The Amours Of Messalina

amoursofmessalina1…early the next Morning she receives the glad Tidings that a Man Child was born, which with all speed was convey’d to the Dormitory adjoining to her Bed-Chamber, in the same reeking Circumstances it was Born in, and having before taken care for the conducting of it to the Queens Bed, the Alarm is given at Alba Regalis that the Queen was in Labour… Now the pretended Prince being Born the Pagans of Albion began their Jubilee, Laroon Governor of Iberia began to double the persecution of the Christians there, Polydorus by a strict Alliance and LEAGUE with Lycogenes, thinks of nothing but a Universal Monarchy, Lycogenes doubles the Oppressions of his Christian Subjects, Messalina boasts of the downfall of Heresie, and a perpetual Regency, during her Life: The poor Christians, especially the Albionites, though something apprehensive of the Consequences of this Intrigue, were yet by their constant Remarques of all Transactions since the Report of Messalina’s Conception sufficiently satisfied of the fallacy and cheat, and resolv’d on measures which they doubted not would in a little time unravel the whole Mystery.

The political writing that had been so sternly suppressed under James II came roaring back with a vengeance following the Glorious Revolution. The public stance was that the removal of James was right and proper, but a need for justification showed itself in an explosion of revisionist histories published early in 1689, as well as in the return of the roman à clef.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this school of writing is how swiftly James became irrelevant once the idea of the “sham prince” had taken hold. Feared as a monarch, in the political writings of mid-1688 onwards he appears variously as a cuckold, a buffoon, and an object of pity. The kinder versions of events present him as tragically misguided, led astray by the wicked machinations of the Pope, Louis XIV and/or his own wife. And as James recedes in these writings, Mary of Modena takes centre-stage.

The virulence of some of the attacks made upon Mary at this time make for uncomfortable reading—particularly in light of the fact that the grounds of those attacks were pure invention, as the people making them were well aware. The invention of the sham prince not only allowed, but demanded, a retconning of events that turned Mary into a dangerous enemy willing to do anything to bring England to its knees under the dual yokes of France and Catholicism. Nevertheless, in these writings her alleged religious and political conspiracies almost invariably take a backseat to lurid imaginings of her sexual misconduct.

Early in 1689 was published a roman à clef that is typical of the kinds of attacks made upon the departed royals at the time, yet different in tone and execution from most of its brethren. As tends to be the case with this branch of writing, the origins of The Amours Of Messalina are somewhat murky. Though presented as by “a Woman of Quality, a late Confident of Queen Messalina”, it is believed to be the work of an Italian, Gregorio Leti, a Milanese historian who converted to Protestantism and became known for his anti-Catholic, and in particular anti-papal, views; his biography of Pope Sixtus V (who was largely responsible for shaping Catholic thinking on contraception and abortion) is considered inaccurate and scurrilous. Leti spent some time at the courts of both France and England, publishing the first biography of Elizabeth I during the latter period. However, in 1680 he managed to offend Charles II with his satirical publication Il Teatro Britannico and fled to Amsterdam, where he spent the rest of his life.

Amsterdam, as we have seen before, was the origin of many notorious publications of this era. It was also the centre for translated works that were from there dispersed across Europe, which made it particularly useful for those wishing to disguise the true origins of a particular work. Thus the English-language version of The Amours Of Messalina asserts that it was translated from the French, while the French-language version has it as translated from English.

(Whichever language it was first written in, the most outstanding feature of The Amours Of Messalina is its run-on sentences, which are as extreme as anything I’ve come across. See, for a typical example, the first quotation below.)

I have mentioned the peculiar tone of The Amours Of Messalina, which is easier to understand once the document’s authorship is considered. While it unblushingly asserts the truth of the “sham prince” accusations, and while it describes in detail the alleged sexual intrigue of Mary of Modena with Ferdinanda d’Adda, the papal nuncio, the whole story is presented from the perspective of Mary and her courtiers. As such, the imposition of a false Prince of Wales is treated as reasonable and, indeed, the only thing to be done under the circumstances. The villain here is not Mary, but the Pope (or “Boanerges the High Priest”, as he is called) and his minions, particularly the “Jebusites”. Mary, being Catholic, simply doesn’t know any better. The text deplores her influence upon James, but does not blame her.

