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I am like a night-raven in the house

Psalm 101:7 – for those in affliction.


A prayer for a lonely woman. Her story is a bit involved, so bear with me.


First, a list of relatives of Henry VIII infected with smallpox*:

Margaret, Queen of Scots – sister.
Mary, Queen of Scots – great niece.
Anne of Cleves – wife (infected before marriage).
Edward VI – son.
Elizabeth I – daughter.

Just one fatality: Edward, who died from complications after recovering from this awful disease.**

Smallpox was fatal in up to 30% of cases, but most deaths were among little children, so the survival rate of the infected adults of the Tudor dynasty is not remarkable. Of course there may be others to add to that list, but the point is that smallpox struck even the most privileged.

To the last name on the list, Elizabeth: she was infected in 1562, during the Anjou marriage controversy, and was given the red treatment, which seems to have involved wrapping her body in a red blanket. That treatment is depicted in the BBC’s excellent Elizabeth R (1971), starring Glenda Jackson, but I can’t give an original source for the incident, nor for the claim that the queen tried to disguise the pockmarks with heavy makeup.

But this prayer is not for Elizabeth. Our lonely woman is Mary Dudley (1532-1586), a lady-in-waiting who attended on the queen during her illness. Mary was a sister of the Earl of Leicester, and was given the nickname “Old Moll” by Elizabeth. She married Sir Henry Sidney, who was a stalwart in the royal governments of Ireland and Wales.

An impressive woman …

dudley mary-Hans_Eworth_Mary_Dudley_Lady_Sidney

Mary Dudley

Mary came down with smallpox while attending on the infected queen and, although she survived into middle age, the after-effects were severe. In his manuscript vindication of his service to the crown, written in 1583, her husband Sir Henry described her suffering (Oxford DNB):

For my parte I am not idle but every daye I work in my function and she [Mary] for her ould service and marks (yet remaining in her face) taken in the same meriteth her meat. When I went to Newhaven I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [“like a night-raven in her house”] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened.

A bit severe, but Mary spent years travelling with her husband, and the couple seem to have been devoted to each other. Their children – Philip and Mary – showed outstanding intellect, clearly the fruit of great love and attention. And yet after that “evill accident” Mary became peculiarly withdrawn and spent much of her time apart from her family – a Tudor recluse. Life did not improve, as she and her husband failed to maintain the queen’s favour, despite Sir Henry’s commitment to the royal cause. He protested against their hardship, but there was no relief and the couple died within a few years of each other in hopeless debt.

The DNB article linked above refers to the suggestion that, after her recovery from smallpox, Mary only ever appeared in public in a mask. That’s certainly a myth, but it does put the use of the vizard mask by Tudor women in a different light. I’ve written on this before (Monster or Devil), but on the assumption that the only use of the mask was to protect the skin from sunburn.

A little noodling around shows that Shakespeare had a relevant observation. In Love’s Labour’s Lost (v, ii) the Princess of France discusses love with her ladies in waiting, Rosaline and Katharine:

Rosaline:  … O, that your face were not so full of O’s!
Katharine: A pox of that jest!

Shakespeare with his O’s again, a reference this time to the pockmarks on Katharine’s face. Later on these characters wear masks, although the purpose is to cause confusion in a love game – worth noting.


* I haven’t verified this list, so I’m open to correction.

** Edward VI is complicated: “Measles apparently activated an old case of TB [tuberculosis] and led to the death in 1553 of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII. The authors concluded that Edward’s measles episode in April 1552, which was quickly followed by a smallpox infection, set the stage for the aggressive emergence of his TB. Although Edward recovered from the measles and smallpox, by the following January he had developed a cough and was weak. His doctors cited the condition “consumption,” a common term for TB at the time.”


Note on the bible citation – “sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo”:

Sidney uses his own variation on the vulgate translation in Latin – interesting because he was a committed protestant.

Protestant and modern translations of Nicticorax (or Nycticorax) into English seem to prefer owl over raven. The Greek does translate as night raven, but the original Hebrew shows owl. Yet in scientific classification Nycticorax is a genus of a nocturnal heron with a crow-like call. Amusing and confusing. Also, I’m unclear on the inclusion of domicilio (“house”) in the vulgate.

The DNB translation into English is from the Catholic Douay-Rheims version of 1582, published the year before Sidney wrote his vindication. I’ve stuck with that in the citation at the head of this post because … I likes it.