Turning Princes into Pages: Sixteenth-Century Literary Representations of Thomas Cardinal

The Metrical Visions: Rota Fortuna and Wolsey’s Lamentations

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The Metrical Visions: Rota Fortuna and Wolsey’s Lamentations

Though the Life is an extraordinarily valuable text, it often eclipses Cavendish’s poetic works. During roughly the same period as he was writing the Life Cavendish also composed a series of poems now referred to as the Metrical Visions (the title given to the collection by Samuel W. Singer in his 1825 edition). To understand more fully Cavendish’s images of Wolsey, it is crucial that we do not make the same mistake and allow the Metrical Visions to be eclipsed by the Life. The Metrical Visions are unique: they are first-person de casibus poems written by a court insider who almost certainly was personally acquainted with most (if not all) of his subjects. They reveal early Tudor poetical practice and invention, provide firsthand (if poeticized) accounts of a range of Tudor court figures, and reflect a moderate Catholic’s personal politics and religious beliefs. Perhaps understandably, Tudor literature—particularly that literature which deals with the great men and women of the period—has typically presented very strong authorial opinions, both evangelical and conservative. The Metrical Visions in particular demonstrate that Cavendish was a moderate Catholic who, while resistant to the Edwardian Reformation, deplored the cycle of religious violence which had most recently manifested in 1549. The Metrical Visions also provide an essential mid-century point of contact proving that Cavendish (and by extension other early and mid-Tudor writers) was participating in a continuous and developing literary tradition firmly connected to medieval de casibus poetry and which foreshadowed Elizabethan pastoral poetry.

Exact dating of the Metrical Visions is difficult, but A. S. G. Edwards makes a compelling case for the bulk of the poems to have been written between 1552 and 1554, with the final poem written in 1558 and the entire collection copied fair at the same time.173 He points out that the terminus ad quem is June 24, 1558: a date specified by Cavendish as the day he finished the holograph collection found in the Egerton Manuscript.174 For his starting date of 1552, Edwards argues that the final references to Mary as the “mayden queen” would make most sense if the Mary poem was written prior to her wedding in 1554, and that the Mary poem is one of the final poems written in the pre-1554 section, necessitating a relatively long period set aside before 1554 to allow for the composition of the preceding poems.175 While Edwards’ assessment necessitates a degree of speculation about the individual dates of composition of the poems, it is extraordinarily difficult to date these poems based on the paucity of evidence. Based on Edwards’ argument regarding the 1552 terminus a quo, it seems reasonable to assume that the first poem in the series—the Wolsey poem—was written prior to the composition of the Life.

The poems in the Metrical Visions provide first-person poetic narratives from the perspective of Cavendish, Wolsey, Henry VIII, and Mary I, as well as other leading figures of the age (including the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and Sir Thomas Arundel). These poems, framed as though they were reported speech, represent a characterization at a remove and are cast in the morally didactic de casibus style. In style and form they are similar to the poems found in the Mirror for Magistrates, and Edwards has speculated about the possible debt the Mirror might owe to the Visions. Despite the value of these poems (and valuable they certainly are, written by a pro-Catholic civil servant with first-hand knowledge of the main characters), they have been studied only sporadically. Though they are generally acknowledged not to reflect the same skill with poetry that Cavendish displayed with prose, the Metrical Visions do provide a useful contrast with the Life as well as demonstrating a poetic adaptation of Tudor de casibus tragedy. The Life was written to combat what Cavendish saw as the slurs against Wolsey and ‘truth’ by Protestant propagandists, but the Metrical Visions were written as a moral tragedy (though certainly the poems had their own propagandist purpose in supporting Queen Mary). They therefore have a decidedly didactic tone, the reason for which Cavendish explained to his readers in the Prologus:

Thoughe I onwoerthe / this tragedy do begyne

Of pardon I pray / the reders in meke wyse

And to correct / where they se fault therin.

Reputyng it for lake / of connyng exercyse.

The cause that moved me / to this enterprice.

Specyally was / that all estates myght se

What it is to trust to ffortunes mutabylite176

What provoked these musings was, in true medieval fashion, a pastoral daydream ruminating on Fortune’s fickleness. Cavendish was strongly influenced by the medieval de casibus tragedy tradition and helped adapt it for the mid-Tudor audience. Mike Pincombe has underscored the inestimable debt that the Metrical Visions owed to John Lydgate’s The Fall of Princes (printed in 1527), itself a loose translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s mid-fourteenth century De casibus virorum illustrium. This approach was a popular one in the sixteenth century; as Derek Pearsall has demonstrated, the influence of Lydgate on the sixteenth-century fashion for ‘fall’ literature (in the manner of The Fall of Princes and the Mirror for Magistrates) was very strong.177 The vision-poetry and de casibus traditions are essential elements of the Metrical Visions; in addition, Cavendish frames his poems using eidolopoeia, wherein the dead speak for themselves. The poetic structure and heritage provide a means for didacticism, lamentation, and authorial distancing from popular or unpopular sentiments about glorified or vilified figures from the recent past.

