and audience. In the second part of the masque—known as the measure—the masquers performed conventional dances. Barroll describes one such dance, "the sideways single," as follows: "one dancer holding the hands of the other . . . stepped apart sideways, inside knees bent, outside feet flat on the ground but rising to the toes by the close of the beat. The second beat moved the inside leg away from the partner to join the other foot, both feet now on tip toes but sinking to the heels at the close of the beat, partners continuing to hold hands, now slightly lowered. On the third and fourth beats, the sequence was reversed to move the couple back together, the joined hands lifted slightly as the hip of each dancer was gracefully raised a little to the side when stepping." (85). Following the measure, the original masquers invited certain of the on-lookers of the opposite sex to join them in the dancing. This was not a courtship ritual, but rather a predetermined selection based on political concerns. In the fourth part of the dance, all the participants on stage took new partners and danced in a faster manner than previously. Finally, the fifth part was a final dance for the original masquers in which they danced, unmasqued, and joined the king for refreshments.

Dancing clearly lay at the heart of the masque. Dancing for aristocrats was not an exercise in leisure, but rather a demonstration of command and control. Replete as early modern thought was with correspondences between the microcosm and the macrocosm, control of one's own body signified the ability to command others. Riding, that other great aristocratic pastime, likewise demonstrated one's ability to command and control. Since control was central to the idea of dance, the audiences did not appreciate outrageous gestures but, as the name of the dance indicates, measured paces. Dancers, for instance, never danced on toe, but raised their foot only halfway.

The masque may have been a display of aristocratic talent and protocol. It was also a highly politicized event. The study of the masque as a political device owes much to the work of Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong. Orgel described the masque as pure panegyric, designed simply to glorify (and perhaps even deify) the king. In the text of most masques, the performers are interrupted by anti-masquers, signs of disorder, but often the king, by his very presence, restores order. Not only did the masques portray the king as omnipotent, but also as nearly omniscient. The theatrical setting of the masque was devised so that the king alone experienced the full force of the perspectival illusion. The masque also acted as a way of demonstrating hierarchy in the society, for, as Orgel argued, "the closer one sat to the monarch the 'better' one's place was, an index to one's status, and more directly, to the degree of favor one enjoyed" (11).

Many historians have seen the masque as the quintessential sign of Stuart isolation. Instead of listening to the complaints of the people, they heard only the empty flattery of the masque. Recent scholars, however, have read masques against the grain, seeing in them criticism of the court as well as compliments to it. Martin Butler has stressed that in the reign of James I, for example, the masques could represent the views of the Prince of Wales or the Queen. Kevin Sharpe sees the masque as relaying real complaints to the ears of the king. As he states, "the antimasque is such a forceful feature of some of the Caroline texts that the debates, the doubts and difficulties of the antimasques are never completely dispelled" (194). Sharpe further claims that of all Stuart masques, Coelum Britannicum most clearly demonstrates such criticism.

Coelum Britannicum

On 18 February 1633, Thomas Carew and Inigo Jones presented their masque, Coelum Britannicum. The plot of this masque is quite simple: Mercury descends from Olympus to inform Charles I and Henrietta Maria that their example of conjugal bliss had made such an impression on the gods that the Roman deities had forsaken their adulterous, immoral pursuits and have reformed heaven. Momus, the god of ridicule, then appears to tell the royal couple that not only have the gods changed their behavior, but—in an attempt to encourage morality—they have decided to rid the heavens of any constellation that celebrates impiety. Then, in a series of antimasques, the constellations of Cancer, Capricorn, Hercules, and the Lion dance in a manner that shows their impious nature. Then, "the stars are quenched" (presumably the candles were blown out) and Momus announces that a new election will take place to fill the empty space in the heavens. Such figures as Poverty, Pleasure, and Fortune come, but each is found wanting. Finally, it is resolved that Charles I and Henrietta Maria will themselves become the chief constellation, and the masquers celebrate this with dances and elaborate special effects.

