Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to remember the 6 wives of Henry VIII

The following rhythmic refrain has helped me to finally commit the order of Henry’s unfortunate wives to memory:

Divorced, Beheaded, Died;
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.

Here is each woman and her fate:

1) Divorced

Katherine of Aragorn: Spanish, Catholic, mother of Mary I, fraudulently divorced after 23 years of marriage.

2) Beheaded

Anne of Boleyn: pro-Reform, mother of Elizabeth I. Anne was sent to the gallows for adultery she almost certainly didn’t commit.

(Henry couldn't get the pope to agree to an annulment of his marriage with Katherine so he could marry Anne, therefore he broke with the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Anglican Church.) 

3) Died

Jane Seymour: Mother of Edward VI. Supposedly the one queen Henry really loved (or at least the one he wasn’t given time to tire of!). Died shortly after childbirth.*

4) Divorced

Anne of Cleves: A German princess, not to Henry’s taste. Henry claimed they didn't consummate the marriage, and Anne didn’t fight the annulment, so she was treated relatively well and set up at Hever Castle. She outlived him.*

5) Beheaded

Katherine Howard: Accused of adultery and beheaded.*

6) Survived

Katherine Parr: Married to Henry for 4 years. Widowed. In total she married 4 times.

You may also have noticed that there are 3 Katherines, 2 Annes, and 1 Jane. History can be confusing because they tended to play around with a very select number of names!


Here are two other sets of similarly named historical personages that always used to trip me up:

1. Bloody Mary and Mary Queen of Scots

Bloody Mary (1516-1558)

Mary I of England. Called Bloody Mary because she burned Protestants at the sake, seeking to revert England to Catholicism after her father, Henry VIII, had broken from the Catholic Church. She was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

A Catholic, Mary Stuart was queen of Scotland until forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James (who thus became James VI of Scotland, and later James I of England, which is when he commissioned the King James Bible). Many Catholics in England saw her as the rightful heir to the throne, so she was a threat to Elizabeth I, who had her imprisoned for many years, and eventually executed for supposed treason.
2. Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540)*

Served as vice regent and vicar general under Henry VIII. Rose to power alongside Anne of Boleyn, but later turned on her and was implicated in her downfall. A so-called reformer, he worked to have the monasteries dissolved. Eventually he too lost favour with the king and was executed for supposed treason and heresy.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (i.e. the interregnum years when England had no monarch, as Parliament had beheaded Charles I, and not yet brought Charles II back for the Restoration of the monarchy). A strong Puritan reformer, though more conservative than the separatists (e.g. Baptists, Quakers).

He famously told his portraitest not to flatter him, but to paint him as he was, warts and all. His son, Richard Cromwell, took over as Lord Protector when Oliver died.

Lastly, did you notice how similar in style many of the above portraits are?

Hans Holbein

All the portraits with an * were painted by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (left, self-portrait).

I read a very interesting novel called Portrait of an Uknown Woman (by Vanora Bennet) that has Holbein as a main character and shows his rise to fame, including his friendship with Sir Thomas More. I was fascinated by the planning and thought that went into each composition: Holbein put religion, astrology, politics, secrets and more into his portraits and scenes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Keep Calm and Carry On

Do you recognise this image? It is everywhere nowadays. It is a copy of the original 1939 poster meant for the British public. It was the third in a series of government-issued propaganda posters intended to boost the morale of the people as they headed into war with Germany. The posters depict the crown of King George VI and were to make use of just two colours together with a “special and handsome typeface”.*

The first two posters were as follows:

Poster #1
Poster #2

These two posters were more widely known at the time, because the third and now more famous poster was the only one never actually released for public consumption. While only 400,000 and 800,000 copies were made of the first two posters respectively, and were displayed on railway platforms and in shop windows, 2,500,000 copies were printed and circulated of the third, but were never released. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was being held in reserve for a particularly dire time, such as an invasion, which thankfully never happened.

So the poster was forgotten. It is only in the 21st century that it has become a commonplace sight.

