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  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: The Wars of the Roses and the History of Fairyland
  • Author: Keri Wolfe
  • Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
  • Coordinating editor: Brett Greatley-Hirsch
  • Research assistants: Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit

  • Copyright Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit, and Keri Wolfe. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Keri Wolfe
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: The Wars of the Roses and the History of Fairyland

    The Wars of the Roses and the History of Fairyland

    Keri Wolf

    1In the Lectori, Thomas Dekker attempts to deflect criticism that he strays from historical accuracy through his claim, "I write as a Poet, not as an Historian, and [...] these two doe not liue vnder one law" (A2r). However, at the same time, historical figures and events form the foundation for the plot of The Whore of Babylon as the playwright uses them to celebrate and critique past and present rulers of England.

    The play focuses on the heroic and virtuous representation of the Protestant queen, Elizabeth (recently deceased at the time Dekker wrote): "The Generall scope of this Drammaticall Poem, is to set forth (in Tropical and shadowed collours) the Greatness, Magnanimity, Constancy, Clemency, and other incomparable Heroical vertues of our late Queene" (A2r). Yet Dekker's exaltation of the Queen examines her in relation to other leaders of England as Dekker carefully situates her within the succession of England's political rulers in the first scene held at Titania's Court:

    [...] for when great Elfiline
    (Our grandsire) fild this throne, your bowers did shine
    With fire-red steele, and not with Fairies eies,
    You heard no musicke then, but shriekes and cries,
    Then armed Vrchins, and stearne houshold Elues,
    Their fatall pointed swoards turnd on themselues.
    But when the royall Elfiline sat crowned,
    These ciuill woes in their own depth lay drowned.
    He to immortall shades beeing gone,
    (Fames minion) great King Oberon
    Titaniaes royall father, liuely springs,
    Whose Court was like a campe of none but Kings.
    From this great conquering Monarchs glorious stemme,
    Three (in direct line) wore his Diadem:
    A King first, then a paire of Queenes, of whom,
    Shee that was held a downe-cast, by Fates doome,
    Sits now aboue their hopes: her maiden hand,
    Shall with a silken thred guide Fairie land.
    (TLN 374-91)

    This passage not only chronicles England's previous rulers, but it also describes the political climate of the period during the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic conflict plaguing England in the later half of the fifteenth century prior to the rise of the Tudors to the throne of England.

    While the conflict concerned the contention between the York and Lancaster families (Dekker's "Vrchins" and "Elues"), the name "The Wars of the Roses" derives from the legend that members of the two rival family groups heralded either a red or white rose to display their loyalties – red indicating allegiance to Lancaster and white to York. Historians debate how many individual wars were conducted, but they generally refer to the period of roughly 1455-1485 as the time designated by the phrase "The Wars of the Roses." The House of York and the House of Lancaster both claimed descent from Edward II. In years designated by the wars, each family actively promoted its own members as candidates for the English throne; however, the precursor to the conflict was the 1399 deposition of King Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. Internal contention heightened under the ineffective political leadership of Henry VI, who was affiliated with the Lancaster family yet only nine months old when he became king. During his reign (1422-71), Normandy was lost to France (1449-50), and the king suffered periods of mental instability. The public claim of Richard of York (Henry VI's heir presumptive before the birth of his own son, Edward) to the throne in 1460 explicitly pitted the dynasties against each other because both claimed to rule England. Consequently, warfare between the two families characterized the next two and a half decades as each attempted to secure superiority and to raise its own members to the throne.

    5Henry Tudor brought the ongoing wars to an end when he defeated King Richard III (son of Richard, Duke of York) in a 1485 battle near Market Bosworth in Leicesterhire and subsequently became King Henry VII. The marriage of the Lancastrian Henry VII to Elizabeth of York, the only surviving child of Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York, provided a physical and symbolic unification of the two warring dynasties and signified a conclusion to the Wars of the Roses. As the preamble to the papal bull authorizing the marriage states,

    Our holy Father, the Pope Innocent VIII, understanding of the long and grievous variance, contentions and debates that hath been in the Realm of England between the house of Lancaster on the one party and the house of York on the other party, willing all such divisions following to be put apart, by the counsel and consent of his college of cardinals approveth, confirmeth and establisheth the matrimony and conjunction made between our sovereign King Henry VII, of the house of Lancaster, of that one party and the noble Princess Elizabeth of the house of York of that other with all their issue lawfully born between the same. (qtd. in Pollard 2001: 7-8)

