The Tragedie of King Donald the first: A scene from a historie in the Elizabethan tradition

Some endeavors we undertake from an inner sense of need or desire, others we are called upon to perform by those to whom we are beholden or admire.  The latter was the case when the Lady Aine Skye, of inestimable virtue and talent, asked me to enter the Iron Bardic competition at Honey War 2017.  An Iron Bardic competition is a prize tourney in which the contestants are given in the morning a theme upon which to develop an original composition by a deadline in the evening.  The theme I was assigned was “Prudence, as a synonym of Wisdom”.

I had to abandon all my ‘go-to’ methods of research and composition on this day.  I had a short time between being assigned the theme and suiting up to defend my Barony and my Baroness against the invading forces from the neighboring baronies of Blath An Oir and Dragon’s Laire.  So I scrapped any idea of writing a poem and fell back on my theatrical background; I decided to plot a play and write for it a pivotal scene.  This, I figured, was something I could do while in battle.

I roughed out a plot about a new king who ascended the throne under questionable circumstances and is struggling to consolidate his hold on the kingdom.  He has popular support, but is despised by much of the aristocracy.  He also has to contend with the deposed queen of lands held overseas.  The burden of the newly-acquired responsibilities weigh heavily upon his psyche, which as the play progresses becomes unbalanced by the heard -but unseen- ghost of the former king.  I will leave up to the audience whether the ghost exists as a paranormal or a psychological phenomenon.

The scene I focused upon will be in the middle act of the play, when the king’s actions begin being influenced more upon by his unbalanced psyche than by rational thought.  The dramatis personae of the scene are:

  • King Donald -ruler of England
  • Prince Don -son of the king and a privy councilor
  • Prince Jared -husband of the king’s eldest daughter and a privy councilor
  • Lady Devotia -a privy councilor
  • Comenius -a spy master
  • Ghost -the ghost of King Adonis, previous ruler of England
Act III, scene V: a courtyard

[Enter King Donald, Prince Don, and Prince Jared]

King Donald: Attend me, young lords.  Princes, attend me

Tell me how goes my enterprise?

Prince Don: Sire, whom above all others I love,

Truer words than these I cannot speak.

England flourishes under your reign

As the crocuses flower after long Winter’s death.

The ploughman and the miller,

The swineherd and the tanner,

All rejoice to give a second tithe

To enrich the glory of your throne.

Prince Jared: Father, within your radiance I bask.

Know that my tongue I’d rather sever

Than speak ill news to you.

Yet the old king’s faction amongst the barons

Clamor and gnash their teeth.

They decry your wisdom and your words

And shout calumny from Parliament’s chambers.

King Donald: Weak and sniveling women, all of them.

Their dugs are dry and flat.

Jealous, they seek to grasp what I erect.

My own big hands have erected England

Out from the fleshpots of Adonis.

Barons, bah, hags they are.

We should grab them by their—-

Prince Don: Hist!  Devotia comes.

[Enter Lady Devotia]

 

Lady Devotia: Good morrow, Sire.  Princes, good morrow.
King Donald: Lady Devotia, eager am I to hear your news.
                         How goes the Church?
Lady Devotia: Sire, great is the honor you granted me
                           When into my charge the welfare of
                           The Church you placed.  Know, o my king,
                           That my loyalty and love are ever yours.
                           From Westminster to Yorkminster have I traveled.
                           Even from Canterbury to Gloucester I have ridden.
                           I found your monasteries were full of monks
                           And your minsters held naught but clerks.
King Donald: So you found them.  How did you leave them?
Lady Devotia: On their knees, Sire.
                            I changed your monks into clerks
                            And your clerks are now monks.
                            Abbott Simony has replaced Abbess Charity
                            As rule in the monasteries.
                            In the minsters I reminded the clerks of the vow of poverty.
                            Their coffers are now as empty as Our Lord’s purse.
                            Your treasury, however, overfloweth.
King Donald: Good.  You’ve done well Devotia.
                          Would that all women had your assets.
                          Visit me tonight that we may
                          Speak of more you can do for your king.
                          I see my spy master approaches.
[Enter Comenius]
King Donald: What news from France, Comenius?
Comenius: Peace, Sire.
King Donald: No good news then.
                          Have you arrested the queen?
Comenius: No, Sire.  She remains quiet in her estate.
King Donald: She plots treason.  She seeks to steal my crown.
                          She will lie with words and lie with lords
                          To gain the throne, the cheating queen!
Comenius:  Sire, I see it not.
                      All the news from France is of peace.
King Donald: False news! Lies! I wonder of thou art her man, Comenius.
                         Have I thy loyalty?  Swear fealty to me, sirrah.
Comenius: Sire, I am your man.  I am not your dog.
King Donald: You are not my man and I would not have you as my dog.
                          Princes!