Cavendish begins the Metrical Visions by describing how he came to wonder at the turning of Fortune’s wheel:

In the monyth of Iune / I lyeng sole alon

Vnder the vmber of an Oke / with bowes pendaunt

Whan Phebus in Gemynye / had his course ouergoon

An entred Cancer / a sygne retrogradaunt

In a mean measure / his beames Radyaunt

Approchyng Lion / than mused I in mynd

Of ffikkellnes of ffortune / and of the Course of kynd
How some are by ffortune / exalted to Riches

And often suche / as most vnworthy be

And some oppressed / in langor and syknes /

Some waylyng lakkyng welthe / by wretched pouertie

Some in bayle and bondage / and some at libertie

With other moo gyftes / of ffortune Varyable.

Some pleasaunt / Somme mean / and some onprofitable..178
The Metrical Visions thus begins on a pessimistic note. Fortune may be open-handed with her gifts, but despite the ostensibly random nature of her bounty, Cavendish feels that “often” those exalted by Fortune “most vnworthy be”. Cavendish explains that his is a tale of Fortune’s changeable nature; as Wolsey’s story shows, Fortune can raise a commoner to the heights of government and the Church, but just as quickly can reduce that same man to poverty, infamy, and death.

In these Lydgatian tales of the vagarity of Fortune, Cavendish argues, we ought to take moral instruction. He himself was forced by the moral imperative of the lessons in the narrative to compose these poems:

I well considered / myn obscure blyndnes

So that non excuse could I se or fynd

But that my tyme / I spend in idelnes...
But to eschewe all Ociosite

Of ffortunes fykellnes / hereafter shall I wright

How greatest estates / she overthrowyth by myght.179
Cavendish’s Prologus clearly set out the parameters and purpose for his poems: he is writing an account of the truths to be learned from these de casibus tragedies, even if the poems themselves have little to do with historic truth. This sentiment is not specific to Wolsey, of course; he is only the first subject to be considered. In total, we hear from twenty-two individuals directly in addition to several laments, epitaphs, and envoys from the author. The characters mentioned range in importance from relatively minor figures like Mark Smeaton—a court musician executed for allegedly being Anne Boleyn’s lover—to Henry VIII himself. Cavendish felt himself obligated to explain the doings of Wolsey (and these other figures) out of a sense of moral necessity: the voyeuristic pleasure afforded by these glimpses into the Tudor court is balanced by the author’s attempts to demonstrate the fundamental hollowness of wealth and power. The Metrical Visions clearly were written with a focused sense of the author’s purpose, the tenor of which fills the poems, from Le Historye / Cardinalis Eboracensis to the final work in the collection, an envoy from the author to his book.

The Metrical Visions differs—perhaps surprisingly so—from the Life in tone. While the Life is an explicit defense of Wolsey, the Metrical Visions presents a far less flattering view of the Cardinal. However, it is difficult to ascertain exactly why Cavendish was inconsistent in his representation of Wolsey. Of course, there is no indication that Cavendish was not devoted to Wolsey, but he was not so defensive of his former employer that he could not see a number of the Cardinal’s negative qualities. However, though Wolsey was long dead when the Metrical Visions were written, the other poems in the collection were about subjects who were more recently in power (Queen Mary in particular). P.L. Wiley hypothesizes that politicial considerations may explain Cavendish’s reluctance to commit himself fully to criticising former monarchs, stating that “Cavendish was a Catholic with strong opinions on Henry VIII's divorce and Anne Boleyn’s part in it; and possession of a work dealing with such delicate subjects might cost an Elizabethan his head.”180 While it is certainly true that Cavendish blamed Anne for providing the spark that set off Henry VIII’s divorce and England’s break from Rome, it is overly speculative to draw a connection between Cavendish’s anti-Boleyn attitude and Elizabethans (or earlier readers) losing their heads. There is no indication (thus far, at least) that Elizabethans were persecuted for possessing either the Life or Metrical Visions. Indeed, Wiley himself acknowledges that the Life circulated “widely” in manuscript and in excerpted form, and was utilized extensively by both John Stow and Raphael Holinshed throughout the early Elizabethan period.181 It therefore seems unlikely that the moderate Cavendish’s texts were subjected to sustained or focused censorship, nonetheless, the author chose to employ standard authorial distancing techniques. The final poem, Thauctor to / hys boke, confirms Cavendish’s concerns about writing on such potentially dangerous subjects. The poem acts as an apologia for any offense (poetical or political) the author may have committed:

