Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

Even groggy and sleepless I was glad to land in Paris this morning, and for many reasons, beginning with the bright sunlight.  The air is still bracing, but there’s a hint of the vernal in the quality of light.  However, I doubt that my jet-lag would make compelling reading, so I shall have no actual Parisiana to report until next week.  The weather of our last few days in Princeton was unsettled: deep snow and deep freeze followed by a chill, soiled thaw and two days’ gusty wind that blew off the chimney lid and brought a tree down across the electric lines.  An early riser, I had a pre-dawn Ravenesque experience.

On Sunday in the dawning early, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my garage door.

There was, however, no mystery about it.  “Bird thou never wert,” said I to myself.  I knew it had to be Sir Thomas Bullen.  He always knocks creepily at the back door when rattled by the wind gusting into the carport.

We have lived in our nondescript modern house in our faculty ghetto for only a couple of decades.  For nearly as long we rented a huge and decadent Victorian mansion on University Place.  The vastness of the house, its obvious opulence of storage space, and its proximity to the campus and student dormitories encouraged graduating seniors of our acquaintance—usually within half an hour of discovering that there was no way they could fit all their possessions into the parental vehicle that had come to fetch them—to seek to borrow, always on a temporary basis, of course, a square yard or two of our available attic.  Naturally we never heard from any of these people again.

                           Student self-storage facility on University Place (artist: Annabelle Filer)

Mainly this didn’t matter, since what they had left behind—boxes of plastic plates, large, stuffed animals, broken lamps, jars of petrified peanut butter, and mildewed organic chemistry textbooks--would have embarrassed the organizer of a self-respecting yard sale in Lawton, Oklahoma.  But sometime in the late 1970s, one guy—and as I have long since forgotten who, I can but hope against hope he might read this post and reclaim his property—left Sir Thomas Bullen.

Sir Thomas is a very large (six feet by two feet, eight inches) brass rubbing, framed and glazed.  When our rooms were thirty feet long and twelve feet high he was barely tolerable as an indoor ornament.  But ever since we moved to our bungalow more than twenty years ago he has had to hang in the open air of our carport, near what we call our back door, gently rapping, rapping whenever a norther blows.  His longevity under these circumstances must be regarded as approaching the miraculous.

                                         The Fleming carport boasts (inter alia) a 1990 Toyota, a 1998 pendant We-no-nah, and a 1540s Bullen

Sir Thomas Bullen himself lies buried in St. Peter’s church in Hever, in Kent.  You may recognize him more easily under the alternate spelling favored by historians when writing of his more famous daughter, Anne Boleyn.  The good news, which Sir Thomas did not live to appreciate fully, is that he was the grandfather of Gloriana, the great Queen Elizabeth I.  The bad news is that he was Henry VIII’s son-in-law. 

He appears to have been a thorough-going swine.  In the DNB James Gairdner, author of the still magisterial Lollardy and the Reformation in England (4 vols., 1908) wrote thus of Bullen’s meteoric rise in the early 1530s: “There cannot be a doubt that not only his elevation to the peerage, but several earlier tokens of royal favor besides, were due to the fascination his daughter had begun to exert over the king.”  That is perhaps as close as an Edwardian gentleman-scholar is likely to come to the blunt truth that Sir Thomas had pimped out his daughter to great temporary advantage.  He behaved disgracefully in other ways too.  Thomas Wolsey’s downfall was probably sealed by Henry’s irrational fury at the cardinal’s failure to secure papal sanction for an annulment so that he could dump Catherine of Aragon.    When Wolsey died in disgrace, Bullen celebrated by commissioning for the amusement of his house guests an after-dinner pageant depicting the cardinal’s soul being carted off to hell.  That is what is known as “moderate Anglicanism”.  Mercifully for Sir Thomas, he died shortly before his daughter Anne was beheaded by the Calais hangman in May, 1539.

One of the many blessings of this life for which I give thanks at the weekly Eucharist is that my brother-in-law John Newman—who after all might have been  a used car salesman or a proctologist like other people’s brothers-in-law—is instead an eminent architectural historian, the general editor of the “Buildings of England” series, and the author of its two volumes on Kent.  So take my absolutely second-hand word for it that Bullen’s monument is “one of the finest C16 brasses anywhere.”  (vol. I, p. 309).  I shall go further.  I shall claim that this rubbing of the monument is the finest to be found hanging in any garage on three continents.

A signal feature of the Bullen/Boleyn brass is that it shows the defunctus in the full regalia of a knight of the Order of the Garter.  According to one expert there are only five “Garter” monuments in all Britain.  (Another claims six).  One can clearly read the Order’s famous motto: Honii soiit qui mal y pense (“Shame on hiim who thinks eviil about iit”).  Unless historians are simply pulling our leg, the it in the motto is King Edward III’s horsing around with the Duchess of Salisbury’s garter.  

Medieval alloys are not indestructible, and repeated abrasion, however respectful of motive, has degraded many old monuments.  For this reason brass rubbing is now rarely allowed in British churches.  You have to go to a “Brass Rubbing Centre” (BRC) where, for a fee, you can rub away to your heart’s desire at various fakes or replicas in durable modern epoxies.  Somehow the old thrill is gone.  Fortunately the antique market is, well, brazen in its spirit of innovation.  When a copy of something gets old enough, it takes on bragging rights of its own.  What we have hanging in our garage is indubitably a genuine secondary antique—a pre-BRC rubbing of one of the most important funerary monuments in the Isles.  These are highly collectible.  Any chance at all that the owner will read this and come collect it?