 

Princes Don and Jared: Yes, Sire?
King Donald: Put down this mad cur.
[Princes Don and Jared draw knives and stab Comenius]
Comenius: O, I am slain!
[Comenius dies]
King Donald: Sons, bury that.  Devotia, leave me.
[Exit Prince Don, Prince Jared, and Lady Devotia]
[Enter Ghost, unseen]
Ghost: Was that prudent?
King Donald: Comenius counseled prudence.
                         What wisdom in prudence
                         When Fortune favors the bold?
                         Ever have I grabbed Fortune by the short hairs
                         And made her my mistress, willing or no.
Ghost:   Boldness wins the moment,
                But loses the hour.
                Prudence stores the fruits of Victory
                Against the famine of setback.
King Donald: The fruits of Victory spoil when stored,
                         Turning sweetness to vinegar.
                         Wisest are those who bite deep
                         And let Victory’s juice perfume their beard.
Ghost:  The bold bite deep, and with the fruit swallow the worm.
                E’en now, a worm is on your council, chewing at the heart of England.
King Donald: A worm in my council.  A torch shall I take to it.
                         If I cannot burnt he worm, then the heart shall burn,
                         And England too be damned.
[Exeunt]

 

I am very grateful to my friends who volunteered to do a dramatic reading in front of the Iron Bardic judges with me.  We had time to do but a single run-through before the performance; however, their natural talents shone through.  The actors who joined me were (in order of precedence): Dame Cristiana de Huntington; Mistress Aelisia of Cambrewell; HL Gerald de Huntington; HL Disa i Birkilundi; and HL Thalia de Maccuswell.  Many thanks to Alasdair Mac Roibeirt for filming the performance.

 

 

I do not know at this time if ‘the Tragedie of King Donald the first’ shall ever be completed, but it is a work that I will continue to expand upon as time and inspiration allow.

To my fellow competitors in the competition: thank you for the beautiful and, at appropriate times, hilarious performances.  Your art helps bring the middles ages alive for me in the SCA.

Lastly, I wish to express my admiration of, and gratitude to, Lady Aine for encouraging me to enter my first bardic prize tourney.  The beauty of your music combined with the grace of your spirit are a lantern to my soul’s dark night.

On Making a Six-Board Chest

Six-board chests, or blanket chests, were common and utilitarian pieces of furniture listed frequently in household inventories and seen in the backgrounds of medieval domestic images.  They are relatively simple to make and can be inexpensive, yet sturdy and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  In the SCA, they are very useful for the dual purposes of storage and seating.

 

The everyday function of the six-board chest allowed several construction choices for the medieval cabinetmaker.  Dovetail joinery could be replaced with equally strong rabbeted joints.  The risk of splitting associated with cross-grain construction could be mitigated with the movement allowed by use of square nails.  Expensive oak, walnut, or chestnut could be traded for more affordable pine.

 

Jointing and gluing boards

Originally, chests were made of six wide boards; eighteen inches seems to have been an average width.  Today, eighteen inch-wide boards are difficult and costly to come by; our option, then, is to joint and glue-up two boards to make one wider board.