Thus not presumyng / of learnyng ne eloquence /

Hope made me shove / the boote frome the shoore /

Desiryng nothyng / for my farre or expence /

But oonly good wyll / I aske no moore.182

Certainly this sort of hyperbolic apology was not uncommon for Tudor writers, and while the imagery is pleasing, it cannot be said to be ground-breaking. The self-deprecation of Cavendish’s admitting that he would not presume to extol his “learnyng ne eloquence” is standard fare. However, Cavendish does make a few comments which delineate his purpose in writing, particularly in the later verses of the Thauctor to / hys boke:

And pryncypally / this my worke for to assist

I humbly beseche that lord that is eternall

To defend my penne / that wrot this with my / fyst

To be my . savegard / my stafe and my wall

And consequently . for feare / least I shold fall

In the daynger of the learned / and honorable sort

I pray theme all / my lamenes to support /

Whan thou my boke / commest in to the prease.

Bothe of the wyse / and learned multitude /

To Excuse thyn auctor / thou canst do no lesse

Wantyng learnyng / and of vtteraunce rude

Whiche dyd neuer / thys enterprise entrude

Trustyng other of wytt or learnyng. /

But for an . excersice / and non other thyng //183
He reiterates his intent that the Metrical Visions portray his subjects as models for instruction, either by imitation of their virtues or through rejection of their vices. Cavendish also demonstrates a keen awareness of the potential for his poems to cause offense; he begs his readers to forgive the “daynger of the learned”, who in this turbulent period of socio-political upheaval were often caught on the wrong side of a new monarch’s philosophical ideals. Furthermore, Cavendish was also in danger of trespassing on the precinct of the literally learned; he certainly would have been aware of the poetical, pedogogical, and theological arguments waged in the press (in both senses of the word) and, not being highly educated, ventured to distance himself from those disagreements.

Though Cavendish attempts to mitigate any offending passages by claiming the Metrical Visions to be an “excersice / and non other thyng”, the poems are often explicitly critical of their narrators. In addition, he begs his book to carry his apology “in to the prease”, presumably interpreting ‘press’ as ‘crowd’.184 In addition, Cavendish may have also meant the printing press; this seems less likely, given the structure of the stanza and the lack of evidence suggesting any attempt was made to print the Metrical Visions. Given that there is only one extant manuscript copy of the Metrical Visions, it does not appear that Cavendish’s poems made it very far into the “prease” in any format.

Despite Cavendish’s genuine affection for and loyalty to Wolsey—as evidenced by the Life—the Wolsey-poem (Le Historye / Cardinalis Eboracensis, hereafter referred to as Le Historye) highlights some of the Cardinal’s flaws in its opening lines:

O ffortune / quod he / shold I on the complayn

Or of my necligence that I susteyn this smart

Thy doble visage hathe led me to this trayn

Ffor at my begynnyng / thou dydest ay take my part

Vntill ambysion had puffed vppe my hart

With vaynglory . honor . and vsurped dignyte.

Fforgettyng cleane my naturall mendycitie //185

In this passage—the first stanza from Le Historye— Cavendish has Wolsey bemoan how Fortune’s gifts seduced him into “ambysion” and “vsurped dignyte”. Though he blames Fortune squarely for his disastrous fall from power, Cavendish’s Wolsey does recognize that he allowed ambition to overwhelm his natural humility (“mendycitie”). Lamenting his pride in hindsight, he apologizes to Henry VIII for usurping his king’s power:

Alas my souerayn lord / thou didest me avaunce

And settest me vppe in thys great pompe and pryde

And gavest to me thy realme in gouernaunce

Thy pryncely will / why did I sett a side

And folowed myn owen / consideryng not the tyde

Howe after a floode / an Ebbe commythe on a pace

That to consider / in my tryhumphe / I lakked grace /186

Cavendish highlights Wolsey’s lack of circumspection; instead of considering the natural ebb and flow of power and preferment and planning accordingly, he over-reached himself and was struck down all the harder for it.

Like the rest of the Metrical Visions, Le Historye has a strong performative element. Wolsey addresses the reader directly, speaking from a posthumous stage and exhorting his listeners to learn from his mistakes. This plaintive poem projects a strong sense of regret and didacticism with lines like, “Who workyth fraude/ often is disceyved / As in a myrror/ ye may behold in /. me.187 This remark is particularly interesting coming from Cavendish; sadly, he does not specify the “fraude” to which Wolsey is admitting. Wolsey’s ghost continues in a similar vein, recounting how he used his “high preemynence” to secure benefices for himself:

My legantyn prerogatyve / was myche to myn avayle

By vertue wherof. / I had thys highe preemynence /

All vacant benefices. / I dyd them strayt retaylle

Presentyng than my Clarke / asson as I had intellygence

I preventid the patron / the vaylled no resistence.