An original copy of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster was rediscovered by the owners of a second-hand bookstore - Barter Books - in the year 2000. The bookstore, in Alnwick, Northumberland, is housed in an old Victorian train station. The shop's owners, Stuart and Mary Manley, found the poster in a box filled with dusty old books they had bought at auction. They liked it and so framed and put it up in the shop by the till.

Barter Books is a large store and from the footage I’ve seen is compellingly full of character and charm. The old station's tea room and waiting rooms are still preserved, bookshelves are where the railway tracks used to be, and there is a model electric train that moves along a track above the bookshelves. I hope to visit one day. 

Customers at Barter Books enjoyed the poster so much that they asked to buy prints of it. A year after the discovery the Manleys began to make and sell copies. That was the start of the commercial and merchandise frenzy that now surrounds knockoffs of the iconic poster.

Certainly a great part of the poster’s appeal is the nostalgic view it offers on Brits and especially Londoners’ stoical attitude towards wartime living. I have often been moved by representations of the better side of stiff-upper-lip restraint, however mythical those portrayals may sometimes be. Such quiet forbearance is appealing in the wake of the overly confessional culture that now dominates the West and the spread of American-style melodrama.

There has been a veritable flurry of parodies of the poster, and these have helped fuel awareness of the original. Some of the funnies that I most enjoy include: 


“Keep Calm and Carry On” is such a humble piece of counsel, but there is great value to it I feel if you think about it. From all accounts many today find that the poster's message resonates with them in light of the global recession. It is an inspiring message out of history from people who showed amazing fortitude in times that were far more difficult than any most of us have ever known. The adaptation of the poster that I like best is the one that follows, and I think many living in Britain during WWII would have felt it meant much the same thing as the original:


* There is a lovely 3-minute clip called “The Story of Keep Calm and Carry On” at

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pitt's picture

In Scotland, the antiquated expression “Pitt’s picture” refers to ‘blind windows’, which were windows blocked up from the inside in an attempt to avoid paying the much-despised window tax that was brought across from England during Pitt the Younger’s prime ministership.

A century before, on the last day of 1695, the British Parliament established a window tax in England and Wales. A tax on windows may seem rather odd at first, but the British have had some unusual taxes in their time, especially in the centuries prior to the establishment of income tax. (Spain and France also had window taxes at one time or another, so we shouldn’t think the English too odd, at least not based on this reason alone!). Many will have heard of the glass tax (est. 1746), but there was also brick tax (1784) and even wallpaper tax (1712). Window tax, however, predated them all, and wasn’t as arbitrary as it now sounds.

In Mediaeval England, windows (like chimneys and sometimes doors) were considered individual items of property, separate from a house. Thus, when one moved homes, windows could be dismantled and transported along with one’s luggage. Windows could also be bequeathed to someone other than the inheritor of a house. This state of affairs clearly caused some dissension, because during Henry VIII’s reign it was ruled that windows were to be seen as part of a house. The idea of the independent value of windows however continued well into the C17th, and it would seem to me that such an ‘awareness’ of windows (which does not exist today) is an important precursor to the then government ever having the idea to tax them specifically.

By 1695 there existed a flat-rate house tax of 2 shillings. Along comes the window tax, and now homes with 10 or more windows were taxed an extra 2 shillings, while those with more than 20 windows were to pay an extra 4 shillings. Not a cheap tax, and therefore it was much disputed. Knowing this, one better understands why some residents would go to the seemingly extreme measure of blocking up their windows.

Although it is a contested bit of etymology, I rather hope it is true that the phrase “daylight robbery” originates from this tax: the public felt the government was trying to tax them (overtax them) on the very air and daylight entering into their homes via windows.

The official thinking behind the window tax was that the bigger house, the more prosperous the inhabitants and the more tax they could therefore afford to pay. The window tax came about under “An Act for granting to His Majesty severall Rates or Duties upon Houses for making good the Deficiency of the clipped Money”; then, as now, government looked for a systematic way to gather more income from wealthier citizens. We see the root of income tax in such acts, even though income tax itself was successfully resisted for a while longer by the many who felt it would prove too intrusive into their private matters. Those fighting income tax won battles for a time, but in the end, they lost the war, and no-apologies income tax was eventually instituted in 1799.