 

Boards, unfortunately, rarely come to us ready to glue up.  Boards warp, twist, buckle, and cup as they dry and as the moisture content of their surroundings change.  Flatten the boards as needed, using a scrub plane if necessary.  You do not need to smooth the boards at this point in the process; just get them to the point where they can lie flat on one face.  Then pair up the flattened boards –flat face to flat face- and clamp them in a vice for jointing.  Jointing the two boards at the same time ensures that any variation from square on the two edges is equalized and that the glued panel will be flat.  Use a jointer plane or other long bench plane to make the edges straight.  The key is weight transfer; as you start a cut, exert more hand pressure on the plane’s front knob.  As you push the plane along the length of the board, transfer pressure to your other hand and to the rear of the plane.  The long, straight sole of a jointer plane will only remove only the boards’ high spots.  The first several passes you take will probably result in less-than-full-length curls of wood.  Once you are able to plane a few full-length curls, sight along the boards for straightness or check them with a long straightedge.

 

When the edges have been jointed, take the boards off your vice and lay them flat – jointed edge to jointed edge.  The edges will sit against each other without a significant gap.  In gluing them up, I prefer setting the boards atop a pair of panel clamps and setting a pair of panel clamps atop the boards.  I have found from experience that using clamps on only one side of the boards runs an unnecessary risk of racking your panel.  If you are going for period authenticity you can use a hide glue or fish glue, but for practicality I recommend using yellow glue (my favorite is Titebond III, as the chests I make are frequently exposed to dramatic variations in temperature and air moisture).  Apply the glue in a thin coat to the entirety of both jointed edges, then lay the boards atop the first pair of panel clamps.  Press the boards together and make sure the ends of the boards line up with each other.  Then tighten the clamps just until they are snug.  Next lay the other pair of panel clamps on top of the boards and tighten those to snugness too.  Now tighten the clamps a turn each, continuing until all of the clamps are tightened as much as you can.  Pay attention to the joined edges while you are doing this; if the boards start to buckle you have over-tightened on one side as compared to the other.  Back off on the over-tightened side, press the buckle down, and tighten more on the under-tightened side until you have equilibrium.  Set aside the panel to dry overnight.

 

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Photo credit: Talulah Quinn Campbell

 Flattening and smoothing panels

The panels are too long for a smooth plane; the short sole of the plane will ride down into the hollows in the face.  Use a jack plane or other longer bench plane instead.  Many will recommend using an iron with a slight crown hone into it; this relieves the edges of the iron and gives a slight scallop to the cut, making for a textured surface associated with hand-planed wood.  For an even smoother surface you can sand the panel if you wish.  I prefer using a card scraper, which is little more than a stiff piece of iron with a tiny hook ground into one edge, but it can scrape wood to a glass-smooth surface.

 

Squaring the panels

Once the panels are smooth, use a framing square and lay out lines for trimming.  The object here is just to square your panel’s corners.  Use a pencil or scribing knife to lay out your lines; measure corner-to-corner to be sure the panel will be rectangular.  If the diagonal measurements are the same, then the panel has four 90˚ corners.  Cut the panels using a ripsaw along the length and a crosscut saw across the ends.

 

Laying out the Ends and creating a Template

Our starting measurement is the height of the chest ends.  A typical measurement in extant examples is 18”, which is also a good height for use as a seat.  For the width of the ends, I recommend applying the Golden Ratio (also known as the Golden Mean) which is rounded to 1.618.  The Golden Ratio is a theoretic ratio postulated in Euclid’s Elements and discussed in Pacioli’s De divina proportione as being a natural and aesthetically pleasing proportion.  Dividing 18” by 1.618 gives us a width of 11 1/8”.

 

If the chest you are making is going to be a one-off, go ahead and lay out a rectangle 18” x 11 1/8” on one of your panels.  You can finish laying out this chest end in the following steps and use the result as a template for making the second end.  However, if you will be making multiple chests with ends of these dimensions, I recommend making a template you can use over and over.  For dimensional stability and storability, I use Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) for making templates.  Lay out the dimensions shown above onto a piece of MDF and continue with the following steps.

