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Packing a Piece
1.10.2004 by Sarah.


[Author's Note: Our Heroine disappeared for several weeks over the holidays, and when I saw her again in Montreal at a celebration of the new year, she refused to tell me where she'd gone. I can only guess, due to her grayish pallor and the basket of fish n' chips that she produced from her mackintosh pocket, that she had been to England. Lending credence to my theory, she revealed a particularly British scandal, while sipping at a pint of porter, involving all her favorite elements--illicit liaisons, venereal disease, and royalty.]

Care for a chip? No? Very well then, more for me. The fish is good too. I'm very fond of haddock, as well as cod. Neither is related to the codpiece, thank goodness. From the Middle English word for "bag" or "scrotum," the cod in codpiece has nothing at all to do with fish. The codpiece was born of necessity in the 15th century to remedy the essentially crotchless nature of men's pants. The dashing and daring of French and English society wore tunics reaching no lower than their hips, leaving certain parts nether exposed to the hot air of clerical disapproval. As a gesture towards modesty and the Church, men began to wear a triangle of fabric over their genitals, and soon the codpiece took the center-stage of style.

Many historians credit Henry VIII with the transformation of the utilitarian codpiece into a monument of manhood replete with tufts and bows, not to mention substantial padding. Noblemen, following the King's example, did not hesitate to show off their family jewels by primping their pieces with gemstones--and due to the aristocracy's obsession with lineage, no one missed the symbolism of the precious package.

Yet the codpiece served a more sinister function for poor Henry VIII. The exaggerated size of his codpiece hid the medicated bandages used in the treatment of the King's syphilis. And this syphilis? The cause of some of his most rash and significant decisions of his tumultuous reign!

Henry was not a chaste husband. Nor a faithful husband, nor a rational, decent, or kind husband, but he was a lusty one, as we both know. During his first marriage, he conducted affairs with Elizabeth Blount and the Bullen sisters Mary and Anne, the latter of whom became Mrs. Henry VIII after Henry's separation from Catherine of Aragorn in 1531. This Mary Bullen, older sister to the future queen, was an enticing creature whom the King of France, Francois I, affectionately called "my English mare," due to his propensity to ride her like a show pony. She had entered the French Court when she was 11.

She married at age 16 to an Englishman and quickly became a prominent figure in the English court. More precisely, she became a regular figure in the bed of King Henry VIII, of whom she was to bear two children, a strapping boy named Henry and a daughter named Catherine, during her six-year affair with the monarch. Poor Henry, childless from his first marriage, soon sought another bride in the figure of Mary's sister, the unwed and, if she shared Mary's genes, fertile Anne.

Mary's first husband died of an illness and Mary was banished from the Court. She eventually married again to a poor unknown with whom she bore yet another child, which undoubtedly pissed off the heirless English king greatly. As Anne lost favor with her husband, members of the Bullen family lost their fortunes and their lives. Mary, surviving the fray, was destitute. Nothing is known of her in the years after her sister lost her Queenship and her head in 1536.

Or is there? 1536 marked the death not only of Anne Boleyn but also of the former queen Catherine of Aragorn. That year further marked the implementation of Henry's decision to dissolve the English monasteries. It is obvious that these events reveal a bit of cleaning house on Henry's part--an effort to make up for the fact that his reign had produced only one daughter, several illegitimate children, and a developing case of syphilis contracted from a mistress who had evidently been around the block a few times. Mary Bullen.

Why the monasteries? Scholars will mention Parliament's pressing need for revenues as the impetus for the dissolution of the religious houses. But it is obvious that Henry acted out of spite. The monastery would have served as a safe haven for his former lover, a place to repent of her past and to hide from the chopping block that had seized the lives of several members of her family. She was untouchable in the nunnery--as long as the nunnery existed. By 1540 Waltham Abbey, the last monastery in England, closed its doors for the last time.

Henry continued to wear his codpiece and the medicated bandages underneath until his death in 1547. His illegitimate children by Mary Bullen, Henry and Catherine Carey, would faithfully serve in Queen Elizabeth's court. Henry Carey most likely wore a codpiece of his own in memory of his mother, who helped change the English landscape forever.




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