For the most part the disguises worn by the characters in The Amours Of Messalina are exceedingly transparent. Albion (England) is peaceful and prosperous under Brotomandes (Charles II), but trouble starts when he dies and is succeeded by his brother, Lycogenes (James II), who was once a brave and noble prince, but is now nothing more than a tool in the hands of Boanerges and Polydorus, King of Gothland (Louis XIV). His marriage to Messalina is the beginning of the end: she has been sent to England on a mission to re-establish once and for all the Pagan religion (Catholicism), and to extirpate, along with all of its followers if necessary, the Christian faith (Protestantism):

He at last dying, without lawful issue, Lycogenes the Second, his only Brother, succeeded, a Prince who in his Youth and Adversity gave so signal proofs of his Virtue and Gallantry, that he render’d himself the Admiration of Foreign Countries, and the Delight and Love of his own, but (I know not by what unhappy Counsels thereunto incited) after his coming to the Crown of Albion, he committed so many Irregularities against even the Peace and Safety of his own People, that they were obliged to call in Anaximander, Prince of the Low Lands, to their assistance to defend their Lives, which they affirm’d Lycogenes had expos’d and sold to Polydorus King of the Gaules, and to recover their Rights and Liberties which, they say, their King had encroach’d upon and taken from them: Lycogenes had by his first Wife (who was Daughter to a Noble Peer of Albion) two lovely Princesses to his Daughters, the Eldest called Artemisia, Married to Anaximander, the other Philadelphia, Married to Polycrates the Northern Prince. His second Wife was Messalina, Daughter of a Huge Prince in Italy, and nearly related to Boanerges the High-Priest, a Lady sent by Heaven to determine the Fate of Poor Lycogenes, and to ruine the growing greatness of the Pagan Interest in the Kingdom of Albion.

It is, of course, true that the Pope persuaded Mary to accept James’s proposal of marriage. Then a devout fifteen-year-old, Mary wanted only to enter a convent, and recoiled from the thought of marriage in general, and the forty-year-old James in particular, but was finally convinced that her true duty was to assist with the re-establishment of Catholicism in England.

The passage quoted above comes at the outset of The Amours Of Messalina. After presenting this overview, the text then goes on to explain in detail how “Messalina” went about determining the fate of her husband and her religion. Note the use of the expression “Poor Lycogenes”: this is the attitude of the entire document, and indeed almost every reference to Lycogenes comes qualified with a pitying “Poor”.

While, as I say, most of the disguises in The Amours Of Messalina are easily seen through, I confess that I was deeply confused by the identities of two of Messalina’s co-conspirators, “Count Davila” and “Father Pedro”. In this I was somewhat led astray by our previous dip into the murky waters of political propagandising, The Sham Prince Expos’d. As we have discussed before, the attacks on James and Mary at this time were two-pronged, offering up the mutually exclusive yet equally damaging visions of the new Prince of Wales being either the result of Mary’s infidelity, or not actually Mary’s child at all, but a substitute. For those propagandists who favoured the first alternative, the overwhelming favourite for the role of Mary’s lover was – of course – Father d’Adda. However, there was a second favourite I have not been able to identify by name, who figures in The Sham Prince Expos’d simply as “the Italian Count”.

Consequently, when an Italian Count showed up in The Amours Of Messalina, I assumed it was the same person, with Father d’Adda figuring as “Father Pedro”. However, the key to the work (belatedly appended to the fourth part, along with the rather hurtful explanation that, The Bookseller has been Advised to Add the following Key, for the benefit of the meanest Capacity, in understanding the whole History of Messalina) reveals that “Count Davila” is supposed to be Father d’Adda, while “Father Pedro” is the Jesuit Peters—or rather, Sir Edward Petre, an English Jesuit who was appointed privy councillor under James.