 

Next we will lay out the stopped butt joints for the sides of the chest.  The sides of the chest are set into the ends in such a way as are supported from beneath by a stopped butt joint.  This both provides transfer of weight from sides onto the legs of the chest, as well as providing two planes of contact between the sides and the ends.  The depth of the sides should be proportional to the length of the chest.  A 24” long chest might have sides which are (rounded to) 14 7/8” to keep using the Golden Ratio.  As the overall height of the chest is 18”, this will result in legs which are 3 1/8” tall.  Measure 3 1/8” from the base of the template and make a mark.  This will be the starting point of your stopped butt joint (it will also be level with the underside of the bottom of your chest).  Now measure the thickness of the panel you will be using for the sides.  This will be the width of your stopped butt joint.  If you have a marking gauge, instead of measuring the thickness of the panel you can set your gauge off of the thickness and transfer that measurement directly onto your template.  Start at the mark you made, and scribe a line from it to the top of the panel.  Repeat these lines on the opposite side of the template for the opposing stopped butt joint.

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Six-board chest by Holland Cooley, showing stopped butt joints.  Photo credit: Blaine Hebert

 

The finished chest will have the bottom panel rabbeted, with the rabbets inset into a dado in the two chest ends.  To indicate the area to clear for the dado, scribe a dotted line from the bottom of one stopped butt joint across the template to the opposite side.  Measure the thickness of the panel you will be using for the chest bottom, divide that number in half, and use this number to scribe another dotted line parallel to and above the first dotted line.

 

Finally, lay out an area to remove between the legs.  Identify an area a third of the width of the panel, rising from the bottom end to just below the lower of the two dotted lines.  You can make this area a plain rectangle, or you can get fancy with curves and recurves.  The illustration below indicates a plain rectangular area five inches wide.

Template_Six-Board_Chest_End (3)

 

Cutting out the Template

Cut the bottom of the two stopped butt joints with a dovetail saw.  Cut the length of the joints with a fine ripsaw.  To waste out the area between the legs, flip the template over and cut down the insides of the legs with a ripsaw.  Using a dovetail saw, cut diagonally from the top of one of the cuts you just made to the bottom of the other.  Then do the same in the other direction.  You’ll be left with a triangle to waste out with a fretsaw.  Clean up any corners left out of square with a chisel or a block plane.  If you are making a template for producing multiple chests, write ‘Six-Board Chest End: 11 1/8” x 18” ‘ on it in permanent marker.

 

Using the Chest End Template

Set the template directly onto the panel and scribe around it with a sharp pencil or a scribing knife.  If you are using the first chest end as a template for the second chest end then you are halfway to having completed both ends.  If you are using a MDF template, then scribe out two ends.  Cut out the scribed areas following the same instructions as in “Cutting out the Template” above.

 

Lay out and Cut out the Sides

The sides are simple rectangles 24” x 14 7/8”.  If you are producing more than one chest, go ahead and make a Template out of MDF for the sides (and write ‘Six-Board Chest Side: 24” x 14 7/8” ‘ on it in marker).  Lay two sides out on a panel (or a board 15” in width if you are lucky enough to have one) and cut them out.

 

Lay out and Cut out the Bottom

The bottom of the chest will fit between the two sides, so its width is going to be the same measurement as the width of the top of the chest end (i.e. 11 1/8” minus the thickness of both of the side panels).  However, the length is going to be a little longer than the distance between the two ends; this is because the bottom of the chest will be set into dadoes in the two chest ends.  Measure the length of the chest bottom as 24” minus the thickness of just one of the end panels.

 

For the purposes of this paper we are going to pretend that the thickness of all panels is 1”.  Use your own measurement in the instructions which follow.

 

Lay out a rectangle 9 1/8” wide by 23” long.  Cut it out (use a crosscut saw for the ends and a ripsaw along the length).  If this will be a Template, be sure to write what it is and the measurements on it in permanent marker.  Using a square rule or a T-square, scribe lines ½” from both ends across the width of the panel.  Use a rabbet plane to cut a rabbet into each panel end; set your depth-stop to ½”.

