This Week in History: A Primer on Masquing

To be entirely honest with you, I’m super excited for this post. I’ve been geeking out since I picked out this topic back in the first week of January. My academic career started with masquing – in 2014 as a post-bacc I presented my first paper at the Kings & Queens conference in Winchester. At the suggestion of my mentor, I wrote a paper on Anna of Denmark, and when I found out about masques and her involvement in them, I was hooked. They were so beautifully dramatic and opulent – and Anna was involved in the innovation of the art form in England. I was recruited to a PhD program from that conference where I continued to build my expertise in theatrical performance with a special interest in masquing. It jives really well with my interest royal women since it was, at least in England, one somewhat acceptable way for pre-Restoration women to take to the stage and perform in a public spotlight. I love researching how performance was used as a way to bolster ideas of power (upholding a current monarch/dynasty) and as a way to offer resistance against and speak truth to power. Typically, masques were paid by monarchs/people trying to curry favor with monarchs so this type of performance was usually one big monarch-propaganda machine. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t resistance or truth to power within certain productions, but largely they were used as a means to showcase the divine right, might, and wealth of monarchs. Masques were performed all over European courts, but I’ve specialized in those performed at the English court.

So, what was a masque?

A masque was a grand performance. Typically, a masque included music, scripted monologues, a ballet-esque dance, singing, larger than life scenery, over the top costumes, state of the art special effects, and a take-out part at the end when performers would invite important guests to be ‘taken out’ to dance together. There was normally a theme/running motif which connected the various elements of the performance together called a ‘device’. Sometimes, especially with royal patrons such as Anna of Denmark, devising credit was given to the patron if they’d suggested a general idea or theme which was elaborated by a profession author or artist (Samuel Daniel, Ben Johnson, and James Shirley wrote several masques for the Jacobean and Caroline courts and were frequent ‘devisers’). An addition during the Jacobean years which was refined in the Caroline period was an anti-masque, which was another phase which showcased a somewhat chaotic opposite of the device (so if part of the main theme was about angels, the antimasque could be played by demons).

Masques (and again, while they’d been performed all over the courts of Europe, I focus mostly on England for this) had been performed in England throughout the Tudor period, but largely they’d been performed for royal or noble audiences, not by noble or royal performances. Famously, Anne Boleyn’s first exposure at the court of Henry VIII was at a pageant called Chateau Vert which had elements of a later masque— but she was decidedly not royalty at the time. Later, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth was entertained with a full-blown two-week masque by a friend who was trying to woo her, Robert Dudley, in 1575’s summer progress where he hosted her at Kenilworth.

In the Stuart period, though, things took a bit of a shift. Instead of being performed for royalty, some members of the royal family decided to perform in them. To be fair, Henry VIII loved to take part in guisings, of which Chateau Vert was one, but those were an earlier form of the masque. Anna of Denmark, especially, loved to perform and dance. She had certainly enjoyed dancing in her youth (even though for some reason one of her biographers says that she didn’t learn to walk unassisted until the age of NINE. I call shenanigans), as queen of Scots, and certainly as queen of England in her masques. Anna loved to perform, and it was one of her greatest joys to devise a masque, rehearse it, and when they were old enough, include her children in performances as well.

Masques were not just a time for the who’s who of England’s elite to spend absurd amounts of money just to show off their might and power. While they certainly afforded the opportunity to do just that, masques also provided royalty with an internationally significant diplomatic event. Anna of Denmark pissed off the French ambassador by inviting the Spanish ambassador to her masque as her guest of honor, so much that the French man complained to James who tried to get her to relent and allow the French ambassador to come too (but then the Spanish ambassador would have felt slighted since he’d gotten to feel special that the French weren’t invited). This… happened a lot, especially with Anna’s masques – she liked who she liked and invited who she liked (she was very anti-French). When Anna wouldn’t relent, James just moved the date of her masque so that the French ambassador could attend James’ event on Twelfth Night and the Spanish ambassador could attend Anna’s masque (which had been originally scheduled for Twelfth Night), and ne’er the twain had to meet.

If you’re interesting in learning more about masques or Anna’s performances in them, I’d highly suggest Susan Dunn-Hensley’s Anna of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, Leeds Barrol’s Anna of Denmark, and Roy Strong’s Art and Power.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This Week in History: A Primer on Masquing by courtney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.