When BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour used the topic “purity” as a talking point for a late night discussion, the themes that emerged ranged from sex to food to spirituality. The common denominator was the female body and the ways in which women feel, and are judged, as pure and impure. For most of the contributors, purity was perceived as a state experienced on a personal basis – through control and denial – often at great cost to themselves.
In her introduction, the presenter Lauren Laverne equated chastity (“a word you don’t hear bandied about much these days”) with celibacy and she wasn’t challenged by her guests. And why would she be? Chastity has come to mean abstinence from sex and is often used synonymously with virginity. However, for members of the world’s religions, chastity has a much wider meaning that is lost in the language of secular Britain. Four centuries ago the opposite was true: chastity was one of the most important virtues, not just for individuals but for the public discourses through which the period’s greatest political controversies played out.
In her book Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture, Dr Bonnie Lander Johnson describes how chastity became a cult that was as much embodied by the ceremonies and performances of the court as it was espoused by the anti-court Puritan writers working in the new world of popular print. Lander Johnson writes that chastity, as an important Christian virtue, was “one of the key conceptual frameworks through which individual men and women understood their relationship to their own bodies, to their community, to the wider Christian world and to God”. But “the same virtue that could protect the body from infection and a marriage from dissolution could eventually help to topple a government and undo a King”.
Chastity played a powerful role in both national affairs and international relations. Elizabeth I was famously the Virgin Queen of the Protestant country created by her father Henry VIII. Her unsullied state was much more than simply personal. It offered her subjects a vision of the nation itself as both impenetrable against outside invasion and purified of the “popery” of Catholicism. The Protestantism of the Church of England was chaste and pure; in the vitriol of religious schisms, the Roman church was “the whore of Babylon”.
The Virgin Queen’s Stuart successors were on shakier ground. Charles I married Henrietta Maria of France, a devoutly Catholic princess who had spent her childhood in a convent and was dedicated to her mission of re-Catholicising England. She arrived in her adopted country not only with a fabulous trousseau of worldly goods, but also an entourage of friars and firm ideas about devotion and decorum. Although fiercely loyal to her husband and supportive of his power as monarch, she did not recognise his status as head of the English Church.
For England’s Catholics, living mostly in obscurity and practising their faith illegally, Henrietta Maria became the unofficial leader of the Catholic Church in England. While the King and Queen lived harmoniously together for over two decades, the religious tensions that had only barely been kept in check since the establishment of the Protestant Church began to erupt around them. At the heart of these tensions was a debate over which of the country’s religious and political factions could lay the greatest claim to the virtue of chastity.
“Importantly, chastity was not the same as virginity,” writes Lander Johnson. “Virginity was an anatomical state that preceded sexual activity; chastity was a state, both spiritual and psychological, that could be observed through all stages of a person’s adult life.” Sanctified by God, marriage and sexual relations between man and wife could be chaste – as could childbirth. By implication, a “chaste” relationship produced a healthy child. By the same token, an “unchaste” union created a monster. When the child in question was born of a royal marriage that was surrounded by accusations of religious “unchastity”, the outcome could have far-reaching effects.
The royal household was under intense scrutiny as religious factions tussled for ascendancy. When Charles and Henrietta Maria’s first child died at birth, suspicions about the chastity of their marriage as an inter-religious union grew. The remarkably resilient Queen went on to give birth to a further eight children, seven of whom survived.
This fecundity was celebrated in court masques and portraits. The central message of the court’s various spectacles and ceremonies was that the chastity of the royal marriage, and of the nation, was sanctified and maintained by the Queen’s prodigious fertility. For this reason, Lander Johnson argues, the Queen’s birthing ceremonies need to be considered as important events among the many forms of art, writing, and performance generated in the 1630s.
Subject of debate
Each delivery was an elaborate performance, carefully orchestrated to draw down the greatest blessings from God, to ensure the most fortuitous outcome, and to communicate Henrietta Maria’s piety, purity and queenly authority. The Queen’s many births also became platforms for debates over the relative chastity of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Who was allowed to attend the Queen in these important and dangerous moments? Who would most safely deliver the future head of the nation and Church?
The Queen’s unsuccessful first birth was mourned across the country, and at the English and French courts. It had been attended by Chamberlen, Physician to the King, a figure viewed with suspicion by the Queen, her French cohort and her family at home in France. Chamberlen was not only Protestant but a man (something the French, with their excellent reputation for female scholar-midwives, thought particularly unchaste). But Chamberlen was also a maverick whose secret instruments (eventually revealed to be an early form of forceps) were increasingly thought to do as much damage as good to mothers and babies.
In her grief over her first child, Henrietta Maria took charge of her subsequent births, employing a French midwife and surrounding herself with nuns, Catholic nurses, pictures of the Virgin Mary and all the comforts of Catholic devotion: incense, music and gestural prayer. The second birth was a success, producing an heir both healthy and male: the future Charles II.
The Queen marked each of her births with elaborate court masques that celebrated her chastity, fertility and spirituality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Queen’s religious convictions and devotional tastes became increasingly popular in and around the court. In response, the pro-Parliamentary plain-religionists who eventually deposed the King worked harder than ever to claim the virtue of chastity for their cause and to accuse the Queen of infecting the King and the Throne with her unchaste religious practices. In a new world of public debate, dissenters made full use of mass print technology to rapidly disseminate their fiery sermons and commonwealth political theory.
A theme emerges
Throughout the 1630s the court’s claims to chastity, primarily through the prodigiously fertile body of the Queen and her elaborate masques, were highly successful. But the young John Milton was preparing to enter the debate with his own masque of chastity. Milton’s skilful recoding of the virtue as Protestant spiritual adventure bolstered the moral strength of pro-Parliamentary arguments. Within a decade the King, Queen and their many children were dead or in hiding and the court’s depiction of chastity as familial, fertile, and spectacular was replaced with a version of chastity more at home in the written word, more masculine, and more martial: a steely and inviolate virtue fit for revolution.
Lander Johnson has written her first book in order to look in depth at chastity as a theme running through the life of the royal court, and the circles of power around it, in the first half of the 17th century – as seen through the literature of William Shakespeare, John Milton and a number of lesser-known poets and playwrights, including John Ford. It is a scholarly book, aimed at an academic readership, but it touches on universal human preoccupations – how we see ourselves, how we want to be seen, how we curate our own image through private and public performance.
“I was motivated to explore constructions of chastity, and manifestations of the virtue in literature, by a desire to recover a moral code that is rapidly disappearing from current cultural awareness but which was of the greatest importance to our predecessors and a primary consideration in our revolutionary history,” said Lander Johnson.
“I’m interested in the ways a society’s beliefs, in all times and places, can shape those words and images that have the power to sway public opinion so decisively. Today we are interested in tolerance and equality. Even if we don’t practice these modern virtues as much as we like to think we do, they have the power to grant moral strength to any public speech, debate, or Facebook post.”
This article first appeared on the University of Cambridge website.