 

 

Turn back to the chest end panels.  Scribe a line across each panel from the bottom of one stopped butt joint to the bottom of the opposing stopped butt joint.  Scribe another line ½” above that.  This isthe area for the dado into which will be set the rabbets you just cut in the bottom panel.  Using a sharp knife, score the fibers of the wood along the lines you just scribed.  Waste out this area to a depth of ½” using a ½” chisel, a plow plane with a ½” iron, or a hand router with a ½” iron.  If using a plane or router, set the depth-stop to ½”.

 

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Photo credit: Blaine Hebert

Dry-fitting the Chest

Now is a good time to check your work.  Get a friend to help you with this part.  Set one of the end panels upright on a table.  Insert one of the rabbets on the bottom panel into the dado of the end panel.  Lift the bottom panel and set it’s rabbet into the dado of the other end panel.  Now position both of the side panels onto the stopped butt joints.  The rabbets should fit snugly, but not tightly, into the dadoes.  The side panels should set squarely upon the stopped butt joints.  Either by having a friend hold the assembly together or by clamping it with panel clamps, check the interior angles of the chest of squareness.  One easy way of doing this is to measure diagonally from corner to corner.  If the diagonal measurements are the same, then all four angles are at 90˚.  If the angles are off, check all your joints for squareness.  I recommend starting with ensuring the bottom panel is not out-of-square, as that is the usual culprit.

 

 

Assembling the Chest

Once the interior angles of the chest are square you can assemble the body of the chest.  Note that we have not made the lid yet.  Assemble the chest as above, using panel clamps to hold it together.  On the side panels, using a pencil mark small indications where you wish to nail the side panels to the end panels.  Your lowest mark should be no lower than within a ½” of the stopped butt joints and your highest mark no higher than within ½” of the top of the chest.  Evenly space marks between them; there is no hard-and-fast rule about too few or too many nails, but I recommend one mark every 1-1 ½”.   But because the nail heads will be visible, pay attention to the spacing for aesthetic appeal.  Pre-drill the nail holes at the marks you have just made using a drill bit slightly smaller than the diameter of the nails you intend to use.  I prefer 8d fine-cut finish nails from the Tremont Nail Company, so I use a 3/16” pilot hole.  If you are using cut nails, remember to have the nail sever the grain (as opposed to slip into the grain) to avoid splitting the wood.

 

Constructing the Lid

The lid is a panel 2 ½” longer and 1” wider than the body of the chest.  The back of the lid, where the hinges will attach, is flush with the back of the chest.  The ends of the lid will overhang the ends of the chest by 1 ¼” on either side and the front of the lid will overhang the front of the chest by 1”.  Cut two cleats out of scraps from the panel construction, make them 1” x 1” x 17”and nail them to the underside of the ends of the lid.  These cleats will help prevent the lid from warping and keep the lid square to the body of the chest.  Drill pilot holes for your hinges and nail them on.

 

A Note on Hinges

A proper medieval six-board chest will have snipe hinges, which are basically two cotter pins connected by their eyes.  The leaves of the snipe hinges were drilled through the chest and clinched over into the wood.  Later chests had off-set strap hinges, which are probably the best hinges you can get for any chest; Ball and Ball, Co. sells them, but they are not cheap.  You may want to inquire of your local blacksmith to see if she/he can make a set for you.  Butt hinges, which are commonly found in any hardware store, were not unknown and will serve well for your six-board chest.

 

Finishing

Your six-board chest does not require finish or paint.  You can allow it to weather and age gracefully; when it gets too beaten-up you can choose to paint or stain it or replace it.  However, if you wish to finish it, you have many options.  Natural oils (such as walnut oil, tung oil, or Danish oil) provide a smooth finish and a degree of protection from moisture while enhancing the natural appearance of the wood.  Shellac can do the same with an additional degree of protection from minor dings and scrapes.  Spar urethane is a modern product with a relatively high degree of protection from the elements.  Milk paint is a very old (although not documented as medieval) type of paint which offers an antique look and some protection.