The window tax was only repealed as late as 1851.


Photo source:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Killer disease and foreign cure: the story of malaria and quinine

Nowadays one tends to think of malaria as an African problem. But in centuries past malaria was the scourge of the Mediterranean, and of Rome in particular. Even places as far a field as France, southern England and Russia were affected by it. Originally an ‘Old World’ disease, it was carried by explorers and settlers into the Americas. Its cure – the quinine found in the bark of the cinchona tree – was discovered in the C17th in the foothills of the Peruvian Andes, an elevated area where there had never been any malaria. The fact that quinine was ever actually discovered is something of a miracle.

Malaria is a parasite that is carried by the Anopheles mosquito (right). It is transmitted to humans through the bite of a contaminated mosquito. The parasite enters into the bloodstream and the infected human suffers from intense fever and icy shivering. The spleen becomes painfully enlarged. Those who recover often suffer relapses and they seldom regain their prior strength. Many die, especially when the parasite reaches the brain, causing cerebral malaria. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools of water.

Malaria has been around since at least late antiquity.* Nobody quite knows why, but it appears to have abated in the Middle Ages before flaring up again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The problem for so many centuries was that the Europeans had no idea what caused malaria. To them it was simply an intermittent fever that took hold of many in the summer months. They did not know it was caused by a parasite, they did not know the mosquito was its carrier and dispenser, and they thus had no real idea of how to prevent or cure it. The best idea they had of this fever was that it was some type of contagion that basically ‘hung about’ in the miasma (i.e. the summer mists). In Rome, where malaria was the most rampant, one was said to catch the fever from the ‘bad air’ (the mal’aria) of the marsh mists.

Malaria – variously known as the Roman marsh fever, the intermittent fever, or the tertian/quartan ague – was the ever-present enemy of the Roman Campagna. The Tiber frequently breached its banks in summer and left the countryside covered in stagnating pools of water. Numerous popes, cardinals and ordinary Romans were laid low or killed by malaria; six visiting cardinals died from malaria during the disastrous conclave of 1623. The wealthy citizens would desert the city during the worst of the summer heat, fleeing to the cooler climate of the surrounding hills in an effort to avoid catching the fever. Malaria was only really eradicated in the area in the 1930s when Mussolini had the Pontine marshes drained and the mosquitoes’ breeding ground in western Italy was thus finally eliminated.

The Italian Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino arrived in Lima, which was then part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, in 1605. Salumbrino witnessed how the Quechua people (Incas) would take cinchona bark - ground into a powder and drunk in hot water - to stop from shivering when the winter cold had seeped into them. Salumbrino was well acquainted with the symptoms of Roman marsh fever, and the shivering of the locals caused him to think of the shivering phase caused by the fever back home. So he sent a small sample of cinchona bark to Rome in 1631, where it proved to be a cure for the marsh fever.

Cinchona bark and flowers

In a short time the Jesuits, with the aid of the local Indians, would begin to search for and strip the bark of the cinchona tree in order to send it to the Old World. The Jesuits showed the locals how to strip the bark in vertical pieces so as not to kill the tree. They would plant five new cinchona trees for every one they cut down, and they would plant them in the shape of the cross in the hope that God would then bless their growth. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire by Charles III as the latter had grown fearful and jealous of their accrued power and properties. With time the local people would forget the conservational practices taught to them by the Jesuits, and the cinchona trees would begin to be over harvested.

Soon after the discovery every ship travelling from the New World to the Old would carry a consignment of “Peruvian bark” or “Jesuit powder”. Though nobody knew how it worked, its reputation as an effective cure for the intermittent fever soon began to spread throughout Catholic Europe. But the Protestants viewed it with great suspicion. The Reformation and counter-Reformation were in full swing, and many Protestants suspected the so-called remedy to be part of a Popish plot. In addition, the foul taste of the bitter bark led many to think they were being poisoned, and cinchona bark was thus not universally accepted for a long time.