All this is standard fare for Stuart masques, but the character of Momus complicates this one. A god of ridicule in the midst of panegyric seems out of place. While the masque celebrates moral reformation, Momus makes ribald jokes. While the masque praises Henrietta Maria and Charles I, Momus jabs at Catholicism (Henrietta's religion) and arbitrary government (Charles I's predilection). In fact, Momus's blunt and plain prose is juxtaposed with Mercury's overwritten verse, thereby ridiculing the nature of the genre itself. Yet, despite the jabs at the crowned heads and their chief form of self-representation, Momus is, after all, the god of ridicule. Perhaps his criticism is like that of a court jester: funny, but not to be taken all that seriously.

The Author

Coelum Britannicum was Thomas Carew's only masque. The son of Matthew Carew, a Master of Chancery, Thomas entered Merton College at Oxford at the age of thirteen. Thomas began to study at the Inns of Court at the age of 17, but a lack of diligence and a reversal in family fortune meant that he could no longer pursue his studies. His father found him a position as secretary to Sir Dudley Carleton, the English Ambassador to Venice, and the husband of Matthew Carew's niece. Thomas Carew seems to have performed admirably: in 1616, Sir Dudley Carleton brought Thomas along on his ambassadorship to the Netherlands. But Thomas was soon to fall out of favor. He had written a libel that ridiculed both Sir Dudley and his Lady. Upon discovering this document among Thomas's papers, Carleton sent him back to England. We do not know how Thomas supported himself after this dismissal, but he had become notable enough at court to gain the ceremonial court post of Carver, and, by the 1620s, Carew started to compose verse, most notably the erotic poem A Rapture. Carew died in 1640, probably of syphilis.

The Masquers

James Stuart, Duke of Lennox (Scottish Title) (1612-55): Relative of the king and a ward of James I. Although of Scottish decent and having a Scottish title, Stuart was baptized and educated in England. In the English Civil Wars, he would become one of the strongest supporters of the king, lending over 40,000 and volunteering to be executed in lieu of the king.

William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire (1617-84): After the performance of this masque, Cavendish became Lord Lieutenant of Devonshire (1638). During the Civil Wars, he fought with the King at York, but left England for three years. Cavendish was one of the first members of the Royal Society in the Restoration.

Henry Rich, Earl of Holland (1590-1649): Before the masque, Henry Rich—the second son of the first Earl of Warwick and the grandson of the first Earl of Essex—had served as an MP for Leicester, ambassador to France, a privy councilor, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and Master of the Horse, to name just a few of his positions. In the English Civil Wars, Rich, known for his Presbyterian leanings, waffled between supporting the Parliament and the king. Although he served the Parliament as a Lord Lieutenant and was sent by them to negotiate with the king, he joined the rising for the king in 1648 and was executed for treason in 1649.

Mountjoy Blount, Earl of Newport (1597-1666): Blount was one of the three illegitimate sons of Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire. Blount served in the military both in the debacle at the Isle of Rhe and as Rear Admiral in the expedition to Cadiz. During the English Civil War Blount fought on the side of the king, serving as Lieutenant General of the North.

Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin (Scottish Title) (1599-1663): Bruce attended the king in Scotland in 1633 and received his MA from Oxford the year after the performance of Coelum Britannicum. In 1638, he was knighted at Windsor along with the Prince of Wales.

William Villiers, Viscount Grandeson (Irish Title) (1614-43): Son of Sir Edward Villiers, President of Munster. Like Thomas Bruce, Villiers was knighted at Windsor with the Prince of Wales. Villiers died during the English Civil War, fighting for the king and along Prince Rupert at the siege of Bristol.

Robert Rich, styled Lord Rich (1611-1659): Rich had served as MP for Essex in 1628/9. Unlike his father, the Earl of Warwick, who sided with Parliament during the English Civil War, Robert Rich supported the king, joining his troops at Oxford. Rich later took the Commonwealth's covenant.