 The Amours Of Messalina offers both versions of the baby’s origin. With “Poor Lycogenes” in declining health, syphilitic and impotent, the worried conclave sees its chance of propagating Paganism in Albion slipping away. It is finally agreed that their only hope is for Messalina to bear a son, in conjunction with herself being named Regent in the event of Lycogenes’ death. Since Lycogenes himself is unable to father a child, the conspirators must decide whether it is best for Mary to bear a child fathered by another man, or whether, in order to ensure that the baby is a boy, they should fake a pregnancy and supply a substitute prince. Messalina decides to do both: she will take on the task of falling pregnant, while her conspirators make the arrangements for faking a birth, should it prove necessary.

And having made this decision, Messalina throws herself into her task with great enthusiasm:

The Queen who by the several remonstrances of her three Counsellors had been both press’d and convinc’d of the danger of her Affairs, and being partly overcome by the Solicitations and Endearments of the Count in particular, resolv’d now to give a loose to her natural inclinations, and thereupon turning to the Count, in a soft languishing Tone she reply’d, I must at length, dear Davila, confess my own Frailty and thy Power, my haughty mind I see at last will stoop, and thou art Born to be my Conqueror… Raising the Count, who at every Word was pressing and kissing her fair Hand, she threw her Arms about his Neck, and in Amorous Sighs and Murmurs she Whisper’d her Wishes in his Ears…

But Messalina does not conceive with Davila any more than she did with Lycogenes, and at last it is realised that the substitution must go ahead. Several young pregnant women, all due to give birth around the same time, are kept in seclusion, while Messalina goes through the motions of pregnancy, fretting over the possibility of a miscarriage and giving voice to her hopes and fears, but not letting anyone – particularly not the deeply suspicious Philadelphia – get too close to her or touch her.

The Pagans of Albion are enlisted to lend the strength of their prayers to the task of producing a Catholic Prince of Wales:

…as a Prologue to their intended Villainy, they give out, among their own Party, at least, the necessity of Unity in their Prayers to their Saints and the Deity, to send their Majesty an Heir to succeed him in his Throne and Dominions, and to settle their Holy Religion in this Heretical Land, they cause Processions and Pilgrimages, Offerings and Supplications, to be made… Such are the practices of the Pagan Religion, that the greatest Villainies and Rogueries they intend to commit are still preceded and usher’d in with great appearances of Sanctity…

The confidence expressed beforehand by Catholics and Tories that Mary’s baby would be a boy played right into the hands of their opponents, who made this apparent prior knowledge the basis of their conspiracy theories about the child’s origins. Here, of course, everyone is quite right to be suspicious; the confusion of Mary’s due date, which gave her enemies more ammunition, is also referenced:

Besides, the Confidence of the Pagan Party did strangely startle the People, when like Oracles they would affirm that of necessity it must be a Prince: These and many other material circumstances made the Albionites talk broadly of the business; nor were Lycogenes and Messalina ignorant of their Sentiments; however having the Power absolutely in their hands, they were resolved to cut that knot which they found impossible to untie, and since they had thus far advanced in a business of that importance, they resolv’d to go through and bring it about, though with a thousand absurdities and incoherencies; for besides the alteration of her Reckoning, which proceeded partly from a fear of disappointment if the Woman that came first should have brought forth a Girl, but chiefly to amuse the Nobility and Gentry of the Court and Kingdom, who would doubtless have made it their business in behalf of the Princess Artemesia and the Kingdom, to attend and watch that all things might have been carryed fairly and above board…

In April of 1688, seven bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury were arrested and charged with seditious libel after publishing their petition against James’ religious policies as a broadsheet; their subsequent acquittal was a huge blow to James and indicative of his increasingly shaky standing. In The Amours Of Messalina, however, the arrest of the bishops is all part of the plot:

Lycogenes was unluckily put in mind that by the Laws of Albion the presence of one or more of the Christian Prelates was to be at the Birth of every Royal Infant indispensably required; to resolve this difficulty a Council is immediately call’d, and after sundry debates it is concluded, that some way or other must be found to bring all or most of the dissenting part into a premunire, and so by aggravation either to endanger their lives, or at least to clap them up and secure them till the Queens Delivery; accordingly a flaw was immediately found and the Prelates forthwith confin’d…

There is indeed a false alarm when the first young woman gives birth to a girl, but with the second a sham prince is at the conspirators’ disposal, and Messalina “goes into labour”. Of this plot, if not the former, Lycogenes is fully cognisant, and plays his part by drawing away many of the courtiers who might otherwise insist on being present at “the birth”. A special, oversized, velvet-lined warming-pan has been devised for the transportation of the infant, which is smuggled into Messalina’s bed and subsequently produced in triumph.

Now feeling secure, Lycogenes begins to grant more and more privileges to the Pagans, even breaking the laws of Albion to do so. Torn between their duty to their country and their religion on one hand, and  to their king on the other, the Christians finally decide to petition Anaximander…

The Amours Of Messalina puts a spin on all the events that led up to the Glorious Revolution, presenting all the unsupported accusations made against James and Mary as based on fact and their removal as therefore right and proper. So intent is it upon its revisionism, it even manages the not inconsiderable task of being unjust to Judge George Jeffreys, then Lord Chancellor. As James pursued his increasingly open pro-Catholic policy, there was a growing fear amongst the English people that he might bring in French troops to enforce his position, particularly in light of the angry response of the army to Catholic military appointments. The Amours Of Messalina raises this particular spectre, but blunders by putting the prospect into the mouth of “Poliorcetes the Chancellor”, who also longs for the chance to assist the spread of Paganism by slaughtering more Christians. In spite of all his dirty work for James, Jeffreys was a staunch Protestant:  amusingly, the text manages to hit upon two things he would not have been guilty of, whatever his other excesses. (Mentions of Poliorcetes’ love of “fire and sword”, and a satirical reference to him as “the chief Judge of Conscience”, hit closer to the mark.)

Also amusing is that Monmouth appears at this point as “Perkin”. As we saw in the context of The Sham Prince Expos’d, Perkin Warbeck was a pretender to the throne of Henry VII. Finally admitting (albeit under torture) that he was an imposter, he was condemned and executed. Subsequently, “Perkin Warbeck”, or simply “Perkin”, became slang for any kind of audacious imposture; understandably, the term swiftly found its way into the armoury of those opposed to James. In particular, it became a favourite word with the future Queen Anne, who bought with great enthusiasm into the “sham prince” fantasy and never allowed that James Francis Edward was any blood relative of hers. Finding the expression put into the mouths of the “Pagans” and applied to Monmouth’s pretensions to the throne gives us a very good idea of Gregorio Leti’s opinion of him.

William of Orange, on the other hand, is everything that is noble and disinterested, desiring only to defend his faith and his wife’s interests:

When they plainly saw, their Own, and the Kingdoms Interest, resolved to be made a Sacrifice to the Ambition, and Covetousness of a small Party, that by the known Laws of the Land, were declared the irreconcileable Enemies of the Christians; they thought it then high time to look about them, and though they paid all the Reverence imaginable to the King, their Father; yet they could not resolve to yield their Rights and Inheritance, and hold precariously their Estates, at the Discretion of an Anti-Christian pack’d Councel… Anaximander, being a Prince of a Vast and Generous Spirit, was easily induc’d to condescend to their Relief; for, besides his proper Interest in the Crown of Albion, which by the common Principles of Nature, he was obliged to Maintain and Defend; he often would resolve on the Glory of the Action, and how Heroick and God-like it would shew, to appear the Great and Glorious Champion of the Christian Religion, which by a Secret League, between Polydorus King of the Gauls, and the King Lycogenes, was resolved to be wholly Extirpated…