    In fact, the succession of their son, Henry VIII, marked the first uncontested succession of a king of England following Richard II's deposition in 1399. Because the events of the Wars of the Roses form the framework for such famous literary works as Shakespeare's Internet Shakespeare EditionsRichard II, Internet Shakespeare Editions1 Henry IV, Internet Shakespeare Editions2 Henry IV, Internet Shakespeare EditionsHenry V, Internet Shakespeare Editions1 Henry VI, Internet Shakespeare Editions2 Henry VI, Internet Shakespeare Editions3 Henry VI, and Internet Shakespeare EditionsRichard III, it may be easy to overlook the significance of Dekker's brief references to them. However, by documenting Elizabeth's descent from Henry VII and Henry VIII, the passage in The Whore of Babylon glorifies the Queen by relating her to a ruler who symbolized unity to a country internally torn by the strife of the Wars of the Roses.

    Dekker's retelling of the Wars of the Roses serves an additional function – to connect and liken the past political English civil war with the current religious "civil war" between the forces of Protestantism and Catholicism depicted in The Whore of Babylon. Dekker's reliance on color to represent Titania, the Protestant hero, and her opponent, the Catholic Whore, furthers the parallel. When, in the opening scene, the Empress speaks of Titania, she associates her with the color white, describing the woman as

    That strumpet, that inchantresse, (who, in robes
    White as is innocence, and with an eye
    Able to tempt stearne murther to her bed)
    Calles her selfe Truth, has stolne faire Truths attire.
    (TLN 120-23)

    The connection between Titania's white robes and Truth's "attire" is made clear in the stage directions for the Dumb Show: "Time being shifted into light Cullors, his properties likewise altred into siluer, and Truth crowned, (being cloathed in a robe spotted with Starres) meete the Hearse" of the dead queen (TLN 36-38). In contrast to the lightness of Titania's garments, Dekker unequivocally defines the Whore by purple and other dark colors. According to the Third King, the inhabitants of Fairyland

    [...] say the robes of purple which you [the Whore] weare,
    Your scarlet veiles, and mantles are not giuen you
    As types of honour and regality,
    But dyed so deepe with bloud vpon them spilt,
    And that (all or'e) y'are with red murder gilt.
    (TLN 2172-76)

    Thus, Dekker situates the action of his play as the spiritual counterpart to the political Wars of the Rose. The Whore of Babylon depicts a type of religious civil war in England between the light colored Protestants and their dark colored adversaries, the Catholics. For even though the Empress resides in Rome, it is frequently Englishmen (see Plots on the Queen's Life [[ edition links should not have query or fragment parts ]]) who represent a greater, more immediate threat on the Protestant champion's life.

    10Interestingly, just as neither dynasty emerges as the ultimate authority in the Wars of the Roses, neither Titania nor the Empress wins a decisive victory (see General Introduction); although subdued at the end of the battle, the Whore is still alive. Linked to the Empress by her femininity, Titania might not be powerful enough to protect Fairyland. Although Titania, like Elizabeth, is a champion of Protestantism, she is not strong enough to end the religious war completely by subduing the Catholics in England. Instead, the play suggests that a new sovereign, James, will institute male rule, a unified Protestant kingdom, and an end to the strife: "out of her [Titania's] ashes may / A second Phoenix rise, of larger wing, / Of stronger talent [talon], of more dreadfull beake" (TLN 1476-78). The Babylonian sympathizers fear that "perhaps his talent [talon]/ May be so bonie and so large of gripe, / That it may shake all Babilon" (TLN 1484-86). At the time Dekker wrote The Whore of Babylon, King James' rule was only in its beginning stage, leaving the nation in wait to see how he would develop as a ruler. Dekker's compliment to the king also encourages him to live up to this praise and to stand firm against Catholics. In doing so, he can become the "second Phoenix," who, the play suggests, will forever eradicate the Whore and her following from England and unify the country much as Henry VII did following the Wars of the Roses.