Friday 26 February 2016

The Ballad of the Murderous Toy-Boy

Earlier this month I did a couple of guided tours of lgbt Nottingham. One of the stops was outside a traditional English pub called The Thurland Hall. It is named after a huge stately mansion that occupied that site until it was pulled down in 1831.

I have a personal connection to this site. Thurland Hall was named after Thomas Thurland, a wealthy wool merchant and 3-times Mayor of Nottingham, who inherited it from his grandfather John Tansley, another 3-times Mayor of Nottingham and MP. John Tansley is my 14xgreat-grandfather.

The original Thurland Hall was the only place in Nottingham that was big enough to house King James I and his court when they visited the city between 1612 and 1624. The official royal residence was Nottingham Castle, but this has been left to fall into ruins by the Tudor monarchs.

When King James succeeded to the throne of England his reputation for having “favourites” was well-known. So too was his affectionate behaviour towards them. When he first arrived in London there were pamphlets circulating declaring that “Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen”, though this more probably refers to their style of reign.

King James visited the county many times. His first official visit to Nottingham was on 16th August 1612. By that time he had been separated from his wife Queen Anne and was accompanied by his then favourite/toy-boy, Robert Carr (c.1587-1645). He was considered to be a very handsome, androgynous young man, just the type that appealed to King James. Unlike the king’s later favourite/toy-boy, the Duke of Buckingham, it is probable the relationship between the king and Carr was platonic, though the king was obviously romantically smitten.

Carr was one of the most powerful people in the country thanks to the king. He became embroiled in the political machinations of the Howard family. Carr fell in love with Frances Howard, the married Countess of Essex. Carr persuaded King James to annul the Essex marriage so he could marry Frances himself in 1613.

Less than ten days earlier a friend of Carr’s, someone who was instrumental in pushing Carr into King James’s favour, died a prisoner in the Tower of London. His name was Sir Thomas Overbury. Two years later evidence emerged that Overbury was murdered, and the list of those involved included those of Robert Carr and his wife Frances, by now Earl of Countess of Somerset. Six people in all were accused of the murder, and all were found guilty and sentenced to death. The king, being an old romantic softy, pardoned the Somersets though kept them prisoner in the Tower until 1622.

And where does the ballad in this article’s title fit in? Well, in those days before film producers turned real-life scandal and drama into blockbusters, scandals and sensational news were turned into ballads. There were several which dealt with the Overbury murder and the part the Somersets played. Here is one of them.

But first, an explanation of some of the words and verses in the ballad.
“Pad” is a horse, and “Punk” is a whore.
“Nullity” means nullification.
“Perpuse” is a slang name for female genitalia.
Verse 6 refers to the Earl of Essex’s claim of virility with other women.
A “wimble” is a tool for boring holes, used here as an obvious double-entendre.
“Quo ad hanc” refers to the alleged non-consummation of his marriage to Frances.
Verse 7 refers to Frances’s examination for virginity which some claim she faked.
Verse 8 criticises the clergy who declared Frances a virgin and the Earl impotent.
“Halter” means the hangman’s rope.
The “young lord” is Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset.
“Undertaker” refers to someone “undertaking” a task, not a funeral director.
“Sweet friend” is Thomas Overbury.
“Sir Gervais” was Lieutenant of the Tower at the time of the murder.
“Glister” is an enema, the means by which Overbury was murdered.
Verse 11 refers to Overbury’s opposition to the Somerset marriage.
“Ignoramus” refers to the verdict despite insufficient evidence against Somerset.
Verse 12 refers to others convicted, called Weston, Forman and Turner.
1. There was an old lad rode on an old pad
Unto an old punk a-wooing.
He laid the old punk upon an old trunk,
O, there was a good old doing.

2. There was an old maid scarce sweet as they said
In a place that I dare not to mention.
She in an odd humour laid with a perfumer,
O, there was an odd invention.

3. The punk and the maid they sung and they said
That marriage was a servility.
If marry you must for change of lust,
O, well fare a trick of nullity.

4. There was a madam who did study to frame
To devise to draw up a perpuse.
She drew in so narrow a Carr might go through,
O, there was a slender sluice.

5. Her Earl did appoint her they say such a jointure
As was of no validity.
Above twice in a night he could her no right,
O, there was a strange frigidity.

6. But when as her Earl had another girl,
His wimble could pierce her flank.
His nag proved able by changing his stable,
O, there was a quo ad hanc.

7. This dame was inspected but fraud interjected.
A maid of more perfection
Whom midwives do handle while the knight holds the candle,
O, there was clear inspection.

8. Now all foreign writers cry out of their mitres
That allow this for a virginity,
And talk of erection and want of ejection,
O, there was a sound divinity.

9. There was young lord, assumed on his word
He would be a Parliament maker.
But see how things alter, he feareth the halter,
O, there was an undertaker.

10. He had a sweet friend that he did commend
To the keeping of sweet Sir Gervais.
They gave him a glister, his belly to blister,
O, there was a sweet piece of service.
11. This friend denied and could not abide
A match that he said would shame us.
Betwixt this matron and this grave patron,
O, pattern of Ignoramus.

12. Now West and thorn and turner do turn
And say that these plots were frauds.
They may say their pleasure to think it hard measure,
O, knaves and punks and bawds.

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