« ZurückWeiter »
The Earl of Bridgewater, now about fifty-four years of age (he had been born in 1579), had a place among the nobility of the Court of Charles I. for which he was probably indebted to the fame and long services of his father, the Lord Chancellor. Already a Privy Councillor, etc., he had, on the 26th of June 1631, been nominated by Charles to the high office of the Viceroyalty of Wales, or, as it was more formally called, the office of "Lord President of the Council in the Principality of Wales and the Marches of the same.' This office, including military command and civil jurisdiction, not only over the Welsh principality itself but also over the four contiguous English counties of Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford, and Shropshire,—had been filled, in Elizabeth's reign, by Sir Henry Sidney, the father of Sir Philip Sidney, and after him by Henry, 2d Earl of Pembroke; and men of scarcely inferior note had held it since. The official seat of the Lord President was the town and castle of Ludlow in Shropshire, about twenty miles south from Shrewsbury, and beautifully situated in one of those tracts of green hilly country which mark the transition from England proper into Wales. The town, which was formerly walled, is mainly on an eminence near the junction of two streams, the Teme and the Corve, whose united waters flow on to meet the Severn in Worcestershire. On the highest ground of the town, and conspicuous to a great distance over the surrounding country, is Ludlow Church, a large building of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Near it, at a point where the ascending slope on which the town is built ends in a precipitous rock overhanging a steep valley through which the river runs, is Ludlow Castle, now a romantic ruin, but once a garrisoned place of strength, separately walled in from the town, and approached by a gateway from a kind of esplanade at the top of the main street. It was this Castle, with its outer court, inner court, keep, barracks, drawbridge, etc., that was more immediately the abode of the Presidents of Wales. The older portions of the Castle dated from the Conquest, when they had been built by the Conqueror's kinsman, Roger de Montgomery; and there was hardly a part of the edifice but had its interesting legends and associations, — legends and associations connected with the old wars of race between the Welsh and the Norman-English, or with those subsequent Wars of the
Roses in which the Welsh had taken so active a share. Thus, there were shown in the Castle certain rooms called • "the Princes' Apartments," where Edward, Prince of Wales, and his young brother, the sons of Edward IV., had lived from 1472 to 1483, when they left Ludlow on that fatal journey which ended in their murder in the Tower.
Although appointed Lord President of Wales in June 1631, the Earl of Bridgewater does not seem to have assumed his functions actively, or to have gone near Ludlow, till some time afterwards. On the 12th of May 1633, his powers in his office were defined afresh by a Royal Letter of Instructions, which was also to regulate the future proceedings, judicial and administrative, of the Council over which he presided. This Council was ostensibly to consist of upwards of eighty persons named in the Letter, among whom were many bishops and the chief state officers of England, besides a number of knights and gentlemen of the Welsh border.
In October 1633 the Earl sent his new Letter of Instructions to his Council at Ludlow, to be read and registered before his own arrival. At what time he followed in person we do not accurately know; but when he did follow, the ceremonial of his inauguration was unusually splendid. He was attended "by a large concourse of the neighbouring nobility and gentry,"-i.e., we may suppose, by all of his Council then in those parts, and by other persons of local consequence. He had brought his Countess with him, and probably his whole family, from London or Ashridge, including, as we certainly know, his youngest daughter, the Lady Alice Egerton, a beautiful young girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, and her two younger brothers, Viscount Brackley and Mr. Thomas Egerton. The festivities and hospitalities proper to such an occasion as the Earl's inauguration would naturally protract themselves over a considerable time. They did protract themselves, at all events, to Michaelmas-night, the 29th of September 1634, when all Ludlow was astir with an unusual thing in those parts,nothing less than a complete masque, or poetical and musical entertainment, performed in the great hall of Ludlow Castle, by members of the Earl's family, before the Earl and an audience of assembled guests.
At this particular time the English Court and aristocracy
may be said to have been masque-mad. Nothing so magnificent, for example, in the shape of a pageant had ever been seen in England as that got up by the lawyers of the Four Inns of Court in February 1633-4, "as an expression of their love and duty to their Majesties," i.e. to King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria. Months were spent in the preparation. Shirley was engaged to write the poetry; Mr. Simon Ivy and Mr. Henry Lawes to compose the music; Inigo Jones to construct the machinery; while some of the ablest and most eminent lawyers of the time, such as Selden, Attorney-General Noy, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Mr. Hyde, acted zealously on the Committee of General Management. When the day came, February 3, there was a gorgeous afternoon and evening procession of the masquers, with painted chariots, flaming torches, music, and wondrous grotesque accompaniments, from Holborn down Chancery Lane to Whitehall, the whole population of London having gathered along the route to see and to cheer; and afterwards, in the Banqueting - house at Whitehall, the main masque itself, Shirley's Triumph of Peace, was performed before their Majesties with every possible magnificence. The whole affair cost the Four Inns of Court £21,000; whereof £1000 were spent on the music,-Lawes and his fellow-composer receiving £100 apiece for their share. The actors in this masque were chiefly handsome lawyers of the Four Inns, whose names are now unknown. But a fortnight later, in the same Banqueting-house at Whitehall, there was another masque, of scarcely inferior magnificence, given by their Majesties themselves, and in which the actors were the King, fourteen of the chief nobles, and ten young sons of noblemen. This was Carew's Calum Britannicum, performed on Shrove Tuesday night, Feb. 18, 1633-4. The music to this masque was by Henry Lawes; the machinery by Inigo Jones; and among the young noblemen who took juvenile parts in it were the Earl of Bridgewater's two sons, Viscount Brackley and Mr. Thomas Egerton, and their cousin Lord Chandos.
