I thought I’d finished this series (part 1, part 2, part 3), but there’s one more thing to say that I’m now not saving for anything else. It all started on 5 December 1642 with radical MP Henry Marten complaining about the Earl of Essex keeping his army in winter quarters at Windsor when parliamentary forces in Devon and Yorkshire were being defeated. The diary of Sir Simonds D’Ewes (British Library, Harleian MS 164, f. 243) reported Marten saying ‘that all these miseries proceeded from his slownes, that wee saw it was summer in Devonshire, summer in yorkeshire & onlie winter at Windsor; & therefore desired that wee might speedelie send to the Lord General to move forward’. The main point of this was to blame Essex for things that weren’t directly his fault, but there was also a gendered subtext that may have made the criticism more powerful.
To modern readers, the most obvious accusation of unmanliness is that Essex isn’t fighting while other commanders are. This is significant, but not as straightforward as you might think. Patriarchal manhood in early-modern England was based on the householder more than the warrior. A man had to be financially independent and keep order in his own household. He was authorised and encouraged to use a limited amount of violence to keep his wife, children, servants and animals in order, but too much violence could be a sign of weakness and disorder. (This and other things relevant to this post are explained really well in Jennifer Cobley’s PhD thesis, which is free to download. See also Hughes, Gender, pp. 16–17, 19, 111) There seems to have been a lot of ambivalence about soldiers, even before the civil war started, as they could disrupt the social order. Given Essex’s position as commander in chief of Parliament’s land forces, he would be expected to fight, but doing his job well also required keeping order in the army and not taking unnecessary risks. When he was younger, Essex had been very aggressive, and very sensitive about his honour. He nearly fought duels against Henry Howard and John Heydon, but both were stopped (Snow, Essex, pp. 63, 68-9, 73). Although his conduct at Windsor could be presented as more manly because he had learnt to control himself, his reputation could easily have been damaged by Marten’s attack (although the relationship between Essex and Marten may have been a bit more complicated than just enemies all the time – more on that in a future post).
Although manliness began at home, it didn’t end there. Men, and especially elite men such as Essex, were expected to act for the public good. Doing nothing or acting for private gain were both represented as bad, and this was particularly important on the parliamentary side in the civil wars (Hughes, ‘Men’, 193, 195, 197–8). Therefore it was embarrassing for Essex to be seen as doing nothing when the parliamentary cause was in danger and other commanders were fighting, even though there wasn’t much he could do to help them.
When Marten said it was summer in Devon and Yorkshire but winter at Windsor, he was disputing Essex’s claims about the weather and its effects on military operations. But the opposition between summer and winter could also have gendered connotations. Galen’s theory of the four humours was still very influential at this time. Anne Stott has posted a useful introduction to this idea at Early-modern Europe. The basic idea was that the body consisted of four liquids that were related to the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and had different combinations of hot/cold and wet/dry. An imbalance of humours was supposed to cause illness and unacceptable behaviour (see Early Modern Medicine for its supposed influence on sleep disorders). One of the main ways of restoring balance was letting blood (Danny Birchall gives more information about this at the Wellcome Collection blog). Humoral theory was very closely related to gender ideology, because men and women were supposed to have different humoral constitutions that made their bodies and behaviour different. Men were supposed to be hot and dry, which made them more rational and more energetic, but also more aggressive. Controlling this aggression was important for achieving manhood. Women were supposed to be cold and wet, which made them weak and irrational but still prone to loss of control because they were said to crave manly heat, making them sexually insatiable! This all looks really stupid now, but it’s important to understand how it affected early-modern society and culture. If a man’s humours got too cold and wet, he would get more effeminate. One of the signs of this was being sluggish (a word that historians sometimes use to describe Essex without commenting on its gendered connotations). So at the same time as Essex’s failure to act for the public good took him further from achieving manhood in a social and political sense, it was a sign that his body had become too feminine. Without necessarily thinking about it, Marten had undermined Essex’s masculinity and suggested a cause for his inactivity by contrasting the heat of summer with the cold of winter.
All these insinuations would be bad enough for any man. Gendered insults were a standard propaganda trick. No matter how manly a commander appeared to be, his enemies would find some way to spin his actions as unmanly (Cobley has proved this in great detail). For Essex, attacks on his masculinity were particularly damaging because they were partly true: both his marriages had failed, leaving him without an heir, and with a reputation as an impotent cuckold The failure of Essex’s first marriage, to Frances Howard, was very complicated and I haven’t done it justice here, but Essex’s marital problems were explained properly by Snow, Essex, pp. 42, 52–3, 67, 192–4 and Boehrer, Shakespeare Among the Animals, pp. 79–83. After the first marriage was annulled, some poets celebrated Frances Howard’s remarriage to the Earl of Somerset on 26 December 1613 and insulted Essex (Snow, Essex, 71–2). George Chapman portrayed Somerset as Perseus, rescuing Frances Howard’s Andromeda from a ‘barraine Rock’ that represented Essex and his supposed impotence. John Donne’s Ecologue commented on Essex’s humiliation and withdrawal from the royal court:
UNSEASONABLE man, statue of ice,
What could to countries solitude entice
Thee, in this year’s cold and decrepit time ?
Nature’s instinct draws to the warmer clime
Like Henry Marten’s comment, this implies a connection between winter and cold humours, and suggests that there’s something wrong with a man who stays alone and inactive in winter instead of looking for warmth. It may just be a coincidence that Marten said something similar almost exactly 19 years later, or it could be a deliberate reference. Essex’s masculinity problems were certainly well-known and were mentioned in royalist propaganda later in the war (see Cobley again for a good analysis of this).
I’ll stop there before I end up in New Historicism. For the rest of this month I’m aiming to post about Henry Marten once a week. After that, there should be a mixture of English Civil War politics and early-modern London, about once every two weeks if I don’t get distracted.