The bark was also denounced by many hard-line conservatives. Medicine at the turn of the C17th was still an essentially medieval affair. The old-school doctors clung to the ancient ideas of Galen (a 2nd century Greek physician). Galen had advocated the idea that all disease is caused by an imbalance of the humours (i.e. blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile). Fevers were thought to be the result of too much bile, so bloodletting and purging were the most common curative measures. The debate that raged over cinchona bark was heated to say the least, but with time, and the help of a few discreet Catholics, the bark found its way into even the most Protestant of places, such as England, where it was used to cure both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.

“Cinchona revolutionised the art of medicine as profoundly as gunpowder had the art of war.”** It ushered in a new age of medicine and quinine can be seen as the first modern pharmaceutical drug.

The next big problem was finding a way of producing plentiful, affordable and easily accessible quinine. The cinchona tree grew across northern South America, within the Spanish Empire. If you wanted to travel in Spanish territory, you had to obtain the permission of the King, who was determined that Spain should be the sole benefactor of the intellectual and financial rewards of the cinchona tree. Inadequate quinine supplies would hamper the efforts of explorers, missionaries, settlers, scientists and armies the world over. To be a missionary was a courageous thing – for centuries malaria felled them in their droves, in both Africa and Asia. The exploration of West Africa was only really made possible after the use of quinine as a prophylactic became common in the mid C19th. Before that, West Africa had been known as “the white man’s grave”. Malaria was sometimes also referred to as the “pioneer shakes”.

The worst malaria epidemic the world had yet to see attacked the British in 1809 when their expeditionary force of 40,000 men – the largest England had ever sent abroad – landed on the Zeeland coast in Holland in order to fight the forces of Napoleon. Napoleon, who was well aware of their impending arrival, is reported to have written to a commander, saying: “We must oppose the English with nothing but fever, which will soon devour them all.” When the English had landed, Napoleon ordered that the dykes of the Scheldt estuary be breached. Brackish water flooded the area and, with no medical corps, the British troops dropped like flies.

Malaria was most probably introduced to the New World by the early European explorers and settlers. American settlers then took the disease inland with them as they moved westward. It even found its way into Canada. During the Civil War, the Yankees, who had little natural resistance to the disease, suffered greatly from malaria when the fighting took them south into the heart of malarial country, such as Carolina. The Union army said that by the end of the war over a million of its soldiers had contracted malaria, and more than 10,000 had been killed by it.

The Panama Canal (above) was begun in 1881 by the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique. At that time, supplies of quinine were irregular and expensive the world over. The Compagnie managers thus considered it more economically viable to replace dead workers with fresh ones, rather than provide the current workers with adequate quinine doses. The incessant downpours in Panama meant that thousands were affected by malaria. Additionally, the legs of hospital beds were placed in water-filled glass bowls in order to prevent ants from reaching the patients, but in so doing those who went into hospital for reasons other than malaria were sure to contract the disease whilst there. Under French administration of the canal, which lasted eight years, more than 20,000 workers died from malaria or yellow fever.

When the Americans took over construction of the canal in 1903, thorough efforts were made to eradicate the area of malaria and adequate quinine supplies for all workers was a priority. Quinine was given as a prophylactic and those who did not take their daily dosage were punished. The Caribbean workers were particularly resistant to taking it. So the authorities did as the British in India had done: they mixed it with something very sweet to make it more palatable. The British officers in India had added sugar and gin to the quinine, creating gin and tonic.

In the mid 1900s the British, Dutch and French were all extremely eager to get their hands on cinchona tree seeds so they might grow their own trees. As already mentioned, the cinchona trees were far less numerous than they had once been, and so there was a sense of urgency to the matter. The Dutch botanist, Justus Karl Hasskarl, triggered the rush to smuggle cinchona seeds out of South America when he disguised himself as a German businessman in an attempt to obtain seeds that he would then take to Java. Britain, after many ups and downs, eventually managed to lay hold of some cinchona seeds. They planted them in India. But the Dutch were by far the most successful: by the 1930s their Java plantations were producing 97% of the world’s quinine supply.

