And you shall find me a grave woman

4 01 2016

New Year Resolution 2016

I am resolved to resurrect this blog, which, like Imogen in the cave, has seemed to die a death.  2016 is set to be a big year for Shakespeare with the 400-year anniversary but I doubt we will be any the wiser for all the hoohah. Boris Johnson and some of the big publishers will cash-in, but will they tell us anything new? What fascinates me is that there are still mysteries to solve after so many years. Those who have read my biography of Anne Line will be aware that there are an intriguing series of links between the character Imogen in Cymbeline and the Catholic martyr. Of course one can dismiss such connections as coincidental but there comes a point when there are too many coincidences for that to be credible and it becomes very hard to avoid the conclusion that the author has deliberately set them up. Here are some new ‘coincidences’ to add to the collection. Comments appreciated.

When Imogen awakes she seems half dazed, half mad. She says, as though to someone in her dream,

Yes, sir, to Milford Haven. Which is the way?

I thank you. – by yond bush? – Pray, how far thither?

Od’s pittikins! Can it be six mile yet? –

I have gone all night. ‘Faith, I’ll lie down and sleep.’ (Cymbeline 4.2.291ff)

I take this not merely as the confused ravings of a cross-dressing princess waking from a drug-induced coma (Dame Helen Mirren once played it brilliantly) but also as a master-class in secret writing. The subtext at the core of this play was written for a coterie audience of papists who could, if they were alert enough, pick up the subtle clues. For those who did it was a poignant reminder of the saintly Anne Line. I imagine they took great comfort and delight in the way Shakespeare could bring a symbol of their suppressed and denigrated faith into the heart of the court of King James, concealed like one of the hidden priests in a highly effective disguise. Not so very different from the way I now take pleasure in secret readings of which the great authorities in the world of Shakespeare seem to be oblivious.

‘Can it be six mile yet?’ Why six miles? Everybody knew that the journey from Newgate prison to the Tyburn gallows was three miles, but Anne Line’s body went another three miles – back into London in the middle of the night. After the execution her naked corpse was buried in the road near the execution site, but her body was retrieved and taken to the house of the stubbornly Catholic Countess of Arundel. ‘How found you [her]?’ ‘Stark, as you see: Thus smiling, as some fly had tickled slumber’ (4.2.209). Arundel House was on the Strand near St Clement Danes Church. There, behind a muddle of connected buildings and outhouses was an extensive garden that reached down to the bank of the river Thames. To the east was Essex House, formerly Leicester House, and beyond that the grounds of the Middle Temple.

Nobody knows exactly where St Anne Line was buried, but the chaplain to the Countess of Arundel tells us ‘conveniently’, which suggests nearby. Shakespeare gives us another clue:

‘Yes, sir, to Milford Haven. Which is the way?

I thank you. – by yond bush?’

The way, or road – is ‘by yond bush’? Shakespeare is happy for the vast majority of his audience to be mentally transported to Wales and to see no great significance in this, but his coterie audience are still in London following the six-mile journey of Anne Line to the site of her (probable) burial in the Countess of Arundel’s garden, and they do see a great significance. Why? Because the little lane between the Countess’s property and her neighbours to the east was called Milford Lane. It had a little stream or culvert beside it and led from the Strand down to Milford Stairs on the river where there was a wharf, and thus the London equivalent of a Milford Haven. From the Countess’s garden Milford ‘way’ was literally ‘by yond bush’. ‘Ods pittykins!’ – the perspective is shortened, diminutive, closer to home.

If you are among the doubting Thomases and need further demonstration of this reading, consider the following. Imogen/Fidele’s seeming death is discovered just after Guiderius has beheaded Cloten the Queen’s son. He says he will throw the head ‘into the creek behind our rock, and let it to the sea’. Ostensibly, again, this scene is in Wales, somewhere not far from the town of Milford Haven, but if the subtext is referring to Milford Stairs in London, it resolves another apparent absurdity. At 4.2.184ff. Guiderius says ‘I have sent Cloten’s clotpoll [head] down the stream in embassy to his mother; his body’s hostage for his return’. The question is, why would something thrown in a river ‘return’? Is that not very odd? Why add that quip about ’embassy to his mother’ at all for that matter, but it is the business of throwing something into a stream and expecting it to return that is most bizarre, especially if we imagine that something having to bob its way from Milford Haven in South Wales all the way around the south coast and up the Thames Estuary to London, and then back again. But the apparently absurd throwaway remark is transformed by the subtext into a perfect little clue that evokes and confirms the London location. Queen Elizabeth would receive foreign ambassadors at the great royal palace at Whitehall, and they would often arrive by barge at the Queen’s wharf. It was just under a mile upstream from the wharf at Milford Stairs and this part of the river is tidal, i.e. it can flow ‘upstream’ at high tide, and then reverse and resume its normal flow downstream towards the Thames Estuary to the east. The Thames was a main thoroughfare for London when Cymbeline was written so it would be common knowledge that sometimes it appeared to flow one way, sometimes the other. Flotsam could return to its starting point.

Sadly, the Countess’s garden has long since been built over so the chances of finding any grave in this location appear to be nil. But I don’t think Anne Line has been too hard done by. Her secret burial monument in Shakespeare’s play has lasted 400 years already, and in black ink it still shines brightly enough.

Happy New Year!

[For a map online try searching for ‘John Norden’s map of Westminster, 1593’. Arundel House is to the right on the river with ‘Mylford’ Stairs also marked.]

MCD posted 4 Jan 2016