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The quiet life. December 12, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been avidly watching the HBO series, “The Tudors,” via Netflix. I guess we’re mildly obsessed. We’ve watched pretty much every movie on the turbulent Tudor era ever made (our friend Ben’s father keeps telling us there’s a marvelous early film starring Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, but so far, we’ve missed that one). Silence even reads all the Tudor-related histories and historical fiction.

Most of our friends miss the point—“Who cares if it’s the eight wives of Henry VI or the six wives of Henry VIII?” as our friend Rob says—but we find the chaos created by an unstable, selfish English king to be unequaled by anything since the days of the Roman Empire. In many ways, Henry VIII inadvertently created the modern world, and it was birthed in a flood of torment and blood. (For more, see our earlier posts “The late, irate Henry VIII” and “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn” by searching our search bar at upper right.) Thank heavens he made at least some amends by giving England Elizabeth I.

But I digress. Silence and I are finally watching the final season of “The Tudors,” and we’ve been particularly struck by the depiction of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and heir to the great dukedom of Norfolk.

The Howards, if you recall, not only gave Henry two of his six wives—the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—but also two of his mistresses and a wife for his oldest acknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy. They were an immensely powerful family, descended from royal blood on both sides, with at least as great a claim to the throne as the parvenue Tudors. Henry’s father, Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was married to the only daughter of King Edward VI, presumably in recognition of this fact.

The portrayal of Henry Howard in “The Tudors” was of a brutal, almost bestial man, a brave but brain-dead warrior who risked and often lost the lives of his men in incredibly ill-conceived and foolhardy maneuvers, and finally was butchered in his turn by an irate Henry for aspiring to the throne.

This struck us as off on several fronts. First, throughout the series, the distinction of rank was emphasized during Henry’s endless executions. Those of low descent could be hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, tortured—whatever the king preferred. Those of high descent could only be beheaded. None in the land was of higher descent than the Howards, yet the court slapped the Earl with the full monty. Dramatic license?

Then too, the Earl was quoted going on about the quiet life, and his words were repeated as he was led away to his fate. What quiet life?! (Not that anyone who came to court could expect to lead a quiet life during the Tudor era, but the Earl of Surrey, as depicted by “The Tudors,” would have been the last man in England capable of being quiet, much less leading a quiet life.)

Our friend Ben and Silence were so intrigued that we looked him up on Wikipedia, and found quite a different story. The Earl was actually a highly gifted general, not the blockhead whose judgment-impaired moves we repeatedly saw in the series. He was imprisoned and beheaded, as befit his rank, because of the deranged Henry’s endless paranoia, not because of wrongdoing on his part. (His father, the Duke of Norfolk, would have joined him had Henry VIII not fortuitously died a few days before the execution was to have taken place.)

We also learned that the Earl of Surrey had been the best friend of Henry’s son, Henry Fitzroy, and was his friend’s brother-in-law as well. But the most astonishing thing we learned was that Henry Howard was an accomplished poet, the creator of the sonnet as we know it and of blank verse. Hardly the bestial braggart we’d seen in the series! The lines about the quiet life were taken from one of his poems, and they contain so much good sense that our friend Ben will share the entire poem with you here:

                The Things That Cause a Quiet Life*

My friend, the things that do attain

The happy life, be these I find:

The riches left, not got with pain,

The fruitful ground; the quiet mind;

The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;

No charge of rule nor governance;

Without disease the healthy life;

The household of continuance;

The mean diet, no dainty fare;

True wisdom joined with simpleness;

The night discharged of all care,

Where wine the wit may not impress;

The faithful wife, without debate;

Such sleeps as may beguile the night:

Content thyself with thy estate,

Neither wish death, nor fear his might.

So there you have it: A man who loved good husbandry (“the fruitful ground”), good health (“the mean diet,” i.e., plain wholesome food), moderation, simplicity coupled with profundity, acceptance of one’s lot (“Neither wish death, nor fear his might”), and the quiet life. A fine recipe for happiness, indeed! And written by a man who was executed by that bloody butcher, Henry VIII, at just 29 or 30. Would that Henry had died before the sentence could be carried out! Would that he had died before coming to the throne. But then, we’d have missed all this excitement, wouldn’t we? And the glorious Elizabethan Era would never have been. 

 Give us the wisdom to follow the advice Henry Howard left us in his poem, to be content whatever our circumstances, that we may also find the blissful rest of a “night discharged of all care.” The quiet life for us!

* For some bizarre reason, WordPress, which won’t allow us to close up lines in poetry, also isn’t allowing us to break this poem into the four-line stanzas in which it was written. We apologize!