It was only in the C19th that scientists actually started to get a handle on the disease. The first milestone came in 1880 when the Frenchman Charles-Alphonse Laveran (right), working in Algeria and using what was essentially a magnifying glass, caught sight of the parasite that causes malaria in the human bloodstream. He spent years trying to convince his contemporaries that he wasn’t just some nut job. Those who advocated a link between malaria and mosquitoes were similarly ridiculed. In the last days of the C19th, whilst working out of a shed in India, Major Ronald ‘Mosquito’ Ross (far right) discovered through his dissections that the mosquito is responsible for transmitting malaria. For his efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1902.

The need to grow more cinchona trees and/or develop synthetic substitutes became painfully apparent during the Second World War. Soldiers were fighting in malarious regions in West Africa, Sicily, the eastern Mediterranean, Singapore, China and the south-west Pacific. In the Pacific countries malaria was a bigger killer than combat. For the Allied powers, the German occupation of Holland in 1940 was disastrous, as the latter seized control of the quinine headquarters in Amsterdam, with its essential machinery and supplies. Furthermore, the Japanese then took control of Java and its plantations of cinchona. The Japanese kept the Axis powers supplied with quinine, but the Allies were left high and dry. The Americans began growing their own cinchona forests in Costa Rica, but not in time to help with the war effort. The Allies’ only supply of quinine came from the eastern Congo, where plantations had been grown from cinchona seeds that had been smuggled out of Bolivia and brought there in 1933 by Prince Leopold. It is the Congo that today has the largest cinchona forest in the world.

Quinine frequently has undesirable side effects, such as vomiting, headaches and tinnitus. The synthetic and much-hailed alternative chloroquine eradicated these. But the malarial parasite eventually mutated and chloroquine became ineffective. Other drugs have since been placed on the market, but none of them have proved as effective as the natural quinine found in the bark of the cinchona tree, to which the parasite appears to have developed no immunity. (As an aside, in 1856, the synthetic organic dye mauveine – a purplish colour which became known as ‘mauve’ by the public – was accidentally discovered by 18-year-old British chemist William Henry Perkin when he was trying to find a synthetic alternative to quinine.)

Malaria is today primarily a disease of the tropics, thriving in places where the smart new drugs on the market are too expensive for the average person. Two hundred million Africans, from Botswana to Chad, are at risk. Malaria is a disease that can be cured and even prevented through education and quinine, yet the UN’s World Health Organisation estimates that 3 million people die every year from malaria. In other words, it kills one person every fifteen seconds.

* There are those historians who believe that the problem of malaria in the Mediterranean was one of the main reasons the Roman Empire collapsed.
** Bernardo Ramazzini, 1717.

Main source:
- Fiametta Rocco’s The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure that Changed the World

Further reading:
- Michael Finkel. Malaria, in National Geographic.

- Anopheles mosquito. CDC, public domain.
- Cinchona bark. A. Zell, 03/09/09. GNU Free Documentation License.
- Cinchona calisaya flower and leaf. Public domain.
- Panama Canal. Public domain.
- Charles-Alphonse Leveran. Public domain.
- Ronald Ross. Public domain.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Poland’s flying universities

The Poles have had a particularly hard time of it the past couple of centuries. They have suffered much at the hands of foreigners. But in reading about their brave underground efforts to educate themselves and resist the efforts of their occupiers to rob them of their identity, I’ve come to admire them for their fighting spirit.

The flying universities were underground educational programmes begun by Polish scholars in the late 1800s to create greater educational opportunities and to resist the suppression of their culture. Meetings were small and were held in private homes and apartments. They were called “flying” universities because the meetings had to constantly be moved from one location to another in order to avoid detection by the authorities. The Polish term can also be translated as “floating universities”.