With a recollection of the Arcades, and probably of many other such private theatrical delights, traditional in the Bridgewater family; with the two young boys fresh from the glory of their small parts in the recent royal masque of Calum Britannicum; above all, with Lawes, the musical tutor of VOL. I.
the family, radiant from his musical success in that masque and in its more gorgeous predecessor, the masque of The Triumph of Peace by the Four Inns of Court;—what more natural than that it should be resolved to seize the opportunity of the Earl's entry on his Welsh Presidency for a masque on great scale that should astonish the Welsh and all the West of England? The youngsters and Lawes probably devised the thing; and, the Earl having given his consent, all was arranged. The preparations must have been begun months before the masque actually came off, probably while the family were yet in London. Lawes, of course, was to take care of the music, and was to be general manager; and the other actors and singers were to be the young people of the family. But who should write the poetry? Who but Lawes's friend, Mr. Milton, who had already in the Arcades given such satisfactory proofs of his fitness for the kind of composition that was wanted? In fact, whether to please himself, or to oblige Lawes, or to oblige the Earl of Bridgewater and his family on account of some bond of acquaintance with the family not now recoverable, Milton did undertake to write the masque. The composition of it, we must suppose, occupied him at Horton for several weeks, or even a month or two, during the early part of 1634.
On undertaking to write the masque, Milton would think of some appropriate story, to be shaped into a dramatic pastoral of the required kind, for representation on a stage in the hall of a great castle by young lords and ladies, and with songs interspersed, to be sung by some of these performers to airs by his friend Lawes. The nature and circumstances of the occasion would be vividly present to his imagination. He would think of the Earl entering on his office as President of the ancient Principality; of the Earl's retinue, with Welsh and West-of-England gentry among them; of the town and castle of Ludlow, and their neighbourhood, as conceived from descriptions, or perhaps seen by himself (who knows?) in some tour of his own into those parts; of the proximity of the place to Welsh scenery, and the connexion of the occasion with ancient British memories and legends. He would, doubtless, co-operate with Lawes, and would give or receive hints. But how the actual story of Comus occurred to Milton, the story of the young lady parted from her two brothers at night in the depths of a wild wood, found there by
Comus and his crew of evil revellers, and lured and detained by their enchantments, until the Brothers, instructed by a good Attendant Spirit in the shape of their father's faithful shepherd, Thyrsis, rush in and rescue her, how this story occurred to Milton we can but vaguely surmise. He may have derived the conception of such a plot from some of his readings, and may have seen its fitness for his purpose. A somewhat different theory is that he only dramatised a real incident. The popular tradition round about Ludlow still is that the Lady Alice Egerton and her two young brothers, Viscount Brackley and Mr. Thomas Egerton, were actually benighted in Haywood Forest, near Ludlow, as they were on their way to Ludlow from a visit to the house of their relatives, the Egertons, in Herefordshire, and that the Lady Alice was for some time lost by her brothers in the forest. Milton, the tradition adds, had heard of this incident, and constructed his Comus upon it. It is far more likely, however, that the story of the loss of Lady Alice and her brothers in Haywood Forest grew out of the Comus than that the Comus grew out of the story. The story was current more than a hundred years ago; but it consists with our knowledge of the way in which such legends arise to suppose that by that time the parting of the lady and her brothers in the masque had been translated, by prosaic gossip on the spot, into a literal incident in the lives of those for whom the masque was written.
In whatever way suggested, the masque was written with most definite attention to the purpose for which it was required. The characters to be represented were as follows :THE ATTENDANT SPIRIT, first appearing as such, but afterwards in the dress of the shepherd THYRSIS.
COMUS, with his crew.
SABRINA, the Nymph of the Severn river: with attendant Waternymphs.
Here, if we omit the "crew of Comus" and Sabrina's “attendant water-nymphs,”—parts of mere dumb show, which may have been assigned to supernumeraries,—there were six speaking and singing parts to be filled up. How were these parts cast? As to four of the parts we have