In growing panic, the Pagans send their agents out amongst the people to try and win support for Lycogenes and to turn them against Anaximander, but to no avail:

And Father Pedro calling a convocation of his inferior Priests, makes them Dis-robe, and in disguise to mingle among the Christian Assemblies…and there with Confidence to utter false Reports, to lessen the Strength of Anaximander, to cry up the miseries of a Civil War, to Extol the Loyalty of the King’s Christian Subjects, to make comparison between young Perkin’s Expedition and this… Renegade Christian Divines, were ordered to Preach up the necessity of Obedience and Loyalty, to withstand the Prince in his Attempts, and to brand his Expedition with the horrible Title of Invasion. These, and many other Arts were used to take off the Edge of Anaximander’s Sword; sometimes they’d Brand His Royal Person with base and ignominious Names; other times they would think to terrifie the Rebels (as they would call all that would assist him) with the Exemplary Punishments, inflicted by the Chancellor Poliorcetes, in his bloody Western Campaign: But all would not do, the Christians knew the Pagan Punick Faith, as well as Inhumane Cruelty, they saw their Laws, their Liberties, and Lives at Stake; and that now was the only time to assert and recover them…

The Amours Of Messalina sticks briefly with the facts at this point, as Lycogenes vacillates over his response to Anaximander’s approach, trying to gauge how much support the venture is likely to find amongst the Albionites and who, if anyone, he can rely upon; while the narrative becomes openly pitying, lamenting James’ fall, his many mistakes, and ignominious retreat—but placing the blame elsewhere:

And now the Thread of Poor Lycogenes his Fate began to crack, now he could plainly see the errours of his Government, and when it was unhappily too late, might Curse the base designs of his pernicious Counsellors: now he was forc’d to stoop that Glorious Lofty Heart, which dauntless heretofore had braved the mightiest force of Europe. How was he chang’d, alas, from that brave Invincible Lycogenes, that did through Clouds of Smoake and Fire, Charge through the Belgian Fleet, and with fresh Lawrels Crown’d, return’d in Triumph to his joyfull Country: now every little Western breeze that heretofore did serve to blow and kindle up his flaming Courage, like some cold Pestilential air damps his Misgiving Soul; now Poor, forsaken of himself he stands, Conscience alone of Ills past done remains his tiresome guest: Attend ye cursed race of wicked Jebusites, see the Prodigious effects of your Pernicious Councels, ye Cloggs to Crowns, and bane of Power.

But on the back of this the narrative effectively dismisses Lycogenes, instead following Messalina to the court of Polydorus, who no sooner lays eyes upon her than he determines upon making her his mistress. Messalina sees this at once and, for that matter, has every intent of satisfying his desires and her own; although she strings Polydorus along for a time first, making a great show of her honour and chastity. At this point the whole exercise degenerates into a farcical bit of amatory writing, with Polydorus sleeping with the baby’s nurse by mistake before he and Messalina finally begin their affair, and with Messalina simultaneously pursued by the Dauphin. It was a common slander that Mary of Modena was (or became) the mistress of Louis XIV, but even so these ribald sexual manoeuvrings make for a peculiar conclusion.

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7 Responses to “The Amours Of Messalina”

  1. the author did like Capital Letters, didn’t he?

  2. Not as much as Semi-Colons; Semi-Colons, I say: And Colons, too.

  3. If you can’t decide whether to use the infidelity slander or the substitution slander, why not use both?

    (Am I very wicked for wanting to read a Cadfael-style detective series set in the Convent of the Visitation, with the protagonists being Mary and Louise de la Valliere? They did apparently become good friends there…)

    • (Oops, sorry – missed this one!)

      Using both makes a lot more sense when you’re telling the story from the Catholics’ point of view, at any rate: “We’ll try for a pregnancy, but have a substitution as a back-up plan” is a lot more credible than simultaneously arguing for infidelity and a sham prince.

      Using the word “credible” loosely, of course. 🙂

      I would be all over a series like that. And then, of course, I’d inflict them on all of you!

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