In the second half of the C18th the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned among its more powerful neighbours. The bulk of the territory – the eastern half – was taken over by the Russians. The Prussians controlled the portion to the northwest and the Austro-Hungarians took control of the southwest portion. It became increasingly difficult for Poles to receive a higher education. Educational institutions were germanised or russified according to the area; the language and culture of the Poles was suppressed, as were studies in Roman Catholicism.

The first flying university was begun in Warsaw in 1882/3 by women. The 1870s had seen an increase in the educational opportunities available to women. But women were still not allowed to enter into universities in the Prussian and Russian parts of Poland and so they began to organise their own courses. One of the most famous students of the flying university was Marie Sklodowska, who later became Marie Curie (to the right). Curie was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes, which she was awarded for her work in physics and chemistry.

Men only joined the flying university from 1890. In 1890, the number of registered students was 1,000. Programmes involved humanities, natural and social sciences, mathematics and pedagogy. There were many highly renowned academics serving as lecturers and the standard of education was very high.

The flying university was, of course, an illegal venture. Not many primary sources therefore exist as most documents were destroyed or not even created in order to avoid detection by the authorities. Students’ fees did, however, make it possible to establish a secret library.

The university lasted until 1905. In 1905 greater liberty was afforded to Poland and the flying university became an official association of academic courses. In 1920 it became the Free Polish University.

Under Nazi occupation, however, which began in 1939, Poland’s universities were closed and Poles were kept from receiving any form of higher education. The Germans wanted the Polish people to be a subordinate, servant race, trained only in manual, certain technical and menial occupations. Polish efforts to provide higher education opportunities were once again forced underground.

Underground high schools were established, and these schools provided students for the underground universities. Underground publishing houses were set up to provide teaching materials and textbooks. The subjects taught by the flying universities were extensive, including law, the humanities, economics, biology, mathematics and medicine. Pope John Paul II was trained at an underground seminary.

Well over 100,000 people received some form of underground secondary or tertiary education during the war, and vastly more than that received a primary level education. Nowhere else in Europe did underground teaching educate as many people as it did in Poland.

Ninety percent of the underground activities were located in Warsaw, but teaching, learning and research also took place in other major cities. Little happened in Kraków as most of the professors there had been sent to concentration camps. In fact, everyone involved in underground education was risking deportation or death. Between 1939 and 1940 approximately 9,000 teachers and over 600 professors were murdered by the Nazis.

At the controversial Yalta Conference held by the Allied victors in the Crimea at the end of the war, it was agreed that the Soviet Union should be given control of Poland. It soon became clear, however, that Stalin was not going to allow free elections to take place in Poland, as he had promised. Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union; a communist regime was officially established there in 1949.

Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin, February 1945.

The Communists ruled through a reign of terror, and little underground academic acitvity could take place. Official Polish universities were allowed to operate under the Communists, but the state-sanctioned syllabi were used as vehicles for communist propaganda. Members of the Communist Party were made directors of education so as to ensure that the various curricula were in keeping with the interests of the Soviet government.

Stalin died in 1953. By 1956 the political situation in Poland had eased up just enough to allow flying universities to begin operating again. Much focus was given to history and philosophy, subjects that had been heavily censored over the past decade.

The safety with which flying universities could meet fluctuated over the decades. Meetings were often stormed by the police, and students and lecturers alike were frequently beaten. Incredibly, the suppression of intellectual freedom in Poland lasted well into the 1980s. In 1981 martial law was imposed and the flying universities ceased. It was only in 1989, when peaceful elections finally brought democracy to Poland, that the need for flying universities was finally at an end.

Main sources:
- De Haan, F., Daskalova, K. and Loutfi, A. (2006). Biographical dictionary of women’s movements and feminisms in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe: 19th and 20th centuries. Central European University Press.
- Genell, K. and Kostera, M (1996). The Flying University: institutional transformation in Poland, in Management Education in New Europe, M. Lee (ed.), 231-5.

- Partitions of Poland, by Halibutt. GNU Free Documentation License.
- Marie Curie. Public domain.
- Yalta Conference, February 1945. Public domain.