All bysshoppes and prelattes / durst not oons denay.

They doughtyd / so my power /they myght not dysobey. /188

Despite his willingness in life to abuse his authority for personal benefit, Wolsey in death is filled with regret. Of the twenty-five stanzas in Le Historye, eight are dedicated to rehearsals of the lofty heights of his power and wealth. Despite the wistful tone in which Wolsey delivers these stanzas, the remaining seventeen comprehensively undercut the vanities with which the Cardinal surrounded himself. Despite Wolsey’s admission in Le Historye that his fall was precipitated by his indulgence of his pride, the deceased Cardinal is still largely a sympathetic figure. Though Wolsey was guilty of “wordly vanytes”, he earns the sympathy of the reader by a show of humility—as we have seen—and by reminding the reader of the true villains of his story:

Yet notwithstandyng / my corage was so hault

Dispight of myn ennemyes. / Rubbed me on the gall

Who conspired together. / to take me with a fault.

They travelled without triall / to geve me a fall /

I therfore entendyd / to trie my frends all

to fforrayn potentates wrott my letters playn

Desireng ther ayd / to restore me to fauor agayn
Myn ennemyes perceyvyng / caught therof dysdayn

Doughtyng the daynger / dreamed on the dought

In Councell consultyng. / my sewte to restrayn

Accused me of treason /and brought it so abought

That travellyng to my triall / or I could trie it owte

Deathe with his dart / strake me for the nons

In Leycester full lowe / where nowe lyethe my boons189
Following on from Wolsey’s own admission of guilt, this excerpt shows a glimmer of the Cardinal’s former pride. Though willing to assume responsibility for his personal faults, Cavendish’s Wolsey cannot resist pointing out that while his fall may have been caused in a general way by his flaws, the fall was engineered by Wolsey’s enemies and the shifting attentions of Fortune. Speaking with the unimpeachable authority of the dead, Wolsey condemns his enemies even as he lavishly declares his humility and culpability.

In many ways, the image of Wolsey’s elaborate copper sarcophagus reinforces exactly this conceit. It is a metonym for the poem as a whole as well as acting as a memento mori. It is used as a potent metaphor for the man: grandiose and ambitious, but ultimately empty of (moral) substance, as Wolsey was buried in Leicester Abbey.190 As a reflection upon death, the description of the coffin comes complete with exhortations to the reader to profit by the unfortunate Cardinal’s tale:

Loo nowe may you se / what it is to trust

In worldly vanytes / that voydyth with the wynd

Ffor deathe in a moment / consumyth all to dust

No honor . no glory. / that euer man cowld fynd

But tyme with hys tyme / puttythe all owt of mynd

Ffor tyme in breafe tyme / duskyth the hystory

Of them that long tyme / lyved in glory
Where is my Tombe / that I made for the nons.

Wrought of ffynne Cooper. / that cost many a pound

To couche in my Carion / and my Rotten boons.

All is but vaynglory / nowe haue I found

And small to the purpose / whan I ame in the ground

What dothe it avaylle me / all that I haue /

Seying I ame deade / and layed in my grave /191
The ornate tomb is a symbol of Wolsey’s hubris; Cavendish contrasts the beauty of the ‘fine copper’ with the ‘carrion’ and ‘rotten bones’ of the dead Cardinal. P. G. Lindley provides a comprehensive discussion of the tomb in an essay on Wolsey’s impact on Italian sculpture of the early Tudor period. The tomb was commissioned by Wolsey sometime before June 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano, who was allegedly instructed to ensure that Wolsey’s tomb was “twice as sumptuous, beautiful and skilful as that of Henry VII”, whose own tomb was used as the basis for pricing Wolsey’s as it was the closest comparable work available.192 The sarcophagus acts as a potent metaphor, but is awkward coming from the Cardinal’s main mid-century defender. It is therefore necessary to adjust our understanding of Cavendish’s image of Cardinal Wolsey, as it would be overly simplistic to state that Cavendish was only trying to defend his former master through portraying Wolsey in a positive light. To understand Cavendish’s Wolsey, we must accept that both the charismatic, industrious Wolsey of the Life and the regret-filled, deflated Wolsey of the Metrical Visions are, to an extent, the same character. Cavendish was not quite able to square the negative implications of the memento mori of Wolsey’s sarcophagus with his clear desire to portray his former master well, but this conflicting image (or pair of images) points to a genuine rehabilitative attempt to present a more layered and realistic—perhaps truthful, and ultimately positive—image of the Cardinal.

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