Basil Feilding, styled Viscount Feilding (1608-75): Served as ambassador to Venice from 1634-1638. In opposition to his father, Feilding joined the Parliamentary forces, leading a regiment of horse and then later serving as a Major General, and the Speaker of the House of Lords.

George Digby, styled Earl Digby, (1612-1677): George Digby, the eldest son of John Digby the earl of Bristol, is more often known as the Earl of Bristol, a title he received in 1653. He served as an MP for Dorset in 1640-41 and was one of the members who managed the impeachment of Stratford. Digby backed away from this stance, however, voting against the impeachment and then becoming a supporter of the king after 1641. Digby served the king as a Colonel of the Horse, Privy Councilor, and Secretary of State. Digby joined Charles II in exile, fighting in the French Army and, until he became Catholic in 1657, as Secretary of State. Digby (or Bristol as he was then known) was a major political figure during the reign of Charles II.

Richard Boyle, styled Viscount Dungarvin (Irish Title) (1612-1697): Boyle, who would later become Earl of Cork and Earl of Burlington, was the brother both to the famous scientist and to the less famous playwright. Boyle had just returned from a two-year European tour at the time of the masque. Boyle fought for the king in Ireland, but after the king's forces lost he went to the Continent for several years.

Randall MacDonnel, styled Lord Dunluce (Irish Title) (1609-1683): Son and heir of the Earl of Antrim. MacDonnel is famous for leading an unsuccessful attack on Scotland at the beginnings of the Civil Wars. He believed that if he could bring an Irish army to Scotland the entire MacDonnel Clan would join him. The attempt failed.

Philip Wharton, Baron Wharton (1613-95): Wharton also had been abroad before the masque, traveling in Europe 1629-1632. During the Civil War, Wharton, a devout Presbyterian, sided with the Parliament fighting at Edgehill (among other battles).

William Paget, Baron Paget (1609-78): Paget was the son-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Paget, like Holland, waffled between the Parliament and the King, serving the Parliament through 1642, joining the king from 1643-4, and then returning to Parliament's side in 1645.

Alexander Abernathy, Lord Saulton of Abernathy (Scottish Title) (1611-68): Soon after the masque this Scottish Lord suffered financial difficulties.

One of the first things to note is that the masquers in Coelum Britannicum are generally young, as would be expected of dancers. The eldest is Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, at the age of 45, but except for two other dancers in their 30s, the rest are under the age of 27. Secondly, they represent all three kingdoms. Such a strategy of including representatives of Scotland, Ireland, and England in the performance of Coelum Britannicum aligns with the king's desire to create cohesiveness throughout his kingdoms. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the selection of masquers is the number who had religious and political views that clashed with Charles's agenda of establishing a church replete with ceremony and ritual. Five of the masquers had Puritan or Parliamentary tendencies. Such selections make us wonder why Charles invited his political adversaries to dance, something we might assume was a sign of the king's favor. Was he attempting to change the minds of these five individuals? Did he want the world to see that even his political opponents supported him? Or did Charles simply separate the court from politics?

Brian Weiser

Full-text of Thomas Carew and Inigo Jones's Coelum Brittanicum, 1633.

Suggestions for further reading:

Barroll, J. Leeds. Anna of Denmark. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Bishop, Tom. "The Gingerbread Host: Tradition and Novelty in the Jacobean Masque." In The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque, edited by David Bevington and Peter Holbrook, 88-120. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Butler, Martin. "Reform or Reverence? The politics of the Caroline Masque." In Theatre and Government Under the Early Stuarts, edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, 118-156. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Elton, G. R. "The Points of Contact." In Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics and Government. Vol III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974-83.

Howard, Skiles. The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Orgel, Stephen. The Illusion of Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Sharpe, Kevin. Criticism and Compliment: The Politics of Literature in the England of Charles I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

© 2004 Folger Institute