The Hollow Crown was devised by John Barton, then one of the great gurus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1962. Many well known members of that Company, such as Peggy Ashcroft, Dorothy Tutin Tony Church, Marius Goring and Vanessa Redgrave played in it. As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to see a performance in 1968 given at my University by members of the English Department, led by one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars of his generation, Professor John Danby, whose resonant voice immediately enthralled his listeners and the memory has stayed with me ever since.
“ ..within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp”
So Richard II in Shakespeare’s play moralises as he receives news that all his generals and captains have either been killed or fled the field, leaving him powerless to face down his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and Duke of Lancaster. For most of the monarchs before the Restoration, the Crown had to be fought for and was worn uneasily, and the earlier part of this selection from the Chronicles of England, diplomatic letters and speeches by and about the Kings and Queens depicts struggles and strength: Anne Boleyn is trying desperately to save her neck; Mary Tudor’s address in the Guildhall shows her attempting to cover the steel with velvet. The tension between Charles I and the President of the Council which tried him is palpable: but the arguments raised by Charles could have come from any of the trials of dictators in the last twenty years. Life was not much easier for courtiers: Lodowick attempts to find the right words to pen a love letter on behalf of Edward III and is fortunate to find his master in a genial mood. Henry VII’s enquiries about a potential marriage abroad are serpentined around by his silky ambassadors, who lose their confidence with the last final request for a perfect portrait. ( Henry VII did not marry the foreign princess; he made sure of a legitimate alliance with the York cause by marrying Elizabeth, sister of Edward V.) Even on the more civilised court of George III, Fanny Burney’s diary suggests that it was as well to reply to the repeated What? What? of the King with circumspection rather than candour. There is a distinct change in the accounts of the Hanoverians, whether of life or death at Court: Walpole, Greville and Thackeray are sharply observant, critical and ( in the case of Walpole ) engagingly gossipy.The piece begins with William I and ends with Victoria’s own account of her Coronation. The music takes us from a 12th Century song about the impermanence of earthly happiness, through a hunting song of Henry VIII, a political satire on the hypocrisy of the Church of England to a ballad by Prince Albert.There are many local links to the monarchs shown here: seven of them are buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Edward III was born there exactly seven hundred years ago: and the body of Edward Earl of Warwick, the heir of Richard III was brought after his execution to Bisham.